Dani Ishai Behan

Jewish-Americans Are Not ‘Non-WASP.’ We Are Non-White.

Image source: Flickr CC/Prayitno
UCLA Campus (Flickr CC/Prayitno

In August last year, the California Department of Education (CDE) submitted a draft for its upcoming Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). The proposals therein ignited a furor and backlash from American Jews and Jewish advocacy groups (most notably StandWithUs), both of whom lamented its failure to recognize anti-Semitism as a form of racism and its endorsement of BDS, among other things. Both were quick to point out the stark contrast between these propositions and the ESMC’s stated mission of advocacy for marginalized ethnic groups.

In response, the CDE went on to pen a new draft which was released earlier this month, exactly one year after the original was made public. Although this revised version is a marked improvement over the initial draft, it still contains many troubling statements and propositions.

Most notably…

* It still fails to recognize anti-Semitism as a form of racism.

* The passage “Arabs and other Middle Easterners” is concerning, if only for the fact that it treats Arabs as the Middle East’s “default” ethnic group. Consequently, the curriculum marginalizes other indigenous ethnic groups of the MENA region, including Jews (of whom there are 6-7 million in America), Persians, Copts, Assyrians, Amazigh, Armenians, Kurds, Turks, and others. It also obfuscates the fact that Arabs became a majority throughout the MENA region the same way Europeans became a majority in North America (colonialism), thereby ignoring the pre-colonial histories of many of the above-mentioned Middle Eastern populations.

* There is no indication that Jewish-Americans are included under the ‘Middle Eastern’ umbrella at all. Instead, it egregiously compares the Jewish-American experience to the Irish-American one.

* It airbrushes Jewish-Americans into the category of “privileged whites”.

* The existence of non-Ashkenazi Jews is largely ignored.

* Instead of making an effort to cover the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a fair, balanced, and accurate manner, they’ve instead opted to scrap all overt references to Israel and Palestine. Although, it must be said, this did not stop them from ratifying published texts urging “solidarity” with anti-Zionist groups as mandatory reading materials.

The proposed curriculum, as it stands, is a recipe for more anti-Semitism and more facile understandings of Jewish history and lived experience.

Although I intend to address this document’s problems at length, I also wish to broaden my scope to include Ethnic studies programs and curricula across all Western academic institutions, including but not limited to its California-based iteration. This article, in particular, is concerned with demonstrating the need for placing all Jewish-American studies – irrespective of diaspora history – under the umbrella of Middle Eastern-American studies (and Asian-American studies by extension, in cases where Middle Eastern-American studies are grouped under Asian-American studies).

Jews are an indigenous ethnic group of the Middle East

The autochthonous homeland of the Jewish people, including those whose families were exiled to Europe, is not in any part of Europe. It is in Israel, specifically in the historic southern province of Judah (“Judea”). It is from the Middle Eastern region of Judea/Judah that we derive our ethnic identity as Jews.

Our identification with the land of Israel and the ancient Judeans/Israelites isn’t rooted in superstition, nor in some bizarre form of European Orientalist karaoke. That is literally who we are, and where we come from.

Our culture, identity, national language, alphabet, names, calendar, holidays, dress codes, symbolism, folklore, spirituality, in addition to crucial aspects of our cuisine and music are firmly rooted in the southern Levant (as I’ve previously discussed here) – provisional Creolized adaptations like black hats, latkes, and klezmer aside. Not only do we meet all of the criteria for indigenous status in Israel, but most crucially – under this same criteria – we do not qualify as indigenous to any part of Europe.

Although we resided in Europe for many centuries, our civilizational and ethnic identity is not European. Our prolonged presence in Europe was entirely the result of colonial conquest and forced dispersion from our homeland. Today’s Ashkenazi Jews – who make up roughly 90% of American Jews – were brought to Europe as slaves after the failed Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman (European) occupation, or driven there by subsequent conquerors. We are not a European ethnic group. We did not arise in Europe organically. We are a native Middle Eastern/West Asian people who were forced into diaspora – either driven to Europe as exiles or brought there as captives over a span of 1,000 years.

As has been documented through many archaeological digs and historical records, the ancient Judeans, and Israelites/Canaanites by extension, are our biological ancestors. This can also be seen in our genetics and our phenotypes. Peer-reviewed DNA papers have consistently traced more than half of the Ashkenazi genome to the Levant, specifically to our Canaanite parent population.

All of this combined is why we are called diaspora Jews in every country except Israel. We arrived in Europe more or less the same way African-Americans arrived in North America: colonialism, occupation, captivity, and exile.

In fact, Israel had initially been invited to participate in pan-Asian/African conferences on post-colonialism in the 1950s, and was even a member of the Asian Sports League, until the Arab League had us forced out of both.

If you are able to recognize descendants of African slaves and African immigrants from Europe (yes, they do exist, albeit in smaller numbers) as African-Americans, there is no excuse for bleaching out the status of Ashkenazi Jewish-Americans as Middle Eastern-Americans.

Jews qua Jews are a Middle Eastern, non-White ethnic group, and must be classed and treated as such by Ethnic Studies departments across the country, and throughout the world. Categorizing us Europeans and grouping us with Europeans erases our pre-colonial ancestral roots in Israel, our chronic abuse as non-Europeans throughout our sojourn there (to this day, in fact), and our entire identity and history.

This applies not only to Ashkenazi Jews, but to all ethnic Jews. Because we are not a faith. We are an ethno-national group, and we are Jewish irrespective of what religion we practice, or don’t practice. Although converts exist, they have been exceedingly rare throughout history. Less than 1% of our population, today, consists of converts.

We are not lying about who we say we are.

The Jewish-American experience is not comparable to the Irish-American one

As someone who belongs to both of these communities, I find this comparison to be egregious, offensive, and untenable. The equally prevalent comparison to Italian-Americans and East European-Americans (e.g. Polish-Americans, Romanian-Americans, Czech-Americans) is likewise profoundly flawed.

If any comparison can be drawn between Jewish-Americans and some other group, it would be with MENA-Americans more broadly. The Irish/Italian/East European comparison, despite its enduring popularity, does not hold.

One obvious reason is that unlike Irish, Italians, and East Europeans, we are indigenous to Western Asia. We’re not racially or ethnically European, despite our recent sojourn (or more accurately, captivity) in European lands. In fact, it wasn’t even a century ago that the US government nearly denaturalized us as ‘Asiatics’. American anti-Asian laws targeted us, in addition to Syrians, Afghans, Arabs, and Armenians. This never happened to Irish or Italians or East Europeans. These groups were marginalized and excluded for religious reasons, not for being non-white Orientals (as we were).

Moreover, the Census definition of European-American is not “any American whose family arrived from Europe”. It is a specific term for Americans with at least partial ancestry from one of the original peoples of Europe. Indigenous Europeans, in other words, not diasporic Middle Eastern/Asian populations whose ancestors lived in Europe because of exile and captivity.

Middle Eastern-American is defined more or less the same way: any American with at least partial ancestry from one of the original populations of the Middle East.

From this, it is clear where Jewish-Americans belong. We are indigenous (original) to the Middle East, not to Europe. We are a historically displaced Middle Eastern people who endured exile in Europe, so it goes without saying that we belong under the Middle Eastern-American heading.

Another reason the comparison doesn’t work is that anti-Irish/anti-Italian/anti-East European sentiment simply isn’t a thing anymore. Anti-Jewish racism is absolutely still a thing, and it never stopped being a thing.

We also share many of the same contemporary struggles other Middle Eastern-Americans do, including characterization as suspicious foreigners (e.g. dual loyalty accusations), profiling as terrorists (yes, this does happen to us), government scapegoating (one need not look far for examples; scapegoating over the COVID pandemic being the most recent), generally poor media representation that relies on whitewashing, degrading stereotypes, and myths, and Orientalism in general. Like other MENA populations, we also serve as a sort of “invisible” minority group, per John Tehranian’s “Whitewashed: America’s Invisible Middle Eastern Minority”. Finally, as bigotry towards Italian Americans and Irish Americans has naturally and fortunately diminished over time, hatred and suspicion towards Jews has remained consistent and, in recent times, increased.

But these facts are too often ignored by (overwhelmingly non-Jewish) pockets of Western academia who favor specious, inaccurate comparisons to “non-WASP” European-Americans.

The fact remains that Irish, Italians, and East Europeans are now thoroughly and irrevocably white, even if they weren’t always. Jews, Arabs, Iranians, and other MENA populations are not and never were, nor is it likely that we ever will be. Because whiteness is, at its core, a pan-European construct.

Attempting to situate us within the ambit of “non-WASP” Europeans glosses over the racist and Orientalist nature of anti-Semitism and inaccurately presents white racism against Ashkenazi Jews as a freakish sideshow of “white infighting”, and not the pervasive, murderous, deeply ingrained form of white supremacist European racism against non-European populations that it actually is.

The only way this argument or the attendant “Jews are white” claim can possibly work is if you remove Western anti-Semitism from the ambit of white supremacist and Eurocentric racism.

We are not a “non-WASP”, “European-American” group. We are a non-white, Middle Eastern-American group. We do not originate in Europe and we have not lived the European-American experience – not even the “non-WASP” kind.

Displacing Jews, Jewish identity, Jewish culture, Jewish behavior, and Jewish epistemology into the schema of “whiteness” and “Eurocentricity” is a tactic of erasure and silencing. And I suspect it is driven primarily, if not entirely, by ingrained anti-Semitic anti-Zionism. Since we can no longer be displaced from our land (Israel) by force, the aim has shifted to displacing us symbolically in the hopes that it will lead to an actual, physical displacement of our bodies from our indigenous homeland. And academia, which is already rife with institutional anti-Semitism, is (in many cases, knowingly) assisting in that process, and thus complicit.

This is most likely why the “Irish/Italians” comparison is such a favorite with anti-Zionist scholars. It lets them recognize the historic existence of anti-Semitism (albeit in a superficial and inaccurate way) without recognizing us as indigenous to Israel, and therefore does not conflict with their anti-Zionist commitments.

This also explains why grouping us with other Middle Eastern ethnic groups, instead of erroneously labeling us “non-WASP Europeans”, is so ferociously resisted by academic institutions.

In erasing our identity, our origins, and our history, academic institutions have helped to engender confusion in American Jews about their own identity and exacerbated our already poor socio-emotional health. In other words, this erasure contributes to and reinforces the very same problems that the ESMC has promised to combat, at least as far as Jews are concerned, and have therefore abnegated their commitments to us (assuming they ever had any).

To quote another Jewish writer, Micha Danzig…

“As Jews, irrespective of whether we are Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Sephardi or Beta Yisrael, our history has been inexorably linked to literally thousands of years of occupation, colonialism, and persecution by various colonial powers and our corresponding yearning to return to freedom and sovereignty in the land of Israel.

Since before there was even a concept of a “White” people or of “White Supremacy,” Colonialism by respective empires and the corresponding exploitation and persecution by those empires plagued the Jewish people as well as our right to sovereignty in our indigenous homeland. From the Babylonians to the Romans to the Byzantines, and then from the Arabs to the Crusaders, to the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and lastly the British; colonial occupation of Zion by powerful foreign empires and the imposition of foreign exploitative rule and control of the holiest sites to the Jewish people prevented Jewish sovereignty and freedom in Zion, and also perpetuated the continued persecution – and often slaughter – of Jewish people living in exile, whether that exile was in Morocco, Berlin, Kiev, Tehran, or Baghdad.

The reality is that the entire notion of Ashkenazi Jews as “White people” is very new (from a historical perspective) and it is also completely detached from any historical context, including in America, where, as recently as the early 1960’s there were still quotas on Jewish enrollment in some Ivy League schools. Ironically, since the origin of the European pseudoscientific racial classifications (dividing humanity as White, Black, and Yellow races); Jews in Europe (both Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike) were regularly persecuted on the basis of being “non-white.”

Like many indigenous peoples throughout the world, Ashkenazi Jews were the victims of European oppression and violence for centuries; precisely because they were perceived as not being a part of the European or “White” world. Beginning with the Roman Colonialism of Judea and continuing through World War II, when 6 million, primarily Ashkenazi Jews were murdered – precisely because they were not considered “White.”

There’s no reason not to incorporate Jewish-American studies as a Middle Eastern-American studies discipline, other than to uphold anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist narratives. And if that is your preference, you have no business claiming to oppose to anti-Semitism, or fighting on our behalf.

The positioning of Ashkenazi Jews in with their oppressors is itself an act of oppression and violence. Stop insisting that we relate to the very civilizations that oppressed, murdered, colonized, and robbed us our homeland. We are not them, and they are not us. We share neither their history nor their experiences.

Furthermore, not all Jewish-Americans even have a history of exile in Europe. Although the vast majority come from Jewish (Middle Eastern) families forcibly relocated in European lands, the same cannot be said for America’s sizable and growing Mizrahi Jewish population. California alone is home to one of the largest Iranian-Jewish communities outside of Israel. By thrusting Jewish-Americans into the “non-WASP” European category, not only are you erasing Ashkenazi Jews, you are erasing Mizrahi Jews whose families never lived in Europe in the first place.

Jewish-Americans are not European-Americans and we are not religious subsets of the German and East European diasporas. Insisting otherwise is an act of erasure.

Anti-Semitism is racism

Racism pertains to any action, belief, or policy that adversely targets a specific individual, or a specific group, on the basis of race or ethnicity. Although there are elements of religious prejudice woven in, Western anti-Semitism is functionally a form of Orientalist racism.

Some may feel inclined to answer the above statements with the hackneyed, oft-repeated (and usually anti-Semitism motivated) derailment that “Jews are not a race”, but the fact of the matter is that 99% of the world’s Jews belong to a single, cohesive ethnic group with a shared origin in a specific part of the world (Israel). And, it must be said, we are *at least* as much of a “race” as Arabs and Hispanics are, although there is relatively little controversy when either of those groups describes their marginalization as racism.

More to the point, when have anti-Semites ever asked us what our religious beliefs are, or whether or not we attend synagogue? Probably never. Because they do not care. If they know we’re ethnic Jews, that’s all they need. Anti-Semitism is not a prejudice that can be circumvented by conversion to a different faith.

Institutional anti-Semitism in academia

Most American Jews, myself included, grew up with an immense confusion about our identity, history, and origins. I didn’t even know of my Levantine heritage until long after I had entered college, despite having a mother and relatives who were commonly mistaken for Egyptian and even South Asian. For all I knew back then, we HAD no real origin, and Jewishness meant nothing more than centuries of suffering in some squalid ghetto in Europe for literally no reason. And if that’s how most American Jews (Ashkenazi Jews in particular) are taught to think of themselves – that they have no culture or history before their exile to Europe, and that everything before that is a void – it’s no wonder we have so many self-haters.

This is a problem that Jewish parents, public schools, and post-secondary educational institutions alike have a responsibility to fix. They must do whatever is in their power to lift up the Jewish community through education and, more importantly, listening and learning from us as well. They have the obligation to put in just as much effort towards us as they would any other ethnic minority.

But this is a mission that Western academic institutions have thus far failed, and failed catastrophically. Not only has Western academia failed to honor these commitments, it has become (and has arguably long been) one of the foremost crucibles of anti-Semitic thought. Most egregious among these failures is its longstanding, unwritten ‘nihil obstat’ policy of only publishing and elevating Jewish voices that conform to existing gentile biases. In other words, Jewish academics who are firmly Zionist and oppose anti-Semitism in ways that do not meet the approval of (overwhelmingly non-Jewish) authorities are typically fired, dismissed with a snarky letter, or ignored.

Professor Kenneth P. Monteiro, coordinator of the California State University Council on Ethnic Studies, argued in a letter to the CDE that “Jewish Studies has over a century of tradition in the American Academy as either religious or cultural/multicultural studies, but it has no academic tradition inside of Ethnic studies at any point in the 50-year history of the field.” Instead, he contends that “Jewish Studies for the most part was a project to understand the assimilation of American Jews into American Whiteness”.

The above statements presumes that anti-Jewish racism is no longer a pervasive socio-cultural and institutional reality. It also presumes that American Jews have been accepted into Whiteness – if this were true, we would not be the main bete noire/boogeyman of those who see whiteness as some kind of virtue. We also wouldn’t be their primary target for violence.

This statement likewise presumes that Jews had no national history before our expulsion, often in chains, from our native land. It presumes that Jews are no different from the French, Irish, Germans or Slavs who have, for millenia, tried to eliminate us. All this tells me is that they’re not listening to Jews at all.

And that needs to change, and change right now.

Discuss our ethnic origins in Israel. Discuss our millennia long history in that land. Discuss Zionism in balanced terms that gives due consideration and respect to the 90% percent of American Jews (let alone Israeli Jews) who support Zionism. Discuss the Dreyfus Affair. Discuss men like Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and countless others who believed (as most Jews today still do) that repatriating our people and regaining sovereignty in our native land is the key to our rejuvenation and, ultimately, our survival. Discuss the lynching of Leo Frank. Discuss the KKK’s anti-Semitism. Discuss the particulars of anti-Semitism as it exists today. Discuss the diverse experiences and histories of the Jewish community. Discuss the history of exclusion from professions and higher education, and the reasons why in cities like Minneapolis, Minnesota, Jews were forced to found their own hospital. Discuss deed covenants and their role is keeping neighborhoods segregated, and continuing structural anti-Semitism (especially Court Jew Syndrome) and how it operates in the present. Discuss how Jews came to be in banking and Hollywood, why we were nearly denaturalized for being Asiatic. Discuss the expulsion/ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab and Muslim lands. Discuss the Arab conquest and occupation of Israel. Discuss the Holocaust (seriously).

Don’t just regurgitate Karen Brodkin for the umpteenth time and call it a day. Hers is only one voice and we deserve much better than that. Actually start listening to us as a holistic community. Do some actual inquiry. Put in just as much effort towards us as you would any “real” ethnic minority. Acknowledge that, just as Blacks define ant-Black racism, Jews define anti-Semitism.

Western anti-racists tend react very poorly when I point out these double standards. In all likelihood, any Western academic who sees this won’t take it seriously. They’ll just summon some token Jewish academic to soothe and reaffirm their pre-existing lies/biases and dismiss it out of hand. And they can get away with it precisely because of how small a group we are as a percentage of the US population.

If, by chance, any of the parties responsible for this draft happen upon this, I urge you to do as you advocate in your own document and start listening to marginalized populations – including us – instead of letting your “knowledge” about us be dictated by gentile “common sense”.

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