Jews and Whiteness
I recently had a lecture on settler colonialism that discussed the settler strategy of racializing and othering Indigenous peoples to erase their identity. The professor discussed examples of countries with histories and ongoing legacies of settler colonialism; the United States, Canada, Australia, and finally, Israel. I was not surprised, but very disappointed nonetheless.
Around the same time, a close friend reached out to me as he was struggling with a job application that asked him to select his ‘racial’ background. The options were very limiting: White, Black, Asian, and Indigenous Canadian. Between these categories, and based on his general physical appearance, he felt obliged to state that he was white, but he admitted that it felt wrong and uncomfortable to do so.
Jews can often be put in uncomfortable positions when asked to define their identity according to broad, Western metrics. The Jewish people hold a complex identity that constitutes multiple definitions: religion, ethnicity, ethnoreligious group, and nation. While some Jews may be white-passing in certain contexts, classifying Jews as white reduces the complexity and vastness of Jewish identity, minimizes antisemitism, and can be weaponized for disproportionate criticism of Israel, or a mischaracterization of it as a white, settler colonial state.
‘Race’ is a social construct. It is an overly broad, pseudo-scientific categorization of people, created to perpetuate and justify racial hierarchies, supremacism, and colonialism. Races are not biological, given facts, but the racialization of people makes their effects very real. Races are typically very limiting, and Jews and many other ethnic groups feel excluded by lists that do not provide a fitting ‘racial’ category for them. ‘White’ is a social category which different ethnic and cultural groups may or may not fit into in different contexts based on a number of vague, ever-changing categories, like physical appearance, ancestry, national origins, or cultural features. One may be assumed white due to their appearance, but then treated as non-white based on their ancestry and origins, or vice versa.
Jewish ethnicity, nationhood, and religion are interrelated. Jews are typically described as an ethnoreligious group, with Judaism being the ethnoreligion of the Jewish people. One can convert to Judaism, but it takes a long, difficult process of adopting the culture. Jews, then called Israelites and later Judeans, emerged as a Middle Eastern civilization more than three thousand years ago with distinct cultural customs, monotheistic religious beliefs, and a national homeland in the land of Canaan, or what Jews have called the Land of Israel for thousands of years. DNA studies show that Jews have maintained groups of shared ancestry and genetic ties to their Levantine ancestors.
As a result of expulsions by imperial powers, the Jewish diaspora grew, until most Jews lived outside of Israel. Jews wandered and rarely settled for too long in a single place, due to persecution and expulsions. Jews were seen as outsiders wherever they resided, but maintained a constant longing for the land of Israel, until the Zionist movement actualized this national element to Jewish identity. Jews check all the boxes of the UN’s criteria of ‘indigeneity’ when it comes to Israel: occupation of ancestral lands, common ancestry with the original inhabitants, culture, language, and residence. Jewish life, language, and culture were born in and still revolve around the Land of Israel. So, if the metric used to determine whiteness is being European in origin, then Jews certainly do not fit the category.
If being a part of a group that is racialized (i.e., subject to racism) is what excludes you from whiteness, then Jews again do not meet the criteria. Antisemitism is widely considered a form of racism, which has been the basis of modern antisemitism since its inception, and Jew-hatred has taken on this racial form since the invention of race. In 19th century Germany, Wilhelm Marr coined the term “antisemitism” to make Jew-hatred sound logical, scientific, and racial. They created the ‘semitic’ or Jewish ‘race’ and focused on the unchangeable ‘racial’ aspects of Jews as detrimental to European nations. It was this racialized worldview and white supremacism that informed the Nazis and led to the slaughtering of millions of Jews, regardless of religious observance or cultural connectedness.
If the definition of white is to ‘look’ white, based on physical features, then some Jews may pass as white. Jews come in a wide range of colours, and some, based on appearance, may be white-passing and benefit from white privilege in certain contexts. But this does not apply to all Jews, like many Mizrahim, Jews of colour, and even some Ashkenazim. Further, white-passing status does not extend to all contexts, as some may be identifiably Jewish not by appearance but by name or cultural practices. The idea that assimilated Jews ‘become’ white implies that Jews must leave their culture behind to fit into society, and the idea that Jews are white by being successful implies that marginalized, racialized ethnicities only keep their minority status if they are poor and downtrodden.
One may argue that since ‘race’ is a social category, a group’s race is determined by the way that society perceives them. However, this racial labelling is not arbitrary, but based on a number of determinants; often a combination of the factors described above. Jews do not fit into the category of whiteness based on any of these factors, and so even if people think of Jews as white, this reflects an ignorance of what it means to be a Jew.
The misconception of Jews as white has substantial effects on how people see Jews and Israel. It minimizes antisemitism by mischaracterizing it as prejudice against a religion instead of a form of racism against an ethnoreligious group. It also portrays Israel as a settler colonial state where Jews are foreign occupiers, stripping Jews of their thousands-of-years-old identity that revolves around an indigenous homeland. This is not to say that the modern State of Israel is free of problems, but it completely negates the Jewish perspective and experience.
Jews, like some other ethnicities, can be white-passing in certain contexts, but this does not make them a white people. Because Jewish identity is broad and complex, people misunderstand it based on the common discourse. While Jews often do not know how to articulate this, like my friend, they can viscerally feel it when put in these scenarios.