Ashkenazim Are White

White privilege card | via Womanist Musings

Evan Goldstein’s recent contributions to New Voices have featured fascinating and insightful meditations on the cultural location of Jewishness in our world. They are a welcome move toward a critical conversation around the hybrid forms of modern Jewish identity, a project that requires a historical understanding of whiteness.

Sharona Bat-Ephraim, the subject of Goldstein’s critique in “The Jews are (Not) White,” discusses in the Times of Israel the imperative of Jewish disaffiliation with whiteness as a mode of reclaiming and returning to a more authentic Jewishness and Zionism. Goldstein aptly critiques her conflation of these two and the dangerous implications of asserting a Jewish right to settle Palestine, over and against the Palestinian right not to be displaced. He fails, however, to adequately reframe the role of race in Jewish identity.

Goldstein persistently makes the mistake of discussing whiteness as a principle of self-identification. In order to develop the valuable project of “disrupting our identification” of Jewishness with whiteness, it is necessary to operate under a more systemic understanding of what whiteness is and how it functions.

Race is not only a matter of identity, but more crucially a mode of representation, a way of seeing individuals as members of groups associated with certain essential qualities of the body and character. Racial thinking developed during the early period of European colonization around the Enlightenment. The prevailing mode of identifying self and other as Christian or heathen was on its way out as European thought became secularized. Instead, the European intellectuals invented a variety of distinct “biological” classes of humanity in a strict hierarchy: white Europeans sat at the top, with a rational, Christian civilization and clean, pure bodies. At the bottom were Africans and Native Americans, totally pre-modern and savage, irrational and violent. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, race thinking became increasingly grounded in eugenic science. Eventually it became clear that race was a socially constructed category with no underlying biological or genetic basis.

Although these categories and their meanings shifted over time, they remain fundamental to the way that Western society sees, thinks, and talks about individuals and groups. The hierarchical connotations of European racial thinking from hundreds of years ago continue to be hugely influential in our world. It is, in fact, only in the decades since the Holocaust and the civil rights movement that explicitly racial representations have fallen out of the mainstream. It is in this “post-racial” period that it becomes possible to forget race as anything other than a matter of personal identity. There are a million and one ways to show that racism, or more properly white supremacy, continues to shape society at every level.

Race is a category used to assert that certain groups of people are somehow essentially different than other groups, and our societies have been organized around these categories for hundreds of years. Racial status has determined whether you are owned as property or a property owner, where and with whom you are allowed to live, work, and congregate: how society and the state relate to you at a basic level. Since the Holocaust, it has become unpopular internationally to withhold political rights on the basis of race, but access to economic, legal, and political institutions continues to be significantly segregated along lines of race in most countries, not least in the United States.

Whether or not Jews self identify as white is not as important as the fact that Jews of European descent are recognized as white, and have been for some time in the United States. Contrary to Bat-Ephraim’s account, American Ashkenazi Jews have been significantly assimilated into white society since at least the 1970’s. Karen Brodkin, a scholar of American Jewish history, identifies the passing of the GI Bill in 1944 as the watershed moment in the history of Jewish whiteness. The GI Bill resulted in a massive amount of suburban development, where Jews have mixed in more or less comfortably with the rest of America’s white middle class ever since.

White status has afforded and continues to afford access and opportunities to material, social, and political advantages that are hugely, though of course not totally, responsible for the contemporary material success of Jewish communities in the United States. It is totally farcical to downplay the extent to which Ashkenazi Jews have benefited from white privilege in the last seventy years. No matter how Jews of European descent in the US identify, we will continue to benefit from the ongoing legacies of white privilege.

None of this is to dismiss the fact that anti-Semitism exists and continues to affect the way Jews are thought about, talked about, and subjected to violence. Anti-Semitism and racism can work along different, but parallel, axes. Experiences of anti-Semitism do not necessarily negate the more pervasive, invisible, and structural benefits of white privilege. There is perhaps no better evidence for Ashkenazi whiteness than its participation in racism, especially within the Jewish community.

What, then, can it mean to re-imagine and practice Jewishness in a way that subverts its complicity in white supremacy and settler colonialism? How can we honor our (memory of) experiences as strangers, as Others, as the marginalized? Goldstein is right in naming the project: it must be “Jewishness as a site of solidarity with colonized peoples, whether in the United States or in Israel-Palestine.” A Jewishness beyond whiteness must certainly begin by attending to the histories and identities of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry, who continue to face marginalization and erasure in Jewish communities around the world, including in Israel and the United States. What a counter-hegemonic Jewishness actually looks like is an enigma that the Jewish left is persistently working to unravel.

 

Austin Weisgrau is a student at Reed College.

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