Another month, another public figure makes a quip about the Holocaust, Israel or Jews at large which causes significant backlash – often followed by accusations that no one is allowed to reference the Holocaust and criticize Israel or Jews. Most recently, the celebrity at hand is actress, comedian and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg who essentially referred to the Holocaust as white-on-white crime.
We cannot deny the ignorance of Whoopi’s mindset on this issue, nor why many North American non-Jews view Jews as ancestrally similar to our historical oppressors in Europe. Indeed, Jews have never neatly fit into the North American concept of race. Race, an archaic and crude concept, largely arose from the European and later American tactic of dividing groups based on phenotype. Jews were not designated as their own race under this paradigm (White/Caucasian, Black, Asian, Hispanic and Native American) and are therefore not a race according to this outdated framework that has held fast to present day. As such, according to that notion of race, there can indeed exist Asian, Black, Caucasian, Hispanic and Native American Jews.
However, this does not detract from the fact that the Nazis viewed Jews as a race, nor suggest that Jews are only a religion. Judaism is a religion practiced by a portion of people born into the Jewish community as well as those who embrace the community later in life. What Jews are is an ethnicity (or ethnoreligion, for those who practice the faith). This originally Levantine ancestral heritage represents that ‘otherness’ targeted by the Nazis. In the case of Jews, Hitler prioritized difference in ethnicity over religion, hence the propaganda juxtaposing the physical attributes of some Jews.
Are there Jews today who benefit from white privilege that allows us to attract less negative attention from prejudiced individuals? Absolutely. However, just as with many non-Jewish Arabs, Mizrahim, Sephardim and yes, even Ashkenazim, that advantage does not mean we are ethnically synonymous with our historical oppressors nor with their contemporary counterparts, the neo-Nazis. The realities of privilege and otherness are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Finally, this revisionist history suggesting that not only were Jews not targeted by the Nazis due to race, but that antisemitism cannot be considered racism due to the fact that some Jews phenotypically present as white is highly contentious, given that Hitler considered us ‘parasites’ and a threat to his concept of the Aryan race.
That said, today’s concept of race in North America prioritizes appearance, often leading many Jews and non-Jews alike to assume we can ‘hide’. In Whoopi’s case, she might just view things through that white versus non-white prism. As most Jews murdered in the Shoah were not Black, she simply sees them as ‘white’.
Bottom line – while Whoopi was right to apologize, we cannot expect such folks to understand these concepts, when many American Jews are going around identifying as mainstream white. When, in fact, Jews were absolutely the victims of race-based genocide founded on the Nazi definition of race that prevailed at the time, even if that definition might look different within a contemporary North American context.
Many of us, Jews included, could benefit from learning both the definition and significance of ethnicity, particularly the decreased focus on appearance as compared to race. As most arguments surrounding race have shifted to focus on phenotype, if you ‘look European’ in North America these days, many might feel that you are not at risk for discrimination. There are exceptions, of course, such as those who acknowledge a non-European origin as non-white (which is why even white presenting Arabs often also identify as People of Color without backlash). Yet, because so many Jews claim to have assimilated into white US society, that myth of the ‘hyper white Jew‘ prevails.
Perhaps, we should look to our brethren still living in Europe who retain that collective memory of trauma to remind them of their otherness in order to see beyond the relatively narrow lens of North American identity politics.