I’m not white, I’m not black, I’m not anything in between. I’m Jewish – on that everyone can agree. But what to do with me? Should I check my privilege, or do I need liberating? Am I a member of the master race, or am I an alien presence that should be expelled? Am I one of us? Of you? I am a Jew, but who am I?
It is one of the cruel ironies of the last century that race has not gotten any less important. Sure, we all enjoy equal status before the law now (at least we do where I live), but the inequalities that still exist are highlighted by the focus on ethnicity in news, academia and many other areas. Out of this obsession came a post by Hila Hershkoviz today about why Jews should tick the “Other” box when describing their ethnicity, because Jews are “Semitic”, or “Middle-Eastern”.
A response to an earlier post by Ms Hershkoviz asserts that Jews are unequivocally “White”, at least in 21st century America. These are two out of a plethora of literature on the subject, it seems like the more you care about race, the more likely you are to have an opinion.
For people who want to acknowledge a hierarchy of privilege based on skin colour, Jews are most often “white”, or at least Ashkenazi Jews are. A discussion amongst a white nationalist group (perhaps they should be considered experts on this issue?) asked why they did not consider Jews White:
By excluding them you make yourselves seem more like Nazis and less like White Nationalists.
Garnered responses ranging from the almost apologetic:
Because they’re genetically non-white.
To the sinister:
They pretend to be white, to give people the ilkusion [sic] that the white race is in charge of everything.
And what we were all thinking anyway:
Some of us are Nazis!
Whether Jews do indeed benefit from white privilege is beyond the scope of this post, although a particularly interesting read on Jewish identity and intersectionality in the American context can be found here.
Rather, it seems to me that Jews should tick the “Other” box when defining their ethnicity though not because Middle Eastern, or Semitic rarely appear. Rather, “Other” perfectly defines the ethnicity of the Jew.
In civilised Western discourse where to be White is to be acknowledged as privileged, Jews are deemed White. When racism or white supremacism rears its head, Jews are deemed not white. When Jews are deemed to be a foreign presence in Europe they are called Semites, and Middle Eastern. When Jews are deemed to be a foreign presence in the Middle East, they are called European colonisers!
There is no consistent classification for an ethnicity of Jews, in part because such an idea is impossible when people can convert to Judaism, but also because no society in history has said to the Jews “You’re like us”.
So Jews, the next time you get a university application, or a census, or a poll or any other document that asks you for your ethnicity, tick the “Other” box. Because whatever your ethnicity, you’ll never be anything else.