In the 35 years I’ve been developing software for a living, I’ve come to terms with two aspects of my profession that absolutely contradict each other: it is often absolutely necessary to classify people and the various aspects of their lives, even though it is impossible to do it perfectly. There is simply no way to create a finite list of the infinite variability that human free will brings to the world. Unfortunately, if we want to do statistical and other types of analysis, we have to create metaphorical boxes to put people in.
The US Census Bureau is tasked with collecting the population data for us; one of the aspects that they collect is race. And the US Census Bureau, in their finite wisdom, created 5 racial classifications:
- Black or African American
- American Indian or Alaska Native
- Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
In 2014, there was talk about adding a sixth category for Middle Eastern Arab and North African but that will be not a classification for the 2020 census. So, we have 5 choices. Now, take a look at my author’s picture and ask yourself, which box would you put me in?
I have green eyes. Back when my hair was brown and I didn’t wear a yomika full time, people would tell me I look “real Irish”. Men driving the horse carriages around Central Park spoke Irish to me, thinking I was Irish. Someone stopped me on the streets of Basking Ridge, NJ to ask me if I were a Cahane (a common Irish American last name). I thought of messing with him, telling him no, I wasn’t a priest but thought better of it.
I’m not white?
In the retirement home in Monsey where he spent his last days, the aides nicknamed my Grandfather the Pope, because John Paul II looked like his brother from another mother. In fact, if you replaced the white yomika with a black one and the cross with Tallis and T’fillin, would you take a second look in Shul?
My Zeyde wasn’t white?
If Jews are not white, then how would you classify this woman?
Some hold that we Ashkenazi Jews have lots of genes with Levantine origins. Is she Asian-American?
Or how about Lyn Julius, chronicler of the Jewish Nakba par excellence, daughter of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants to Britain, who writes “Ultimately, Jews are people of colour.” Were she an American, she would indeed have a fair claim to Asian American status, as her family is actually from Asia, but I would classify her as white.
What those who insist that the vast majority of Jewish-Americans aren’t white aren’t acknowledging is that the racial classification of white, or black, or Asian is not at all about genetics. It’s about how you are perceived. And if you tell me that Scarlett Johansson is not perceived by every American as a white women, I don’t know what to tell you.
It’s how President Obama is a black man even though his mother was as white as they come.
Of course, I do not mean in any way to deny the existence of Jewish-Americans who are not white. That would be extremely foolish, as my wife is Korean, born in Korea and our daughter is mixed race. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of Jewish-Americans are considered to be White Americans as well in the United States of 2019.
One does not get to decide how one is perceived by the greater society. For example, if and when we make Aliyah, I certainly would be classified as “Anglo-Saxon”, which seems risible to me sitting here in NJ. What’s even more bizarre is that my Korean-born wife would probably also be perceived as such as well.
Did Jews always have this level of acceptance in the US? Of course not. Will we always? Who knows. July 4th, 1776 was 17 Tamuz after all. But it is important to view reality with a clear eye. In the US of today:
- 6% of the 116th Congress is Jewish
- 3 out of 9 Supreme Court Justices are Jewish
- When it was our turn to be targeted by a lunatic armed by the 2nd Amendment, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put the Kaddish on its front page, up to the first Amen
- 3 out of the last 4 Presidents married their daughters to Jewish men.
- Most importantly, we can live our lives in the US as out and proud Jews in almost complete security and comfort.
Denying this reality opens us up to Rachel Dolezal levels of mockery and, as Judenhaß does start to sprout green shoots in this country, will alienate people we will need as allies.
It also hurts us as well, in that it distracts from the spiritual connection to the Land.
There are those who argue that acknowledging that Jews described as Ashkenazi are of European-origin somehow enervates our connection to the Land of Israel, that it makes us not-indigenous to the Land. I argue that that’s playing other people’s games by other people’s rules. We have our own definition of indigeneity, one that does not involve genetics as much as people think it does. When my wife stepped out of the Mikveh, she became indigenous to the Land of Israel—according to the Halakha. Which at the end of the day, is all that matters.
And when you define the rules of indigeneity to the Land of Israel by the Halakha instead of the latest fad from academia, then slurs such as “White Jews” are easily dismissed as goysplaining.
And not only does it allow other people to define who is validly Jewish and who is not, it denies our own history as well. For example, many people have heard of Hillel and many of his teachings. But not all that many are as familiar with the men he was listening to when he was covered with snow, Shmaya and Avtalyon. While there are disagreements among the Commentators as to whether they were Converts themselves or descendants of Converts, all agree that both men were direct descendants of Sancheriv, the butcher who exiled the 10 Tribes.
Would you question the indigeneity of Hillel’s Rabbis?
What this silly debate does is weaken our connection to the essence of Torah, of Judaism, of Am Yisrael, which is spiritual in nature, not genetic. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if other people perceive us as white, not white, Asian, whatever. Nor does it matter how much of a genetic connection we have to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If you are Jewish according to Jewish Law, then you are 100% Jewish, you are indigenous to the Land of Israel and no census bureau or definition of indigenous can take that away from you.