Dani Ishai Behan

Response to Tseng-Putterman and Pierce

Another interesting reply to my article (or rather, articles) surfaced yesterday. Only this time, it’s from Mark Tseng-Putterman and Rebecca Pierce, both of whom (based on their rebuttal) appear to have strong anti-Zionist leanings. Like many other Jews, I consider anti-Zionism to be a strain of antisemitism, so I rarely engage with its adherents of my own volition. Nonetheless, I did give their article an honest read, hopeful that I might learn something new.

The only thing I learned was that I ought to have more faith in my own pre-deliberative intuition, because their article was…..pretty bad. Far from the educational experience I was hoping for, it was a column replete with revisionism, contradictions, and nonsense – coupled with strong evidence that they hadn’t actually read either of my articles. Tellingly, they provided no link to my first column, nor did they make any mention of its follow up wherein I directly addressed most of their criticisms. That would have been the honest and fair thing to do, but I digress.

Onto their article, they begin with a denunciation of Mueller’s editorial on, alleging that it derails discourse on black representation in Hollywood. That is, quite frankly, nonsense. The raison d’etre of his piece is that Ashkenazi Jews, including Gal Gadot, do qualify as people of color, but are nevertheless forced to beg for the table scraps of communal solidarity (which I will get to in a moment). He wasn’t telling other minorities to “shut up”. In fact, he even went onto state that “the argument behind these comments is of course valid, as much more representation of color in movies and television is necessary”. And by “these comments”, he is referring to the various tweets decrying the dearth of black leads in Hollywood. Derailment, indeed.

Next, they claim that ‘Israeli’ is a nationality and not a race (which is true), while also asserting that Caucasian is a “pseudo-scientific term”, which is only partially true. Although the term ‘Caucasian’ did feature in outdated 19th century race theories, its usage did not stop there. It persisted well into the 20th and 21st centuries, and is now recognized as a shorthand for “white”. I mentioned this in my article….

To wit, although the characteristics that determined whether one is considered “Caucasian” have changed over time, “Caucasian” and “white” are more or less interchangeable and associated exclusively with Europeans, the dominant racial caste in North America. Thus, the Middle Eastern person (and by extension, the Jew) was and is not Caucasian/white.

Moving on, the authors accuse me of “parroting the same racial pseudoscience that Nazi Germany used”. This, again, is patently ridiculous. The only instance in which I made any reference to genetics is when I alluded to modern DNA studies (still ongoing more than 70 years after Hitler died) confirming the genetic relatedness of Jews (including Ashkenazi Jews) to each other and to other Middle Easterners. At no point did I endorse the Nazi view that Jews are an “inferior race” to be annihilated. In fact, I denounced this very thing in my second article

Reductio Ad Hitlerum

An informal fallacy that can best be summed up as “Hitler did X, therefore X is wrong”. Variations on this fallacy generally consist of swapping out “Hitler” and replacing him with “David Duke”, “neo-Nazis”, and “white supremacists”, etc. The gist of their argument is that by agreeing with white nationalist anti-Semites on one thing (i.e. that Jews are not white), I am endorsing – or at best enabling – the rest of their ideology, thereby thrusting Jews back into the crosshairs of the (American/European) far right. Proponents of this view hold that any degree of overlap is impermissible, and therefore I need to rethink my position.

I find this view problematic for several reasons. One, it’s a complete non-starter because white supremacists never accepted us as white to begin with. In fact, that’s the one thing they’ve been remarkably consistent about: Jews are not white, and could never be white. Decades of assimilation and upward mobility did little to ameliorate their anti-Jewish rancor. If anything, our success only exacerbated it.

Two, this fallacy can easily be turned on its head by pointing out how notions of Jewish whiteness overlap with anti-Zionist anti-Semitism, specifically the ongoing erasure of our connection to the Middle East. Likewise, it frees progressives of the obligation to listen to Jews about matters of Jewish oppression and marginalization, thereby allowing them to withhold from us the right to narrate the contours of our own experiences (e.g. “anti-Semitism is nothing more than a political ploy to stifle criticism of Israel”).

Lastly, it insidiously shifts the blame for white nationalist anti-Semitism over to its victims and away from its perpetrators. This is a form of colonized self-shaming that implies we were killed only because we didn’t try hard enough to whitewash ourselves, and that by continuing to assert our distinctiveness, we have no one but ourselves to blame for whatever consequences follow. The problems with that line of reasoning should be self-evident.

Instead of answering that, the authors decided to double down on this tired fallacy.

In the next paragraph, they allude to an “Ashkenazi racial hierarchy” in Israel, citing the maltreatment of Yemenite Jews in 1950’s as evidence. Although these inexcusable incidents did happen, it is the result of the same colonized mindset that is prevalent in virtually all post-colonial societies, not of Ashkenazi “whiteness”. This too is something I addressed in my previous piece.

That is what happens when a people undergo colonization – they internalize the same racist standards that were used to oppress them. This can be seen in virtually all post-colonial societies, from Latin America to South Asia to Africa and the Far East. As a result, these societies tend to possess a lighter skinned segment of the population which tries to convince itself that they are “European”, or at least more “white” than others. This isn’t unique to the Jewish experience, yet few would advance the argument that Arabs, South Asians or Hispanics are white.

A few examples….

“It might come as a surprise to you to learn that Negro was the term people called my black grandfather. I consider myself as someone of a Negro descent, although I am not black. Perhaps my wide nose proves this theory. Therefore, I am sympathetic towards the blacks ideologically, by heritage and by history. We, the whites, will not be liberated until we liberate ourselves from the racist views we have of other races and religions.” ~ Algerian author Kamel Riahi in “White Skin, Black Mask”

Even knowing those facts before we departed, what we found on the ground in West Africa astonished us. Mauritania feels stuck in time in ways both quaint and sinister. It’s a place where camels and goats roam the streets alongside dented French sedans; where silky sand dunes give the land the look of a meringue pie topping; where desert winds play with the cloaks of nomadic herdsmen, making their silhouettes look like dancing flames on the horizon; and where, incredibly, the nuances of a person’s skin color and family history determine whether he or she will be free or enslaved.

That reality permeates every aspect of Mauritanian life — from the dark-skinned boys who serve mint-flavored tea at restaurants to the clothes people wear. A man wearing a powder-blue garment that billows at the arms and has fancy gold embroidery on the chest is almost certainly free and comes from the traditional slave-owning class of White Moors, who are lighter-skinned Arabs. A woman in a loud tie-dye print that covers her hair, but not her arms, is likely a slave. Her arms are exposed, against custom, so she can work. ~ From “Mauritania: Slavery’s Last Stronghold”

India’s obsession with fair skin is well documented: in 1978, Unilever launched Fair & Lovely cream, which has subsequently spawned numerous whitening face cleansers, shower gels and even vaginal washes that claim to lighten the surrounding skin. In 2010, India’s whitening-cream market was worth $432m, according to a report by market researchers ACNielsen, and was growing at 18% per year. Last year, Indians reportedly consumed 233 tonnes of skin-whitening products, spending more money on them than on Coca-Cola.

While she agrees that there is a long history behind the obsession with skin colour, owing to caste and culture, she thinks the current causes should be targeted first. “Indians are very racist. It’s deeply ingrained. But there is so much pressure by peer groups, magazines, billboards and TV adverts that perpetuate this idea that fair is the ideal,” she says.” ~ Monisha Rajesh, “India’s unfair obsession with skin color”

They proceed to redirect their focus to the concept of race, arguing that I am relying on “disproved (sic) claims about race and genetics”. On the contrary, I’ve been quite adamant that whiteness means belonging to the dominant caste in Western society and reaping the full benefits of European colonialism. In the same paragraph (and the following one), I was accused of obscuring how “European” Jews benefited from white supremacy and white settler colonialism. But alas, I did refute those claims in my article (which they would know if they had actually read it). See….

Obviously not true. In fact, Jews were originally categorized as Asian in the United States, and had almost been denaturalized because of it.

“Asiatic Exclusion League. San Francisco: April 1910. Pg. 7. “To amend section twenty-one hundred and sixty-nine of the Revised Statutes of the United States. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that section twenty-one hundred and sixty-nine of the Revised Statutes of the United States be, and the same is hereby, amended by adding thereto the following: And Mongolians, Malays, and other Asiatics, except Armenians, Assyrians, and Jews, shall not be naturalized in the United States”. ~ Asiatic Exclusion League. San Francisco: April 1910. Pg. 7

Jews were faced with quotas at schools that kept many of us out. Brandeis was founded for that reason. We also had to deal with “no blacks, no Jews, no dogs” signs in public areas. And as a result, wealthier Jews would often become landlords so that their own people, and black people, could have apartments to live in.


“White Jews” participated in the slave trade

A few things to consider.

One, the Jewish role in the African slave trade was minimal at best, and greatly exaggerated. Jews amounted to 1.25 percent of Southern slave owners in total (most of whom were Sephardim anyway), and at no point did they play a leading role in selling or purchasing slaves. Second, it is well documented that both Arabs and Native Americans participated in the slave trade.

“The Arab slave trade in the 19th century was economically tied to the European trade of Africans. New opportunities of exploitation were provided by the transatlantic slave trade and this sent Arab slavers into overdrive.

The Portuguese (on the Swahili coast) profited directly and were responsible for a boom in the Arab trade. Meanwhile on the West African coast, the Portuguese found Muslim merchants entrenched along the African coast as far as the Bight of Benin. These European enslavers found they could make considerable amounts of gold transporting enslaved Africans from one trading post to another, along the Atlantic coast.” ~ From, 10 Facts About the Arab Enslavement of Black People Not Taught in Schools, Page 3

“In 1809, nearly 600 enslaved blacks lived in the Cherokee nation. This number increased to almost 1,600 in 1835 and to around 4,000 in 1860. Cherokee populations for these dates are: 12,400 in 1809, 16,400 in 1835, and 21,000 in 1860. The proportion of families that owned slaves never exceeded ten percent, comparable to the percentage among white families across the South. In the 1835 census, only eight percent of Cherokee households contained slaves, and only three Cherokee owned more than 50 slaves. Joseph Vann had the most, owning 110. Of the 207 Cherokee listed as owning slaves, 168, or 83 percent, owned less than ten slaves. Of the slave-owning families, 78 percent claimed some white ancestry. ” ~ Seybert, Tony (4 Aug 2004). “Slavery and Native Americans in British North America and the United States: 1600 to 1865”. Slavery in America. Archived from the original on 4 August 2004.

Do not use participation in the slave trade as an excuse for whitewashing Jews, unless you are willing to do the same to Arabs and Native Americans. Otherwise, it is nothing more than discrimination. And discrimination against Jews has a name: antisemitism.”

But, just like before, they are unable to answer my points. Further, I never denied that light skinned Jews (many of whom are actually Sephardic and Mizrahi) have benefited to a certain degree from their ability to camouflage. But when we couldn’t do that, we were lumped in with “no blacks, no Jews, no dogs” in our quest for that elusive American Dream.

Next, we have the claim that Palestinians are oppressed by Israelis because they “have darker skin”, which is by far the most ridiculous claim in the entire piece. Given the number of fair haired, light eyed Palestinians and dark skinned Ashkenazim, the two groups are virtually indistinguishable using optics alone (which, given their common regional origins, shouldn’t be surprising).

Oh look, Ashkenazi children in Syria......wait, what?
Oh look, Ashkenazi children in Syria……wait, what?

The cherry on this sundae is them citing a single 2015 incident where a man was stabbed by an assailant shouting, “You deserve it, you deserve it. You are bastard Arabs”. But if I were to compile a list of Jews stabbed by Arabs because they were deemed “bastard Jews”, it would go on forever.

Finally, they reiterate their nonsensical point that the only reason “white Jews [would be] refusing to be named as white” is to derail the conversation about the lack of representation of women of color in film. Huh? Do they honestly believe that the only reason Jews are adamant about educating the public on their indigenous Middle Eastern status is to prevent women of color from being better represented in movies? And do they honestly think that I’m calling out the left because they “question Jewish complicity with white supremacy” (a claim I addressed in this article….again)? It couldn’t have anything at all to do with their rejection of Jewish indigenous rights/self-determination or the grotesque double standards that are routinely applied to Jews and no one else, right? No, that’s not antisemitism….not at all.

I think they best sum up their inane argument (after a little more ranting about Palestinian oppression since they are, after all, “Middle Eastern people of color” and Ashkenazim are “impostors from Europe”) with their final lament: “If white Jews are people of color, what does that make us?…There is no room for Jewish people of color within a white Jewish racial frame that casts itself as non-white.”

The above makes no sense whatsoever. Why do “white” Jews need to be whitewashed in order for “non-white Jews” to be visible? Do they think that it’s impossible to address colorism in the Jewish community without robbing fairer skinned Jews (or Ashkenazim, light or dark) of their identity, heritage, and experiences? Because if their entire identity hinges on the erasure of their co-ethnics, then it seems fair to point out that “anti-racism” was probably never their true goal to begin with. Obviously, there is something else at work here.

And as mentioned previously, colorism is a serious problem and Jews need to do better. However, Ashkenazim are still a Middle Eastern people indigenous to Israel, and therefore still POC. Exile does not change that, nor should it detract anything from the visibility of non-Ashkenazi Jews. Therefore, any progressive worth their salt is obligated to listen to their voices as well. Casting them as white is an effort at undermining this obligation, and justifying plain old fashioned anti-Jewish racism which they seem more than happy to countenance.

One final note, the authors referred to me as a “white Ashkenazi Jew”. If they had just one look at my family, the claim that we are “white” would melt away like snow in July. So even by their ridiculous paradigm, I’m a person of color.

Now that’s irony.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.
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