Randall Fried

Beyond White

In an age where racial identity often prescribes societal roles and informs perceptions, the Jewish people find themselves entangled in a global narrative that is not of their own making. The classification of Jews as “white” across the globe has precipitated a cascade of consequences, inadvertently fanning the flames of antisemitic sentiment and skewing the understanding of Jewish history and identity. This misrepresentation extends beyond the borders of Israel, affecting Jewish communities internationally, and carries with it a baggage that many do not recognize, nor did they choose to carry.

The simplistic lumping of Jews into the category of ‘white’ is not merely a semantic issue; it is a profound misreading of the Jewish diaspora’s rich and often tumultuous history. This monolithic view erases the experiences of Jews from diverse backgrounds, including those from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, whose skin color, culture, and experiences often align more closely with other marginalized groups than with the white majority of Western countries. For instance, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, the Bene Israel of India, and the Mizrahi Jews of Arab lands each possess a distinct heritage that belies the ‘white’ label.

The global rise in antisemitic acts is a stark reminder of the dangers of such a reductive view of Jewish identity. When Jews are indiscriminately cast as part of the privileged white majority, they are made targets of resentment and anger that should be directed at oppressive systems, not at a people with a history replete with persecution and struggle for survival. The resulting antisemitic violence and rhetoric, from vandalism and hate speech to violent attacks, demonstrate a tragic irony: a people historically victimized by white supremacy are now vilified under the guise of that very identity.

Furthermore, the narrative of Jewish ‘whiteness’ glosses over the complex tapestry of Jewish life and tradition. It dismisses the varied shades of skin color found in the Jewish community and the intricate mosaic of languages, customs, and rituals that have been carried from ancient times to the present day. It neglects the fact that Jewish people have lived as minorities in various societies, often facing discrimination and exclusion and that their path has been one of resilience in the face of adversity.

This mislabeling also undermines the understanding of Israel’s society, which is far from a homogeneous ‘white’ enclave. Israel’s population includes Jews of Ethiopian, Yemeni, and Moroccan descent, among others, many of whom experience the same societal challenges as other people of color around the world. Their stories and struggles are an integral part of Israel’s social fabric and are too often overshadowed by a narrative that does not reflect their reality.

To paint the Jewish people with the broad brush of ‘whiteness’ is to ignore the rich diversity of Jewish life and to perpetuate a historical inaccuracy. Jews have lived as both insiders and outsiders, often simultaneously, in the countries they have inhabited. They have been both welcomed and ostracized, celebrated and persecuted, embraced and expelled. This duality is a fundamental aspect of Jewish history and identity, one that cannot be understood through the simplistic and anachronistic application of contemporary Western racial categories.

The Jewish experience defies the binary racial constructs that dominate Western discourse. It is a testament to the unique trajectory of a people whose identity is marked by a fluidity that transcends borders, languages, and cultures. Jews have always been a global people, and their identity is a global story—one of migration, adaptation, and the enduring human spirit.

Engaging with the Jewish narrative requires a nuanced approach that acknowledges the multifaceted nature of Jewish identity. It demands a recognition that ‘whiteness’, as a construct, cannot and should not be the yardstick against which Jewish history or the socio-political dynamics of Israel are measured. It is time for the global conversation on race and identity to move beyond the confines of black and white, to recognize the spectrum of human experience, and to appreciate the complex mosaic that is Jewish life and identity.

This is not just a matter of historical interest but of pressing contemporary relevance. As the world grapples with issues of racial justice and seeks to dismantle systems of oppression, it is critical to understand the diverse ways in which race and identity intersect. By viewing Jewish identity through a more accurate and empathetic lens, we can unravel the misconceptions that have led to misunderstanding and hostility. In doing so, we not only honor the truth of the Jewish experience but also contribute to a more just and inclusive understanding of race and identity for all.

About the Author
Randy is the Director of Philanthropic Engagement & Communication at Tzedek America. For the past twenty years, Randy has also been engaged in Jewish education as an educator for teens and adults, specifically spending the past 15 years teaching Holocaust history and the Jewish history of Poland. Randy is a member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps and Speakers Bureau. Through Randy's communal work, he has also become involved in local politics and community outreach and has advocated for both communal and Jewish interests at the City and State level.
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