Friday, December 28, 2018

(How) Do White Jews Uphold White Supremacy? (Part II)

In my post this morning, I explained how -- given the understanding of "White supremacy" and "upholding" that Tamika Mallory was using -- it is perfectly coherent to state, as Mallory did, that White Jews may "uphold White supremacy" even while we are (as Mallory also acknowledged) targeted by White supremacy. I argued that -- putting aside Mallory's own checkered history on the subject -- much of the present controversy was terminological in nature and that while such a semantic debate isn't unimportant, it is a far cry from the sort of overheated rhetoric whereby Mallory was accusing Jews of being tantamount to Klansmen.

In America, pale-skinned Jews of proximate European descent receive many (not all) of the day-to-day advantages of Whiteness. Insofar as White supremacy is understood more as a social condition than a social movement -- the state of affairs whereby White persons are systematically advantaged, not the cluster of individuals and organizations consciously and overtly ideologically committed to promoting the explicit ideal that Whites are superior -- it is fair to say (and almost unquestionably true) that White Jews who look like me are net beneficiaries of that system, and may well act in ways that (implicitly or explicitly) reenact or perpetuate that advantageous state of affairs.

This doesn't mean we don't also face antisemitism (any more than White women don't also face misogyny), and it is also wholly compatible with hating and being hated by groups like the Klan. And if you think the above paragraphs are reasonable, but blanch at labeling them "White supremacy", then the debate you're having is -- again -- primarily one of semantics, not substance.

That said, if the purpose of the first post was to work through how it is fair to think of White Jews "as Whites" (and thereby implicated in White supremacy), at the end of that post I suggested that there was a more layered and complicated discussion to be had about the relationship between Jews and Whiteness, one that can help explain why so many Jews react so fiercely against the label "White" and which puts important limits on the utility of "White Jews" as a concept.

This is a conversation that is short-circuited when people act as if White Jews are not White in any capacity -- a position which, as applied to American Jews with my skin tone, seems wholly at odds with reality. But it is also a conversation that can only occur if it is acknowledged that Whiteness is "of a different color" as applied to Jews -- that the characteristics of Whiteness, including what Jews can "do" with Whiteness, are different than how we might understand Whiteness simpliciter.

Start with the question of why many Jews who by all appearances look White seem to so fiercely reject the association. One explanation for this behavior is that it is a rather uninteresting permutation on the practice of many White people to deny the privileges they receive through Whiteness. The retreat to ethnic identity ("I'm not White, I'm Irish") or deracinated individualism ("I'm just a person") are ways to occlude the reality of how Whiteness continues to operate in America. And so, it might be thought, when Jews say "we're not White, we're Jewish", they're simply pulling their own version of that maneuver. Those who are familiar with Whiteness, are familiar with this move, and have long since learned not to take it very seriously.

Now sometimes, something like this account might suffice as the explanation for Jews who resist being labeled White -- particularly in cases where there is the most uncompromising insistence that White Jews are completely unassociated with Whiteness in America, that we gain nothing from America's racial bargain. But often, there's more to it than that. As someone who once rode the "I'm not White, I'm Jewish" train (and who tries to remember the I before I changed my mind), I know there's more at work here.

One problem with Jews-as-White, which has been raised quite a bit in response to Mallory or anyone else who tries to associate Jews with Whiteness in America, is that Jews have often been oppressed precisely because we haven't been viewed as White. White supremacist violence is an obvious case, the Nazi Holocaust is its apex. Given this history, there is something hurtful and insulting to cavalierly declare that Jews are simply "White". Anyone should understand why statements to the effect of "the Holocaust was White-on-White crime" or "we only care about the Holocaust because the victims were White" provoke an apoplectic reaction in the Jewish community. It is a disgusting erasure, and one that is teed up when Jewish Whiteness is assumed as an uncomplicated truth.

It shouldn't surprise, then, that many Jews rebel against being labeled "White" as a means of carving out and preserving space for full recognition of the realities of this persecution. As much as I say an American Jew like me today is functionally White in my day-to-day interactions, that hasn't always been true, it isn't always guaranteed to be true, and it isn't even wholly true right now. To the extent that insisting on Jewish Whiteness denies or diminishes the reality of very real and very live instances of antisemitism, it needs complication.

Another problem with Jews-as-White, less discussed but I think potentially more important, is that Jews are sometimes perceived as excessively White. Particularly in the Nation of Islam brand of antisemitism that Mallory has been associated with, Jews are often cast as embodying or exemplifying Whiteness -- the "iciest of the ice people", in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s summation. Bootstrapping onto antisemitic tropes of Jewish hyperpower and control, Jews become a convenient and accessible stand-in for Whiteness at its worst -- its most domineering, its most overprivileged, and its most bloodthirsty (this is a problem I explore in detail in my "White Jews: An Intersectional Approach" article). Hence, calls to focus on Jewish Whiteness are sometimes heard as (and sometimes function as) calls to cast a very specific spotlight on Jews as the worst offenders of Whiteness (and look how they try to slither out of responsibility for it!), or as the focal point for an assault on Whiteness and White privilege. What is cast as a general critique of "White supremacy" ends up being a specific, concentrated attack on Jews as its supposedly paradigmatic constituency.

Hence, if one reason Jews try to downplay their Whiteness is that the concept of White Jews denies circumstances and scenarios where even pale-skinned Jews are not viewed as White, another reason is that concept of White Jews accentuates tropes and understandings whereby Jews are viewed as the most extreme, blinding iteration of White -- generally via exaggerated notions of Jewish hyperpower and privilege. These can and do very easily slip into their own forms of antisemitism, and so it shouldn't surprise that many Jews view the entire discourse quite warily.

These are some reasons why Jews have, I think, an earned skepticism towards Whiteness discourse directed at them, even as I continue to maintain that the concept of Whiteness is fairly and coherently applied to the life trajectory of Jews like me. But I suggested at the outset that I was making a more ambitious claim: not just that we need to be careful when speaking of Jewish Whiteness (lest we stumble into antisemitic tropes of Jewish hyperpower, or erase historical or contemporaneous cases where Jews really aren't being viewed as White), but that Whiteness is different in kind even for those Jews who are (in the American context) raced-as-White.

To drill down on this point, let's return to Mallory's original statement. One way of parsing her words -- and how I think many people think of the relationship between Jews and Whiteness -- is something like the following:
White Jews in America are White in all respects save the important fact that White supremacists want to murder them.
I don't mean for that to sound flip -- being the target of violent hatred by a domestic terrorist movement is no small thing! Rather, what characterizes this view is that the Whiteness of White Jews is identical to the Whiteness of any other White person in America save for a discrete and well-demarcated carve-out. Hence, whatever discourse is validly spoken of "Whites", generally, also applies to "White Jews", specifically (save, again, for the highly specific case of "being targeted for murder by White supremacists"). With very limited exceptions, there's nothing about how we talk about Whiteness that isn't applicable or needs alteration in the specifically White Jewish case.

But I think this view is wrong. Jews, even as White, are differently situated than other Whites, such that it doesn't always make sense to simply cross-apply a Whiteness frame even onto White Jews.

For example, one way it is often said that White people (particularly White women) "uphold White supremacy" is that the majority (or at least a plurality) voted for Donald Trump. To all the White women marching in their pink hats and calling themselves the "resistance", this fact has created a rather compelling demand that they "tend to [their] own garden." As a class, White women are not particularly progressive and not particularly reliable even in the really easy, straightforward case of "don't vote for a naked bigot and unqualified buffoon like Donald Trump."

Yet it should be very obvious why it's troublesome to extend this logic to Jews. Jews voted overwhelmingly against Trump in 2016 (and again against Republicans in 2018) -- 70% voting for Clinton overall (and, given typical gender breakdowns in voting behavior, Jewish women almost certainly went against Trump by even wider margins). With the exception of African-American voters, Jews are and have remained one of the most consistently progressive voting blocs in American politics -- voting Democratic at rates equal to or better than women, Latinos, and Asian-Americans.

I'm not saying that a Hillary Clinton voter can't be racist, of course. But if voting against Trump is one obligation (perhaps the bare minimum obligation) that any decent person must meet in order to not "uphold White supremacy", then it is fair to say Jews have by and large done our job discharging at least that one duty. That part of our garden looks pretty healthy, all told. So it is fair for White Jews to bristle a little bit when they're lumped in with a broader White demographic which has backed Trump. At least as far as voting behavior, "White Jewish" identity has not, by and large, obstructed White Jews from standing against the avatars of White supremacy.

And speaking of tilling your own garden, one common feature of Whiteness discourse is the assertion that White people have a particular obligation to challenge and dismantle racist practices by other Whites. This obligation inheres in part because Whites, as beneficiaries of these practices, have special duties to disgorge any ill-gotten gains, but also because in White supremacist system Whites often are accorded greater power, influence, and credibility enabling them to more effectively disrupt White supremacist practices. Claims or arguments that are made and ignored when raised by people of color are often able to gain consideration when raised by Whites (for example, if you read the arguments in my last post and thought "finally, someone making sense" -- without recognizing that my analysis wasn't really that different from how many Jews of Color had responded to Mallory (see, e.g.) -- (a) thanks for the compliment, and (b) welcome to the problem!).

So it could be said that White Jews, as Whites, have heightened obligations to publicly challenge and confront White racism, because (for better or worse) we're viewed as "insiders" with greater credibility and pull than non-Whites when making those challenges.

But is that actually true of White Jews? I'm skeptical. And, perhaps oddly, my skepticism has been most clearly crystallized through observing the Twitter experience of Sophie Ellman-Golan.

Among the many social justice campaigns and priorities of the indefatigable Ellman-Golan, one in particular she often promotes is that need to #ConfrontWhiteWomanhood. It is, as one might expect, a campaign centered around the need for White women to take stock of the ways in which their practices reify White supremacy and other oppressive institutions.

And pretty much every time Ellman-Golan tweets under the hashtag #ConfrontWhiteWomahood, she's immediately hit with a torrent of antisemitic abuse of the form "who you calling White, Jew?"

It seems (and not just from Ellman-Golan's case) that White Jews who try to confront other White people about racism "from the inside" ... pretty quickly cease to be viewed as insiders. We are in fact presented as the epitome of outside agitators, rabble-rousers, and elitist corrupters. The White Jew who confronts White racism becomes a lot less White, and a lot more Jewish, very quickly.

To be sure, I'm not saying its impossible to brush aside an "insider" anti-racism critique made by a White Christian American. But it sure is easier to do it if you can unleash a whole flotilla of "Soros-funded coastal elitist cosmopolitan cultural Marxist corrupting the youth committing White genocide and what about Israel!" antisemitic tropes at the drop of a hat. As it a result, Jews seem particularly poorly situated to engage in these sort of confrontations. Not just because we're at heightened risk of explicitly violent retaliation (though there is that), but because our White-insider status doesn't extend that far: Jews who challenge Whites, aren't recognized as White.

Consequently, if White Jews are not or are not successfully "confronting Whiteness", it might not be because we're indifferent to the project or half-assing it. It might be because even White Jews don't have full access to certain features of Whiteness; we are not White in the same way that other Whites are. And while I don't have direct evidence to support this, my strong suspicion is that if and when White identity becomes a more explicitly marked and salient feature of American discourse (whether via progressive efforts to remove it from an unmarked default and "confront" it, or by reactionary programs to reinvigorate avowed White identity politics), the perception of Jewish Whiteness will become considerably more tenuous.

In sum: clearly it is the case that White Jews in America are White in important respects -- including benefiting from many elements of White privilege and at least sometimes acting to maintain and buttress that advantaged status. At the same time, the frame of Whiteness is not one that can be plopped down on the heads of even White Jews uncritically or without alteration. For one, Whiteness discourse often genuinely does erase important facets of Jewish experience where we aren't deemed White. For two, Whiteness discourse, as applied to Jews, can act as an accelerant for antisemitic tropes insofar as Jews are cast not just as White but as hyper-White -- the epitome or apex of Whiteness via privilege, power, and domination.

Finally, White Jews simply do not experience Whiteness in the same way as do other Whites. If race is, in Sara Ahmed's words, "a question of what is within reach, what is available to perceive and to do ‘things’ with", then Jews simply are able to "do" less with Whiteness. We don't have the same capacities to "challenge from the inside", our position as White is too precarious -- and the allure of antisemitic dismissal too powerful -- to allow it.

What's necessary, then, is an analysis of White Jews as a specific case, one that isn't fully known even to those who are well-versed in the contours of "Whiteness" generally. A proper situating of Jews into Whiteness will not deny obvious realities about the racial positioning of Jews who look like me in America. But neither will it easily slide into the default modes of understanding of Whiteness, or assume that Jews like me are "simply" White save for a few piercing but ultimately idiosyncratic exceptions emanating from White supremacists.

The fact is, a lot of people like to talk about Jews without really knowing about Jews. And they're often buttressed by interpretive frames -- Whiteness very much included -- which purport to fill in those epistemic gaps for "free", without needing any specific knowledge about Jews. But knowing Whiteness doesn't mean you know Jews -- even White Jews. And consequently, if the hostile response by many Jews to being labeled "White" rings familiar to many experts on Whiteness, that familiarity is likely a deception. It seduces us into thinking that we already know what needs to be known about White Jews -- that we can draw on the same explanations, that we can identify the same behaviors, and that we can demand the same duties, without putting in any additional specific work.

The virtue of Mallory's statement is that it recognizes both that Jews can back and benefit from White supremacy and also be targeted and hurt by it -- an assertion that, in broad strokes at least, is clearly correct. Zoom in and there is a lot more work that needs to be done: first and foremost, the work of recognizing that there is a lot of work left to be done -- groundwork, foundational work where it accepted that most of us do not yet know what we need to know about the contours of antisemitism and Jewish experience.

If you enjoyed these two posts, you might find interesting my essay "White Jews: An Intersectional Approach", forthcoming in the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review.

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