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Jews and the History of “Whiteness”

Ralph Seliger
August 15, 2017

by Ralph Seliger

This links to a Portside re-post of a Forward piece by Rebecca Pierce, a Jewish African-American who is a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pierce correctly argues that the claim that Gal Gadot, the Israeli star of Wonder Woman, is not white is silly and perhaps even insulting — but I am troubled by her hostile tone. The circumstances of most Jews in today’s America is far better than it was in the 1950s and early ’60s, when Jews still suffered discrimination in housing, higher education, and professional employment, as well as at hotels and resorts -- a situation not to be compared to what African Americans went through, but nevertheless an experience of bigotry that is akin to racism.

Court rulings and legislation against discrimination in housing, employment and accommodations were directly in the Jewish interest. This is one major reason why major American-Jewish organizations at the time, such as the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Labor Committee, supported and even expended staff resources on behalf of the civil rights movement.

Pierce apparently doesn’t appreciate that Jews were victims of a kind of “otherism” for much of history, and explicitly the victims of antisemites who considered Jews another race (so-called “Semites”) since at least the 19th century — a race hatred that culminated in the Holocaust. She acerbically reminds the reader that Jews in the antebellum South often owned slaves; ironically, these were mostly Sephardim, the earliest Jewish immigrant group in America. Yet most American Jews, and most Ashkenazim, arrived here decades after the Civil War and the end of slavery. Moreover, Jews were also to be found on the abolitionist side in the pre-Civil War period.

Historically, American racism has been structured around an evolving concept of “whiteness.” Irish immigrants in the early 19th century were not fully considered “white.” A similar classification plagued Eastern European Jews and Italian immigrants in the late 19th century -- a prejudice more about the newcomers’ cultures and religions than their appearance.

While Pierce attacks the flawed notion that race is fixed and biological, thereby agreeing that race is a social construct, she ideologically embraces the construct, “people of color” -- which apparently makes her more sympathetic to Palestinians than to Ashkenazim. More than an observation of phenotype, however, this is a political judgment. Inhabiting a meeting point of three continents, people in the Middle East -- whether Arabs, Jews or others -- range widely in complexion and other visible features. Most Israeli Jews, whether of immigrant groups from the Middle East or through intermarriage, are of Mizrakhi (Middle Eastern) origin.

The high-rate of intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrakhim (more than one in five marriages among Jews in Israel) contradicts any close parallel with American racism. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best understood as ethno-nationalist rather than “racial.”

BY WAY of contrast to Pierce’s piece, I found this article, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” by another African-American antiracist activist, Eric K. Ward, highly rewarding. Especially with overt antisemites energized by Trump’s rise, as most recently manifested at Charlottesville, we all should realize that the risk to Jews is in our vulnerability as a relatively small minority, continually subject to longstanding antisemitic stereotypes and myths.

Here are some highlights:

. . . What I learned when I got to Oregon, as I began to log untold hours trying to understand White nationalists and their ideas, was that antisemitism was the lynchpin of the White nationalist belief system. That within this ideological matrix, Jews—despite and indeed because of the fact that they often read as White—are a different, unassimilable, enemy race that must be exposed, defeated, and ultimately eliminated. Antisemitism, I discovered, is a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people would not win our freedom without tearing it down.

. . . The resistance I have encountered when I address antisemitism has primarily come since I moved to the Northeast seven years ago, and from the most established progressive antiracist leaders, organizations, coalitions, and foundations around the country. It is here that a well-meaning but counterproductive thicket of discourse has grown up insisting that Jews—of Ashkenazi descent, at least—are uncontestably White, and that to challenge this is to deny the workings of White privilege. In other words, when I’m asked, “Where is the antisemitism?,” what I am often really being asked is, “Why should we be talking about antisemitism?”

. . . Why, when the leadership of some mainstream Jewish communal organizations level false charges of antisemitism in order to silence critique—whether by Jews or non-Jews—of Israeli government policies? Why, after decades of soul-searching by Jewish antiracists has established a seeming consensus that Jews—with Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews posited as an exception—should regard themselves as White allies of people of color, eschewing any identity as a racialized people with their own skins at risk in the fight against White supremacy? . . .

I can answer this question as I have been doing and will continue to do: antisemitism fuels White nationalism, a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power, and fighting antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up. To refuse to deal with any ideology of domination, moreover, is to abet it. Contemporary social justice movements are quite clear that to refuse antiracism is an act of racism; to refuse feminism is an act of sexism. To refuse opposition to antisemitism, likewise, is an act of antisemitism. . . .

Ralph Seliger, our contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently co-administers the blogs for Ameinu and The Third Narrative.