UPDATE 1/31/19: Another Forward article came out recently addressing this very same topic. Unfortunately, it appears to be little more than a retread of the very same points made by Nylah Burton in last year’s piece. Ergo, my arguments here still apply.
A little over a month ago, the Forward published an op-ed that sent the entire Jewish blogosphere into chaos. Its premise was that “white Jews” — by which the author meant Ashkenazi Jews, and presumably fair-skinned non-Ashkenazim as well — are not an oppressed ethnic minority, but are instead a mere subset of white Europeans, whose sole distinguishing feature is their unique religious faith. As such, the author (incorrectly) posited that they are full beneficiaries of white privilege, despite being the number one target of white supremacists (among other things), and have no right to identify as “white-passing.” In doing so, she exhibited a profound, monumental ignorance of the history and lived experiences of many, if not most, American Jews.
Her article begins with a reification of the concept of white-passing and what it entails. In her own words, “if someone is white-passing, it often means that their privilege is limited, and it can be snatched away if their true ethnicity is discovered.”
This statement fits the white-passing Jewish experience to a tee. Our lives are bearable until the moment our Jewishness is discovered — that is when physical violence (often ending in murder), harassment, profiling, invasive questions, lost job opportunities, etc kick in. And that’s just in the United States, where Jews remain the number one victim of hate crimes, eclipsing even Muslims by a 3:1 margin.
But alas, she continues…
“most systemic benefits of whiteness will not be taken away from white Ashkenazi Jews who possess them if someone discovers their Jewishness.”
She then goes on to cite two examples…
“a white-passing black person may get some privilege due to their appearance, but will still be subject to systemic economic disparities.”
“white-passing Latinx person may be deported if their immigration status is revealed.”
I see a number of problems here.
1. She appears to be measuring Jewish oppression against that of African-Americans and Latinos, rather than examining our lived-experiences and history on their own terms. I see this mistake being made often but, perhaps coincidentally, only in cases where Jews are involved, and almost always as a silencing technique (i.e., “*insert minority* has it worse, so shut up Jews”). For instance, I don’t think anyone reasonably expects the experiences of Asians, Iranians, or Arabs (white-passing or otherwise) to match up 1:1 with the black-American or Latino experience because, as should go without saying, not all racisms are the same. Rather, it is a demand made only of us, and it’s becoming more and more transparently antisemitic as the months go by. Allow me to throw this point into sharp relief by highlighting the fact that even in Britain and France, countries where antisemitism is at its highest level since WWII, many people STILL deny the existence of antisemitism, and cling to the (clearly quite false) idea that Jews are “not really oppressed”. Who is anyone to say that this same canard isn’t – perhaps subconsciously – coloring our perception of what is happening here? But I digress. Measuring Jewish oppression this way is a non-starter to begin with, and inhibits us from fully understanding what antisemitism is, rather than where it sits on the proverbial oppression ladder.
2. She likewise fails to understand the often cyclical nature of anti-Semitism. Far too many people assume that our relative success and assimilation (compared to other outgroups, and to ourselves just a few decades ago) over the past 50 years means we’ve “made it.” In other words, antisemitism is over, Jews have achieved “whiteness”, and we will never again have to fear victimization under white supremacist power structures. What’s missing from this analysis is the fact that Jews have ALWAYS had periods of reprieve between persecutions. That’s not evidence of whiteness, it’s evidence that antisemitism today functions the same way it always has. This is why Jews were relatively well-off and assimilated, often to the same degree we are here, even in countries where we were much more heavily persecuted. In 19th century France (where Dreyfus happened), in pre-Inquisition Spain, and even in Weimar Germany, Jews were frequently at the top of the economic heap. But at the end of the day, they were still Jews, still second class, and still victims of racist persecution. To this day, white supremacists are not only vocal in their assertion that we are not white, they consider us enemy number one. This is not a minor point, as whiteness is both confirmed and conferred by white supremacy, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to maintain the illusion that we are, or ever were, “white” in the United States — or in any Western society.
We are a Middle Eastern ethnic people, and whether we are talking about 100 years ago or in 2018, no self-respecting Klansman or neo-Nazi has ever considered Jews white. In fact, one journalist not too long ago published a memoir of the time he went undercover to a white supremacist convention, posing as an anti-Semitic black nationalist. Over time, he managed to amass a large crowd who enthusiastically embraced his “plan” of white people and black people putting aside their differences to first rid America of the “Jewish problem.” His views were warmly accepted by white supremacists, whereas the reverse (i.e. a Jew infiltrating a white nationalist space and advocating unity between Jews and whites against blacks) would never have happened. The reality is that at no point in the last 2,000 years have Jews been considered white by white racists, and it is absolutely absurd to describe someone as white when one of their main worries is being genocided by white supremacists for NOT being white.
3. She is either unable or unwilling to recognize anti-Semitism as anything more than a religious prejudice. It is, on the contrary, far more of a “racial” prejudice than she chooses to see. This is why she claims to be a “victim of racism and anti-Semitism,” as opposed to being a victim of 2 forms of racism. For her, it would seem, Jewishness is just a nifty hat that you can take on and off whenever convenient. Most of us can’t do that, obviously. We can’t just discard our kippahs, shave our beards, and proceed to live a happily-ever-after white-privileged life, as she seems to think.
And this leads me to the second part of my analysis…
Goy-passing refers to Jews who can — phenotypically or otherwise — pass as gentiles, and benefit from doing so. To understand how this works, one must first understand what the stereotypical Western image of a “Jew” looks like: geeky, usually olive-skinned, curly-haired, “hook-nosed” individuals with names like Rosenblatt, Finkelstein, Ben-David, Silverman, and so on. In other words, a stereotypical Ashkenazi Jew.
It is important to remember that anti-Semitism, as we know it today, is an Orientalist disease. It was born and developed in Europe over many centuries and, as a consequence, the mold of the “hated Jew” is very Middle Eastern — specifically Ashkenazi — shaped. This is why, even in the United States, “Jewface” was a popular form of entertainment in the late 19th/early 20th century. People who do not fit the aforementioned mold are generally assumed to be non-Jewish, and while this does have some undeniable drawbacks (i.e., rejection/hostile treatment by one’s own community), I am inclined to say — as someone who is not goy passing — that the positives far outweigh the negatives. Because when you are identified as a Jew by these traits, the stereotypes and weight of 2,000 years of persecution come crashing down, and it’s not a pleasant experience. Moreover, non-“white” Jews are often immunized from many of the worst forms of left wing anti-Semitism.
Here is a small sampling of recollections relayed to me by friends and acquaintances on their experiences with anti-Semitism, shared with their permission of course…
First day of school, 4th grade, during roll call. The teacher says my name and the kid sitting in the row in front of me but down one, turns around and says, “Are you Jewish?” Instinctively I said “No.” Then he comments on my name and how it has to be Jewish. He got this cold-as-death look in his eye and whispers, “I’m gonna get you.” He continued harassing me and threatening to beat me up after school. Which he later did. And not just once — this happened repeatedly throughout the school year and he got a couple of his friends to start harassing and threatening and beating me up too. All this with a stranglehold of fear by saying if I told anyone they would kill me.
My mom had my brother or someone else pick me up from school everyday. I was so afraid to go to school. The next year I went into an “options” program for smart kids at the same school and I rarely if ever saw those kids again. They were poor and the main ring leader was super aryan. My mom said he was so young, he must have learned this from his parents.
The other most memorable incident of getting picked out of a crowd from my adulthood was in Seattle when some guy started talking to me on the sidewalk while I was waiting with my boyfriend for the light to turn green. I just thought he was talking gibberish at first but then he started yelling at me saying “You Jews think you own the world! You evil Jews fucking up everyone’s life!” And then he started screaming about Israel and coming at me, so my boyfriend punched him and he ran off. This was around 1998. I wasn’t wearing any distinguishing markers.
I’ve also been the object of ridicule at a few different jobs I ended up losing after I asked for the High Holidays off. My last regular job (2013) it happened like clockwork (they started to push me out) right after I had asked for the HH off but there’s still no way to prove it.” ~ Greer Glazer
I was often picked out of a crowd in elementary, jr high, AND high school where the ultra evangelical parents would try to send their kids after me and tell me I would go to hell unless I accepted Jesus.” ~ Dylan Schwayne
I was told I look like a Jew by anti-Semites. My father was often identified as Jewish by anti-Semites just by his looks. He was dark and Levantine in appearance. I am pale. I was in the car with him once as a child and he was pulled over by a policeman for a minor driving error. Before my father even handed over ID, the cop said “Do you understand English, Jakey?” Years later, when I was a young adult, my parents and I stopped at a diner in upstate New York. As soon as we walked in a woman said, “they let anyone in here these days.” We assumed it was anti-Semitic.” ~ Joel Siegelman
When I lived with my two white girlfriends and the 3 of us went apartment hunting, we never had success. Then I stopped going with them and like magic they got offers. I assumed the landlords thought I was Arab. But now I think they might have been anti-Semites.” ~ Leah S.
I’ll stop there. It is important to note that none of the above named individuals are “Jews of color” (according to the author, presumably). They are all Ashkenazi Jews, and none of them were wearing any identifiably Jewish clothing, jewelry, or headgear when these incidents happened. They were identified almost exclusively by their looks. Nevertheless, the author has made it more than clear that, in her eyes, these people are nothing more than “Europeans,” “white people” of a different faith.
My experience has been the opposite. The only people who have ever insisted (key word: insisted) that I am “white” were people on the left whom I suspect, given their attitudes, were never big fans of Jews to begin with. And this begs the question, why are so many people so utterly hellbent on whitewashing us now, after centuries of telling us to “go back to Asia”? I think I might know why.
In summary, our Jew-cards are irrevocable. We can never stop being Jewish. It is with us whether we like it or not. No matter what we do, no matter how much pork we eat, no matter how little we celebrate Hanukkah, and no matter what God we believe in, white racists will never stop hating us. They will always believe that, in order for world peace to occur, we need to die.
For you see, most of us did not have the luxury of growing up as gentile Christians and only finding out about our distant patrilineal Jewish descent later in life (per one of her earlier blogs). We were born as Jews and were made fully aware of our place in society from a young age. We grew up with anti-Semitism, and we can never escape it. The author can turn in her “Jew-card” whenever she pleases, and never have to worry about anti-Semitism again. I can’t do that. Nor can the vast majority of Jews (least of all “white” Jews) in this world.
Before telling other people to “check their privilege,” it’s usually a good idea to check your own first.