Are Jews White? It’s Complicated

Are Jews White? It’s Complicated

Dave Schechter

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Speaking at Emory University a couple of years ago, playwright Alfred Uhry recalled that when he was growing up in Atlanta in the 1940s, he was told, “We’re not white; we’re Jewish.”

At some point, Jews apparently became white.

Maybe it happened after World War II, as city-dwelling Jews joined the migration to the suburbs and assimilated further into mainstream American life.

Maybe it happened as Jews were no longer viewed as victims but as the muscular defenders of a nation and then as occupiers of territory captured in war.

Maybe it happened as other racial and ethnic groups invigorated their self-identification.

Maybe it happened as the civil rights alliance between Jews and African-Americans frayed.

Dave Schechter
Dave Schechter

Post-election, “Are Jews white?” is a hot topic.

Sara Weissman, the editor in chief of New Voices (“news and views of college Jews”), wrote that “the next generation of Jews is asking, ‘Are we white right now? And, if we’re not white in Trump’s America, what does that mean?’ ”

Eric Goldstein, an associate professor of history at Emory University who wrote a book on the subject (“The Price of Whiteness”), is a prominent voice in The Atlantic magazine’s treatment.

“ ‘White’ is a kind of cultural construct — a way of thinking of yourself and a way that other people think about you,” said Goldstein, a scholar of American Jewish history and culture. “Whiteness itself is a very fluid and contested category.”

Are Jewish and white mutually exclusive categories?

Jewish identity in the United States “is inherently paradoxical and contradictory. What you have is a group that was historically considered, and considered itself, an outsider group, a persecuted minority. In the space of two generations, they’ve become one of the most successful, integrated groups in American society — by many accounts, part of the establishment. And there’s a lot of dissonance between those two positions,” Goldstein said.

Beyond Judaism as a religion, are Jews a race? An ethnicity? A nation (small “n”)? A culture? All of these?

We all maintain multiple identities.

I am, in no particular order (or, depending on the circumstances), a husband and father; a son, a brother and an uncle; a journalist; and a soccer fan. As well as an American by nationality, a Jew by religion and white by pigmentation.

My European forebears make me Ashkenazi, “Judaism’s default setting in America,” as Sigal Samuel, the opinion editor of the Forward, called it.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jews, 94 percent described themselves as non-Hispanic whites, while 3 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent were black, and 2 percent were from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“Are Jews white?” means something different for those descended from the Mizrahi (the Jews of the Middle East) and the Sephardim (from the Iberian peninsula), as well as African-American, Asian-American and Latino Jews.

The white nationalists who used the election to tout their ideology certainly don’t regard Jews as their kind of white people.

Leo Frank was lynched in 1915 more for his religion than the color of his skin.

The Temple bombing in 1958 sent a shiver through a community that tried to balance its Jewish identity with a desire for inclusion in Atlanta’s white society.

“This is not merely a semantic issue,” Micha Danzig wrote in a column in the Forward. “Jews are not ‘white.’ We are a tribal people from the Levant. Many of our people were forcibly exiled out of and into other nations, including in Europe, where we were taken in chains and often subjected to brutal and oppressive institutional racism based on our ethnicity, tribal affiliation, culture and faith.”

If Jews are not white, then what about the concept of “white privilege,” which asserts that skin color has bequeathed you privilege and protection, regardless of your family history or how you self-identify?

If Jews are white, what obligation do we have to acknowledge such privilege and take redemptive actions?

But the question remains: Are Jews white?

“There’s really no conclusion except that it’s complicated,” Goldstein said in The Atlantic.

Maybe we should go back to less complicated questions, such as “Who is a Jew?”

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