Friday, January 04, 2019

Jews and Whiteness in America: The Spectrum of Opinions

"Are Jews White"? If you're Jewish -- or, it seems, even if you're not -- you have an opinion on this question. Those opinions lie on a spectrum, and I'm pretty sure I've seen every single possible iteration of views regarding the "White" status of Jews in America.

* * *

1) "No Jews are White. 'Jews', though, means pale-skinned Ashkenazi Jews who live in or immigrated from Europe -- which has nothing to do with 'White'. Persons who claim to be Jews but have different heritages or skin tones are probably not real Jews to begin with; at best, they can be accepted as Jews if and only if they perfectly accept and mimic the practices, beliefs, and ideologies of 'real' Jews. And if this sort of differentiated treatment appears to systematically benefit those Jews who appear White, that has to be a misnomer, since Jews are not White."

2) "No Jews are White. There are no distinctions of importance within the Jewish community along the axis of race. Antisemitism is the only relevant oppression a Jew can experience; it is racism with Jews as its target, consequently, any claim regarding 'racism' in America necessarily must apply with equal force to antisemitism. It is impossible for a Jew to benefit from Whiteness, because Jews are not White."

3) "No Jews are White, but some Jews, mistaken for White folk, might accidentally and idiosyncratically reap certain undefined and inchoate advantages of Whiteness outside of the Jewish community. However, these advantages disappear if and when they're recognized as Jews, and the dominant antisemitism reasserts itself. Within the Jewish community, there are no racial divisions of note, and only those who seek to stoke divisiveness try to argue otherwise."

4) "No Jews are White, but there are some Jews -- those who would, but-for their Jewishness, be seen as White in contemporary society -- who nonetheless benefit from some elements of what might be called 'White privilege', both inside and outside the Jewish community. These benefits, while real, are at the same time sharply limited by the antisemitism they experience."

5) "Some Jews are people of color. Some are White in a conditional or functional way. The latter possess some, but not all, elements of White privilege, both inside and outside the Jewish community. They might also face antisemitism, and this antisemitism mediates and modulates how they experience Whiteness (and vice versa)."

6) "Some Jews are people of color. Some are White. The latter possess most if not all elements of White privilege, both inside and outside the Jewish community, but might also experience antisemitism as a separate and distinct -- though still significant -- phenomenon from the advantages they receive from their Whiteness."

7) "Some Jews are people of color. Some are White. The latter's Whiteness is generally indistinguishable from other Whites, though in a few idiosyncratic cases White supremacists might nonetheless hate them. Outside those rare scenarios, however, only Jews of color face any racialized form of discrimination. In general, White Jews not only sit at an advantage inside the Jewish community, they are also identically situated to other Whites in their social positioning outside the Jewish community."

8) "All Jews are White (if anything, they're extra-White). Even those who'd otherwise appear to be people of color are, in effect, White insofar as they're Jewish. Antisemitism is a minor problem of an otherwise-advantaged White group. It is impossible for Jews to experience any serious deprivation from antisemitism, because their defining feature is Whiteness."

* * *

I sit right in the middle of that spectrum (I'd probably line up as a "5", so if you want a full accounting of that vantage, I dunno, read the rest of my work), but I think any position that's between 4 and 6 is basically defensible. 

The "4s" are those who want to defend the view that no Jews are White while still acknowledging a material difference between pale-skinned Jews of proximate-European descent and those who are more unambiguously "of color". Unlike the smaller numbers, they don't fundamentally deny the reality that pale-skinned Jews benefit in many ways from the advantages of Whiteness, though they might be uncomfortable with actually adopting the "White" label.

The "6s" are those who think that pale-skinned Jews of proximate-European descent simply are White in the American context, but recognize that antisemitism nonetheless remains a very real and dangerous element of these Jews' lives (just one that is conceptually separate from their Whiteness). Unlike the larger numbers, they acknowledge that antisemitism is real and significant, and in that sense Jews are very importantly differentiated from "other" White folk.

"8s" almost exclusively consist of antisemites who dislike Jewishness and think that tying it to Whiteness justifies this dislike. Position 7 is the moderate version of that view, nodding at the theoretical possibility of antisemitism materially effecting how Jews relate to Whiteness while cabining it to its narrowest possible dimensions.

The "1s" are generally those in the Jewish community who are flatly racist. The "2s" are the color-blind cousins of "1s", and is thus mostly comprised of Jews who are, at best, utterly in denial about racism within the Jewish community or the differentiated social position of pale-skinned Jews of proximate-European descent Jews versus those racialized as Black, Latino, or Asian. Like many professions towards color-blindness, it also works just fine as a disguise for simple racism. It's also, oddly enough, the closest view to that of far-right antisemites (minus the concern about antisemitism). 

"3s" include those who kinda-sorta accept that maybe there's a difference between the social position of a Jew who looks like Natalie Portman and a Black person, but insist that it's fleeting and pales in comparison to the similarities between the two. It's the mirror of Position 7, where the existence of White supremacist hatred at Jews is kinda-sorta acknowledged but viewed as basically sporadic and unimportant.

Spend enough time on the internet, though, and you'll see every variant at least a million times. It's a fun game -- try to catch them all!


Mikhail Turkhan said...

In American context, I'm fine with calling pale-skinned Jews White* or even Whiteoid.

Mikhail Turkhan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mikhail Turkhan said...

I guess the wokest opinion is whiteoid Jews bad, POC Jews good. I wonder whether anyone actually holds it IRL, and how many followers can this opinion gain you on Twitter.

Adar said...

You missed my hot take. :(

"Going back to Marx vs. Bauer, Jewishness was explicitly seen as an undesirable trait that requires removal. The Marxist answer to the Jewish Question (equal rights as the carrot towards assimilation) has overwhelmingly won in American society today, with equal rights being replaced by white privilege, as American society today does not have in practice the concept of equal rights. White Jews are rewarded by the carrot of white privilege the more they assimilate, whether by removing visibly Jewish garments, losing Jewish accents, breaking down tight knit Jewish communities by e.g. following WASPs to the suburbs, or developing a more private, less communal version of Judaism that is more in line with Christian society than the community-based Judaism of previous generations/ Jews in other parts of the world.1
The other side is the stick of antisemitism, which is, on a day-to-day random-violence basis, overburdening those white Jews who are visibly Jewish (and thus show noncompliance with or rejection of the carrot), especially Orthodox and Haredi Jews. 2
Thus, any analysis of white privilege and white Jews that treats whiteness as something that white Jews move in and out of and/or white privilege as something these Jews partially posses (4-6) rather than as an ends to a specific (anti-Jewish) means is correct as a synchronic description of the system, but misses the mark as a predictive diachronic theoretical analysis, while the underlying arguments are exactly about prediction, especially in the current political reality."3

(I acknowledge that telling someone that it doesn't matter that their answer to the question is correct because the question itself is wrong is obnoxious and wish to apologise while, er, still doing exactly that.)

1 This was very visible in the arguments around Planned Parenthood's support for WM, where the main argument for staying is that this is the only real place to do the work and that PP are essential to women everywhere. The dichotomy of "leaving means not supporting other women" comes because the previous generation's carrot included not being a part of specifically Jewish orgs doing the same work, creating a system in which there is no Jewish alternative. Another (different) place where this adjustment to an assimilated Jewish identity is visible is in the centrality of 'tikkun olam' in the identity of progressive American Jews, while being mostly irrelevant for progressive Jews elsewhere in the world - in the previous generations, the emphasis on this specific interpretation of 'tikkun okam' was a socially acceptable (=non-threatening to non-Jews) way to publicly enact Judaism.
2 This is of course a description that is relevant to those Jews whose status is here under argument. I do not know enough about assimilation strategies/ carrots for e.g. African-American Jews within African-American non-Jewish society, and that may become the facts that disprove my hot take theory, as it predicts that African-American Jews will be rewarded with a carrot for assimilating into non-Jewish African-American society or face some form of an antisemitic stick for refusing to do so. However, some data from other communities of Jews does seem to support my theory, e.g. that infamous (non) exchange between Linda Sarsour and JIMENA.
3 There is a lot of value in a synchronic description of the system. Sometimes it's even the best way to go! One of the major disadvantages of a predictive theoretical analysis is that it often overreaches and/or over generalises, and of course, may create a situation in which the theorist falls in love with her theory and ignores (or handwaves away) facts that empirically disprove the theory in question. It's just that the choice between the two should be an informed one. 4

4 I, uh, may have some issues with my chosen academic field.

Unknown said...

Ashkenazi Jews are not of proximate European descent. We were exiled to Europe for over a thousand years from our indigenous homeland. (Note: according to Jewish history scholars, the majority of Jews in the year 1000 lived in the Middle East) We were never accepted into European society, we were ghettoized, vilified and kept apart from mainstream European world through religion, law and societal custom. Even after the enlightenment, we were not accepted unless we either converted to Christianity or at the very least lost our outward "Jewishness." Even that in the end did not help 6 million of us, did it?

Moreover, any DNA in our genetic code that smacks of a European is either from a convert (very unlikely or statistical insignificant, as Jews were such a vilified people) or most likely through rape. That does not make one European anymore than the genetic code of slavemasters that run through the veins of African Americans makes them plantation owners.

David Schraub said...

I'm not sure Mr. Unknown understands what the word "proximate" is doing in that sentence.