We European Jews never passed as white

In the last two decades, American Ashkenazi Jews have returned to the question of their Otherness, or, put more crudely, to the question of whether Ashkenazi Jews are White, “white-passing”, or something else entirely. A quick Google search entry of “are Jews white” yields roughly 89 million results, including news articles, op-eds, and even academic tomes. The fact that Karen Brodkin named her 243-page 1998 study on the topic “How Jews Became White Folks and what that Says about Race in America” speaks volumes. Apparently, there was a large enough body of Jews at the time who never suffered anti-Semitism in person for Brodkin to make this title a viable one. A large enough number of American Jews who had never, for example, been denied housing or religious rights, equal opportunity employment (i.e. suffered job discrimination), or experienced insults, social exclusion, threats, and physical violence because of their Jewishness. Sadly, those times have changed since.

It is undoubtedly important to be respectful of the experience of other Jewish groups, i.e. Jews of Color, in an ever-changing community landscape. However, I don’t think that we can maintain the position that Ashkenazi Jews fully benefit from white privilege today. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews “remain at near-historic levels in the U.S.” since its most recent Audit of Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States. This audit recorded 1,879 acts in 2018, with a dramatic increase in physical assaults, including the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. Ashkenazi Jews, too, are forced to reevaluate their status in an environment of intense identity politics and a major resurgence in anti-Semitism.

I feel compelled to shed light on a voice that is rarely heard in this very discussion on Jews, whiteness, and privilege: that is, the voice of European Jews like myself. In contrast to American Jews, I believe that the Jewish experience of European Jews has never been neutral on both the collective and the individual level. This is partly because of the local pervasiveness of the Holocaust, i.e. important memory touchstones, but that is not the entire reason. Our experience of Otherness versus whiteness has never been far removed from our conscience because our environment never allowed us to catch any sort of prolonged break from it. In contrast to most contemporary American Jews, European Jews of all ages are aware that they are inevitably Others within society. Successful and accomplished Others, Others with equal rights, but Others nonetheless. 

Consider the following example: I’m in my ninth grade art class. We are working with wood, which happens to be my least favorite material to work with: rough, dusty, unbendable. I am chatting in class to distract myself. I don’t remember the beginning of the conversation between my classmates and me. One of the classmates in the room is a friend of mine. The other one, a girl who is nice enough but not a friend, asks me whether both of my parents are Jewish. My friend answers the girl’s question before I get the chance to answer myself. “Of course they are!” my friend quips. “Just look at her face! Can’t you tell?” 

I was too mortified to speak at the time. Apparently, something about my face betrays me as fundamentally different from my peers, but I couldn’t (can’t?) see what it is. I can’t have one Jewish parent, or perhaps grandparent. No, I must have two Jewish parents, my friend reasoned, because that could be the only logical explanation for me looking this different from everyone else. Although I have never hidden my Jewishness at school, I feel strangely exposed and embarrassed. If I don’t choose to bring up my Jewishness, I always reasoned, then others won’t have a reason to bring it up either, or, at least, not in a what I thought was a religiously and politically neutral context, like this art class. Why would my Jewishness matter in an ordinary day-to-day setting? My friend just violated the unspoken belief that it doesn’t. My friend seems to know better: to her, my Jewishness is continually inescapable. It is as much carved into me as the curves I am carving into my block of wood. Although I have since grown and embraced this fact, the realization that I rarely just blend in with the crowd in even the most “neutral” settings cuts deeply at fifteen—an age where you usually don’t want to be branded as different because of your appearance, let alone your background. This was not the first time that my environment Othered me as a Jew, but it was an especially formative one. The incident communicated to me that I do not have the winning vote in deciding my identity. My agency to decide who and what I am (Dutch, Jewish) has generally been secondary to the majority’s power to decide these things for me. It doesn’t matter that my Dutch roots can be traced to the 18th century—probably further back than my friend’s.

I wish that this art class incident was the last time something like this happened to me, but it wasn’t. I have been marked different and my opinions as less valid because of my Jewishness without a shred of guilt or embarrassment from fellow Dutch folks more than seventy years after the Holocaust, which destroyed 75 percent of the Dutch Jewish community. More than three quarters of a century have passed since my family was forced to wear the yellow star and send my grandmother’s blonde and blue-eyed little brother, supposedly the least Jewish-looking family member, to buy groceries outside of the stores’ legally enforced shopping hours for Jews (between three and five PM). Talking to a European Jew about having a “Jewish face” in the very place where having a face with ostensibly Jewish features used to directly impact their family’s chances of survival triggers inherited trauma and painful memories. Still, in spite of what is arguably the most evil page of Dutch history, it still not unheard-of for Dutch non-Jews to comment on how Jewish someone looks or how Jews are a different, if not a culturally substandard type of citizen. My Jewishness alters and compromises my status as belonging to the Dutch nation in the eyes of the Real Dutchfolk, the “echte Nederlanders”, as the same friend from ninth grade called them. Real Dutchfolk are, as a matter of course, white and, at least culturally, Christian. It is this group that has the largest say in deciding how Dutch someone really is regardless of their birthplace or history. The Dutch Jewish community is tiny and, therefore, far from the only minority group that suffers as a consequence of this racist and discriminatory presumption. However, in light of the murder of 75 percent of Dutch Jews during the Holocaust, including a large number of my own relatives, the level of cultural insensitivity to Dutch Jews today is especially hurtful.

The struggle of American Jewish college students being silenced in Israeli-Palestinian campus discussions no matter how conservative or progressive they lean on the issue has sparked a lot of online and offline debate in recent years. Meanwhile, I can’t remember a time where I could freely speak my mind about Israel because this time simply never existed for me. When I interned as an English teacher at an incredibly white, mostly middle-class secondary school during college, my students brought up and spoke mockingly about my Jewishness out of nowhere. When a student’s chair turned out to be covered in swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs, the teacher who taught in that very classroom most of the time was unable to tell me how long that chair had stood in the room like that—days, weeks, possibly months. She just hadn’t cared enough to remove the stuff. When I later told her that I was Jewish, the lightbulb inside of her head lit up: “Now I understand why you cared so much about that chair!” Clearly, she hadn’t found it problematic enough on its own. Tellingly, the teacher who first complained about the chair and cleaned it herself was a British woman—not a European, not an “echte Nederlander”.

I do not want to diminish the influence that supportive and inclusive non-Jewish people have had in my life. At the same time, however, anti-Semitism remains an afterthought for a huge number of Europeans. I am not talking about active anti-Semites here, i.e. people who consciously dislike or hate Jews for whatever illogical reason; I am talking about the silent majority amongst which I have lived nearly all my life. European Jews are continuously at the mercy of others who often don’t care about us. Non-Jews are the ones to decide our religious freedoms for us, i.e. shechita and the right to circumcise our sons. These are people who, by and large, simply do not care enough about the safety and inclusivity of Jewish neighbors, employees, students, and even friends. The two Jewish schools in Amsterdam, both of which are located in a highly populated neighborhood, are under visibly heavy military surveillance at all school hours. Still, I have never heard of a single inhabitant of that neighborhood cry out on the perilous position of Jewish children, at least not publicly. Elie Wiesel’s quote that neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim, rings as true as ever here. 

Unlike many American Jews, we European Jews have never had the chance to be fully white-passing. We have never been able to collectively think of ourselves as white because so many people were (and are) eager to point out we weren’t, we aren’t, and we probably never will be. My synagogue gets checked for explosives before every large Shabbat and holiday service. Sadly, this is also where the American community is headed post-Poway, post-Pittsburgh. American Jews currently face an increasing number of people who do not consider Jews equally deserving of respect as fellow citizens. As sad as this state is, my hope is that American Jews will listen and collaborate more closely with European Jews on the issue of anti-Semitism. To all American members of the Tribe: we know how you’re feeling right now. We have never had the opportunity to shed our status as the Other, the in-between. We know what it’s like to be scared. Come and sit with us; let’s see how we can fight together.

About the Author
Rivka Hellendall is a graduate student of English Literature and Jewish Studies at the University of Amsterdam and a freelance journalist for the Dutch Jewish Weekly news magazine. She enjoys great cappuccinos, reading, traveling to Israel, and creating community. Her Dutch Ashkenazi heritage allows her to relish the custom of having a dairy dessert only one hour after a meat meal.
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