August 2017, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville shouting, “Jews will not replace us”. October 2018, one white supremacist posted on social media that “Jews are taking over the white house”, and that Trump is a puppet of the Jews. Shabbat, the same month, a man enters a synagogue during a Bris celebration and butchers Jewish people who are praying. December 2018, Women’s March leader and Louis Farrakhan (“I’m not an antisemite, I’m an anti-termite”) fan, Tamika Mallory says: “White Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy…”
At the same time, the conversation about racism within the Jewish community began heating up. Today, numerous articles and op-eds are being published about this issue. “White Jews” are being accused of upholding white supremacy. That’s what the Jewish community concludes when we read articles accusing us of actively promoting white supremacy. Note that this comes at a very specific point in time, when the Jewish community is coming under attack by both radical ends of the political spectrum. I spoke to several activists to understand the emerging discourse on the difference between “upholding white supremacy” (of which Jews are being accused), and “being a white supremacist”.
Following this discussion, I understood that both terms are sometimes being used with the aim of shutting down any discourse on the immense rise in antisemitism and hate crimes that Jews around the world are experiencing.
Let me explain.
One of my dearest American black and Jewish friend, from New York, told me about the racism that she faced in the Orthodox Jewish community. I was well aware of this form of racism, and cases like that of Nissim Black, that made headlines. There is a serious problem within some parts of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that choose to discriminate against their fellow Jews based on race. This is indeed, Chilul Hashem (act that violates the prohibition in the Torah).
Jews of Color have discussed this issue over and over again and it seems like the Jewish community at large is not doing enough to change it. We must address this issue of racism that has no base in the Torah, the Talmud or any legitimate Jewish sources. We must show zero tolerance policy to racism, including to Yemenite, Iraqi and Ethiopian Jews that came from a long line of Jewish heritage. Interestingly enough, in Israel, it is not something I think about. The shul I attended during my youth in Petach-Tikwa had Ethiopian, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi Jews practicing and praying together. This natural sense of belonging, of unity, can only be achieved when a community actively ensures that all Jews are welcomed and treated with utmost respect. “Vehavta Leraacha Camocha” (To love your fellow as yourself).
I am sure that the majority of Jews reading this will agree with me. Both Diaspora and Israeli Jews must deal with the challenges of racism that our society faces, much like any other society, and for the most part, I believe that the imperative to strive for racial equality is the consensus among Jews. Admitting that there is a problem in our community does not mean justifying and agreeing with antisemites and anti-Zionists.
Having said all of this, something has changed in the discourse recently. Some activists have started publicly discussing the idea that Jews uphold white supremacy. This campaign is misleading.
Nevertheless, as a result, we now hear more and more of the term “white Jews” and that “Jews uphold white supremacy”. Several activists tried to convince me that saying that one “upholds white supremacy” does not mean that one is a “white supremacist”. Saying that Jews “enjoy white privilege” does not mean that all Jews are white and privileged. I can understand in theory that Jews with pale skin might face less institutionalized discrimination and pass as “white”. But the average reader and the general public, just like myself, hears “upholding white supremacy” and understands “white supremacist”. It is naive to expect that people outside of these activist spaces understand the distinction between these two terms.
Conversations that center on white supremacy also put Jews on the defensive. As a group that is marginalized and under attack, the baggage this term carries immediately shuts down conversation. Added to this is the fact that contemporary antisemites on the radical left often use the terms relating to “whiteness” to label Jews as a means of dismissing or justifying antisemitism.
Judaism is not a race, but the attacks on the Jewish people, in living memory, were centered around a racial definition of what is the ‘race’ of the Jews and the perception of Jews as being a non-white people. To uphold the idea that Jews are viewed as part of the white race erases thousands of years of persecution and violence against the Jewish people because they weren’t white ayrans.
In some ways, some of these far-left activists are playing into the hands of far-right hate groups, enabling them to continue spreading hatred against Jews, as they define Jews who are not of color as Jews who support White Supremacist ideology.
I am a Queer Jew of Color. I am convinced that if I was straight and fair skinned with no ethnic features, my life would have been much easier. That being said, I will never challenge my fellow Jews to label themselves as part of the “white race”. The Jewish people, while they are a racially diverse group, have been persecuted by radicals of every kind since the beginning of time, on the basis of religion and ethnicity, and for not belonging to the white race.
It should be obvious why Jews have a complicated relationship with the terms “white supremacy” and “white privilege” as historically we never truly enjoyed these privileges, no matter where we were. In Europe, a third of the Jewish people was erased in a targeted genocide because they were not white. In the US, Jews faced numerous attacks on their congregations, had their holy places desecrated, and experienced other forms of violence and discrimination. In Pittsburgh, Jews were killed by a white supremacist. The Women’s March has been in conflict after conflict with a Jewish community who feels excluded and marginalized by many things, among them their assertion that Jews ‘uphold white supremacy’. Nevertheless, antisemitism, according to Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour, “is not systemic” like other forms of oppression. Yet, hate crimes against Jews in NY for example are greater than against any other minority group. And antisemitism in Europe is also alive and kicking.
Berkeley law professor David Schraub, recently stated on Twitter that Jewish “whiteness” is a “shifting historical phenomenon”, which I assume meaning Jews are not “white” when they are killed by white supremacists? Schraub also noted that “neither “White Jews” or “White privilege” is per se a problematic label” for Jews. This suggests that the Jewish relationship to whiteness isn’t consistent and changes, that sometimes Jews are more white, sometimes less white. This is wrong. If Jews are “white” when we have to share the blame for white supremacists then what are we when white supremacists are slaughtering us?
Dr. Petra Marquardt-Bigman replied to Schraub, that “this is a jargon used for a specifically American 21st century debate and whether or not it makes sense in the context of this specific American debate, this is the Internet, and lots of people encountering the term ‘white Jew’ won’t know in what specific context the term is used.” The fact is that the term “White Jew” makes no sense and it is downright offensive, given the very long history of Jews being persecuted by White Supremacists and by people who are nowadays regarded as People Of Color like Arabs (that have colonized the Middle East in an attempt to form an Arab Empire while oppressing minorities of color). But in this context, in the debate on the left, they are treated as the oppressed by the “White Race”.
The term “white Jew” is used to accuse Jews of being somehow complicit in upholding white supremacy. But something very similar to “white Jew” is of course also used by all those who deny the historic connection of Jews to the Land of Israel; and it’s used to vilify the re-established Jewish state as an illegitimate ‘colonial’ entity that must be eliminated. This is inherently antisemitic, denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination in their historic homeland.
In a recent Pew study, a majority of American Jews, choose to identify as white, but this is very misleading, since the only categories in the cited Pew study available were White, Non-Hispanic, Black non-Hispanic, Hispanic, and Other/mixed. A minority with a long history of persecution for not being White, will not like to self-identify as “Other”. We have learned that we will be attacked for being “Other”, wherever in the world we find ourselves.
To sum it up when it is beneficial to be white, Jews are not white. When it’s bad to be white, Jews are white. When it’s good to be European, Jews should “go back to Palestine” like the posters in Nazi Germany urged the Jews to do. When Europeans are colonialists, Jews are White European colonialists.
As a queer Person of Color, the American left embraced me and my struggle, celebrated me in order to attack the right, but with discrimination, I was never looked upon as equal. Whilst the right swears that this discrimination does not exist in the Jewish community. I understand why some Jews of Color find cries of discrimination so tempting. They come with a platform and someone that listens. But do not be fooled, my fellow Jews of Color, as they will never fully accept us and will continue to use us as a tool to attack the right. The right must also accept the fact of discrimination against Jews of Color and work to dismantle it. Just so we will not end up with Jews who are using antisemitic language to get you to listen to them.
Eric K. Ward, an important voice in the conversation about civil rights and social justice, said “Instead of recognizing this threat, many anti-racists, leftists and progressives insisted Jews primarily recognize themselves as whites with privileges. Yet the truth is that Jews are not “whites” in the United States. If they were, they would not receive death threats, their houses of worship would not be targeted, their burial sites would not be desecrated. Systemic antisemitic violence and threats are forms of social control and they exist to ensure that Jews know their place.”
“Identity politics are not about dehumanizing others, they exist to move humanity forward…”
Reprinted with author’s permission from Medium