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My Take On Whether Or Not Jews Are White

Updated on November 8, 2018

Are European Jews White?

Recently, within the Jewish community and even beyond, there have been debates raging about whether or not Jews count as white. I am certainly not an expert on this matter, but I have yet to read anything from actual experts that convinces me one way or another. As a Jew myself, I can certainly attest to the fact that many Jews are white-passing. However, when people fall into the category of “white-passing”, they are not necessarily white because, in order to be classified as white, a person must have some sort of European or Caucasian ancestry. Therefore, plenty of individuals with non-white ethnic identities look white without actually being white. These people can avoid being the target of direct discrimination as long as they conceal their true identity.

European Jews often face a similar reality. Most of the us have all the privilege in the world, but we run the risk of losing our privilege the second the truth about our Jewish heritage is exposed. Sometimes, we manage to keep our privilege following exposure . After all, plenty of the people in power harbor no anti-Jewish sentiment. Some of the people in power are even Jewish themselves. Other times, our privilege is snatched away.

I can give plenty of anecdotal evidence about times I found myself at a disadvantage just because I was a Jew. Jews across the country have experienced both subtle and overt anti-Semitism. However, I will simply use the most recent FBI statistics on hate crimes to put the true extent of anti-Semitism into perspective. The majority of hate crime incidences in the United States are directed at African Americans. The second to most highly targeted group of people in the United States is white people, which actually makes a certain amount of sense because white people make up the majority of the population. Members of the LGBT+ community are the third to most highly targeted group. In this horrible game of who suffers the most, Jews come in fourth place with 684 hate crime incidences committed against the Jews in 2016. These statistics have remained almost constant for years, but reports show that the number of hate crimes committed against Jews is expected to rise a little bit. Considering that Jews make up under two percent of the population of this country, it is rather frightening that hate crimes against us make up over 50 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes.

Of course, hate crimes do not prove anything about whether or not someone is white. After all, white people themselves are actually victims of a some hate crimes. However, these statistics still highlight the sheer number of anti-Semites in this country. Criminals are not the only people who can be anti-Semitic. Anyone from all backgrounds and all walks of life can be, in some way, anti-Jewish. Therefore, the people who have the power to take away our privilege may also be consciously or unconsciously anti-Semitic. The act of taking away privilege is definitely a subtle form of bias, so it may be difficult to measure, making it impossible to put a number on it the way we can with hate crimes. However, most Jews will able to talk to you about times when they lost their privilege simply because they were Jewish.

People might be skeptical. People might say that European Jews definitely do not have it so bad. These people would be right. In general, European Jews living in the United States have been very fortunate. We live in tight-knit communities in or near accepting cities. We tend to choose very specific professions that have a good reputation for being free of most major forms of anti-Semitism. The reason we choose these career paths often have nothing to do with the lack of anti-Semitism, but avoiding hate does seem to be byproduct of ending up in places with people who are relatively open-minded. Of course, we are able to have this much choice when it comes to our careers because of our initial white-passing privilege. We are usually wealthy and educated, which means that opportunities present themselves relatively often. We rarely come from the inner city and we have white skin. Therefore, if we play our cards right, we can live the life of a white person. Every Jew is definitely going to have a different experience with privilege and prejudice and I imagine the situation is the same for other communities of white-passing individuals.

Unfortunately, our privileged reality has caused many of the more insulated Jews to align themselves with racist ideology. While Jews will never be accepted among the self-identified neo-Nazis and white supremacists, there is a significant portion of right wing Jews who voted for Trump and have bought into the racism that he incites. The simple status of a being racist does not make you white. Additionally, the vast majority of Jews in the United States consistently vote Democrat. However, there is no denying the existence of strong Jewish communities with big pockets of racist Trump supporters, which might suggest that Jews have so much white privilege that we are functionally white. Arguably, you do not have to be white to be racist, but most racist people are definitely white.

Historically, there is no denying that the white-passing nature of European Jews is slightly different from the white-passing nature of many individuals who are Native American, Latinx, biracial, Asian, Arabic, or anything else. After all, European Jews are actually from Europe. If having European ancestry is all it takes to be considered white, then perhaps some Jews are white, even though the emergence of our European genetics was often a result of rape. However, if we use this standard to determine whiteness, many other nonwhite people would be considered fully white, especially biracial people who pass as white.

The truth is that European ancestry is not really enough to be fully white. You need to have ties to a European ethnic identity. For example, ethnic Germans can qualify as white, but Judaism is an ethnoreligious identity that was forged in the Near East thousands of years ago. European Jewry may have been influenced by years in a European exile, but we maintain much of the same ethnic, religious, national, cultural, and ancestral ties as Jews who cannot pass as white. Additionally, European Jews cannot always be considered Polish, German, or Russian when these white identities specifically excluded Jews throughout history. For example, a Jew cannot be considered a German if that Jew lived in Germany during the Holocaust because the German national and ethnic identity of the time specifically rejected anyone with any Jewish ancestry.

Admittedly, sometimes, Jews were tolerated in Europe. During the brief emancipation period in Napoleonic France, Jews were considered Frenchmen of the Mosaic Faith, which was an accepted French identity, but there was still something starkly Jewish about it. Jews had the ability to call themselves French in the streets, but they could also call themselves Jewish in their homes. The French label was almost like a second identity. I would not use the term biracial for this situation. However, biracial individuals may feel similarly about their identity because they may possess multiple racial, ethnic, cultural, national, and religious ties. Likewise, many Jews in France at the time may have felt connected to their French identity, while simultaneously feeling connected to Judaism. The French part of their identity can be considered a white identity, but it is not clear if the Jewish part of their identity is also considered a white identity.

This period of French history did not last long. However, it is definitely possible that, when Jews adopts a second and undeniably white ethnicity, they become white. This second identity was not only common in France. It appeared throughout Europe and, whether it was a German, Polish, Russian, or Hungarian identity, it could enhance someone’s Jewish identity. The Jewish identity could also enhance the second identity. The two identities could coexist, evolving either together or separately. Unfortunately, the second identity could be taken away if a country decided they no longer liked the Jews. Once again, Jews would be labeled as nothing more than a Jew living alongside another nation. This exclusion from the nationality and ethnicity of our neighbors further shaped the development of European Jewry. Continuous rejection is arguably part of the reason why many Jewish communities never became fully integrated into other cultures and identities. At times, we may have borrowed elements of European culture and other Europeans may have borrowed elements from our culture. However, without enough long-term tolerance, assimilation never occurred with every single Jew, so European Jewry never had a chance to gradually die out and combine itself with a larger European ethnicity.

In modern times, most Jews are no longer excluded to the same extent as we once were, which is what makes us white-passing and privileged as long as we do not dress or present ourselves as obnoxiously Jewish. However, there is always the threat of losing this privilege and an ethnoreligious identity with a long memory and an even longer history is not going to forget about this threat. Additionally, many Jews have various anxieties about assimilating, meaning our Jewish identity will survive and develop somewhat separately from other our other identities.

I am neither a sociologist nor a historian, so I cannot actually answer the question about whether Jews are white or not. I do fully believe that a short ancestral fling with white nationalities in France would make me a white person, especially since I do have white skin. However, I would also argue that I would be both French and Jewish. Again, I would not consider myself biracial, but I imagine that my ethnicity shares similarities with someone who is biracial. While the French part of my identity does make me white, the Jewish part of my identity is not a white identity. It is an ethnicity with roots in the Near East. It is a religion that I practice in spite of the prejudice that I have faced because of it. It is also an identity that I keep private. After all, I do not know how much privilege I would have left if everyone knew that I was a Jew.

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    • Bored Student profile imageAUTHOR

      BackOfTheClassThoughts 

      21 months ago from Massachusettes

      I'm not exactly sure why Jews vote democrat, but I assume there are factors more important than affluence. I think the fact that most Jews are from metropolitan areas makes a difference. I think the fact that most Jews are college educated makes a difference. However, I honestly can't answer this question because I just don't know.

    • Credence2 profile image

      Credence2 

      21 months ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      • “To be an ethnicity, a group must share a common culture and a common nationality. Jews do share those things. As long as there are self-identified Jews who claim to have no faith, Judaism will remain as something more than a religion”

      I can follow that, Student, for example, Italians are an ethnic group but not a “race” Your question as to whether Jews in the aspects of assimilation are closer to the Irish or Latino(a), I would answer, neither. To be honest, the Jews’ desire to distinguish themselves although they are able to assimilate is closer to the situation with the LGTB folks. The Irish were subject to distinction and bias during the 19th century and into about the first quarter of the 20th. I have read accounts from Joseph Kennedy Sr. about his frustrations of not being accepted into the upper class as equals along with the Astors and Vanderbilts of the early 20th century Gilded Age. Much of this was because he was Irish. They (the Irish) always wanted to assimilate as a goal. You are not like the Latina, because if you wish to, you do not have to be seen as different. But the Latina has no choice in the matter, indelible physical characteristics tell on her every time.

      The Italians, Irish and the Germans consider themselves an Ethnic Group, but they are also white. Do you consider the Jews as fitting in this category? Do you think that the Hebrews of 2 millennia past could have passed as “white”, or better yet would you consider them Caucasian? Caucasians cover a wide berth of appearance and geographical area. I have a hard time envisioning “platinum blondes” among the ancient Hebrew people. But again, being Caucasian is not necessarily Nordic. I have worked for Jewish people as a kid and could not distinguish them physically from any other white person. Yet, mixed people usually have tell tale signs of ancestry from another race of people that makes it more difficult to “pass”.

      I have wondered why Jews and Asians, relatively successful and affluent people, generally support Democrats. I will have to do more research in regard to the Asians, but you can tell me why that is true for Jewish people? I wrote an undergraduate thesis in 1976 examining the pro-Israeli bias in American school textbooks. I was attacked by my classmates at the time as being anti-Semitic. My issues were with Israeli foreign policy and her relationship with the U.S., over the Palestinian debate and had nothing to do with people or personalities. And regardless of who or what, fair is fair.

      I regret that relationships between the Blacks and Jews have nose dived, as in years past much of what was accomplished to move the civil rights agenda forward was because of their assistance. We were much closer in years past.....

    • Bored Student profile imageAUTHOR

      BackOfTheClassThoughts 

      21 months ago from Massachusettes

      To be an ethnicity, a group must share a common culture and a common nationality. Jews do share those things. As long as there are self-identified Jews who claim to have no faith, Judaism will remain as something more than a religion.

      You make a good point with the assimilation argument. The Irish were originally discriminated against, but they assimilated are now accepted as an American white identity. Jews, in theory have this ability to assimilate, but we don't do it. We firmly separate our Jewish identity from all other identities in order to actively avoid assimilation. We differ from people of color in that we have the choice between assimilating or not, whereas they do not necessarily have that choice since they will always stick out in a country where white is the default skin color. Jews have a choice, but very adamantly choose not to and I wonder where that puts us. Are we more similar to Irish people who had the choice and, after years, more or less managed to? Are we more similar to Latinx people who do not really have that choice because they will always look different? I don't know. I would say we are more similar to the Irish because, if an Irish person chose to express their Irish identity as separate, then they could do so and still be considered white.

      Of course, this argument kind of becomes a moot point outside of the United States. Outside this country, white is more about Caucasian and European ancestry, which white-passing Jews do posses. However, as I said, we only possess it because we were periodically raped by Europeans after being exiled from Israel 2000 years ago and I really wonder if that counts. Many Native Americans were also raped by Europeans, which is part of the reason that many of them look white today, but I don't think they can be considered white. The only real difference between white-passing Jews and white-passing Native Americans is that white-passing Jews actually lived in Europe and experienced westernization there more or less voluntarily, while Native Americans experienced westernization in the US more less against their will. Again, I am not sure if a European exile counts as voluntary westernization, but Zionism and the desire to proactively end that exile only really started in the 1800s, so it's complicated.

      You are absolutely right about what causes Jews to support Trump. Much of the Jewish Trump supporters only put their support in him because the Republican Party sort of owns Zionism. However, there is a weird phenomenon that these republican Jews seem to want to defend many of things Trump does. Maybe it has to do with guilt. I don't know. Therefore, when I say that, while I care about Israel, I care about racism more, these Jews will defend Trump in order to defend their vote and they have slowly started to buy into his racism. Therefore, it more recent years, there has been a huge uptick in overt racism in the religious Jewish community. It's truly bizarre because it was once a community that used to praise all the Rabbis that marched in Selma, but there has been a very visible shift and the relationship between Jews and black people in neighborhoods like Brooklyn has gone downhill fast. Obviously, there may be multiple factors at play for what is happening in Brooklyn and similar neighborhoods, but I can't deny that the uptick in overt racism is part of this shift.

    • Credence2 profile image

      Credence2 

      21 months ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Is there really and ethnic racial component to being Jewish? I saw it more as a confessed faith rather than having a racial or ethnic distinction. I thought that you could be both Jewish and Caucasian. What was it that I read about distinctions in Israel between European Jews and the more swarthy Jews from North Africa and Ethiopia?

      Jews seem to be the ideological focal point for Nazi and White Supremacists groups for all of the world’s ills even over more easily identified people of color.

      In America, those that are able to assimilate in to white society can avoid being identified and treated in an adverse manner, case in point, the Irish. The assimilation problem is greater when you can be physically identified as different, Asians, Hispanics, Blacks and Native Americans. I can only speak on life in these United States, the circumstances could easily be different in other parts of the world. As you say, Jews have a tradition of being well educated where ever they go which always gives them a strategic advantage even in a hostile environment.

      Student, how much of the Trump support from Jews can be attributed to the GOP support of Israel, politically? Jews have been a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, but there have always been those in the minority that supported the GOP. Is the situation in the Middle East prompting that support?

      You know, I never thought of German as a ethnicity, but a description of a point of origin. I recognize that most Germans are Caucasian people. But can Jews be Caucasian people? In France, there would no reason be identified as Jewish except only when you so declare or openly practice the faith. Otherwise, could a Jew be physically identified as such when compared with a typical Frenchman?

      But Jewish people need to be aware that a “distinction” was sought out and made during the Third Reich and after the experience of the Holocaust, one would not want to lull one’s self into a false sense of comfort and security behind what seemed a successful level of assimilation, for what happened once can happen again. It is wise to remain eternally vigilant

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