None of the Above: Race, White Privilege, and The Jews


The has been recently much debate and discussion in the blog-o-sphere, the Twitter-verse, the Lame Stream Media, and other places over what to make of Jews in this new post-factual, Alt-right, world we find ourselves in.  Are Jews “white”? Are Jews perpetrators or victims of vast global conspiracies? Are Jews even people?  Is there a final solution to the Jewish Question?

As the last three questions are, in and of themselves, Anti-Semitic, I want to focus on the first question, which is not, by itself, Anti-Semitic, but the answers can be.  My answer to the question of whether or not American Jews are “white” is that it depends on your definition of “white.”  If we mean “white” as in skin pigmentation lighter in tone than others’ (i.e. pinkish to slightly olive), then yes, American Jews are “white.” After all, most American Jews come from the Western Europe.  If, however, we mean “white” as in race as a descriptor of genetics, ethnicity, and culture in a taxonomy of peoples, then the answer is, “No.”  When the concept of race was invented during the Enlightenment as a means of disguising between various peoples, two groups were intentionally left out of the taxonomy as they were considered “sub-human:” Africans and Jews.[i]

This is not to say, however, that due to our skin tone, American Jews have not benefited from white privilege.  We have.  But only to a point.  While Jews in America do not experience the indignities of discrimination and racism that African-Americans and other persons of color do on a daily basis, there is a limit to the privilege white Christians extend to Jews.  As recently as the middle of the previous century there were strict quotas on Jewish immigration to America, quotas on Jewish admission to American colleges and universities, as well as country clubs, hotels, and companies that do not admit Jews.

So what are American Jews to do with their “white privilege”?  Two things: 1) admit that it is limited at best and an illusion at worst and 2) use whatever cover Jewish white privilege does afford them to speak and stand up against the increase in hate openly displayed in America today.  Hate directed at the most vulnerable among us.  We need to do this because, there is one commandment in Torah with no time constraints, which requires action, and applies to everyone: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (D’Varim 16:20).  As  Jews, we are commanded to pursue justice not only at certain times but all the times.  As Jews, we are commanded to pursue justice not only in certain locations but everywhere.  As Jews, we are commanded to pursue justice not only for some but for everyone.  We are not white: We are Jews.

[i] For a more detailed history of the concept of race, read The History of White People, by historian Nell Irvin Painter.

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