Dani Ishai Behan

No Such Thing As A “White European” Ashkenazi Jew

Today’s generation of Jews are experiencing an anti-Semitism renaissance. Although Western reckoning with the Holocaust temporarily forced overt Judenhass underground, anti-Semitism was far from finished. It began its slow, steady climb back into mainstream consciousness by the late ’60s, and is now acceptable in polite society once more. Anti-Semitism has undergone yet another mutation.

At the heart of this newly revitalized anti-Semitism is anti-Zionism, a self-professed “anti-imperialist” ideology aimed at dismantling the State of Israel. Dressed in hip social justice frippery, anti-Zionism proved to be an effective conduit for anti-Semitism, simultaneously appealing to old school anti-Semites while seamlessly adapting itself to modern cultural sensibilities, thus resonating with younger generations and bringing many new converts into the fold.

Anti-Zionism’s core belief is that Israel, the very first nation-state built by a historically dispossessed indigenous people, is an illegitimate “colonial” project built on the bleached white bones of “indigenous people of color.” In this narrative, Ashkenazi Jews (i.e., Jews who wound up in Central/Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, and were the vast majority of Israel’s fighters circa 1948) are cast as “white European” interlopers whose only claim to the land is a Bible and a gun. From there, Zionism is framed as the Jewish version of Manifest Destiny, ennobling the broader Arab and Islamic crusade against Israel as a righteous struggle against “imperialism.” It makes for a romantic story, one that manages the nearly impossible feat of appealing to oppressed peoples throughout the world, while also reeling in classic racists with a familiar villain. It is, however, quite false.

What Zionism DID do is uproot centuries-old power structures, restoring a native people back to its land and overthrowing a 1,000+-year-old colonial occupation. It not only gave one of the most abused and widely despised minorities in the world a sizable chunk of its land back, it gave them power. And in the eyes of anti–Semites, Jews are not supposed to have either of these things.

As with other successful liberation movements (e.g., feminism), the resistance against Zionism has been, and continues to be, ferocious. Anti-Semites on both ends of the spectrum — and both ends of the globe — have made it more than clear that they will stop at nothing to see Israel destroyed, and the Jews restored to their rightful place at the bottom of the totem pole. And they decided that only way to do this would be to re-ignite anti-Semitic passions throughout the world (or at least, bring them out of hiding) and recruit them to their cause. But the times have clearly changed, and the old anti-Semitic rhetoric involving the foreign, non-white, conniving, sinister, bloodthirsty Jew was in dire need of a contemporary makeover.

In today’s climate, it is no longer acceptable (or wasn’t, until just a few years ago) to openly advocate white supremacy or advance the “inferiority” of people of color. These views are now (rightly) considered retrograde, chauvinistic, and morally reprehensible. Instead, the locus of what is considered undesirable and abhorrent has shifted to white supremacy, along with all of its trappings.

Jews, having been traditionally despised as primitive, static, Oriental “outsiders,” can no longer be seriously harmed by these arguments. Right-wing anti-Semites would remain on board (as they would have anyway, since their values haven’t really changed much), but the center-left, progressives, and other minorities would have immediately rejected it. If anything, it would have increased their sympathy for Jews (and thus, their sympathy for Israel). A change was obviously needed.

To this end, Jews have been stripped of their indigenous Levantine ethnic identity and reduced to a religious faith, whose adherents are merely: “Slavs, Germans, Italians, Arabs, and Berbers who just so happen to practice Judaism.” Ashkenazim by extension are situated as “white Europeans” who — despite their “very unfortunate” experiences throughout history — are recast as part of the white European ruling caste. And from there, Zionism is delegitimized as a “European colonial movement,” since political Zionism was born in the European exile, and Ashkenazim were arguably the driving force behind Israel’s re-establishment.

In this current epoch, wherein white supremacist power structures are grappled with on more of a mainstream level, Jews (Ashkenazi Jews in particular) are once more cast as the villain, if not “the brains” behind it all. This is in spite of the fact that these very same structures have, and still do, harm Ashkenazim — and Jews more broadly.

Reframing Ashkenazim as “white Jews” in the 21st century carries an array of benefits to the anti-Semite — many of which I have written about previously — that simply weren’t available decades ago.

1. It implies that Ashkenazim are not really ethnic minorities at all, thereby robbing them of the critical protections that such a status would accord. For example, a “white Jew” who complains of anti-Semitism or otherwise gets too uppity can be swiftly shut down with “you’re white, stop centering yourselves.” This is why you’ll often hear ludicrous claims like “the Holocaust is a white on white crime,” thereby diminishing its overall significance in the social justice arena.

2. It has the effect of bleaching out their indigenous Middle Eastern roots. Stripping a people of their entire identity, history, and lived experiences by conflating them with their captors and oppressors is both dangerous and morally unacceptable. That should go without saying, and it stands to reason that few, if any, would consider whitewashing Arabs, Natives, or (hypothetically) Africans in this way. But this is done to “white Jews” on a regular basis. Labeling the vast majority of Israel’s founders “white European” reaffirms the premise of anti-Zionism (that Zionism is essentially a settler-colonial enterprise), thereby leaving Zionism vulnerable to attack. This, I assume, is the entire point of the term “white Jews,” and accounts for why the term is so vigorously defended.

3. As a result of 1, anti-Semites can vent their anger by specifically targeting “white Jews,” whom they are more likely to see as “representative” or “emblematic” of world Jewry (since anti-Semitism was born in developed in Europe, and therefore centered on Ashkenazim). By doing so, they can strike at the Jews without actually striking directly at all Jews. To give an example, whenever one starts screaming about “white Jewish colonialism” or accuses “white Jews” of being “fake Semites,” our usual response is to remind them that Israel is majority Mizrahi and call it a day. But what they fail to understand is that this new variant of anti-Semitism doesn’t need to target all Jews: only those who are perceived as the “most threatening” to anti-Semites (and we all know who those are). Moreover, anti-Semitism that targets Ashkenazim only is STILL anti-Semitism. It’s not a game of hot potato where we can address the problem by handing it off to another group of Jews, and it isn’t something that can (or should) be answered with “oh, that’s okay, because these non-Ashkenazi Jews are legit.”

4. Minority anti-Semites get a free-pass. In other words, minority anti-Semitism can be excused away with “they have no institutional power, which white Jews have in abundance” (more on this below). Anti-Semitism then becomes a form of “punching up.”

In summary, the term “white Jew” renders its target completely and utterly vulnerable. That’s why the debate over Ashkenazi “whiteness” (or lack thereof) has become such a hot-button topic. The conception of Ashkenazim as “white Europeans” (and Jews more broadly as “just a religious faith”) is at the very heart of the anti-Zionist movement, and of America’s contribution to this millennia-old prejudice. It is not an innocuous debate by any means. It is simply the latest battle in a very old war. Anti-Semites of today NEED Ashkenazim to be “white” because anti-Semitism cannot flower otherwise.

It should come as no surprise that, of all of the articles I’ve written, those attacking Ashkenazi “whiteness” have courted the most resistance. That is because if Ashkenazim are not white, then they are genuine ethnic minorities in need of protection — and, it could be said, genuinely indigenous to the Middle East. And from there, it follows that Zionism is not a “white European” Jewish offshoot of Manifest Destiny, but an indigenous rights cause. Anti-Zionists cannot allow this, as it would collapse their entire movement. Without Ashkenazi “whiteness,” the anti-Zionist movement would quickly wither.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not attempting to deny or mitigate the very real marginalization non-Ashkenazim experience in the Jewish community. Ashkenormativity is real, and any serious endeavor toward equality requires us to dismantle it. It is an extremely important conversation to have. Nevertheless, acknowledging the trials faced by non-Ashkenazim does not require us to whitewash Ashkenazim with oppressive terms like “white Jews,” nor should it.

=== Do “White Jews” Have White Privilege? ===

One commonly deployed argument in defense of the term “white Jews” is that those labeled as such can usually — if not always — benefit from all of the same privileges white people do. But can they really?

The online Racial Equity Tools resource defines white privilege as the following…

Refers to the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed on people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.
Structural White Privilege: A system of white domination that creates and maintains belief systems that make current racial advantages and disadvantages seem normal. The system includes powerful incentives for maintaining white privilege and its consequences, and powerful negative consequences for trying to interrupt white privilege or reduce its consequences in meaningful ways. The system includes internal and external manifestations at the individual, interpersonal, cultural and institutional levels.
The accumulated and interrelated advantages and disadvantages of white privilege that are reflected in racial/ethnic inequities in life-expectancy and other health outcomes, income and wealth and other outcomes, in part through different access to opportunities and resources. These differences are maintained in part by denying that these advantages and disadvantages exist at the structural, institutional, cultural, interpersonal and individual levels and by refusing to redress them or eliminate the systems, policies, practices, cultural norms and other behaviors and assumptions that maintain them.

Interpersonal White Privilege: Behavior between people that consciously or unconsciously reflects white superiority or entitlement.

Cultural White Privilege: A set of dominant cultural assumptions about what is good, normal or appropriate that reflects Western European white world views and dismisses or demonizes other world views.

Institutional White Privilege: Policies, practices and behaviors of institutions — such as schools, banks, non-profits or the Supreme Court — that have the effect of maintaining or increasing accumulated advantages for those groups currently defined as white, and maintaining or increasing disadvantages for those racial or ethnic groups not defined as white. The ability of institutions to survive and thrive even when their policies, practices and behaviors maintain, expand or fail to redress accumulated disadvantages and/or inequitable outcomes for people of color.

Jews qua Jews are undeniably disadvantaged on the cultural and interpersonal level (certainly vis a vis white people). One only needs a cursory glance at hate crime statistics to see that. However, the institutional area is a bit trickier, and needs to be looked at within the context of Jewish history.

There is little doubt that Jews, broadly speaking, have ascended to high positions in government, law, and economics. People who see this often mistakenly assume that it is a function of whiteness, as opposed to being merely a continuation of traditional anti-Semitic patterns. They ignore the fact that anti-Semitism operates by positioning Jews as the “buffer zone” between the oppressed (people of color, in this case) and the privileged class (white people) — a position that ultimately leaves us vulnerable to scapegoating. In the Middle Ages, for example, Jews were forced to be tax collectors, thereby putting us in direct opposition to the lower classes, fostering a grassroots anti-Semitism. Jews came to be despised as the face of power. A more recent example would be in Brooklyn, where Jews are considered a symbol of gentrification. We are seeing this same pattern play out right in front of our eyes at this very moment, as both the right and the left have decisively turned against us. The right continues to despise us as dirty, Oriental “mongrels” (as they always have) responsible for importing other undesirables into the country, while the left sees us as “white Europeans” responsible for upholding white supremacy. This inevitably leads to anti-Semitic claims like “Jews are responsible for exploiting black and brown bodies” and “Jews bear a special responsibility for the slave trade” — views that have almost single-handedly caused the Women’s March leadership to circle the drain into ostracism and powerlessness.

In milder terms, what we have is more akin to model minority status combined with occasional white-passing. This often gives people – including ourselves — the illusion of whiteness, but it is really just that: an illusion. Per Eric Ward…

Instead of recognizing this threat, many anti-racists, leftists and progressives insisted Jews primarily recognize themselves as whites with privileges. Yet the truth is that Jews are not “whites” in the United States. If they were, they would not receive death threats, their houses of worship would not be targeted, their burial sites would not be desecrated. Systemic anti-Semitic violence and threats are forms of social control and they exist to ensure that Jews know their place.

It is more accurate to say Jews in this country hold a form of temporal privilege. I liken it to my experiences in philanthropy. In my seven-plus years working as a grant-giver in philanthropy, I automatically became the most humorous person in the room. I was suddenly a 100 times better looking. Nearly everyone returned my phone calls. People would also send me invitations informing me of fundraisers and asking for individual donations of $500 or more. Yes, I had time-based privileges and access but it was only one small part of my identity and a passing one at that. There were lots of assumptions being made about my identities and my background and most of it was based on a temporal position. I’m a kid who spent most of his teenage years living in a motel where rent was paid by the week. I was thin in my twenties because I was malnourished and often near starving at times. I never made a living wage until well into my forties. When I left philanthropy, I wasn’t as good looking, I wasn’t as funny.

With the Jewish community, any semblance of temporal privilege is contingent on the basis that Jews suppress their primary identity as Jews, except in those ways found acceptable by larger society. And when Jews choose to self-actualize their own identities the threat is always delivered that if the Jewish community doesn’t behave itself, access, safety and opportunity will be taken away. Sorry, but this doesn’t happen because Jews are seen as primarily “white” but because they are seen as something other than white. White communities simply don’t receive threats like this, they don’t need to.

Moreover, other notable institutions have a tendency of treating us with disrespect, if not utter contempt.

Academia immediately springs to mind here. Universities are notoriously rife with anti-Semitism — often going out of their way to marginalize and rewrite Jewish history — and very rarely take anti-Semitic incidents seriously. Jews are frequently fired or barred from high chairs, especially if they are not sufficiently critical of their own community or national rights. And as for non-elective courses, the most you’ll hear about Jews will be about the Holocaust — if even that.

Mainstream media behaves in a very similar fashion, especially in its coverage of anti-Semitism and the wider Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Anti-Semitic beliefs are routinely enforced by both right-wing and left-wing media, and by politicians on both sides of the spectrum. And this, of course, is the inevitable result.

So if anti-Semites think Jews are white, why do they keep drawing us with exaggerated Middle Eastern features?

It should be noted that the above fliers were not found in Rednecksville, Mississippi. They were from liberal Newton, Massachusetts.

Hollywood representation is another sticking point that is often brought up, although it could be said that this belongs under “cultural.”

To wit, whenever Jewish actors or Jewish characters show up in Hollywood movies/TV, they’re usually either…

* Arabs (e.g. Oded Fehr, an Ashkenazi Jew, playing Jafar in Disney’s “Once Upon A Time” series) – so much for Jews being seen as white, I guess

* Whitewashed (i.e., white actors playing Jewish characters, e.g., Magneto, Einstein, and virtually every single instance of a Bible/Torah character appearing on screen)

* Nerds

* Terrorists

* Comedic punching bags

* Victims, usually Holocaust survivors (it makes for nice “white savior” porn, at least)

* Bankers

* Some other Jewish stereotype: nasally rabbis, hypochondriacs, gold-diggers, neurotic mothers, etc

There are odd exceptions here and there, but this is our lot in Hollywood for the most part. Despite there being a large number of Jews who work in Hollywood, we are still mostly portrayed (if we’re even portrayed at all) as either weak victims, villains, nerds, or punching bags. The Jews who can simultaneously escape this typecasting and enjoy success are those whose Jewishness is less obvious.

To summarize:

* Jews are the most targeted “religious” group in the United States, even eclipsing Muslims by a 3:1 margin

* Job resumes from Jews, especially those with obviously Jewish surnames and/or phenotypes, are likely to be thrown out on the spot. God help you if you have an Israeli name.

* Anyone who is visibly Jewish — either by phenotype or religious dress — or who is known to be Jewish will almost certainly have strangers come up to them and threaten to “break that hooked nose of yours,” beat them up, ask them invasive questions, throw money at them, molest their scalp for horns, request to feel their hair (folks with Jewfros get this quite often), and, in at least one — admittedly anecdotal — case, being lit on fire.

* Jews cannot succeed anywhere — literally anywhere — without being accused of controlling that particular field or playing dirty pool.

* Jews who advocate for their own people are regularly seen as fifth columns, conspiring against humanity for their own nefarious ends.

* Jews, although well-represented in economics, education, and business, are significantly less so in other areas. Even “Jewish-controlled” Hollywood has trouble giving Jews roles that aren’t A ) nerds, B ) villains, C ) comedic goofballs, or D ) Holocaust survivors. Companies like Disney won’t touch us with a 10-foot pole (although, given their track record, that’s probably a good thing).

Does that sound like white privilege to you?

As a side note, “white” Ashkenazi Jews are frequently profiled at airports, just as Mizrahim often are. Contrary to what some believe, many “white” Ashkenazi Jews look Middle Eastern.

=== On Colorism ===

Racism and colorism exist in all societies, particularly those that have been affected by European colonialism and persecution by European dominated societies.

It exists among Caribbeans (both indigenous African and Indian) who have no issue with voicing their preference for lighter skinned people, and among Indians with respect to the indigenous African laborers that were brought in by the British to replace them. But that unfortunate fact, which we should all work to eradicate, doesn’t make those Indians “white” or European.

It also exists in Arab countries (especially in the Gulf), throughout South America, East Asia, and even sub-Saharan Africa. Countries like India are notorious for their caste system, which favors lighter-skinned individuals over those with dark skin. Are any of these groups derisively referred to as “white” by anti-racists? Hardly.

White-passing is not the same as being white. I can pass, but it’s always been made apparent to me that it’s only on the sufferance of white people. Privilege, by definition, is only for those with the power to grant or deny it. Pale people who are not white might really want to be considered white, but that means nothing.

By the same token, racism among Jews, as abhorrent as it may be, does not make them “white.” It makes them colonized. Having a colonized mentality does not make one European or “white.” Being “white” means being of European origin. It means having an ethnic identity that originated in Europe and is dominated by European concepts and motifs. More importantly, it means being able to reap the full benefits of European colonialism and the power structures wrought by it. The above claims obviously cannot be made of Jews — barring a small handful of very recent converts. Persistent attempts at mapping internal Jewish problems onto an American anti-racist framework are, in essence, akin to pounding a square peg through a round hole.

Here are some of the double standards that are often applied to us. My rebuttals can be found beneath each question.

Q: “If black Jews are black, why aren’t white Jews white?”

A: Same reason “white Arabs” are not considered white, even though black Arabs exist.

Q: “If Jews participated in the slave trade, why shouldn’t they be considered white?”

A: Same reason Arabs, Latinos, and Natives are not considered white. All of these groups participated in the slave trade, often to a far greater extent than Jews did (most of whom were Sephardic, anyway).

Q: “If Jewish actors wore blackface, why shouldn’t they be considered white?”

A: Arab, Latino, and (ironically) even black-American actors participated. Are they considered white? No. So why only Jews? It’s hard to escape the feeling that the answer lies rooted in a certain deep-seated, millennia-old prejudice that, less than a century ago, culminated in the near extermination of our people on the grounds that we are not white.

Of course, it can be safely argued that converts of European extraction (e.g., Ivanka Trump) qualify as white Jews, but that is rarely whom this term’s proponents (and proponents of similar terms like “Jews of color” which, although not always malicious in intent, arrive at the same place by default) have in mind.

In fact, one of the key reasons colorism persists is that many Ashkenazim have bought into the lie that they are white. I believe an essential part of deconstructing Jewish colorism is for Ashkenazim to shed this delusion, and begin fully identifying as Middle Easterners and people of color.

Grievances over colorism are perfectly legitimate, and an important conversation to have. But it does not justify this…

A clear example of what I’m talking about
See above

Articulating the marginalization experienced by non-Ashkenazim is one thing. Calling upon Ashkenazim to erase themselves is another. The latter can only be described as an act of anti-Semitism.

=== In Summary ===

What too many people fail to understand, or refuse to understand, is that we are not a religious faith. We have a religious faith (or, more specifically, a national/tribal faith), but we are not ipso facto a religious faith. We are first and foremost a nation and tribe. And like most nations/tribes, the overwhelming majority of our members belong to a single, cohesive ethnic group, indigenous to a specific place. And in our case, that place is Israel. Centuries of exile and separation does not change that. We are not religious subsets of the dominant ethnic group of whatever country/countries we recently resided in, and never were.

Failing to acknowledge and accept this reality is not only oppressive in its own right — seeing as it completely whitewashes the history and lived experiences of a broad swath of Jews — it is also inherently suicidal. For if Ashkenazim are not indigenous to Israel, and are really “just Poles, Germans, Romanians, Russians, and Hungarians who practice the Jewish faith,” then it can also be claimed that Mizrahim are not indigenous to Israel either, as they are really “just Arabs, Iranians, Turks, and Kurds who converted to Judaism at some point.” Sephardim, in turn, would be “Spaniards, Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen, and Amazigh who embraced Judaism,” and so on and so forth. And at the end of this slippery slope we find a Jewish identity that is robbed of all meaning — a mere hodgepodge of foreigners engaging in some weird Orientalist karaoke. Under this assumption, it would naturally follow that Zionism is “an imperialist ideology,” a claim that we’ve spent many years fighting (and rightly so).

As has been said many times before: “Judaism is the portable suitcase of a people expelled from their indigenous homeland.” And that indigenous homeland is not in Europe. It is in Israel.

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