In March 2010, after being physically assaulted on campus for being a Jew who was vocal in my support for the State of Israel, I filed a lawsuit against UC Berkeley for not protecting me and other Jewish students from what we saw as blatant examples of violent anti-Semitism. Our lawsuit was constructed upon Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which only protects students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin. And so, as might be expected, Jewish identity quickly became central to the arguments of both the prosecution and the defense, thereby inspiring my own journey towards a deeper understanding of Jewish peoplehood.
Jewish identity has unsurprisingly been transformed countless times throughout our long and tumultuous exile from our homeland. For thousands of years Jews were considered a distinct ethnicity, nation, or race (depending on the time and location). In Europe we were specifically non-European and non-Western; we always identified as Middle Eastern aliens temporarily dwelling in foreign lands. Indeed, since the inception of race politics in the 19th century, Jews were indisputably considered non-white, as exemplified so succinctly by the attitudes and actions of actual white Europeans towards us.
Our people’s relatively brief experience in the United States is no exception. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb that Jews could make a racial discrimination claim “since they were among the peoples considered to be distinct races.” This means that as late as 1987, Jews in the United States were to some extent still legally identified as an ethnic minority.
In 2004, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights even initiated a policy in which Jewish students were protected under Title VI, based on their ethnic or ancestral background. But all this changed in 2009 – a year before my lawsuit – when that same office officially narrowed Title VI so that it no longer covered any anti-Semitic harassment, since being a Jew, it suddenly stated, constitutes nothing more than a religious identification. In short, Jews in America had achieved white privilege–but at the expense of legal protection.
This white privilege is the product of hundreds of years of effort on the part of the Jewish community. Since the Emancipation of Western European Jewry in the 18th century, a powerful Jewish assimilationist movement has championed the abandonment of basic aspects of our identity in the hopes of gaining acceptance from the broader society in which many of us live. Moses Mendelssohn, father of the Haskalah, transformed the ethno-national “Children of Israel” into European adherents of “Judaism” – a non-dogmatic, rational faith – in an effort to prove loyalty and inculcate a sense of belonging to the nations in which Jews lived. The architects of both Reform and modern Orthodox Judaism – Abraham Geiger and Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, respectively – adopted this approach to Jewish identity as well. They hoped that by destroying (in Geiger’s case) or softening (in Hirsch’s case) the ethno-national identity of the Jewish people, we would buy ourselves acceptance and equality in an “enlightened” 19th century Europe. Needless to say, this attempt failed disastrously.
But the Jews of America have actually succeeded in achieving a perception of “whiteness” – at the very least in their own eyes. The changing legal definition of Jews in the United States testifies to this. But American Jews have only achieved white privilege by compromising some of the most basic and authentic aspects of our Semitic identity (in line with the attempts of the assimilationists in Europe). Examples of how unhealthy this identity crisis has become can be discerned by examining basic American Jewish behavior. How many Jewish women regularly straighten their hair to conform to a Caucasian standard of beauty? How many have had their noses surgically shrunk for the same reason? (As a teenager I personally “fixed” my Semitic nose since my fair complexion and blue eyes were not enough to satisfy this foreign standard of beauty that Western society – via our own Jewish community – demands of us.). How many Jewish men have forgotten their culturally Middle Eastern demand for honor? How many have come to value scholastic achievement and the pursuit of wealth over their personal integrity and the traditional values of our people? When did the Western value of personal material wellbeing become more primary to Jewish education than the authentic Hebrew value of collective moral wellbeing? And what about the age-old Jewish dream of returning to our homeland and rebuilding our civilization? Why do so many of even the most “Zionist” Jews in America reject the idea that they should be living in Israel?
Many of the Jews living in America may be comfortable. They may be successful (according to the American definition). But in order to achieve that comfort and success they on some level had to sacrifice the basic goals and values that the Jewish people have collectively represented and struggled towards for thousands of years. Some may look at the American Jewish community today and feel a sense of pride for the maintenance of superficial traditions. But looking over the span of Jewish history, one cannot help but feel that we have strayed very far from who we once were and who we have the potential to become.
This problem does not end with self-identification but actually has very real political ramifications when it comes to public battles over Israel’s legitimacy. The only “anti-Semitism” a sizable percentage of Jews in America still claim to experience on a regular basis is the anti-Israel sentiment found throughout the United States and especially on university campuses. What Jews do not seem to realize however, is that this “white-passing” they have achieved is not only a false perception of who we are and a betrayal of our identity, but it also actually hinders our ability to defend the State of Israel or even the very existence of a Jewish people. By identifying as white people of the Mosaic faith we by definition reject our Semitic heritage. This rejection necessarily implies that Israel is a settler colonialist state with no right to exist in the Middle East. If American Jews are white people of the Mosaic faith, then Israelis are by necessity foreign occupiers in Palestine. Thankfully, we are actually neither of those things. But by losing a true sense of who and what we are in an effort to maintain a level of comfort and success in American society, we perpetuate this myth of colonialism, thereby destroying our chances to win the fight for Israel on campus and in the political arena.
Before we can even begin to overcome widespread anti-Israel sentiment, American Jews need to rediscover and revalue their identities, not as Americans with a Jewish religion they may or may not adhere to, but rather as Hebrews indigenous to the Land of Israel who happen to temporarily live in the United States. For if we ourselves do not remember our ethno-national heritage, why would we expect our detractors to do so, especially when Palestinians are so forthright about their own indigeneity? In order for us to succeed in the PR battle for Israel, American Jews need to re-embrace their authentic Middle Eastern identity as well.
The bottom line is that most Jews in the United States – including and especially those engaged in pro-Israel advocacy – have lost touch with the notion of Jewish ethnicity and must therefore relearn what it means to belong to a proud ancient people, culture, and homeland before they can even begin making the case for a Jewish state.