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When Did Jews Become White?

Robert Slayton
September 12, 2017

by Robert Slayton

A RECENT Washington Post article began, “Jews and non-Jews are drawn to debates about whether Jews are white. It’s the sort of question that captivates academics and activists, roping in everyone from Israeli ‘Wonder Woman’ actress Gal Gadot to African American literary luminary James Baldwin.”

When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, my Lithuanian-born mother always told me that Jews were different, that we weren’t like other Americans, that we should be wary of goyim. This displays a distance from the national culture that seems like an historical oddity, but it also raises questions about how different were we. What was the racial status of Jews in earlier eras? When did Jews become white? What are we today?

For most of their existence in America, Jews held a middle ground in the standard racial categorizations. Being workers, poor, and city-dwellers, they epitomized a marginalized group, and wound up neither black nor white. As the anthropologist Karen Brodkin put it (How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America, 2010), we were, like many immigrant groups, “members of a less-than-white race” that had been “assigned to the not-fully-white side of the racial spectrum.” Noel Ignatiev (How the Irish Became White, 1995) described this status as “an intermediate race located socially between black and white.”

As Ignatiev notes, color lines for immigrants in an earlier period were far from distinct; the Irish, for example, were referred to in the 19th century as “niggers turned inside out” and blacks were labeled “smoked Irish.” One black workman complained, “My master is a great tyrant….He treats me as badly as if I was a common Irishman.”

IN THE HEYDAY of Ashkenazic Jewish immigration at the start of the last century, Jews were clearly unlike other Americans. This was an era when people believed that what we now refer to as ethnic groups were instead separate races. Yet by 1900, within this country the clear dividing line was black and white, especially after the rise of Jim Crow segregation. So what were Jews? Eric Goldstein, author of The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (2006), explains: “Jews were a racial conundrum, a group that could not clearly be pinned down according to the prevailing racial categories.” Yet they were still distinct, and “in the minds of white Americans, Jews were clearly racial outsiders…demonstrating distinctive social patterns, clustering in urban neighborhoods…and largely marrying within their own group.”

For some, Jews had not fully crossed over the color line. At both Harvard and NYU, students protested the large numbers of Jewish students as endangering the schools’ status as “white men’s colleges.” The protestors did not associate Jews with blacks, but saw the “kikes” as a distinct group all their own, lesser than the prevailing caste.

In many circles, Goldstein reports, Jews were associated with the black population. While today we recognize that impoverished Jews from Eastern Europe were frequently pale-skinned, a standard descriptive used to be the “swarthy Jew.” Jacob Riis, the anti-slum crusader, told audiences that Jews and Italians (another “swarthy” group) were not as clean as black tenants, and a sociologist in Boston spoke of streets “where, while Jews are moving in, negro housewives are gathering up their skirts and seeking more spotless environment.” Charles Woodruff, an army surgeon who authored The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, argued that when it came to the great American definer, skin color, “the Semitic type is the link between the Negro and the Aryan….” If a blond Aryan could be described as having a level-one pigmentation, with African-Americans ranked as ten, Jews were three or four. Tom Watson, the Populist reformer who became one of the country’s fiercest bigots, wrote that “the black man’s lust is not much fiercer than the lust of the licentious Jew for the gentile.” Such sentiments had real implications, facilitating the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915. In Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1912, a recently arrived Jewish immigrant was almost hung because locals thought he was a black man walking with a white woman. Such perceptions actually created a bond between blacks and Jews, derived from common concerns and common enemies.

What Goldstein referred to as “the Jew’s troubling racial indeterminacy” created a dilemma for the country. If fellow citizens “were certain that the Jews were a distinct ‘race’” or were not sure if they were black or white, those citizens also could not come to any clear decision on whether Jews represented a positive or negative force in American life. The negatives were clear, led by the fact that Jews were non-Christians, but there were also widely accepted positives as well. Jews, it was thought, were ambitious and worked hard, exemplifying the Horatio-Alger model that Americans prized. And Jews revered learning. Thus, for many citizens of the country, Jews eventually rose above the standard black-white lineup and bypassed it.

HOW DID Jews perceive themselves, as opposed to the views of the larger American society? In truth, most had no ideas on the subject of racial categorization. White supremacist thinking was unknown to them, coming from Europe where other categories of caste prevailed. In America, Jews largely clustered in their own neighborhoods and worked in a garment industry where, as late as 1917, African-American workers appeared rarely, if ever. The one common area of contact between blacks and Jews was between Jewish storeowners and their customers in black neighborhoods like Harlem.

The question Jews faced was not whether they were white but whether they were American. Communal leader Louis Marshall held the position that “When a man once becomes a citizen” he was no longer a Jew and instead his identity “becomes merged in his Americanism.” Many Jews rejected this assimilationist stance — but the concept of dual or even multiple identities was unknown then. Moreover, the host society did not fully accept Marshall’s proposition or see Jews as part of the mainstream. During the Scottsboro Boys trial, which involved Jewish left-wingers in the defense, an Alabama district attorney defiantly asked, “Is justice…going to be bought and sold…with Jew money from New York?” And when President Theodore Roosevelt appointed the first Jewish cabinet member, Oscar Straus, it was as Secretary of Commerce and Labor — a high honor, but one that still reinforced stereotypes of Jews as exclusively concerned with business, possibly in rapacious ways.

Change began to come in the 1930s, in part because of politics. The Democratic Party had gathered urban ethnics into its coalition, including Jews; 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith, born on New York’s Lower East Side, was surrounded by Jewish advisors. Franklin Roosevelt continued along this path, using Jews as both appointees and advisors, and told native-born audiences that immigrants were “fully American,” arguing during the 1936 campaign that “in some cases the newer citizens have discharged their obligations to us better than we have discharged our obligations to them.”

Jews then proclaimed their American identity by enlisting in large numbers in World War II, serving fully and courageously. As Deborah Dash Moore notes (GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, 2006), Jews understood better than most the fundamental nature of the conflict, and bypassed religious concern, accepting, as some Jewish GIs put it, “eating ham for Uncle Sam” in order to fight. When I visited Omaha Beach earlier in this century, I met a veteran who had landed with the 29th Infantry Division that terrible day. After some conversation, I determined that he was Jewish, which opened up our discussion. With some temerity, I finally asked if he had encountered any antisemitism in the army. He told how, upon reaching his unit, another soldier loudly proclaimed, “I didn’t think there were any Jews in the infantry,” implying they were cowards and sought out soft, safer slots, a clear slur. Words flew, fisticuffs were about to start when others separated the two. Later, in hedgerow country (which he said was “like Normandy every day”), he came across the bigot, dead, sliced to ribbons by mortar fragments; another GI was stealing his watch. Enraged, the Jewish soldier aimed his rifle and said if the looter didn’t stop, he would shoot him. Afterward, my conversant went into a nearby farmhouse and got a sheet to cover the body, then found a cross inside and put it on top of the corpse. Blandly, and without a trace of irony, he remarked, “After that they didn’t bother me.”

IN THE POSTWAR WORLD, Jews finally established themselves as a vital part of the American mosaic. In part, this stemmed from widespread publicity about the Holocaust: As GIs liberated concentration camps, with the press reporting details, the full implications of religious bigotry were rammed home in the most horrific story possible. Judaism now became part of America’s establishment as well, captured in Will Herberg’s bestselling 1955 book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew.

Jews became the epitome of the positive transformations America was enjoying in those years. In the past, they had been associated with degrading industrial work, poverty, and urban slums, all of which branded them as non-white and non-American. Like other immigrants, they labored at jobs that “white men” would never take, and dwelt in grubby, impoverished enclaves.

But in the postwar years, Jews put these stigmas behind them, as they became part of the American story of that era. Combining GI Bill benefits with their emphasis on education (benefits that were denied to black veterans), they flocked to the new managerial and professional slots, as American workers moved from the shop floor to white-collar jobs in glass boxes. With better employment came higher wages, a leaving behind of the Jew huddled in a Lower East Side cellar, as depicted in a famous Jacob Riis photograph. There was no longer a question of whether Jews did “white man’s work”; now they were living “white men’s lives.”

Still, there were limits. Saul Bellow, in The Adventures of Augie March, had his lead character announce, “I am an American, Chicago-born.” As Eli Lederhendler notes (New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970, 2001), the assertion “depended to no small degree on the Chicago element. ‘I am an American, New York-born,’” he wrote, “would have lacked the same power of conviction.” Or of Americanism.

In the largest sense, however, Jews had arrived. Fortune Magazine devoted their entire February 1960 issue to the topic “The Jewish Elan.” But beneath that élan was an unease, a distrust, often buried deep within the soul, based on eons of violence against Jews. My childhood doctor told me that his mother, who had fled Russian pogroms led by Cossacks and Orthodox priests, always spat when she passed a church. My own mother never totally embraced her status as an equal, but always felt prejudice lurked around the corner. Although she came here in 1919, those who stayed, all her other relatives, perished in the Holocaust.

These fears lay deep -- and have reemerged in this summer of 2017, when the President of the United States looked at neo-Nazis and declared that they were “good people.” A woman wrote to the Orlando Sentinel, expressing the thoughts of many:

I grew up in Brooklyn in a nonreligious, ethnically Jewish home. When I read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ my mother talked about the Holocaust. She said to me, ‘Don’t ever forget they could still come for you.’ I have never forgotten those words, but I truly believed she was overstating it. That could never happen in the United States.

I have had three sleepless or nightmare-filled nights since the Charlottesville riots. The video of people marching with Nazi flags and torches and shouting Nazi and racist slogans was horrifying and brought her words back to me.

To hear the president equating the people who protested racism and fascism with those marchers was shocking….The president has empowered, and continues to empower, the growth of hatred and violence, and yet his supporters make excuses for this rhetoric. As I sit here today, I am realizing that my mother’s words may very well come true.”

So we are back to entertaining my mother’s doubts about American society. After all these years, has assimilation worked? Or are Jews still marginalized, with more in common with people of color and the LGBTQ community than with our white gentile neighbors? Or are we in a unique category altogether? We are still asking — and acting, as we have for the past century, to create an America where such categories are moot.

Robert A. Slayton is the Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions at Chapman University. His last piece for us was about Jews and police abuse in the early 20th century.