A continuing debate within the American Jewish community is whether Jews are white or not. It is a controversial question for a variety of reasons. First, it ignores the Mizrahi Jews, who are certainly not white. It also disregards people of color who may have converted on their own or were born Jewish. It also ignores the difference between race and ethnicity. Ethnicity is a tie to a geographical region, religion, culture. Race is considered by some to be a social construct.
Jews are an incredibly privileged ethnic group in the U.S. Despite barriers of discrimination, American Jews have done remarkably well for themselves. Still, we are constantly reminded of past eras of violent anti-Semitism and systemic discrimination against them in housing, employment and education. To compound this, Jews are the largest target for hate crimes in the United States and are the victims of increasingly frequent attacks in Europe, particularly France.
In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Gil Steinlauf argues that as Jews emigrated to the United States, Jews needed a survival strategy; convincing white, Anglo-Saxon protestants that we were white, too. But as Steinlauf argues, by assimilating, young Jewish people today have lost touch with their past and thus cannot push Judaism forward.
The non-white argument can be best explained this way: There’s a gated community that white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant America—or just white America—built, where white people live a safe, prosperous life. Actually, they did not really build it themselves, they forced other people to build it for them—but that is an issue more relevant in other discussions. Meanwhile, there are many different types of people standing outside the gate, waiting for an opportunity to be let in and enjoy the safety and prosperity that is provided by the gated community.
At some point, as Steinlauf and others might argue, the gatekeepers permitted entry to the Jews because we too were wealthy and white. The Jews moved in, had kids and enjoyed a comfortable life inside the gates. Young Jews are constantly reminded of their otherness by older generations of Jews. They are reminded that they did not build the gates and are mere guests in a home they did not create, and that they are always an inch away from being kicked to the curb once more.
Steinlauf and others argue that to reinvigorate Jewish identity, we have to shed our whiteness, to understand that we live inside the gated community for a fundamentally different reason than white Protestants. However, to the unprivileged there is no difference. Living inside the gated community and building it in the first place has no moral distinction. So long as we live in the gated community, we perpetuate the system of discrimination against people who live outside the gates.
There are a few things Steinlauf and I agree on. First, is that we are only one or two generations removed from a period of systemic discrimination against Jews, and that understanding that real and frightening connection is an integral part of Jewish identity. Second, is that Jews are no longer systematically discriminated against in the way other minorities are. Both these points underlie the moral imperative of American Jews to engage in social activism and allyship.
However, Steinlauf thinks that this involves ‘shedding’ our whiteness. So long as we live in the gated community and continue to do so, we cannot shed our whiteness. Whiteness is what we gained when we moved in, and unless we move out—which we probably will not—we will continue to be indisputably white in a society that discriminates against non-whites.
That does not rule out the existence of anti-Semitism. Rather, Jews need to recognize that it comes from a different place than other forms of discrimination do. That does not make it any less of a problem. Jews still remain the demographic of recorded hate crimes and are subject to increasingly hostile environments overseas. However, that discrimination does not come from a place of non-whiteness, and needs closer examination to articulate clearly.
Jews inherit a unique position in our society. We simultaneously live inside the gates but have a close connection to former generations of Jews that lived outside the gates. That gives Jews a more unique imperative: Recognize and use that place of privilege to the benefit of those who live outside the gates, and restructure that community so it is more accessible and inclusive to others who experience discrimination that, only a few decades ago, was all too real.