Ruth Nemzoff

Q: Are Jews white? Are they privileged? Who gets to decide? 

A: The simple answer is, “yes and no!” 

Let’s begin with the basics. Jews exist all around the world and, in America, encompass a whole host of ethnic and racial groups. The question should not be “Are Jews?” but rather, “Can Jews be?”

Remember, these categories – “Black people, brown people, white-passing” – are not who a person is, but rather a way of categorizing people which has been created by others. These racial categories do not exist everywhere in the world in the same way, and they have changed over time and place. 

Therefore, the question is not really “is x group white,” but instead, “How does x group fit into the American racial system?” Within this system, Jews as a group are not all white or nonwhite, because many Jews are Black or Asian or Middle Eastern. The question of whiteness is applicable to Ashkenazi and some Sephardi Jews, but 20 percent of American Jewry do not fall into that category at all: many Jews are Black or Asian or Middle Eastern. 

To understand the 80 percent of Jews who may be seen as white, one should understand the nuances of whiteness. Race can manifest To understand the 80 percent of Jews who may be seen as white, one should understand the nuances of whiteness. Race can manifest structurally, situationally, regionally, etc. Structural racism means how one is treated by this country’s institutions. In housing policy, are Jews counted as white or treated as a unique category? In practice, are Jews “redlined,” informally excluded from certain areas? When filling out a government ID form, are Ashkenazim expected to list themselves as “Jewish” or “White/Caucasian?” 

The answers to these questions have changed over time. Jews were once lumped with the Italians and Irish as decidedly non-white immigrants, and there have been cases in American history when Jewish leaders worried that Jews would lose their right to citizenship — for much of American history, only Black and white people could be citizens.  

Some generations look at the question of Jews and whiteness through knowledge of the past and put more weight on our complex history, while others discern race through their current empirical experiences. Recently, I attended a workshop where we were asked to divide into groups of Black, white, or other. As an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, I went to the “other” group. I remembered country clubs and neighborhoods which excluded me. 

A colleague went to the “white” group despite also being Ashkenazi and of a similar age and skin color. Afterward, I asked her why she had made that decision and she responded, “My Black friends tell me I’m white and have privilege because of it.” While I acknowledge that in some situations my relatively white skin allows me to be served faster and gives me unquestionable entry, I also know that in other situations, I am the Jew in the room. For example, when I was living in New Hampshire and my children were the only Jews in their school, my young daughter taught herself to read. Her teacher, annoyed at feeling she had nothing left to teach, snapped, “I’ve heard you Jews are pushy!” 

Preconceived notions can affect us both positively and negatively. There are benefits to being stereotyped as wealthy and educated, and it is unproductive to deny that. At the same time, it can be insulting. In New Hampshire, I had not pushed my daughter – she was a bright child who picked reading up from her older siblings and her mixed-age classroom. It is not fair to discredit her intellect and blame her religion for her talent. The teacher was ​not ​complimenting Jews for encouraging their children, but instead disparaging us – why wouldn’t we just be like everyone else? Why did we have to push harder? Why did we want that much power? Mentally, I compare that situation to a black mother asking her child’s teacher a question and being scolded, “Why are you so angry and demanding?” 

I glean two important lessons from this. One, it is possible to be both privileged and unprivileged, depending on the situation at hand. Two, the insights we gain from our non-privileged moments should be used to understand others’ experiences – not to see ourselves as victims. 

The white Jewish experience shows that one can be white in America, and still definitively be “othered” due to ethnicity. We grow up told that race is simple and static – but once again, we Jews muddy the waters. Judaism values Jewish community and group identity, keeping us slightly separated, enough to still be a category unto ourselves. 

Adding to this complexity is that different people may prefer different terms to refer to themselves. When I was young, “black” was a slur and the more polite term was African American. Now, some like African American because it carries with it a sense of heritage, but others may see themselves as a black person of mixed heritage; there are black people who trace their roots to the Caribbean, there are those that emigrated to the United States from Europe or Asia, and those that choose to identify with Black culture over their enslaved ancestors (or the slaveholding Founding Fathers whose genes they carry). Categorizing all people with dark skin in one box quickly seems ridiculous and obscures a complex history. Similarly, categorizing all Jews, or any grouping really, as strictly one thing is reductionist. 

Categorization is also made more complex by conversion. Self-definition is now as important as external definition! There are ​people who live Jewishly and raise their children in Jewish spheres​, but for personal reasons choose not to convert formally. People’s identities are a combination of self-definition and definitions by others. There are also those who may wish to “​opt out,” or discount, their Jewish identities, but may find that they are unable to. It is controversial whether or not Judaism is something that can be discarded, and it is not wholly up to the individual. Some may wish to “pass,” but find their very Jewish last name or family background does not allow them to. Others may try to ignore their Judaism and not mention it, but find that some spaces do not allow them to. 

Most American Jews resent their Jewish identity being defined by others, just as they do not want to be told by others that they are privileged based on being Jewish. In addition to the racial questions raised, the idea that all Jews are privileged erases impoverished Jews, Jews of color facing racism, and other Jews who are seen as outside the mainstream. 

For a contemporary understanding of privilege, I urge you all to read “​A Short Comic Gives the Simplest, Most Perfect Explanation of Privilege I’ve Seen.” 

The comic teaches us that those of us who have loving parents who have the time, education, and connections to aid us along the way are indeed privileged. We must be grateful at all times for what we have and at the same time, retain the knowledge that it can and does easily shift as anti-semitism rears its ugly head. Holding both our privilege and fragility is wiser and more realistic than claiming one or the other.

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