Many years ago, I moved from my native Israel to New York, and because I had no cash and no clue, I spent my days helping out at a friend’s hardware store. Not really being the handy type, I cared less about the power tools on display and the customers who craved them and more about a certain young woman working the cash register. This provoked the ire of a fellow worker, who felt slighted that this foreigner should prance into his turf and so brazenly attempt to mate with the females. And so, one day, in the break room, the gentleman decided to mark his territory.
To understand fully what happened next, you should know that he was black. With a spring in his step, my rival got very close and stared at me menacingly. I looked at him dumbfounded, for a few long moments, at a loss as to what was supposed to happen next. I’d been in fights before, and I knew that when someone was jonesing to start one, he usually pushed or shoved or threw a punch or did something to let the other fellow know the game was afoot. My rival, however, was just standing there, glaring at me as I did at him. Confused, I said the first thing that came to my mind. It was this: “Is that supposed to scare me?”
My voice must’ve conveyed that I was genuinely curious, since I asked it without a touch of bravado or mockery. And something softened in my colleague’s face. “Well,” he said, looking a bit sheepish, “yeah.”
“Does it usually work?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Is it because you’re black and you think I’m white and I’m afraid of you?”
My colleague was smiling now. “You know it.”
“Weird,” I said, smiling widely, too. Then we both went out for pizza, and my new friend told me about growing up and watching white American kids, including some who were much bigger and stronger than he, cower whenever he approached, convinced that he possessed both the intention and the ability to hurt them somehow and for whatever reason.
This was my introduction to the bad Kabuki theater of contemporary American race relations, in which real issues remain obscured stage right and left while heavily painted grotesqueries jump around and shout, eager for attention.
Which is not to say that systemic racism isn’t real, or that you don’t stand a much better chance of being senselessly harassed by the police if you’re black, or that centuries of discrimination haven’t take their toll, or that representation in the media doesn’t matter, or that health-care disparities aren’t frequently predicated on race and gender—or that any of the other arguments hurled at you as soon as the conversation turns to race aren’t valid. But if you’d like to understand everything that’s so inherently nuts about the contemporary American conversation about race, it only takes this one three-word sentence: Jews are white.
You heard endless variations on this sentiment during Israel’s recent skirmish with Hamas, as a parade of lawmakers, intellectuals, and entertainers took to social media to denounce the world’s sole Jewish state of perpetrating apartheid or of murdering black and brown bodies. You hear it from radical Jewish advocates, who trill that Jews are “white passing” and therefore “functionally white,” which means they should take their place among the world’s most privileged, no matter what might’ve happened to their families between, say, 1939 and 1945. You hear it in colleges, where you can pay the equivalent of the median American salary just to attend courses with titles like “Jews and Racial Privilege.” You hear it wherever our bien pensants congregate to show one another their virtues and pledge allegiance to their new radical religion.
How to make sense of this?
IF YOU WERE a completist or a pedant, you could simply insist that viewing the world and its inhabitants through the lens of race is a creepy 19th-century affectation that excited mainly the most feeble-minded of Germans and led to a good bit of savagery. You could marshal Martin Luther King Jr. to your defense and say that you take the line about content of character over color of skin seriously. That kind of talk is earnest, but it won’t get you very far with those for whom race alone—and not, say, poverty, or lack of community, or a debilitating exposure to mind-rotting digital platforms—shapes every thread of the human experience.
Next, you can try and argue that the category itself—“white”—is ridiculous. Go tell Giuseppe, for example, that his granddaughter is now considered a member of the rarified white elite, even though he and his fellow immigrants were pelted with racial insults, discriminated against, and murdered. We got Columbus Day, for example, after 11 Italian Americans were lynched in 1892, leading President Harrison to instate a daylong celebration he thought would never become a tradition. Or inform Paddy that while, back in his day, the Irish were talked about, to quote one sickening periodic refrain, as “negroes turned inside out,” his grandson may now rest assured on the top of the racial-grievance food chain.
And yet, even these objections, solemn as they may be, don’t begin to capture the weight of the argument that Jews are somehow white. Take a moment to acquaint yourself, even in passing, with our stiff-necked people, and it’s the following observation that is likely to register very near the top: We stand out precisely because we don’t fit in. Is Judaism a religion? Sure. Are Jews a nation? Yes. Do we share genetic traits? Offer us dairy and find out. Do we come in all shapes, sizes, and skin colors? Amen selah. This is why I, a ninth-generation Israeli whose ancestors arrived in Jerusalem from the backwaters of the Austrian Empire, can amble into the Slat al-Azama synagogue in Marrakesh, or the Beth Yaakov Synagogue in Geneva, or the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, look around and see faces that vary wildly, and yet rest assured that when services start we will all recite, in more or less the exact same fashion, the ancient words that Jews have spoken in daily prayer for millennia.
If this kind of image—black Jews and white Jews, European Jews and African Jews, educated wealthy Jews and barely literate poor Jews all understanding one another perfectly because they belong to the same strange family—strikes you as too flimsy, consider the criteria put forth by José Martínez Cobo, an anthropologist engaged by the United Nations to serve as special rapporteur on discrimination against indigenous populations, as to what makes a people “indigenous.”
To fit the bill, he argued, peoples and nations should display one or more of the following: occupation of ancestral lands; common ancestry; a shared culture or religion; and a shared language. By any and all metrics at our disposal—archeology, history, theology, even DNA tests—Jews, if anything, are the indigenous people of the Land of Israel, from which they might have been exiled now and then but to which they always return.
Still, to the zealots who shout that Jews are white, all that matters is the following steely argument: that for the last few decades, American Jews have benefited from the rewards that come with being among our society’s most educated and best compensated few.
This is irrefutably true: About 4 in 10 Jews live in households making more than $100,000 per year, more than any other religious group in America, an astonishing statistic when you consider that we constitute less than 2 percent of the population.
And yet this materialistic argument is rendered futile, not only by the fact that it assumes the trappings of privilege have been bestowed on all Jews. They have not; anywhere between 16 and 20 percent of Jewish American households, according to a recent survey by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, earn less than $30,000 a year. The argument of particular privilege is especially spurious because it ignores the unique nature of anti-Jewish bigotry, a highly resistant viral strain that feeds precisely on the difficult truth that Jews don’t really fit comfortably into any of the categories that the Grand Ideologies of the ages have created to make sense of the glorious mess of human diversity.
Jews are just Jews, a difficult realization that has driven haters to distraction throughout the generations. It’s why we alone have been singled out for a specific kind of steady stream of suspicion and persecution throughout history, even here in America. It’s a torrent that hasn’t grown any weaker, no matter how cheerful we wish to be. In 2019, for example, nearly two-thirds of all religious-based hate crimes in America targeted Jews, a 14 percent increase from the previous year…and rising.
Tragically—or comically, depending on your point of view—when members of our smart set are asked to address this surge, they find it truly and utterly baffling. For a particularly blunt and amusing example of this genre, see a recent story published by Vox, which scratched its headline while admitting that “violent anti-Semitism spiked in America during the Israel-Hamas war. And we don’t know why.” This bafflement, as the writer Elad Lapidot noted in Tablet, is predicated precisely on our intellectuals’ inability to come to terms with the simple idea that Jews are a people apart.
If you define, as the liberal ethos does, all forms of bigotry as rooted in the sin of essentialism—saying that all blacks, for example, possess a certain quality, or that all Latinos exhibit certain behaviors—you hit a brick wall when dealing with Jews. Ours, alas, is not the spirit of the Enlightenment. We’re not ones for radical individuality or social contracts among free and unfettered souls who care neither a feather nor a fig for family and tribe. Ours is the communal ethos of the Hebrew Bible. It’s the story of Us, not of Me, and it’s possible and coherent precisely because it allows—encourages, mandates—us to display and cultivate shared traits.
Some Jews may have more melanin in their skin or fewer dollars in their bank accounts, some may dress in black and some drape themselves in the colors of the rainbow, but all belong to an extended family that stayed a family because it insisted on the display of collective behaviors.
Essentialist? You betcha.
Which leaves progressives, poor souls, in a pickle. To admit that there is something unique about Jews that does not conform to the dogmas of intersectionality and white privilege and the other semi-coherent mutterings at the core of their new and monstrous Woke Religion would be to introduce more doubt and nuance than our secular Savonarolas can stomach. To ease their tensions, to keep their faith alive, they resort to a simple pronouncement that flattens all difference and erases all difficulty: Jews are white.
IT’S NOT TOO difficult to understand what moves the non-Jews shouting this rot. The creative genius of Jew-hatred has always been its ability to imagine the Jew as the embodiment of whatever it is that polite society finds repulsive. That’s why Jews were condemned as both nefarious bankers controlling all the world’s money and shifty revolutionaries imperiling all capital; as both sexless creeps and oversexed lechers coming for the women and the girls; as both pathetically powerless and occultly powerful. Like something out of Harry Potter, the Jew takes the shape of whatever the Jew-hater fears and loathes most. And if you decide that there’s such a thing as “whites” and that they are uniquely responsible for all evils perpetrated on the innocent and downtrodden, well, the Jews must be not only of them but nestled comfortably at the top of the white-supremacist pyramid.
Things get a bit hairier when it comes to Jews themselves repeating the “Jews are white” canard, often in the form of a mea culpa. Why do this? Why would any Jew ignore so much evidence and common sense and repeat it? If you’re looking to begin and understand this madness, consider the following three misfortunes.
First, those Jews who accept the mantle of whiteness have, quite literally, lost track of time and space. Rather than humbly admit that the arc of history is long and often bends toward anti-Semitism—as is the clear pattern that emerges when you study any period of history in any corner of planet earth—they conclude quietly that because they themselves have experienced no animosity in Silver Spring or Westchester or Highland Park, that animosity has never really existed. To them, human history began in 1993, between the swearing-in of Clinton and Bjork’s first LP.
This stance is perfectly aligned with a culture and a politics that praise radical individualism and personal experience over anything else. Not that personally experiencing anti-Semitism, as nearly two-thirds of Americans told pollsters they had this year, would change the picture much. Just as black intellectuals who go against the simplistic narrative of race as a monolith are discounted and hounded for failing to be black in the correct and approved manner, so are Jews who share their plight dismissed as being whiners who fail to see the bigger picture of oppression and their shameful place in it. The “Jews are white” Jews, then, acquiesce, and assure themselves that nothing bad will happen here because, well, nothing bad has happened here yet to them.
A modicum of immersion in Jewish life would save these Jews from the maws of their own obliviousness. But herein lies their second misfortune: Religion, to them, has become not the communal pursuit of study and practice, as it had been for Jews since at least Moses, but one more lifestyle decision among many. For the most part, the modern progressive Jew is Jewish the same way she’s vegan, say, or a socialist, or a fan of matcha lattes. Like nearly a third of American adults, she likely defines herself as spiritual but not religious, ignoring the fact that religion emerged in precisely the same way across cultures and continents precisely because humans realized that spiritual stirrings alone were meaningless unless tethered to the ground by rituals that had to be performed together with other people.
The young secular Jews who identify as white have none of that. As they are not likely to belong to a synagogue or a faith community, they practice their Judaism as they do their aversion to gluten, privately and sporadically, as the mood suits them. It’s much easier than accepting the yoke of obligations—from holding space with other Jews you may not like to performing practices, like keeping kosher, you may not fully understand—but it also offers far less protection against being swallowed by the tide of a hostile culture.
Which brings us to misfortune number three: Being all too human, progressive Jews are eager to belong to something. And because their own parents spent decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars telling them that the greatest good is to be found in the quad of an Ivy League school or the sparkling boardroom of a Fortune 100 company or any of the other temples of the all-American meritocracy, they are happy to pay any price to fit in among the swells.
If you grew up in a household where Shabbat candles were rarely if ever lit and no one bothered reading a page of Talmud, but where SAT scores were obsessed over and Penn and Princeton stickers, coffee mugs, and sweatshirts ordered as soon as those thick admission envelopes arrived in the mail, you would understandably pay any price to stay in the good graces of the priestly class that maintains these hallowed institutions. So if the priests demand that you identify as white and say a little prayer of repentance for your sins, well, isn’t that a small price to pay for the American dream?
That nothing good ever came to the Jews from groveling, that we survived—indeed, thrived—precisely because we refused to compromise our beliefs, is lost on these lost souls. In their airless world, nothing is true and nothing is permitted except for parroting the articles of faith passed down by those who hold power. Thankfully, as some Jews continue to torment themselves by trying to fit in with a milieu that will never accept them for who they are, most young Jews are traveling in the exact opposite direction. According to the latest Pew Survey, released earlier this year, only 3 percent of Jews 65 and older define themselves as observant, while among adults under 30, the number skyrockets to 17 percent. This means that many among the coming generation of American Jews have no use for obscene formulations like “Jews are white.” They have only one identity marker, the only one they ever had, the only one that matters: Jews are Jews.
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