You shall not pass

One of my favorite aspects of being Black (Afro-Amer-Israeli? Hebrenubian?) is that I am often sent pieces that my friends think I might find amusing that I would otherwise have overlooked. I was introduced yesterday to a delightful post by Hila Hershkoviz, entitled Ashkenazi Jews are not white. As a non-White Ashkenazi Jew, I was curious as to what her take would be. Would she delve into the differences of culture versus genetics, or talk about embracing the ger? But sadly, no, she dwelt upon the U.S. definition of ancestry, the cultural divide between Judaism and mainstream European culture, and the history of imperialist oppression.

First, let’s look at her argument about the U.S. definition of Jews as non-White. Census records do not support this argument, as “Jewish” is not even an option for race given on the Census forms, and, for example, was not even counted when given as a respondent answer in the 1980 census, instead being reported as “ancestry not specified”. In the environment that prevailed during the time of the largest waves of Jewish immigration to Israel, while being Jewish was certainly not going to earn you a golden ticket, being a poor, illiterate Christian from Russia or Poland was not met with a significantly higher level of approval. It wasn’t about religion as much as it was about class. Workers from Southern and Eastern Europe were taking the lower wage jobs, leading to higher levels of unemployment for American nationals. We’re still seeing this dynamic today.

In contrast, let’s look at the reception of the African villager or the petitioner from China at Ellis and Angel Islands. What’s that you say? Africans and Chinese didn’t get to immigrate to the United States except under extremely rare circumstances? Exactly. And that is the key to the differences between how Jews were treated and how non-Whites were treated. Jews were excluded as part of the greater animus towards a region. Non-Whites were excluded because of race.

Secondly, Ms. Hershkoviz posits that The “white people world” is represented by  its European (often colonial) history, it’s culture, heroes, it’s Kings, ethos, faith etc. – and Ashkenazi Jews are not part of that world. Their heroes are the Maccabees and not the Vikings or Joan of Arc, their Kings are David King of Israel and Hezekiah King of Judah (both archeologically confirmed historical figures) and not Kings Edward and George.

How lucky she must be, immersed in a world where all of her Jewish friends and neighbors are so culturally aware. When I was growing up in suburban Michigan, we had a life insurance company called Maccabees. Their offices were housed in a marble temple-like structure which stoked my imagination. I knew that it was related to Judaism in some way, and asked my Jewish friends who the Maccabees were, and beyond a Cliff Notes version of the Chanukah story, none of them could give me a detailed history. As a non-Jew, I came away with the feeling that they were an angry bunch of fry cooks, who made a killing on donuts and potato pancakes

Most American Jews are unaffiliated. And most Americans are also pretty dreadful at world history in general. They don’t know about King Edward, King George, and King Judah in equal measure, and with equal allegiance or lack thereof. By the way, I know more about the Kings of England (and Israel) than I do about the Kings of Africa. I’m still Black.

A major problem with Ms. Hershkoviz’s argument is that she speaks as if Ashkenazi Jews are currently maintaining an unbroken heritage going back to Matan Torah, when increasingly, they have no connection to Judaism outside of knowing that a parent or grandparent was a Jew. They are not attending shul, or putting on tefillin. And as the Pew study from 2013 noted, two-thirds of those Jews who consider themselves as only culturally Jewish are opting out of raising their children as Jewish on even that minimal secular level.

As I commented to the friend who brought this blog post to my attention, “if you were standing naked in a doctor’s office (well, maybe the guys should keep on their underpants, naked might give you a clue) a doctor would not be able to tell you were Jewish. He probably could tell whether or not your family lineage was primarily European, and perhaps even a more specific region in Europe.”

“He stands a good chance of figuring out if your family lineage was African, and perhaps even a specific region in Africa. Same for Asia, and the Near East. The discrimination that Jews faced when they arrived in America was cultural. If a German Jewish immigrant’s child moved from New York to Arizona, lost his accent and changed his name, no one would be able to tell he was Jewish. Try that if you’re Black, or Asian, or Native American for that matter.”

So, Jews who glow like pale moonlight in the night sky, embrace your heritage, be you Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Temani, Mizrachi, or whatever combination of descent that is nesting in your family tree. But in terms of whether you can be considered as part of the non-White crew, I’m afraid I will need to play Gandalf, and let you know that “you shall not pass”!

About the Author
Malynnda Littky made aliyah to Israel with her family in 2007 from Oak Park, Michigan. Her recent stay in Paris, enjoying both medical tourism and her new status as the trophy wife of a research economist, has renewed her love for Israel, despite arriving just in time to enjoy several weeks of lockdown.