Sarah Katz
Don't fit the mould - MAKE the mould.

Jews have never been and will never be ‘white’

Amidst the plethora of intersectionality that has burgeoned across the U.S. throughout the past decade, I have felt an increasing desire to collaborate with fellow minority groups against the increased white supremacy following the election of President Donald Trump in November, 2016.

However, such attempts at solidarity have evoked significant backlash. Why? Because I am a Jew – a culture, ethnicity and religion that, particularly within the past decade, has transitioned within the global narrative as minority group to a community viewed as arguably the most privileged, successful and ‘white’ in existence. And a white religion, moreover, whose faith-based elements are viewed as the strongest unifying factor of the Jewish community.

When I say ‘white’ here, I am referring to the contemporary western use of the term: Anyone of European descent, an ethnic group whose very racial background awards them certain privileges. This privilege is commonly known in modern western sociopolitical discourse as ‘white privilege’[1]. An intriguing aspect of the definition of such privilege is the professed ability of white groups to avoid suspicions commonly experienced by non-white groups.

As a half Ashkenazi (Jews living in Europe for the past millennium) and half Mizrachi (Jews with ancestors living in the Middle East immediately prior to the creation of Israel) Jew, my last name Katz certainly clues many into my Jewish heritage. In fact, living in the United States, more folks have specifically caught on to my Ashkenazi heritage. And those have been the same people who have remarked on my ‘people’s tendency to cheat others out of money’ or ‘to kill Palestinian babies’. The person to utter the first remark was an acquaintance from Spain, while the second was a former German-Palestinian classmate. Furthermore, the comment made by an American of northern European descent regarding my ‘thick Jewish eyebrows’ hardly seems like a statement to refer to a religion only.

Thereby, rather than stereotype avoidance purported as a benefit of white privilege, my Jewish heritage actually enabled stereotyping of my ethnic background. Whether manifesting as accusations of Jews stealing money or murdering infants in imperialistic genocide, anti-Jewish sentiment remains alive and well. Therefore, regardless of whether a Jew has light or dark features, such an individual runs the risk of discrimination from both the selective progressives on the left and white supremacists on the right.

Moreover, the left in particular has begun using the fact that Ashkenazim have spent generations in Europe as a means to label us as white – ‘white’ here meaning an ethnically European people who never set foot in the Levant prior to the period of Anglo-French colonization. Thus, caught as many Ashkenazi Jews often feel in a tug-of-war between the label of “white” by the left and “mongrel yids” by white supremacists[2], I often find myself frustrated at the automatic hesitation to outwardly unify with causes such as anti-Black racism in the U.S. police system and immigrant rights. Simply stated, I have encountered relentless backlash and claims that Jews cannot understand what it is like to face discrimination because, despite historical evidence to the contrary such as the Holocaust and ongoing incidents such as the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pennsylvania, anti-Jewish sentiment has never caused us significant issues solely based on race.

Race – defined as a group of people with similarly distinguishing physical characteristics.[3] Contrary to the notion that Jews never have to deal with discrimination based only off physical appearance or, perhaps more importantly, that they are even recognizable by physical features, the myriad examples of ‘large nose’ and ‘curly hair’ indicate the quintessence of such physical stereotype. Just this past month of March 2019, the Belgian parade sporting well-known Jewish caricatures of trollish, hook-nosed fiends[4] demonstrates how these phenotype-based prejudices are still quite relevant.

But…surely, fairer-skinned Jews like various Ashkenazim and Mizrachim living today in Europe and the U.S., have it easier? Well, the Nazis presumably didn’t find ways to spot Jews trying to ‘pass’ from observing a population that was phenotypically similar to their own – and here, we’re discussing the ability to distinguish specifically Ashkenazi Jews.[5] By the same token, the former Soviet Union required Jews to identify as ‘Hebrew’ on their passports rather than Russian, again highlighting this sense of otherness projected by European diaspora governments toward their resident Jewish populations.[6] Meanwhile, across the pond in the United States during the 1930s, fifty three percent of the population viewed Jews as different and in need of government restriction.[7] In fact, many Jews at this time ran the risk of denaturalization, in the face of American leadership’s view of them as an Asian people from the Levant.[8]

While the majority of Jews don’t face the same threat of being needlessly pulled over and potentially assaulted by police as a Black U.S. citizen might, hate crimes against Jews remain the highest among all faiths[9] – meaning as soon as anyone figures a Jew’s background, there is no telling how that encounter might conclude. Even in America, there is really no way of telling for sure. Speaking of which, I doubt the white supremacist terrorist who committed the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue[10] cared that the majority of his victims were Ashkenazi. When it comes to Jews, both Ashkenazi and Mizrachi of all shades comprise the ‘other’ for anti-Jewish racists. This concept of ‘white Jews’ and ‘Jews of Color’ is simply a dichotomy developed by the contemporary anti-American, anti-capitalist left to strip a subset of Jews of our connection to the Levant amidst the Israel-Palestine conflict, against the backdrop of the view that Israel is the U.S.’s watchdog in the Middle East.

So yes, I do feel solidarity with the struggle of African-Americans for justice in the face of wrongful incarceration as well as the fight for Native American territory amidst ever-encroaching industrialization by the U.S. government and the battle against Islamophobia. Jews, regardless of skin tone or the language our immediate ancestors spoke and despite our long-standing record of high achievement, continue to live on the social periphery of western civilization.

[1] Neville, H., Worthington, R., Spanierman, L. (2001). Race, Power, and Multicultural Counseling Psychology: Understanding White Privilege and Color Blind Racial Attitudes. In Ponterotto, J., Casas, M, Suzuki, L, and Alexander, C. (Eds) Handbook of Multicultural Counseling, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

 

[2] Schafer, Peter. Judeophobia, Harvard University Press, 1997, p 208

[3] “RACE | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” RACE | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionarydictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/race.

[4] Schreuer, Milan. “Jewish Caricatures at Belgian Carnival Set Off Charges of Anti-Semitism.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Mar. 2019,www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/world/europe/belgium-carnival-anti-semitism.html.

[5] Lewis, Naomi K. “A Bridge Too Far: The Story of My Big Jewish Nose.” Www.calgaryherald.com, 2014, www.calgaryherald.com/health/Bridge+story+Jewish+nose/10115589/story.html

[6] Decter, Moshe. “The Status of the Jews in the Soviet Union.” Foreign Affairswww.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/1963-01-01/status-jews-soviet-union.

 

[7] Smitha, Frank E. “Roosevelt and Approaching War: The Economy, Politics and Questions of War, 1937-38”. Retrieved 2008-04-23.

[8] “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity.” The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, by Eric L. Goldstein, Princeton University Press, 2008, pp. 109–116.

[9] “Victims.” FBI, FBI, 1 Nov. 2018, ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2017/topic-pages/victims.

[10] Robertson, Campbell, et al. “11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged With 29 Counts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2018,www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html.

About the Author
Sarah Katz is a UC Berkeley graduate, cyber security engineer, and author.
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