Sunday, December 03, 2023

The Baggage of Whiteness

There's a new essay being passed around by Megan Wachspress on "The 'New Antisemitism and the Logic of Whiteness." As one might imagine,* I have thoughts. The essay raises some interesting and useful points; it isn't bad by any means. But I do think its core hypothesis is not just wrong, but actually backwards. 

Wachspress argues that the panic amongst young Jews on campus stems from "the unconscious recognition that American Jews’ contingent whiteness may be threatened if 'the Jewish state' becomes a means by which other white people can disavow their own complicity in European colonialism," and that the Jewish response seeking safety from these emergent campus phenomena represents an effort to "double down" on their White status.

The notion that Israel is "a means by which other white people can disavow complicity" is, I think, an important one. But I don't think the Jewish response is aptly characterized as an effort to cleave to besieged Whiteness. Jews right now aren't worried about losing their White status, and they're certainly not trying to "double down" on it. To the contrary, they're worried that they're going to be left holding the bag for Whiteness.

To some extent, the wrongness of characterizing the Jewish call for safety as a plea to have their Whiteness respected is obvious -- it's hard to imagine a slogan less likely to be effective on contemporary college campuses than that one. But more to the point, what Jews are seeking to emphasize right now isn't "we're just like you" assimilation into dominant modes of discourse; they're emphasizing points of differentiation and separation, and asking for those to be respected and acknowledged -- to understand Israel and Zionism as Jewish categories, not "White" ones. To "double down" on Whiteness would not assist the campaign of campus Jews, it thwarts it.

To be clear, there absolutely are important ways in which American Jews are implicated into Whiteness -- in my essay, I reject both the simplistic notion that Jews are naught but White as well as the view that Jews are inherently and eternally non-White. I'm not here to endorse the slipshod view one sometimes sees asserting that it's wrong or antisemitic to ever identify a Jew with Whiteness. But with respect to the particular dynamics that Wachspress is analyzing, I do think more of the pressure she identifies is emanating from "over-Whiteneing" Jews compared to "under-Whitening" us.

Far from seeking inclusion under the umbrella of Whiteness and finding ourselves unceremoniously tossed out, what's happening on campuses today is that Jews are seeking to distinguish ourselves from Whiteness but are being involuntarily conscripted in. The very mechanism Wachspress talks about -- the utility of "'the Jewish state' [as] a means by which other white people can disavow their own complicity in European colonialism", an opportunity for young people to "work[] through their own discomfort with whiteness" -- only works if "the Jewish state" is categorized as a White one. Far from doubling down on Whiteness, Jews are being locked into it; ironically by other very-much-unconditionally White folk who are seeking to displace their Whiteness onto Jews. Jews aren't at risk of losing our Whiteness right now, because non-Jewish Whites need us to be White more than ever. They need us to be White so they can transcend their own Whiteness.

But even this, I think, is only part of the story. I've never met a progressive White person who holds any affinity for their identity as White. To be clear, they may hold quite a bit of affinity for their White privilege. But to be identified as White holds no positive valence for them -- there's no "White" traditions that they wish to pass down to the next generation, no "White" holidays they fondly reminiscence about celebrating. "Whiteness" holds no meaning for them other than as a repository of privilege. At most, there is a sort of a contingent pride in "acknowledging their Whiteness" as an awareness of their social positionality, the pride in not indulging in denialism surrounding their implication in White supremacist systems. But this is quite obviously a very different sort of "pride" than one might have in being, say, "Irish", or "Norwegian", or "Black", or -- at least in theory -- "Jewish". It's not pride in the substantive identity of Whiteness as something worth cheering and preserving; it's pride in recognizing a sometimes-obscured wrong and being committed to rectifying it.

This logic undergirds those who've argued for "abolishing Whiteness" -- as an identity, Whiteness lacks substantive content aside from its status as an organization point for unjust privilege. So the only thing that those raced-as-White would miss if "Whiteness" went away would be those privileges, and since those privileges have no right to exist, there's no legitimate loss in eliminating Whiteness altogether. Norwegian, Irish, French -- these at least conceptually have some genuine cultural content that isn't solely about domination and hierarchy, so why not revert to those registers and let Whiteness wither? And in a different register, the lack of affinity towards "Whiteness" as an identity is what buttresses many White people's support for radical colorblindness: they don't care any which way about being identified as "White" (the identity); they just want to keep the privileges. So if they can jettison the identity ("I'm just a person") while preserving all the privileges that Whiteness historically offered, that's a cost-free deal.

For Jews, though, things may be different. Notice, first of all, that the conscription of Jewish into White is not operating in the same way as it does for, say "Irish", where the ethnic identity demarcates the proper place to retreat to after the racial identity is abandoned. Irish may be associated with Whiteness, but Irish isn't conflated into whiteness; one might or might not characterize Ireland as a "white supremacist state" because of this or that policy, but I don't think it's common to say that the very concept of an Irish state is "white supremacist" by definition. By contrast, for Jews the "retreat" into the particular Jewish identity is taken to be the problem; paradoxically, it is taken to represent an embrace of Whiteness rather than a means of distinguishing oneself from it. In this way, while there are many ethnic groups which have in various ways been incorporated under Whiteness' umbrella, few if any have been so entirely conflated into Whiteness as has Jewishness, such that essentially any collective Jewish expression (no matter who does it, and in particular no matter the phenotype or social positionality of the expressor) can be immediately recategorized as "White" with no perceived loss of data (this also fits with what I'll talk about below, about Jews being seen as the paradigm or extreme case of Whiteness).

And to the extent that Jewishness gets conflated and forcibly assimilated into Whiteness, then Jews who are asked to slough off their "White" identity are being asked to dispense with something important. Even if we think that the existence of Israel means that Jewishness grants "privilege" (in Israel, perhaps; in America, hardly so -- as Wachspress observes, Israel doesn't seem to actually be making diaspora Jews all that much safer), Jewishness does have substantive content as an identity that, unlike Whiteness, is not reducible merely to privilege. And part -- not all, but part -- of that identity relates to a connection to Israel. Indeed, one can see how the efforts to present Israeli culture as entirely invented and concocted -- purely a product of theft or appropriation -- is an attempt to forcibly locate it into "Whiteness" by depriving of it any genuine substance that might carry value aside from structuring a form of domination. It's no accident how often the more extreme anti-Israel activists return to this well of fictiousness -- "Israel" in quotes, "the Zionist entity", any way of denying that Israel has any authenticity or truth to it, a tangibility that might engender real and thick bonds. It's an effort to slot Israel into the Whiteness framework; other identities may have bitter parts of their history or practice along with the sweet, but Israel, like Whiteness, only has existence as a tool of violently unjust hierarchy. But the lie of this move illuminates the truth of the problem: unlike Whiteness, Israel is a part of many Jews' substantive identity, it is not simply a manifestation of colonial privilege made real. And therefore, it is not cost-free -- not remotely -- to be asked to jettison it.

For non-Jewish Whites, disassociating Israel is the best of all worlds: it removes oneself from an identity they do not care about, in service of abandoning "privileges" that they do not actually possess.  Wachspress understands this: as she says, "for these non-Jewish white students, Israel presents a way to condemn whiteness without implicating oneself, to support anti-racist ideology in a way that doesn’t lead to shame and self-abnegation." Or as I wrote back in 2010, "all the joy of liberal guilt-induced self-flagellation, except the wounds show up on someone else's body."

But for Jews, things land differently. Disassociating from Israel may or may not, depending on the circumstance, abandon privileges some Jews possess; but it almost always does represent cutting oneself off from a live, vibrant, and meaningful aspect of Jewish identity -- again, not the whole identity, and not one shared by all to the same degree, but also not a concocted or invented identity either. So at one level, we can see how for the White non-Jews, it is essential that the Jew = White conflation be retained -- that's how Israel can serve as this ideal, cost-free mode of disassociating from Whiteness. But even to the extent White non-Jews do offer a pathway for diaspora Jews to follow them, it's demanding a very different form of sacrifice. "Join us," they say, "all you need to do is cut yourself off from Israel, just as we cut ourselves off from Whiteness." But these choices are not the same. Non-Jews are asked to remove themselves from an identity they do not care about in order to dislodge privileges they have not earned. Jews are asked to remove themselves from an identity they are absolutely within their rights to care about in order to dislodge privileges that are, to say the least, far more ambivalently held.

At the end of the day, there's almost no chance that Jews will be able to do this. For one, non-Jews actually don't want Jews to do it since, to reiterate, Jews successfully disassociating ourselves from Whiteness threatens the coherency through which being not-like-the-Jews lets other White people work through and past their own Whiteness. The pressure from progressive non-Jewish Whites is not for Jews to cease "doubling down" on Whiteness, it is for Jews to obediently accept their new anointment as the paradigmatic Whites. For two, the forcible conflation of Jews and Whiteness makes the implied demand that we slough off not just our Whiteness but a large part of our Jewishness (almost half the world's Jewish population! A land that is and always has been the centerpiece of Jewish liturgy, theology, and cultural reference!) an impossible one to realize -- to quote Du Bois, we would not leave it if we could, and we could not leave it if we would. And of course, the functional impossibility of the "choice" on offer is in service of the implied desire that the choice not be made; it is better for non-Jewish Whites that Jews remain White, so they can serve as an exemplar of the demon they've successfully wrestled within themselves.

So what we're left with, perhaps, is a world where everybody but the Jews is able to successfully work through and past their Whiteness. Whether this would actually entail diminution of those privileges hitherto associated with "Whites", or if it would be closer to the aforementioned radical colorblindness, is an exercise I'll leave to the reader. The point is, when the music stops and the reshuffling is complete, the only people who the left can agree are still unambiguously White will be the Jews. Just as historical antisemites viewed modern Jewry as a fossilized relic that contrasts to Christianity's superior evolution, Jews-as-White will stand as the paradigm case of that which the more civilized, enlightened (former) White people have left behind.

At the end of this road, Jewishness exists as Whiteness' crystallized, undislodgeable core -- Whiteness at its absolute apex. This, too, is a well-established trope: in my "White Jews" essay, I wrote about those who see Jews as the "iciest of the ice people"; and how this hyper-Whiteness allows "'Jewish [to] simply displace[] white.' Jews ... stand in for those Whites who are irredeemably supremacist in orientation; we end White supremacy at the point where Whites stop acting like Jews." This displacement can awkwardly be described as Jews losing conditional White privilege; but it much more straightforwardly is characterized as White people trying to pin "Whiteness" on the Jews whilst escaping out the back door.

Again, Wachspress is aware of this mentality, speaking of those who see "Jews in Palestine" as "whiteness concentrated." She clearly understands how the way non-Jewish progressive Whites speak of Jews is often takes the form of accentuating rather than problematizing their Whiteness. But again, this entire framing seems to run exactly opposite of her ultimate thesis: here, too, the problem is not that Jews are choosing Whiteness, the problem is that non-Jews are imposing Whiteness on the Jews, are in fact gaining significant benefits from impressing Whiteness upon the Jews, and Jews are not being permitted to escape from it.

My "White Jews" essay doesn't actually talk that much about Israel (by design), but it does have a short portion addressing it. In the conclusion of that section, I write:

I am not suggesting that non-Jews should not critique Israel, whether moderately or sharply. I am suggesting that such critiques are neither critiques of the self nor of an undifferentiated “(Judeo-)Christianity,” “Western-ness,” or “Whiteness,” and ought not be conceptualized that way. When non-Jewish Whites assimilate Jewish entities or practices into Whiteness for purposes of criticizing them, they circumvent the need to put in the hard work of understanding Jewish experience as a distinct entity that they do not simply “know” by virtue of an assumed shared Whiteness. They also substitute out the genuinely necessary work of self-examination in favor of a literal Jewish scapegoat. It is a product of Jewish Whiteness that allows it to occupy this ambivalent role—included so that it can be virtuously excluded.

So too now. There is much in the way of critique -- moderate and sharp -- that might be made about Israel in 2023. But that does not mean it is appropriately used as a vector for young people to "work[] through their own discomfort with whiteness", and predictable problems emerge when it is used as such. It is the conflation of these two roles -- one very legitimate, the other all-too-convenient -- that is responsible for the anxiety that Wachspress identifies and the bad behavior that she acknowledges. But this problem is simply not one of Jews being too attached to Whiteness. It's one of non-Jews refusing to see Jews as anything other than White. And I think it is very fair to say to non-Jewish White people that the terrible circumstances in Israel and Gaza are not, and should not be, your gymnasium for working out your own relationship to Whiteness. Deal with that on your own time.

* I wrote a somewhat influential (if I do say so myself) essay in 2019 titled "White Jews: An Intersectional Approach," that worked through many of the themes I'll be exploring here.

1 comment:

G said...

Just coming back to this to say this is undoubtedly my favourite piece you've ever written. Exceptionally insightful, and it articulates things I would never be able to express.

I can't help but feel that "all the joy of liberal guilt-induced self-flagellation, except the wounds show up on someone else's body" continues to apply to Jewish activists who have never engaged with their Jewishness before - for them, they can easily disconnect from their identity, while simultaenously and self-assuredly condemning those that cannot.