My family is Jewish: does that make me white?


By Nushy Rose

When I was five I presented my first - and last - radio series. It was 1996, and the show was about being mixed race. In the first episode, I explored my maternal heritage; visiting a Buddhist temple and observing Sri Lankan monks trailed by a Radio 4 production team. In the second, I went to the North London synagogue my grandparents attended.

The programme was made to show how successful Britain’s multicultural project had been. My comments were not particularly insightful: half my family were brown, the other half was white, was there anything more to it? Twenty years later, we know the answer is ‘yes’.

This week #JewishPrivilege is trending on Twitter. A cursory look at the top of the newsfeed reveals a series of gruesome caricatures. The “beady-eyed Jew” of Nazi textbooks is back. The medium may be new, but this thriving genre of proud anti-Semitism is not. It talks to the ugly paradoxes of anti-semitism that the movement is as prevalent among white supremacists as it is amongst Black Twitter.

In 2017, hundreds of white nationalists, Klansmen, neo-Confederates and far-right militias marched on Charlottesville. As they walked its boulevards waving swastika flags, burning torches, wreathed in semi-automatic weapons, their battle cry rang loud across the city: “Blood and soil. Jews will not replace us.”

That white nationalists consider Jews an enemy remains paradoxical. After all, aren’t Jews also white? Why are they excluded from the alt-right’s paradisiacal vision of America Made Great Again?

As questions of racial privilege come to the fore, commentators from the left have turned to the writings of James Baldwin. Baldwin was a writer and activist, whose work dug deep into Western systemic inequalities, long before the term had ever been articulated. Critically, this was not limited to black populations. Baldwin was also the first to raise the paradox of “Jewish privilege”.

In 1967, Baldwin published an essay titled Negroes are Anti-Semitic because they’re anti-white. His thesis hinged on the perceived conflation of whiteness and Jewishness: “In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man–for having become, in effect, a Christian”.

His point was that white identity was locked into a Christian European ideal. “Whiteness” was a construct, built on generations of exploitation. Skin colour, while a necessary condition for membership to this elite club was by no means sufficient in and of itself. Jews were categorically not white.

This is a rare instance where a perspective on race is shared between the woke left and the radical right. And yet, the fundamental premises upon which these arguments are built couldn’t be further apart.

White supremacists do not consider Jews to belong to their own, because it gives license to subordinate them. If their essential view is based on the eugenicist claim that whites are naturally superior to others, this is hardly surprising. It is as Princeton History Professor Nell Irvin Painter writes, “White identity in America is ideology, not biology.” The identitarian brigade’s passionate faith in their own superiority demands that they Other all but “pure” whites. That is to say, those with Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Celtic, Nordic or Aryan ancestry.

Pertinent here is the idea of whiteness. This changes over time. Like any concept that makes bold claims of categorisation over the qualitative, its rules are not fixed. Today, whiteness is variously used to describe social, cultural, systemic, and political behaviours. Why its definition has become so much more grandiose since Baldwin wrote is open to debate. More important for our discussion is that it has changed at all.

This is problematic for those that argue Jews are white because they have white skin. It follows that the Ashkenazi majority who fall into this group, and are therefore perceived as white, must then be treated as white. And yet, Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally, which climaxed when one of its members murdered a counter protestor and injured seventeen others, suggests this is not the case.

An alternative approach might be to ask “What is a Jew?” Some believe Jews are a race. But, Jews count millions of People of Colour amongst their number. For centuries, large parts of Goa, Ethiopia, Egypt and the Middle East have had thriving non-white Jewish populations. Are black Jews white, too?

That question underpins the debate: upon what grounds are we choosing to describe people as “white”? If the only certainty of the term is that it is nebulous, to what ends are we choosing to see Jews as white or not?

Whiteness is a powerful agent that stings because of how it can be weaponised to exclude, oppress, maim and murder. Does that make it dangerous? Perhaps it is time to look more closely at how white identity has evolved into its current form, whether it is symptomatic of deeper racialised vibrations in our societies, and ask why we are so fixated on how Jews figure within that equation.

Read more on the “Are Jews White?” debate

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This page was last edited on Tuesday, 6 Oct 2020 at 09:36 UTC