For as long as we can remember, our people have always occupied a racially “ambiguous” position in North America. Although at first we were considered ‘Asiatics’ alongside other West Asian ethnic groups (leading to numerous attempts at denaturalizing us), lobbying efforts would eventually expand the definition of White to include Middle Easterners and North Africans. However, a political climate has emerged in recent decades wherein our racial status is once again mired in bitterness and uncertainty.
All throughout history, the racial othering of Jews has led to some pretty horrific results, so it is understandable why some would prefer to leave race/ethnicity out of the equation altogether. But at the same time, conceptualizing Jews as either “white” or “just a religion”, as many of our detractors are wont to do, helps to perpetuate a culture of antisemitism on the anti-racist left. That is to say, if we are “just white people with funny hats”, then we are perforce not “really” an oppressed group, thereby enabling anti-racists to retain their credentials without having to listen to Jews or take our concerns seriously. This construct is also inextricably tied up in antisemitic politics, reifying notions of Jewish “privilege” along with the (incorrect) aspersion that Israel’s re-establishment was a “white colonial” project, implying that Ashkenazic Jews (who made up the majority of pre-1948 Zionist olim) are foreign interlopers with no real roots in the region and whose attachment to the land is, at best, inauthentic, inorganic, and exclusively religious in nature.
And yet the question remains: are Jews a people of color (or POC)? This is something I’ve thought long and hard about for years, and I’m still not sure if I have it right. Nevertheless, I think that, in many ways, we do qualify as a POC. For one thing, we are an indigenous people of the Middle East. Our identity, our DNA, our culture, our language, and our history all attest to who we are as a people – centuries of exile doesn’t change that, unless you’re prepared to advance the position that white British settlers are now indigenous to the United States and Canada. And if Middle Easterners writ large are considered POC, then Jews are by extension POC as well (although I suppose one could make a case for the very rare convert, e.g. Ivanka Trump).
Second, and most importantly, racism has always been a factor in our daily lives, even if it doesn’t always take on forms that are immediately recognizable to non-Jews. After all, each minority’s experiences are shaped by their own respective histories and relations with the dominant majority, and we are no different. People who routinely compare us to Irish and Italians invariably fail to acknowledge that antisemitism remains a powerful force in Western society, whereas anti-Irish and Italian prejudices have long since taken their rightful place in the dustbin of history.
Another argument that is frequently made is that a large percentage of us have white-ish appearances, but this is fairly common among all Levantine groups, not just Jews. Moreover, fair skinned Latinos, Iranians, Pashtuns, and Native Americans aren’t exactly rare either. This is called “white passing”: the ability to blend in and escape some of the more immediate effects of non-whiteness while still suffering from the marginalization and othering that non-Jewish minorities experience. To put it another way, looking white is not the same as being white.
Still others will argue that we are free of Hollywood typecasting, but this isn’t true. Take a good look at our presence in Hollywood and you will see that (barring cases where our Jewishness isn’t obvious e.g. the half-white/Danish Scarlett Johanssen) we are usually either forced into villainous or comedic – and often degrading – roles. For example, the archetypal “geek” we see on TV is usually a puffy haired ginger kid named “Horowitz” or “Goldstein” – very rarely does he/she not have stereotypically Jewish traits. Overall, we are generally portrayed as weird, exotic, manipulative, untrustworthy, or criminal. And I bring up this point often, but how many Disney movies (to name one example off the top of my head) have prominently featured Jews or Jewish culture? None. What does that tell you?
And then there’s the argument that we’re assimilated and successful, to which I will always respond: yeah, and? We’re the only ethnic minority that is assimilated and successful? Also, how often does that success come with resentment and suspicion, if not the (Orientalist) allegations of conspiring to control that particular field? Do white people have their own Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Not that I’m aware of.
I’ve heard all of the arguments for Jewish “whiteness”, but I have yet to hear one that is truly convincing.