The Conspiracy

The Jews are (Not) White

Is this us?

There’s a point in academic research where one becomes somewhat monomaniacal. I wouldn’t know what that word means unless it had been on an episode of The West Wing, but here I mean to say that I’ve sort of lost the ability to think about things that aren’t Jewish identity and theology (to the eternal peril of my coursework, but that’s a different problem). Thus it was in such a state that I clicked on Sharona Bat-Ephraim’s Times of Israel piece, “Rediscovering Jewish Identity” and, as I immediately Tweeted, was utterly fascinated.

Not because I agree with her conclusions; I very much do not. But we’ll get to that later. As I see it, Bat-Ephraim’s piece is making several arguments: First, American Jewish identity has been over-determined by an association with whiteness. Put more simply, most Jews consider themselves to be white. Second, Jewish whiteness is “the product of hundreds of years of effort on the part of the Jewish community.” Finally, and crucially, the phenomenon of Jewish whiteness contravenes “our Semitic heritage,” since, according to Bat-Ephraim, Jewishness is an “authentic Middle Eastern identity.” As such, it is incumbent upon American Jews to foreswear whiteness and “relearn what it means to belong to a proud ancient people.”

Let me acknowledge two things that I will cosign right away: First, I completely agree that American Jews must recognize whiteness as an identity that has a tense relationship with Jewishness. In other words, we must reclaim our Jewishness in a way that disrupts our identification with “whiteness” in general. Second, I am completely in favor of re-imagining Jewishness and Judaism in a way that subverts the common presumption of Judaism’s European origins (a project that I think is well on its way in Judith Butler’s recent book, Parting Ways). Making counter-hegemonic moves within our tradition (for instance, recognizing Moses as an Arab Jew) is a crucially important component of imagining Judaism beyond American national identity, and whiteness. To the extent that these are two arguments Bat-Ephraim is making, I am right there with her.

Other components of her argument (namely, that American Jews are “Hebrew indigenous to the Land of Israel who happen to temporarily live in the United States,” and that the entire project of dislodging Jewishness from whiteness ought to be undertaken in the service of “making the case for a Jewish state”) are so clearly beyond the pale that it feels almost redundant to say I disagree with them. To begin to articulate what I found especially problematic about Bat-Ephraim’s account, let me observe a discrepancy: Implicit in her rejection of Jewish whiteness is, it seems to me, a recognition that whiteness itself as not a natural category. The only way that a particular group could be considered white is if whiteness had a socially-constructed component, and thus a somewhat fluid definition that changes over time. Again, I completely agree. But while Bat-Ephraim rightly figures whiteness as a fluid identity category, she presumes a notion of Jewishness that is fixed and natural. Bat-Ephraim’s imaginary Jew can move in and out of whiteness depending on their historical location, but the same Jew has an eternal status as a “Hebrew indigenous to the Land of Israel,” no matter where they live or where they are born.

Bat-Ephraim’s imagining of Jewishness presents some obvious problems. For instance, was Moses Jewish according to her definition? Perhaps not fully. Surely, he was not indigenous to the land of Israel, and he was certainly “Egyptian-passing,” (Exodus 2:19). Moreover, if we are to abdicate our whiteness, how can we retain a claim to that most modern and Western of inventions, the nation-state? It’s also somewhat unclear what actions would, in her mind, constitute “relearn[ing] what it means to belong to a proud ancient people,” other than moving to the (modern) State of Israel. Finally, the argument that the Jew can never fully assimilate into the modern West strikes me as a basically anti-Jewish one, deployed by opponents of Jewish citizenship throughout the centuries.

There’s a bigger problem, though. Insofar as Bat-Ephraim frames her call for Jews to abandon whiteness as a strategy of rebutting “this myth of colonialism,” we must ask what work her argument is performing vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seems to me that Bat-Ephraim presents Jewishness in such a way that the Jew could never, at any moment, be a colonizer in Eretz Yisrael. When an American-Jew or a British-Jew or a French-Jew makes aliyah, their Jewishness is the sole component of their identity relevant for establishing their claim to the land. This strikes me as curious, given that Bat-Ephraim herself acknowledges that many American Jews do not think of themselves as indigenous, or even as primarily Jewish over against American.

It seems to me that the function of Bat-Ephraim’s argument is to justify and valorize the existence of the modern, Western nation-State Medinat Yisrael, asserting Jewish “indigeneity” as an ontological condition that justifies any action whatever that is necessary to facilitate and secure Jewish sovereignty (and, I take it, demographic advantage) in Eretz Yisrael. As she herself puts it, “if American Jews are white people of the Mosaic faith, then Israelis are by necessity foreign occupiers in Palestine.” Whiteness and colonialism cannot be fully dissociated here; both discourses are sustained by racialized hierarchies in which a morally virtuous “us” is presented over against a dangerous, threatening Other. By asserting an a priori Jewish indigeneity in Eretz Yisrael, Bat-Ephraim overlooks the socio-political context in which Jewishness is constituted, one in which Jewishness and whiteness can and often do coexist in the same body. The function of this indigeneity assertion is to rationalize the (white) Western project of settler-colonialism; precisely through a denial of Jewish whiteness, she reifies Jewish participation in a project of domination so characteristic of the white West (a project that, despite her own arguments to the contrary, I do not accept as meaningfully different from other forms of Western nationalism).

As I said, the project of imagining a Jewishness beyond whiteness is a crucial one. But a Jewishness beyond whiteness could not be a Jewishness that asserts an abstract condition of “indigeneity” as a rationale for colonial occupation. Rather, a Jewishness beyond whiteness must figure Jewishness as a site of solidarity with colonized peoples, whether in the United States or in Israel-Palestine. Crucially, this requires a recognition that whiteness does not go away simply because we call ourselves “Hebrew.” The Jews are white, the Jews are not white; this is the aporetic, exilic “between” that might serve as the inaugural site of a Jewishness beyond whiteness. There is surely much to be admired in Bat-Ephraim’s piece, and I anticipate that it will mark the beginning of an important discussion; but we cannot enter into that discussion unless we are critical about the sometimes-problematic politics of Jewish identity.


Evan Goldstein is a student at Boston College.

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