Jews as white people: What campus protests say

I am so tired with the confusion and hatred over my official placement as an American Jew in the category of race and/or ethnicity. When I fill out job applications or answer the US Census, I check the Caucasian box. However, my not-so-distant ancestors from Russia, Hungary, Poland, Galicia and Belarus were considered Jews and as such were separate from White Europeans and Russians. They were in an oppressed class by themselves. If we go further back—by several centuries—the Jews were viewed as a semitic people originating from Israel. Thrown out of their own country by the Romans, the Jews began a Diaspora of thousands of years where they wandered and settled all over the world.

With the spread of Christianity, the Jews were viewed as ‘others’ who followed a suspect religion. They were Jews first, then viewed as second-class citizens (if they were even allowed citizenship). Once my immediate ancestors came to this country and their children quickly assimilated or acculturated, these Jews who originally suffered from antisemitism here in America worked their way up the ladder to achieve financial and career success. With this success came acceptance and the US seemingly granting them the right to be viewed as Caucasians or White people. Yay! FYI, check out the book “When Jews Became White People” for more information.

Well, it was too good to last. Only the Jews could be discriminated against for becoming White People. Even though Jews spring from the same ancestral tree (but a different branch) as Arabs, their eventual wanderings allowed other races and ethnicities—mostly white but not only white—to come into the ‘mix’. After centuries of being viewed as less than White, Jews became accepted by most people as indeed Caucasian. Of course, there were still plenty of antisemites to keep us on our toes.

Now, Jews of the Diaspora are once again questioned about their alleged dual loyalties to America and Israel. Since the mass Jewish immigration to the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the most successful antisemitic trope was that Jews were first and foremost committed to their ethnicity/religion and that Israel—not America—was their real country. Used by early nativists seeking to limit immigration, the charge that Jews could not be ‘real Americans’ was argued in newspaper columns at the time. And while Zionism ideology existed, there was NO state of Israel. Unfortunately, that did not stop the accusations of divided loyalty among America’s Jews.

After WWII and the Holocaust, American Jews began to overcome most of the antisemitism and undercurrent of ‘otherness’ that existed. Most became successful and integrated into American life in many disciplines. Maybe we got too successful, too ingratiated, too visible. Worse than that, as accepted as White people in the convoluted race construct of America, Jews were viewed as higher on the ladder than Black people or other people of color. Since the late 20th century, new immigrants to America were people of color. Their status as new immigrants automatically made them suspect.

The American Left has traditionally supported immigration and immigrants of all kinds. They supported Jews and fought against antisemitism and racism. Jews were among the founders of the NAACP, with W.E.B. DuBois crediting them with helping start the organization. Jews marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the South at the height of the Civil Rights Era and in many dangerous circumstances. They were Freedom Riders, and several were murdered by southern racists.

That history is all but forgotten amid the antisemitic frenzy gripping the American Left and especially young students on college campuses. Jews who were once more associated to the political Left than most other groups, are once again suspect about their connections to Israel, Zionism, and their ethnicity. We are thrust into ‘otherness’ now because we are White while Arabs are viewed as people of color. Long live the American fixation with the race and color construct. However, much like Latinos, Arabs can be White or darker. And let’s not forget the many Jews of color that exist here in America (and elsewhere). They include noted authors James McBride and Walter Mosley; entertainers Tiffany Haddish, Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones, Lenny Kravitz and Drake; and Professor K. Gibel Mevorach from Grinnell College. You can check out Professor Mevorach’s intelligent article “The Illusion and Elusiveness of Whiteness” online.

The history and problematic reality of Jews, Arabs and Israel/Palestine is much more confusing, nuanced, and contextual than the demonstrating young college students understand–and that includes American Jews and American Palestinians. Much of this is the knee-jerk immediacy and impetuousness of youth, but I fear that most of it is the result of the very academicians running and teaching in these universities. By cutting back on Humanities and heavily focusing upon STEM courses to an extensive degree, colleges have deprived American students of the very disciplines that nurture intellectual thinking, Socratic questioning, and deep thought regarding complex issues and situations. History of all kinds and literature from a variety of sources tend to help sort out and better understand all sorts of complex issues.

Arabs were considered part of the third world; oppressed by the colonial powers along with their fellow people of color. The Jews, on the other hand, may have been oppressed in the past but though their hard work and ability to adjust to new norms (the result of centuries in the Diaspora) they were now considered part of the institutional structures of their country and no longer appeared to face oppression—yet Jews still faced hidden and subtle antisemitism. Israel itself faced this white vs. people of color problem. Even though many Jews came to Israel in the late 19th century and early 20th to escape the Pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia, the mass migration of Holocaust Survivors after WWII clearly made Israel Whiter than Semitic. However, over the latter decades of the twentieth century into the twenty-first, Israel has once again become more Semitic and Mizrachi than European. This is in no small result of the many Arab Middle Eastern countries throwing out their Jews after the official establishment of Israel.

So, it is with a mixture of envy and amazement that I find leftist students on campuses across our country demonstrating against Israel and Jews while backing the Palestinians and terrorist organizations like Hamas. It is also clear that there are outside agitators and groups taking advantage of college students’ ignorance and emotions in theses protests. Who bought the expensive tents you now see on college campuses? Who is carrying flags from terrorist organizations (I am NOT talking about Palestine flags). According to Charles Asher Small, founder and executive director of ISGAP, an organization dedicated to fighting antisemitism, there are hints that Qatar has supplied many Arab American organizations with money—and that some of that money may be channeled into anti-Israel protests. Right-wing and Leftist antisemites know what they are doing and follow certain precepts whether we may think them right or wrong. For students currently demonstrating on-campus, one gets the sense that its more follow-the-crowd and ‘be hip’ than with any true understanding of the complexity of the Israel-Palestine issue or of the fraught connections that American Jews may have towards Israel.

Now, I too am upset at the injustices that Palestinians have faced and am appalled by Netanyahu’s inhuman razing of Gaza (and I am no fan of the way Netanyahu is running Israel). However, I resent several misnomers and misconceptions that these campus students have: 1- that I as an American Jew must be harassed and held responsible for the actions of a country that my ancestors had not lived in for centuries and who first returned to the land only recently (by historical standards); 2- most of the Jews who returned to Israel were there because no other countries wanted them or would take them in—and this was true both before and after WWII; 3- most of the blame for the Palestinian situation goes back to the British colonials who ran Palestine and the neighboring Arab countries.

The British were (and many still are) antisemitic. The only people they despised more than the Jews were—surprise—the Arabs. This accounts for some of the favoritism shown to the Jews who basically had little power until after WWII; 4- Both the British and the UN had arranged to divide Palestine into two lands—one for Palestinians and the other for Jews. Most of the land mass was going to Palestine and not Israel. Ben Gurion was disappointed but went along with the two-state solution. It was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and The Arab League led by Nassar of Egypt that convinced the Palestinians not to accept the division. Nassar’s famous promise was that he “would drive the Jews to the sea” and regain the land for Arabs. Several wars later, Israel was still standing and in fact gained Arab land during that time. Nassar went back to his country, was assassinated, and replaced by a leader that was the first Arab to make peace with Israel. Meanwhile, most of the other Arab middle eastern countries threw out their Jews sending them to Israel; and then went about their own business. And the Palestinians? Their Arab brothers left them in the two places they had long been a major population: the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Jordan, which has the next largest population of Palestinians, gained some of the land that originally was Palestine—thanks to Great Britain.

Harvard was an unfortunate travesty; but for Berkeley long-known as a bastion of left-wing caring for oppressed people, to stop an IDF Soldier from speaking and allowing violence and destruction of property by opposing students, is disgraceful. This is America, and if we can allow KKK members and racists to speak, then we can allow someone who has put their life on the line for their country to explain his point of view. That Jewish students are afraid to walk on campus or fear physical harm is disgraceful and insulting to academic and American democratic tradition—whether this is Columbia, City University, USC, or UCLA. What do you think? Let me know. If I get enough responses, I will publish them.

About the Author
Madelon Rosen-Solomon is a journalist and writer with deep roots in the American Jewish Community. She holds a MA in Holocaust & Genocide Studies from Kean University, MS from Fordham University in English Education, BA from SUNY Purchase in Literature/American History (double major), and BA from CUNY Lehman College in Journalism/Theatre (double major). She is a member of the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center in Westchester CountRy, where she served for 15 years on the Educators Planning Committee. Ms. Rosen-Solomon is a ASNE Journalism Fellow from Kent State. She was most recently a high school English and History teacher. Before turning to education, Ms. Rosen-Solomon had a career in public relations where she worked for several top-ten Manhattan PR firms before running her own PR Consultancy. She has represented a number of Jewish and Israeli performing artists and other accounts in the Jewish World including The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre. As a Broadway theatrical publicist for almost 15 years, she was trained by David Merrick’s former press agent Max Eisen. Madelon has been a journalist on staff and freelance for several New York Metro area newspapers and magazines. An active member of Women of Reform Judaism and Temple Israel of Northern Westchester Sisterhood, Madelon writes about The Holocaust and Human Rights, Women/Gender Issues in Judaism, and the Intersection of Politics and Judaism. She is currently working on a book about Trauma and Holocaust Survivors.
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