For many years now, a debate has raged over the treatment of Jews in drafts for a California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). The California legislature has required the drafting and ensuing instruction of this curriculum across the largest high school system in America. The first two drafts were rightly sent back to the drawing board because they were riddled with anti-Semitic content, often to the point of open expression of anti-Semitism. While the third iteration and the final approved version of this “model” curriculum excised most of the more flagrant anti-Semitic segments, there is still significant reason to believe that its interpretation and implementation by various school boards and districts will reflect the notion that—among all ethnic minorities in the United States—Jewish Americans are unique beneficiaries of “white privilege.”
The flawed rationale for this application of “privilege” to one of the most per capita discriminated against, persecuted, and smallest ethnic minorities in history can be attributed, in large part, to the application of the concept of “intersectionality.” Intersectionality is defined as the study of the overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Since the creators of intersectionality are primarily academics on the political left, this effectively has placed Jews outside of the “intersection.” The drafters of the ESMC curriculum (one of whom recently characterized the ADL as a “white supremacist organization”) effectively continue the efforts by many on the far left to whitewash Ashkenazi Jewry and also to try to erase Mizrahi Jews and Jews of Color from the collective Jewish experience and peoplehood. And they do this all while concurrently championing efforts to destroy the nation-state of the Jewish people (for example, through the BDS movement) under the guise of either being a uniquely American or universalist pursuit of human rights.
This intersectional movement, wherein perceived whiteness epitomizes unearned privilege, also mischaracterizes Ashkenazic Jewry (the historical whipping boy of Europe), and thereby positions these Jews as somehow being the ultimate bearers of privilege and consequently, somehow, one of the ultimate oppressors.
Highlighted in the ESMC model curriculum as a champion of this inverted version of racial liberation is Linda Sarsour: the outspoken anti-Israel Arab American and purveyor of anti-Semitism. It is both ironic and revealing that this admittedly white-presenting person is held up as the paragon of protest against white supremacism. Yet, when black men and women filled the streets in protest of the murder of George Floyd, the libel that Jews are uniquely responsible for the racial injustices that cleave American society animated the (anti-Semitic) rhetoric and violence amongst many flag holders of the far left. This sought to effectively exclude most Jews from the multiethnic alliance of men and women across America to join in solidarity with African Americans.
The Jewish community, however, is a distinct ethnoreligious group with diverse membership (like other Middle Eastern/North African-MENA communities), which is regularly targeted by extremists for both their religious and perceived racial differences. There is an undeniable double standard with a movement that contends Linda Sarsour is representative of an oppressed person of color, while at the same time collectively identifying Jews, or at least Ashkenazic Jews, as “white” and even more incredibly, as bastions of whiteness. This position is not only regressive; it ignores thousands of years of Jewish history, denies the experiences of the Jewish people as a nation, and it aids the campaign of those who ultimately seek the delegitimization of Hebrew or Judean self-determination. Setting aside for the moment that “race” itself is an ideological construct, this regressive characterization of Ashkenazic Jews ignores that every Middle Eastern and North African ethnicity (Arab, Amazigh, Copt, Jewish, Assyrian, etc.), as well as most Latino communities, is composed of members who, based on appearance alone, could “pass” for any number of races in the American racial identity chart.
Historically, it was a practice for many Arab and Jewish-Americans, when arriving in the U.S., to actively pursue, whenever possible, identification with “whiteness” as a method of integration. This was despite the fact that they both faced legal and physical barriers for being perceived as non-white or racial “others.” Armenian-Americans themselves used the U.S. government’s granting Ashkenazic Jews residency and citizenship as a means of acquiring citizenship too (until 1952, whiteness was a factor or criteria for naturalization decisions).
The presiding judge in the 1909 case of In Re Halladjian ruled that, “[i]f the aboriginal people of Asia are excluded it is hard to find a loophole for the admission of Hebrews.” This judge’s candid statement that Jews represent an Asiatic presence in American society demonstrates how widespread and uncontroversial this belief was in America at the turn of the 20th century. It would defy credulity for one to believe that this view played no role in the anti-Semitic policies discriminating against Jewish homeownership and against Jewish access to higher education; polices that persisted in the U.S. until the 1970s. Discriminatory policies targeting Jews in the U.S. also often greeted newly arriving refugees from the most recent white supremacy inspired slaughter in Europe: the Holocaust; and one can only imagine the lasting impression that seeing a hotel advertisement stating “No Hebrews or tubercular guests received” had on a Jewish refugee from the latest Cossack attempt to slaughter Jews in Russia.
The existence of Jews of Color (JOC), or Jews (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, or otherwise) whose physical appearance and/or heritage is combined with that of other ethnic groups not stereotypically associated with American Jews is also regularly utilized to collectively whitewash (or Europeanize) the Ashkenazic component of American-Jewish identity. Ignoring the ubiquitous presence of Middle Eastern-presenting Ashkenazic Jews (as demonstrated by how an Ashkenazic Jew, Sacha Baron Cohen, recently received a Golden Globe nomination for his role as Eli Cohen, the Mizrahi Jewish spy who infiltrated the Syrian defense establishment at the highest levels for almost five years) as well as European-presenting Mizrahi Jews, the unique struggles and experiences of African, Latino, Asian, and Mizrahi Jews are weaponized to deny the Middle Eastern heritage and identity of Ashkenazim in America, and thereby globally undermine Jewish peoplehood. While Jews of Color may be uniquely positioned in the fight against colorism and racism, and for equality in America, as well as against anti-Semitism, this must be done with the same level of sensitivity to the complexities of the Ashkenazic identity and experience as is demanded from others with regards to Jewish identity and experience.
The issue of Jewish “whiteness” (Ashkenormativity) as well as race in America must be tackled with the intention to strengthen the American-Jewish community as an inseparable part of the Jewish people and history. Any attempt to whitewash Jewishness as merely a religion or a cute culture (or to characterize Ashkenazic Jews as being “Europeans with a Jewish religion”) rather than as the vessel of an enduring ancient civilization with an unbroken chain of language, culture, and spirituality is an attempt to uproot the “people of Israel” (Am Yisrael) from their ancestral inheritance and their rights as a nation. As it says in the name, “Am Yisrael,” the Jews are a people, not happenstance coreligionists.
So who are American Jews?
Jewish identity is complex in the context of contemporary identity politics only because many remain adamant on defining Jewishness within the prism of America’s relatively short history. Jews, however, are an ancient people. Jews comprise the only nation in history to have experienced multiple exiles, genocides, and enslavements, yet maintained for millennia a Diaspora of communities that preserved most of their culture, language, and religion. It is this assortment of symbols, idiosyncrasies, customs, words, stories, and beliefs that have come to be described as Judaism. Although religion can certainly appropriately describe and explain the origin of much of these customs and beliefs, the Jewish experience and peoplehood is based on far more than religion or faith.
Ashkenazic culture, embodied by the Yiddish language, expresses a direct link to the first Jews to be taken to Southern Europe as slaves. Yiddish (developed as a means of internal communication) employed later Jewish Aramaic terms over the ancient Hebrew vocabulary it replaced (after the Babylonian exile). Its use of Latin, Gaelic, and Greek vocabulary and Hebrew for objects of cultural import as well as key features of expression and idiom, all demonstrate that Ashkenazic Jews inherited the unbroken chain of Hebrew civilization brought to Europe (and North Africa) in chains. In fact, the impact of this ancient Levantine culture was so felt in Ashkenazic life that as late as the 13th century there existed commentary describing a contemporary shift from the Levantine pronunciation of Hebrew to what became the Ashkenazic standard.
Jewish identity is based on more than 3,300 years of history. It is not defined by the American experience. It was during the Jewish people’s first millennia when the common features of Jewish peoplehood, which all Jews share with all other Jews, were developed (regardless of where their ancestors spent time in the Diaspora). This peoplehood developed in the Jewish people’s indigenous homeland in the land of Israel, in Judea. This is where the Jewish people’s national language (Hebrew) and tribal faith (Judaism) developed. This is where the principal aspects of the Jewish people’s tribal culture, which all revolve—as they do for all indigenous tribal people—around celebrating holidays, sacred events, and sites that are uniquely situated in, and only in, the land of Israel, developed.
After the Jewish people developed their unique tribal faith and peoplehood in the land of Israel, their millennia-long “scattering among the nations,” the Diaspora, began—as a result of the forces of Roman imperialism in the year 70 CE. A large part of the Jewish population was then either massacred, enslaved, or exiled. In Judea, approximately 25 percent of the Jewish population was exterminated and 10 percent enslaved. Many Jews were also taken to Rome and to other parts of the Roman empire in Europe as slaves, and many others fled from the Roman massacres and enslavement to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), and others fled to lands all around the Mediterranean (in what is today southeastern Spain, southern France, southern Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey). Over the decades and centuries that followed, Jews began to head north (to what is today northern France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia) and to northern Africa (what is today Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco). By around 300 AD, approximately three million Jews were living in most parts of the Roman Empire, except in what is today Britain. A million lived west of Greece with the majority settling throughout Asia Minor and east to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. By then, a sizable number of Jews were living throughout what centuries later would become Germany.
A common feature of the next 1,600 years, when Jews were always stateless (and therefore, as a community, defenseless) was migration. Because Jews were regularly attacked, banished, and/or forced to submit to discriminatory and oppressive laws, the “wandering Jew,” became a necessary feature of the Jewish Diaspora. And from at least the early 8th century in Baghdad, when Jews were first ordered to wear a yellow badge of shame by Umayyad Caliph Umar II (expressly to separate and distinguish the Jews in Baghdad from the Arab Muslim majority), to the infamous Venetian ghetto in the 16th Century, through the era of the Nazi-created ghettos in Poland, being “otherized” and subject to cyclical, and often intense persecution, was the ominous cloud that regularly hovered over the Jewish Diaspora.
In Europe, Jewish and Roma (a non-European ethnic group of South Asian origins) ethnic “otherness” ultimately became a universal object of white-supremacist xenophobia and prejudice; and as peoples in Diaspora, both groups invariably were influenced (by force and by choice) by their surroundings. This influence is common to all Diaspora communities. Similarly to the way in which Ashkenazic Jews are targeted today by many self-described progressives because many of them are able to “pass” for their host population, European racial anti-Semitism developed a specific racialized hatred for Jews in Europe on an inverse basis. What began in the Spanish Inquisition, with its description of Jewish forced-converts to Catholicism having “impure blood,” reached its zenith in Nazi ideology. Regardless of their appearance, Ashkenazic Jews were defined as mongrel Israelites and therefore the greatest threat to the so-called white race. In other words, because Jews in Europe (Ashkenazic or Sephardic) were composed of individuals who could present as “white,” “Asiatic,” or “black” according to their stereotypes, they were collectively branded as a shape-shifting black contamination.
White supremacists have always used and perverted diversity of appearance within Ashkenazic Jewry specifically as a means to collectively associate Jews with blackness and the supposed race-mixing that white supremacists hate, as well as to expose Jews to the social wrath it may incur. Ironically, many on the opposite end of the political spectrum today pervert this same diversity of appearance as a means to associate Ashkenazic Jewry with whiteness and expose them to the social wrath it may incur in far-left circles. Both of these approaches are steeped in anti-Semitic paternalism and conspiracy-theorizing. They seek to rob Jews of personal agency to self-determine, while simultaneously associating all Jewish efforts for self-determination (either as returned Levantines, sovereign in their Middle Eastern homeland, or in the U.S. as Middle Eastern Americans) with allegations of being duplicitous, and with conspiracies to dominate and control others.
Through most of the 20th century, all Jews, regardless of appearance, were often restricted from where they could buy houses or where they could go to school based on being “members of the Hebrew race.” That does not change the fact that African and Caribbean American Jews were also forced to endure discrimination on account of belonging to both the “Hebrew” and “Negro” races. This dichotomy of experience navigating American racism between Jews and black Americans collectively, and within the Jewish community itself, is a fact of Jewish communal existence. It presents Jews with an interesting question. Should Jews double down, become entrenched in traumas, and allow the shadow of whiteness and blackness further divide the Jewish people?
No. Racial justice must address every community according to the complexities of its experiences. As Jews, with a literal mandate from the Torah to pursue justice, and given the history of discrimination and persecution in the U.S., there is an obligation to take into account those experiences and certainly to acknowledge, address, and redress the plainly different experiences of oppression and racism that African-Americans, Caribbean Americans, Native Americans, and other communities experienced in North America. Jews can do this, and should do this, while affording themselves the same sensitivities we must provide to others. Jews should also demand the same treatment from others, in particular those who strive to care about racial justice—to approach the Jewish people according to the complexities of their experiences, not only in America, but for millennia in Arab-controlled and European-controlled lands, where being a Jew almost always marked the person as second-class citizen and often marked them for death.
A Unified Identity Matters. And it’s Judean.
The path forward should be clear. Rather than allowing either the Tiki-torch carriers on the far-right, or those on the far-left who use and abuse anti-racism as guise for their own anti-Semitism, to define the Jewish experience of some or all members of the Jewish community, it is the Jewish responsibility to reclaim this discourse as those who will reap the consequences of its outcome. Jews should de-colonize and re-indigenize both their rhetoric and minds. They should understand that identity matters; and that how they identify themselves matters.
Jews must take pride in their identity. That pride, however, requires an understanding that irrespective of whether they are African, Ashkenazic, Mizrahi, Sephardic, etc., as Jews, their history has been inexorably linked to each other. These links come from a common heritage, culture, and faith across literally thousands of years of perseverance under persecution by the various empires of the world. This is all part of their collective history and collective bond. Jews need to reject the idea that because of their diversity—itself a product of their Diaspora—there are “white” (meaning, European) Jews in America.
The reality is that there isn’t a non-European originating ethnic minority in America that doesn’t have members who can present or pass as white. The reality is also that in a highly racialized America there were numerous ethnic minorities who could and did benefit from being more closely associated with “whiteness.” That is why there were nearly a dozen cases in the first half of the 20th century where Arabs in America sued to be considered “white.” But none of that means that Jews should accept the idea of being defined by others, or of being the only MENA ethnic minority that is characterized in 21st century America as “white.”
The bottom line is that the idea of a “white race” is a fiction created by the same category of people who took advantage of this idea to oppress and persecute Jews for centuries. This alone is reason for Jews in America to reject this characterization of their identity. How some European racists decided a few hundred years ago to label people should have no bearing on Jewish identity—an identity that pre-dates any European pseudo-science (falsely dividing people based on the color of their skin) by approximately three millennia.
Natan Sharansky once said: “There is no power in the world that can stand against us [Jews] when we feel a part of our history, part of our people, and part of this historic struggle.” And the late, great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (ZT”L) once said of Pesach (Passover) that it is “the festival of Jewish identity. It is the night on which we tell our children who they are.” If Jews stand united in the fact that their identity is based on 3,300 years of history, as well as on the shared story of deliverance from Egyptian bondage and the formation of an understanding of their national identity at Mount Sinai, then Jews will, as Sharansky implores, also understand the importance of not being defined in any way, shape, or form by the same identities as those who historically oppressed Jews for millennia, be they European or Arab.
As for many other ethnic groups, the history of America for Jews has been a mixed bag. America meant an escape from egregious persecution in 18th-20th century Europe and later from Iran and many Arab dictatorships. Particularly in the 19th century, however, it was a refuge that included its own litany of limitations and violent threats that continue to spill Jewish blood to this day. Like other non-African-American and non-Native-American ethnic minorities in the U.S., Jews are not unfamiliar with being positioned as a buffer community, of receiving certain relative privileges in return for scapegoating when things go awry.
For the U.S. to live up to its founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Jews and all other people of good conscience should come together to strengthen and uplift the most disadvantaged communities in this nation. However, this must be done without capitulating to Jew-hatred and anti-Semitic tropes; regardless of whether that anti-Semitism is based on white supremacy, black supremacy (of the Nation of Islam variety), or any other form of, or justification for, Jew-hatred (e.g., anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism). Jews in America must be allowed a seat at the table of racial justice without having to negate or degrade their authentic Jewish selves, and that includes their identity as a Middle Eastern (specifically Levantine Hebrew) tribal people from Judea, and as a diverse ethnic group with members also belonging to the African, Latin, Native, and Asian American communities.
The next time purportedly progressive thinkers create a curriculum with the stated purpose of fostering a better understanding of ethnicity, race, or bigotry, or how these things influence the lives of ethnic minorities in the U.S., they need to recognize that Jews collectively trace their origins to the Middle East and that the Jewish relationship to whiteness and white supremacy is comparable to that of other Middle Eastern Americans. No Jews, be they Ashkenazim, Sephardim or Mizrahim, should be uniquely—among all ethnic minorities in America—stigmatized as privileged “white people” or Europeans. After all, those aware of progressive politics in the 21st century know that in the context of American history and politics, “white” is synonymous with “European,” which is synonymous with more than 500 years of European colonialism and oppression of non-Europeans. And anyone familiar with Jewish history knows precisely the price Jews paid in Europe, for not being “white.”
Malcolm X famously said about the African American experience in America, “We did not land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Jews, be they Ashkenazim or Sephardim, did not just land in Europe, Europe landed on the Jews. Over and over and over again. From the time Jews were brought to Rome in chains, through millennia of blood libels, the Spanish Inquisition, countless pogroms, and the Holocaust (where six million, mostly Ashkenazic Jews, were slaughtered in less than five years), Europe and Europeans made it crystal clear to the Jewish people that they were never European; never “white.” And certainly never the beneficiaries of 500 years of colonialism and conquest. To treat Jews as such is anti-Semitic because it erases Jewish collective experience and history. It erases the Jewish people’s very identity. No truly progressive person should engage in or tolerate such erasure. And no proud Jew should stand for it. Not for a second.