Jews: Identity matters. De-colonize, re-Indigenize, don’t call yourself – or “Wonder Woman” – White!

Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination and sovereignty in their indigenous homeland.  Inherent to that belief is the fact that there is a Jewish people, and that the Jewish people are indigenous to the land of Israel … to ZION.

The history of Zion and of the Jewish people is a history of repeated persecution, oppression, colonial occupation and exile.

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.

In the 19th Century our nearly two millennia of longing for Zion and to return to our homeland, free of colonial rule, manifested itself in the embrace of political Zionism.  A movement to take the return to Zion and the return to freedom in our indigenous land into our own hands; to live up to G-d’s expectation that he expects us to be active in our lives and to work towards making the world a better place.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said: “being the co-author with G-d in our lives.”

Of course, since the Jewish people finally, in 1948, achieved the miracle of restoring Jewish sovereignty to our indigenous and biblical homeland, our right to that same sovereignty has perennially been challenged.  That challenge has come in many forms: numerous military wars of attempted annihilation; continued terrorism, as well as different mendacious permutations of eradicationist rhetoric denying everything from the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, the Jewish history of Jerusalem, and even the existence of a Jewish people.

It is in this rhetorical war against Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel where the argument over whether Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is “White” comes into play.  For years, our fight against those who seek to rewrite history and to deny the right of Jews to be sovereign in the land of Israel has been both limited and handicapped by a “Jewish identity crisis,” whereby many Jews (particularly in America) now view themselves or other Ashkenazi Jews as Caucasian or “White.”

De-Colonize Our Language

Ironically, the same Jews who are the most insistent that Gal Gadot is somehow “White,” because Gal Gadot’s grandparents (some of whom survived the Holocaust) are Ashkenazi, are also among the most aggressively “progressive” people when it comes to decrying the impact of Western Imperialism and Colonialism. Yet, while they are quick to criticize the often automatic adoption of Eurocentric viewpoints or perspectives (such as the notion that Ancient Egypt was somehow “White” or not an African culture), they are still stuck on the European/Colonial paradigm of “race.”  Conflating, apparently – with respect to Jews only (more on that later) – being “White passing” with being actually “White.”

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.”

This is not merely a semantic issue.  This is an IDENTITY issue.

At the same time that Europeans were developing and honing their various reasons to and methods for oppressing and persecuting Jews (including the Spanish Empire’s 15th Century Limpieza de Sangre [purity of blood], which during the Spanish Inquisition was paired with Mala de Sangre, or “black/Jewish blood,” all the way through to WWII and the Nazi’s Aryan race theories), Europeans were also developing pseudoscientific folk theories, which relied on simplistic references to external features and geography in order to divide humanity into African (Black), European (White), and Asian (Yellow) races.  It is also no coincidence that these same theories supported the Imperialist desires of the same scientists and their patrons to justify the “White Man’s Burden” and the theories about the supposed superior qualities of Europeans (the same people, who murdered and oppressed Jews for over 2000 years).

Of course, contemporary population genetics reveal how this simplistic pseudoscience was just plain wrong. The idea of three distinct races, including a “White” race, is a biological myth, as wrong as the once widely held belief that the sun revolved around the earth. Anthropologists, biologists and geneticists have increasingly found that, biologically speaking; there is no such thing as “race.”  Modern science has allowed us to unravel the genetic puzzle of DNA and human variation – and their findings don’t remotely support the European pseudoscientific characterization of human beings being divided along these three simplistic categories.

Ashkenazi Does Not Equal European

One of the principle, but erroneous arguments most people in America, including many American Jews, use to contend that Jews are “White,” is that in extremely race and color conscious America, where most Jews are Ashkenazi, they contend that Ashkenazi is somehow equivalent to European or “White.”

In America, however, Jewish “Whiteness” or the notion of “White Jews,” including of course Ashkenazi Jews, is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In the American colonies, the 1705 Virginia statute, regarding the “Act Concerning Servants and Slaves” provided: “[N]o Negros, mulattos or Indians, Jew, Moor, Mahometan, or other infidel… shall purchase any Christian white servant…”

At the time of the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 Jews were not considered “White” as a matter of law; and under the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Origins Quota Act), very restrictive quotas for immigrants outside of Western Europe were set, including for those of the “Hebrew race,” which is what was stamped on the immigration papers of Jews who arrived in the USA before 1924.  And while the overwhelming majority of Jews who had immigrated to the USA before 1924 were Ashkenazi, the U.S. Government, as well as most, if not all, State governments in the USA, considered all Jews at that time to be an Asiatic people.

Jewish Identity is Pre-Colonial and Not Defined By European Racial Concepts

As noted above, it is rather ironic that many of the same people who are now insisting that “Wonder Woman” is somehow “White,” because of Gal Gadot’s Ashkenazi ancestry, also regularly decry “Eurocentrism” and America’s history of White supremacy.  Meanwhile, these same people are plainly stuck on a very European and American paradigm of identifying people, while seeming to completely forget that Jewish history in America is barely 10% of Jewish history globally and it certainly does not define either Jewish identity or what it means to be a Jew.

Those who see Gal Gadot as a “White Woman,” make the mistake of viewing Judaism and being Jewish through a Colonial or European lens. They literally need to decolonize their minds.  Judaism and being Jewish is not simply a “religion.”  That is a European concept. And it is a very Western/European concept to identify people under categories of religion or race.  Middle Eastern people have tribal identities.  Jews, like many others in the Middle East, such as Pashtuns (who often have light skin and yet would not identify as “White”), are neither a religion nor race but a tribe. Jewish identity since at least the time of Joshua (approximately 3,450 years ago) has always been a tribal/national peoplehood (Am Yisrael).

While tribal spiritual practice and customs and a strong genetic link between many members of the Jewish tribe are certainly present, Israelite or Judean identity was never based on either of these. Israelite or Judean identity has always been a tribal membership that goes by lineage (being born to a Jewish mother) or by tribal acceptance.  While in English the latter is referred to as a “conversion,” that is not the exact meaning in Hebrew.  Notably in Hebrew, a “conversion” to Judaism is called a “giyur,” derived from the Hebrew word “lagur,” which means to “live or reside with;” again – tribal acceptance.  Thus, the identity all Jews today have – whether their great-grandparents were in exile in Poland, Yemen, Iraq, or Czechoslovakia (like Gal Gadot’s grandfather) – is identical to that of King David, whose great grandmother was a Moabite “giyoret;” King David was nonetheless a Jew, by virtue of being born into the tribe.

“White Passing” is Not White (European).

Of course, many of the most vociferous objectors to the fact that no Jew, including Gal Gadot, is “White,” raise the fact that because of her outward appearance or the appearance of other successful Jewish actresses in America (e.g. Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson), Gal Gadot has an easier time obtaining roles in Hollywood than other women who are more clearly not of European ancestry.  This is certainly and sadly true.  But that doesn’t make any Jewish person, including Gal Gadot, “White” or European.

Another recent claim of those who insist that Gal Gadot is “White” is that denying Gal Gadot’s alleged “Whiteness” somehow does an injustice to the Jews in America and Israel who face more challenges because they are not Ashkenazi.  This is misguided on many levels.  First, many colonized people have sadly over time embraced European ideas regarding race and color, and have consequently internalized the view that lighter skin is somehow better.  Second, in Israel itself, there are many Ashkenazi Jews who are quite brown and many Sephardi or Mizrachi Jews who are pretty pale.  Third, if living in societies where lighter colored skin is more valued than darker colored skin or where people have an advantage because their skin has a lighter tone makes one “White,” then Indians, Chinese and Latinos would all be “White.”

Of course, in highly racialized America over the last 250 plus years, particularly as the pseudo-scientific Black/White/Yellow construct increased its grip on the American view of people, there has always been a benefit that could inure to a person who could “pass.”

In the 20th and 21st Centuries, in particular, many people from groups that (just like Jews) were often victims of the European construct of “Whiteness,” including many Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, Gypsies, etc. could and did “pass” for “White.”  For example, the famous comedian, singer and actor Danny Thomas, formerly known as Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz, was Lebanese. As a result, in 1912 when he was born in the USA, he was considered “Asiatic,” not European; as in 1910 the U.S. Congress passed a bill that classified Armenians, Assyrians and Jews as “Asiatic exceptions” to the general ban on Asians receiving or being able to receive U.S. citizenship.  The fact that Danny Thomas could “pass” for “White” or European was irrelevant, he was an “Asiatic” Arab. Similarly, one of the founders of the NAACP, Walter Francis White, was a “White passing” African-American.

Walter Francis White
Walter Francis White – around the time of his 1939 World’s Fair Speech

Did Walter Francis White “pass” for “White” back in the late 1800’s and early to mid-1900’s?  Of course.  Did that make him “White,” or a European?  Of course not.

Are Jews a Mixed People? Certainly. Most Historically Oppressed People Are

Walter Francis White, like the vast majority of African Americans, Native Americans, and Ashkenazi Jews, did not identify with the dominant European host populations or with his European genetic ancestors. He identified with his African ancestors.  While Walter Francis White had African and European ancestry on both sides of his family, Walter Francis White had features showing the latter. He emphasized this in his autobiography, A Man Called White, where he wrote: “I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”  All members of his immediate family had fair skin, and his mother Madeline was also blue-eyed and blonde.  The history of his mother’s family is that her maternal grandparents were Dilsia, a slave and concubine, and her “master” was a “White” man of European ancestry, William Henry Harrison. But none of this genetic history or his ability to “pass” – and at times benefit from “White passing” – made him “White” or give anyone the right to deny Walter Francis White, one of the greatest fighters for African American rights in U.S. history, his African-American identity.

Incredibly, many of those who insist that Gal Gadot is “White,” and are so quick to impose upon her and other “White passing” Jews, a folk science identity created by the very people, who (along with the Arab nations) – were primarily responsible for centuries of oppression of literally millions of indigenous Africans and Jews – would never impose such an identity on “White-passing” African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Arabs, Pacific Islanders, etc.  There is a very well-known name for treating Jews differently than how you treat everyone else similarly situated.  It is called Anti-Semitism.

Jews, An Indigenous Tribal People, Not a European (White) People

Like many indigenous tribal people, a person is a “Jew” because he/she was born into a tribe/people; (in this case) called the Nation of Israel (Am Yisrael) or they were accepted into the tribe under the Jewish people’s tribal rites (Giyur).  Genetics – mixed or otherwise – does not determine Jewish identity.

However, even if genetics did play a role in Jewish identity, there can be no denying that the Jewish people are a separate people as genetically connected to the Land of Israel as most African-Americans are to Africa.  In his 2012 book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” Dr. Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, based on comprehensive studies, including from the human genome project, notes that despite (and in part because) of centuries of exile, oppression and persecution, Jews are one of the most genetically distinctive population groups in the world and approximately 75% of all Ashkenazi Jews, like Gal Gadot, and 90% of all Jews worldwide trace their genetics to the Levant.  And while many Jewish groups look different, often sharing characteristics of their surrounding populations, Dr. Ostrer’s research demonstrates that despite outward appearances, Jewish genetics link the Jewish communities of North America and Europe (mainly Ashkenazi Jews) to most Sephardic Jews, and Mizrahi Jews, as well as to the land of Israel.

So Jews, Be Proud of Jewish History! Embrace Jewish Indigeneity! And Don’t Call “Wonder Woman” (or any other Jew) “White”

Bottom line, the idea of a “White Race” was and is a fiction created by the same people who oppressed and persecuted Jews for centuries; and that alone is a good enough reason for Jews to not embrace it.  And if you are a light skinned Jew (Ashkenazi or otherwise), then you are not a “White person” with a “Jewish religion,” you are a Jew – a member of a people who originated in Judea, whether you are “religious” or not. As Wonder Women said to Steve Trevor: “what I do is not up to you.” By the same token, how some European racists decided a few hundred years ago to label people should have no bearing on Jewish identity, an identity that pre-dates any European pseudo-scientists by three millennia.

Am Yisrael Chai!

About the Author
Micha Danzig is a practicing attorney in San Diego and board member of T.E.A.M. (Training & Education About the Middle East). He is also active with Stand With Us and a former soldier in the IDF.
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