Ashkenazi Jews Are Still People of Color: Reply to Critics

Last week, I penned an analysis of why Ashkenazi Jews (i.e. Jews who trace their ancestry back to Israelite/Judean settlers in medieval Europe) are people of color. Although the article received significant attention and praise, it also upset quite a few people. Many of those who responded doubled down on points that I had already addressed (the Irish/Italians analogy appeared with astonishing regularity) while offering nothing in the way of counter-argument, indicating that they hadn’t actually read the piece in its entirety. And because it would be difficult to respond to them without writing the same article twice, I won’t bother doing that. Instead, I will address the handful of salient points that emerged in the ensuing controversy.

My bottom line, however, remains intact: Ashkenazi Jews — and all ethnic Jews able to pass as white — are people of color, and unless one excludes Middle Easterners as a whole from this tent, there is no conceivable case for singling out Jews that does not ultimately rest on anti-Semitic theories or double standards.

Reductio Ad Hitlerum

An informal fallacy that can best be summed up as “Hitler did X, therefore X is wrong”. Variations on this fallacy generally consist of swapping out “Hitler” and replacing him with “David Duke”, “neo-Nazis”, and “white supremacists”, etc. The gist of their argument is that by agreeing with white nationalist anti-Semites on one thing (i.e. that Jews are not white), I am endorsing – or at best enabling – the rest of their ideology, thereby thrusting Jews back into the crosshairs of the (American/European) far right. Proponents of this view hold that any degree of overlap is impermissible, and therefore I need to rethink my position.

I find this view problematic for several reasons. One, it’s a complete non-starter because white supremacists never accepted us as white to begin with. In fact, that’s the one thing they’ve been remarkably consistent about: Jews are not white, and could never be white. Decades of assimilation and upward mobility did little to ameliorate their anti-Jewish rancor. If anything, our success only exacerbated it.

Two, this fallacy can easily be turned on its head by pointing out how notions of Jewish whiteness overlap with anti-Zionist anti-Semitism, specifically the ongoing erasure of our connection to the Middle East. Likewise, it frees progressives of the obligation to listen to Jews about matters of Jewish oppression and marginalization, thereby allowing them to withhold from us the right to narrate the contours of our own experiences (e.g. “anti-Semitism is nothing more than a political ploy to stifle criticism of Israel”).

Lastly, it insidiously shifts the blame for white nationalist anti-Semitism over to its victims and away from its perpetrators. This is a form of colonized self-shaming that implies we were killed only because we didn’t try hard enough to whitewash ourselves, and that by continuing to assert our distinctiveness, we have no one but ourselves to blame for whatever consequences follow. The problems with that line of reasoning should be self-evident.

Alleged erasure of converts

It has been claimed that my assertions of Ashkenazi non-whiteness only serve to airbrush converts out of the picture. And because rabbinical authorities insist that we treat converts as equal members of our society, highlighting any distinction between the two, even if they are real, is considered an affront to Jewish values.

This complaint left me feeling stupefied, if only because the title alone should have made it obvious that my focus was not on converts. My focus was on Ashkenazi Jews and, to a lesser degree, fair-skinned Sephardim and Mizrahim. As such, converts fall outside the scope of my analysis. More importantly, although converts are indeed equal under our laws, that does not mean our experiences are the same. A convert joins the tribe of his/her own volition, and can in most cases rid themselves of that identity by converting to another faith. The rest of us don’t have that choice. We are Jewish whether we like it or not, and it doesn’t matter how non-observant we are, how much we’ve assimilated, or what religion we practice. We will always be Jews, and anti-Semites will continue to blame all of the world’s problems on us and advocate our extermination.

You can change your religion, but not your ethnicity.

“But that was so long ago!”

“You’ve lived in Diaspora for too long. You’re not Middle Eastern anymore, assuming you ever were in the first place. You are native to whatever country your ancestors lived in before they immigrated here.”

To this I would say: will blacks out of Africa cease to be black in about 1,000 years? Will they no longer be African? Are Native Americans now white because the British came centuries ago? Are the white descendants of these British settlers now Native American? If your answer to those questions is yes, does being forcibly relocated to Diaspora, raped, resettled, and colonized go away because it’s “been a while”? Would it then be okay to lump us in with our own oppressors? When and where do you draw the line for when it is okay to force a minority to identify with their oppressors? Or does respect for their personhood only exist if they’re not Jewish?

“Magyars and Finns are white Europeans, why not Jews?”

Here’s a comparison that somehow manages to be even more crude than the Irish/Italians analogy. The gist of this argument is that Magyars and Finns also originated outside of Europe, but are today considered white Europeans. So why not Jews?

To begin, the entire premise of this analogy is false, as both the Magyars and Finns originated in Europe. The Magyars trace their genesis to an area between the Ural Mountains and the Volga river, roughly corresponding to European Russia. Finnish origins are more controversial, but consensus among historians is that they had been in Finland since the end of the last ice age. By contrast, the land to which ethnic Jews are indigenous (Israel) is nowhere near Europe. It doesn’t even border Europe. Rather, it sits on the western seaboard of the Asian continent, bordering northern Africa.

And then we have genetics. Ashkenazi DNA is more than half Middle Eastern (for some Ashkenazim, it’s entirely Middle Eastern), whereas Magyars and Finns have only marginal amounts of Asian DNA, if any at all. And when you factor in the significant European mixture that exists in Levantine Arab populations, it no longer makes sense to consider Jews “white Europeans” on that basis.

Lastly, even if the postulated non-European origins of Magyars and Finns were correct, these populations left of their own free will and built nation states in Europe. The Jews, notwithstanding earlier Jewish settlements in Greece and Rome, were in Europe because of displacement from their homeland by colonists, no other reason. And throughout that time, we maintained our culture and identification with Israel, as well as our yearning to return home. This is where the Magyar/Finn comparison falls flat.

It alienates people of color

Another claim I’ve encountered is that “white Jews” identifying as anything other than white lessens the gravity of discrimination against people of color. This complaint seems valid on its face, until you realize that most people are perfectly ok with fair-skinned Arabs, Natives, Hispanics, Indians, and Iranians identifying as POC. But for some reason, this is a check Jews are not entitled to cash.

If the view I just described is one that you share, then look inward. You have some antisemitism that needs checking.

It erases “Jews of color”

Putting aside the fact that darker skinned Ashkenazim are relatively common (as are lighter skinned Mizrahim), this argument is essentially an all or nothing fallacy. It holds that any failure on the part of “white Jews” to identify as white erases “Jews of color”, as if their entire identity revolves around other Jews being whitewashed.

On the contrary, I think it’s entirely possible to address issues of colorism within our tribe without erasing “white Jews” or grouping them with their oppressors.

Jews are not poor

If economic success is the sole yardstick by which we measure whiteness, then East and South Asians would qualify as white too. It is a mistake to treat economic success as an indicator of whiteness, especially in our case. Jews were well-integrated in 19th century Germany and France, but we all know what happened there. Furthermore, Jews in European lands were forced into occupations such as money-lending because everything else was off-limits to them, as had been the case since medieval times. This meant that most tax collectors were Jews, providing rulers with a convenient scapegoat should the economy fail. Jews were also given high positions in the king’s court, for much the same reason. What we’re seeing now isn’t new. It is how antisemitism has worked for centuries.

In fact, our success has generated conspiracy theories, Jewish “greed” stereotypes, even accusations of controlling the economy, media, and government. We are scapegoated every time there is a recession or our country is dragged into a war. These strands of Orientalist fear-mongering are what paved the way to Auschwitz, and they still persist.

These are all things that white people don’t have to worry about. Jews, on the other hand…

Jews are not a race

A race in the literal sense? No. We are an ethnic group of Middle Eastern stock, indigenous to Israel, despite the diverse genetic contributions picked up in Diaspora. In that sense, we are as much of a race as Arabs and Hispanics, both of whom are considered people of color (irrespective of appearance). Jews must be held to the same standard as everybody else.

Jews historically benefited from whiteness in this country

Obviously not true. In fact, Jews were originally categorized as Asian in the United States, and had almost been denaturalized because of it.

“Asiatic Exclusion League. San Francisco: April 1910. Pg. 7. “To amend section twenty-one hundred and sixty-nine of the Revised Statutes of the United States. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that section twenty-one hundred and sixty-nine of the Revised Statutes of the United States be, and the same is hereby, amended by adding thereto the following: And Mongolians, Malays, and other Asiatics, except Armenians, Assyrians, and Jews, shall not be naturalized in the United States”. ~ Asiatic Exclusion League. San Francisco: April 1910. Pg. 7

Jews were faced with quotas at schools that kept many of us out. Brandeis was founded for that reason. We also had to deal with “no blacks, no Jews, no dogs” signs in public areas. And as a result, wealthier Jews would often become landlords so that their own people, and black people, could have apartments to live in.

Jews enjoy white privilege today

From my previous article

“Anti-Jewish racism looks different because the stereotypes are different. In other words, we are not viewed by society as “uneducated thugs”, but as “dishonest”, “conniving”, “clannish”, and “bloodthirsty” mongrels who control everything behind the scenes, and these racist tropes play out in the way we are treated in this country. Moreover, we are frequently profiled at airports, viewed with suspicion when we are too successful, assumed to be in control of the US government, assaulted on the streets, typecast on TV and in movies (barring a number of exceptions) as geeks, criminals, hypochondriacs, and other stereotypes, our scalps are molested for horns by strangers, and so on and so forth.”

“Granted, some Ashkenazim – as well as some non-Ashkenazim – do have ambiguous or ostensibly “white” facial features, which are mainly the result of Cossack rapes during pogroms, and can therefore camouflage themselves, but a very large number cannot. As can be seen in the link I just posted, many either have a “Jewish” appearance, or a full blown Middle Eastern one. Moreover, having to hide one’s ethnic background just to be treated as a “normal” human being is not privilege, because white people (*actual* white people, not Jews, Arabs, etc) don’t have to do this. They don’t need to change their names, or flatten their noses, or bleach their skin, or straighten their hair, or take their kippahs off, etc. The fact that Ashkenazim, and white passing Jews in general, need to *work* just to be seen as regular people really says it all, and many (if not most) don’t even have the ability to do that. It’s simply not comparable.”

Does that sound like white privilege to you?

That being said, I was incorrect in attributing fairer skin among Ashkenazim exclusively to Cossack rapes, but the rest of it still stands.

And then there’s this.

The fact that you need to emphasize your non-whiteness at all means you have white privilege

Actually, we need to emphasize it because we are experiencing significant marginalization but no one is listening.

“White Jews” have Eurocentric attitudes

That is what happens when a people undergo colonization – they internalize the same racist standards that were used to oppress them. This can be seen in virtually all post-colonial societies, from Latin America to South Asia to Africa and the Far East. As a result, these societies tend to possess a lighter skinned segment of the population which tries to convince itself that they are “European”, or at least more “white” than others. This isn’t unique to the Jewish experience, yet few would advance the argument that Arabs, South Asians or Hispanics are white.

“White Jews” participated in the slave trade

A few things to consider.

One, the Jewish role in the African slave trade was minimal at best, and greatly exaggerated. Jews amounted to 1.25 percent of Southern slave owners in total (most of whom were Sephardim anyway), and at no point did they play a leading role in selling or purchasing slaves. Second, it is well documented that both Arabs and Native Americans participated in the slave trade.

“The Arab slave trade in the 19th century was economically tied to the European trade of Africans. New opportunities of exploitation were provided by the transatlantic slave trade and this sent Arab slavers into overdrive.

The Portuguese (on the Swahili coast) profited directly and were responsible for a boom in the Arab trade. Meanwhile on the West African coast, the Portuguese found Muslim merchants entrenched along the African coast as far as the Bight of Benin. These European enslavers found they could make considerable amounts of gold transporting enslaved Africans from one trading post to another, along the Atlantic coast.” ~ From, 10 Facts About the Arab Enslavement of Black People Not Taught in Schools, Page 3

“In 1809, nearly 600 enslaved blacks lived in the Cherokee nation. This number increased to almost 1,600 in 1835 and to around 4,000 in 1860. Cherokee populations for these dates are: 12,400 in 1809, 16,400 in 1835, and 21,000 in 1860. The proportion of families that owned slaves never exceeded ten percent, comparable to the percentage among white families across the South. In the 1835 census, only eight percent of Cherokee households contained slaves, and only three Cherokee owned more than 50 slaves. Joseph Vann had the most, owning 110. Of the 207 Cherokee listed as owning slaves, 168, or 83 percent, owned less than ten slaves. Of the slave-owning families, 78 percent claimed some white ancestry. ” ~ Seybert, Tony (4 Aug 2004). “Slavery and Native Americans in British North America and the United States: 1600 to 1865”. Slavery in America. Archived from the original on 4 August 2004.

Do not use participation in the slave trade as an excuse for whitewashing Jews, unless you are willing to do the same to Arabs and Native Americans. Otherwise, it is nothing more than discrimination. And discrimination against Jews has a name: antisemitism.

All in all, by identifying any segment of our ethnicity as white, you are perpetuating an unjust, antisemitic construct that precludes us from accessing needed forms of solidarity and, worse yet, hastens our whitewashing and erasure as a people. And this is not something I am willing to countenance.

Don’t do to Jews what you wouldn’t do to other minorities.

EDIT (Monday, 6/12/17): It has recently come to my attention that Noah Berlatsky, a subject of my previous article, fired back with another piece in the Forward. Although I am hesitant to perpetuate an ongoing back and forth, Berlatsky’s column offered up enough new points (along with some petulant ad hominem attacks on my person) to make a response worthwhile. So without further ado….

He kicks off his piece with an allegation that Gadot was cast “because people see her as white”. In reality, she was cast because she bore a close enough resemblance to her comic book counterpart, just like Lynda Carter decades before her. For those not in the know, Carter was of Mexican descent. Does Berlatsky consider white passing Mexicans white too? Highly unlikely. Only Jews are expected to be 100 percent oppressed, 100 percent of the time. Anything less than that consigns them to “whiteness”, but not other ethnic minorities. Why is that?

Berlatsky then proceeds to attribute my (alleged) anger to my “whiteness”. Perhaps he has never actually seen pictures of my Jewish family. And I seriously doubt he considers, say… Mizrahim white, even when they look like me. But either way, his attribution of my criticism to me “not liking to be told that I’m white” is a textbook example of an ad hominem fallacy. He also insists within the same paragraph that Ashkenazi Jews are not an ethnicity, despite conclusive genetic proof to the contrary (why else would there be genetic diseases exclusive to Ashkenazim?).

Which brings me to this claim…

“The discussion about Gadot as a POC is about representation. Women of color have pointed out, accurately, that Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman does not answer their demands for heroic roles for black women or for women of color.”

This can be boiled down to ignorance of the Jewish experience in North America, which is unfortunately commonplace. Over the past few decades, large portions of the “left” have refused to acknowledge our distinctiveness from white society in terms of history, race, and (yes) experience. Although it is natural for non-Jewish minorities to feel that Gal Gadot does not specifically represent them (since they are not Jewish), alleging that she does not represent people of color writ large requires a verifiable and consistently applied reason as to why Jews do not qualify as POC. Without it, his point is moot. Another thing worth mentioning is that not all women of color agree with Berlatsky’s view, and the sentiment among WOC about Gal Gadot is difficult to quantify at any rate. And as a friend of mine put it…

“Also, why is a Jewish woman obligated to represent all WOC? Why isn’t her contribution to our own community valuable enough to stand on it’s own?

If they had cast a Chinese or Indian actress with black hair and light skin in the role, nobody would say that she was obligated to represent all WOC. They would be pleased for her ability to stand on her own merits as a WOC in her own right. They would not say, “well, what about Tibet and what about Pakistan!?” in response to her casting.

Only Gal, a Jewish woman, is somehow required to deny her loyalty to her own nation and to be all things to all people.”

Moving on, he cites Scarlet Johansson and Natalie Portman as examples of successful Jewish women in Hollywood, but neglects to mention that their combined careers comprise only a few movies in which Portman actually played the role of a Jewish woman. Every other role can be considered “white passing” as they play non-Jewish characters. This does not mean that Jews are celebrated. It means that they can be successful if their Jewish identities are buried (Natalie Portman abandoned the surname “Hershlag” for a reason).

He denies the existence of Jewish typecasting in Hollywood, which even the aforementioned Portman complained about. Although this is seldom experienced or felt by Jews who can “pass”, Jews in Hollywood are typically relegated to stereotypical roles in comedy films. To wit, visibly Jewish actors/actresses are, more often than not, forced to play sexually unappealing geeks, shifty Jewish bankers, devious Israeli intelligence officials, and so on. In fact, this is one of the main reasons Gal Gadot’s casting as Wonder Woman is celebrated by Jews worldwide. It sent a loud and clear message of Jewish empowerment, bucking the stereotype that we are invariably either weak and cowardly, or hyper-powerful and conniving.

Lastly, Noah suggests that I am indifferent to the problems faced by other people of color, which is silly because my piece was about Jews and Jewish marginalization. Does he expect other minorities to derail their own platforms just to prove that they care about others, or just us? If his previous writings are any indication, the answer to that question should be a no brainer.

In fact, his stated belief is that Jews should instrumentalize themselves and their histories (completely ignoring the fact that we *still* suffer) in the struggles of other minority groups. After all, solidarity is something Jews are supposed to *give*, not receive. This is the anti-Zionist worldview that Berlatsky – who openly identifies as anti-Zionist – endorses.

And in response to his claim that I am “white”: I am half-white/biracial, and half-white is not white.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.