Why 'Are Jews White' is a Worrying Question

It's irritating that the question of Jews and whiteness is coming up right now. More than irritating, it is worrying. The social status of Jews is one of those canary in a coal mine things -- when it becomes the subject of dispute, it means that there is a massive restructuring occurring, and it is one rooted in race, in nationalism, and in exclusion.

Jews are useful that way, because we are a group who has a long history of gaining and then losing privilege. Social status for Jews is always provisional. It is granted when it is useful for the majority, and taken away when it is more useful for Jews to be stripped of status.

We are subject to constant reminders that whatever privilege we have has been given grudgingly, but we haven't really earned it. The classic antisemitic canards paint Jews as interlopers, and paint Jewish privilege as overreach. Look at the Jewish American Princess caricature: She is presented as being greedy, spoiled, and sexually regressive. These same characteristics can be applied to non-Jews and reframed: ambitious, well-bred, chaste. These are qualities that are socially desirable in a non-Jewish woman, but represent an intolerable intrusion when a Jewish woman attempts them, and so she is mocked and punished for attempting to be like a non-Jew.

The subject is privilege

And, make no mistake, when we discuss Jews and whiteness, we're discussing status and privilege. Jews cannot be said to be white or to not be white, because there are Jews who are white, like me (I am ethnically Irish and English and was adopted by Jews) and Jews who are not white, like, say, Canadian rapper Drake, who is biracial. Drake doesn't represent a small outlier population among North American Jews either -- somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of Jews in the Americas are people of color.

But I suppose we're talking about Ashkenazim, aren't we? There is a general presumption that all American Jews are Ashkenazim, and, though this isn't fair to Jews who are not Ashkenzim, or Jews who have Ashkenazi ancestors but are people of color, let's address it for a second.

Before we do, it must be said that race is mostly bunkum. It's an awesomely complicated story and I don't have the space to do it justice, so suffice it to say that race theory is directly a product of European imperialism and colonialism. It is garbage science, and mostly existed to establish a hierarchy of power that justified European colonial oppression. Who is and isn't white has had a lot to do with who was in power and who wasn't, and so you find a lot of light-skinned groups in history who were nonetheless not considered white. As an example, for a long time Anglo Saxons considered themselves a different race than the Celts.

American has its own history of exclusion, which likewise didn't consider the Irish to be white for a while, but also managed to exclude light-skinned Hispanics, Italians, Slavs, and, for a while and rather insanely, Germans. Ben Franklin certainly didn't consider them white and had a horror of America being overrun by "swarthy" Europeans, saying the following, highlights mine:

[T]he number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.

Immigration is always a sore point, and so supposedly undesirable immigrants historically found themselves on the wrong side of whiteness, regardless of their skin color. But one's status as an immigrant is generally relatively temporary, and, so, within a generation or two, America absorbed its undesirable immigrants and made them white, with a few notable exceptions.

Black people are one of the notable exceptions, of course. America was founded on a racist institution, slavery, and justified the institution by by baking status into skin color. Asians have historically been excluded from whiteness as well, which has its own terrible and complicated history. Native Americans have also been excluded from whiteness, which is hardly surprising, as they were the targets of a campaign of genocide.

A complicated question

The question of Jews and whiteness is a complicated one. It is complicated in part by the fact that whiteness itself is complicated. We might be talking about white privilege, which many light-skinned Jews do have, to a large extent. (Although it is worth noting that some of these privileges are contingent on assimilation, and so if you are visibly Jewish, you may lose some of these privileges. Less assimilated Jews are often assumed to be clannish, selfish, criminal, and may suffer from lack of access to jobs, housing, etc.)

There is a popular meme I frequently see on Twitter and Facebook about how surprised racists would be if they met Jesus, who, in this case, is presumed to be a dark-skinned Middle Easterner, which presumes that Jews with this background are not white, or, at least, are dark enough to create problems for racists. But there was a sort of nasty joke making the rounds in leftist communities a few years ago that described the Holocaust as "white on white crime," which presumes that Jews are, in general, white people. Former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke recently tweeted that Jews unambiguously are not white, and I suspect what he meant by white is Aryan. (Make no mistake -- while the Nazis did not think about race the way Americans generally do, they certainly did not consider Jews to be the same race as them, and neither do American racists.)

So the answer to the question of "Are Jews white?" is that it depends on what Jews you are talking about what what you mean by white.

The answer, in general, will be something like this: Light-skinned American Jews typically, although not universally, have access to a lot of privileges. If you're a light-skinned Jew, you should be aware of this, because it means you benefit from a racist system, and we should do what we can to combat racism.

But the reason this question is worrying is because of the history of antisemtism, in which Jews have not simply been privileged, but instead they have been visibly privileged. They have been made to be the stand-in for privilege, the representation of privilege, and you'll see examples of that in America. There is a presumption of Jewish wealth in this country, and a presumption of Jewish institutional control of the media. There is a presumption that Jews have enormous political influence. There is a history of highlighting Jewish involvement in past oppression, to the point of making Jews responsible, as with the libel that Jews were behind the slave trade.

The genius of antisemtism is that it highlights Jewish privilege in order to funnel legitimate outrage at an illegitimate target: the Jews. Privilege, whether real or perceived, can be extraordinarily dangerous for Jews, because there is a long history of us being targeted for it and punished for it, because it is seen as unearned and oppressive.

This is why it can be nerve-wracking when the question of Jewish whiteness gets bandied around. The question itself is too complicated to be useful, but the fact of it represents a social shift in which the status of Jews is being called into question. Historically, that's a dangerous time for Jews.

Privilege makes Jews a target

I have had a lot of contact with non-Jews who think that antisemtism is, for the most part, beneath concern. They see the status that some Jews enjoy and presume that, for the most part, Jews have been integrated into whiteness well enough that they enjoy one of the major privileges of whiteness, which is not to be targeted. They don't understand that any privilege Jews are seen as having actually makes Jews a target.

If you're not a part of the Jewish community, it is possible for antisemtism to be invisible to you. An especially spectacular example of it might make it into your local paper now and then, and it will shock you, but there will be no reason to assume this is something that happens with any frequency.

In the meanwhile, if you're Jewish, you follow Jewish media, and so you get a lot more stories about antisemitic events, most small enough not to attract mainstream media attention. You're probably aware that Jews are, in fact, the largest target for religious hate crime, representing about 59 percent of this sort of crime, even though Jews are only two percent of the population of America. You probably have experienced some of this crime yourself, or know people who experienced it. And so it doesn't seem small or incidental, but significant and ongoing.

You probably also know about the rise of a xenophobic hard right in Europe, and that this has been accompanied by an explosion of antisemitism. And so the rise of a similar right wing movement in America, especially when they successfully ran a candidate whose campaign was entirely based on xenophobia and racism, is worrying. Especially when this candidate's victory has generated a surge in antisemitic and racist incidents.

So the unfortunate answer to the question "Are Jews white?" is: White enough to be visibly privileged, and to be a target for it.