Why Are Jews Seen as ‘White’?

Evan Bernstein speaks to the press following the attack on a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey in December 2019. Photo: Courtesy/JNS.

As critics have noted, American Jews today are often characterized as “white” when talking about race. Not only is this narrative inaccurate — it’s also dangerous. Religious hate crimes against Jews far outstrip those of any other community in the US, and have often turned deadly. Characterizing Jews as “white” minimizes the Jewish experience and the threats and discrimination Jews have experienced in this country ever since its founding.

How Jews “became white” — or perhaps “white but not quite” — in America is historically complicated.

In 1800, the handful of Jews in this country were generally considered “neither white nor black” — but in between, and possibly a race of their own.

Beginning around 1900, American Jews may indeed have come to be viewed — and to view themselves — as “white.” If so, the causes may have been second- and third-generation Jews abandoning the “foreign tongues” of their parents, while also leaving Orthodoxy for forms of Judaism (or secularism) that allowed them to blend into the American scene more easily. They also abandoned Jewish tenements and slums, and moved up into the middle class. To be classified as  “white,” they actually had to do little, because that’s how the US Census began classifying them around 1930.

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Still, there were horrible instances of antisemitism all through this period — ranging from the deadly to the commonplace discrimination and formal and de facto bans at country clubs, universities, and more.

But some radical practitioners of “Jewish whiteness studies” — including such Jewish scholars as Michael Paul Rogin, Karen Brodkin, Matthew F. Jacobson, and Eric L. Goldstein — have argued quite differently. They suggest that Jewish immigrants and their children embraced “whiteness” as a way of asserting their superiority over other races.

That’s a sham and a farce — as anyone who has studied Jewish and Black solidarity during the Civil Rights movement will tell you.

But the demographics of this country are changing. Today, African-Americans are increasingly outnumbered by Hispanic Americans, whose racial identities are often ambiguous. Asian-Americans are also on the rise — though perhaps not at Harvard and other elite universities because of hidden quotas against them. Are American Jews today actually so obsessed with being “white” or are the “whiteness scholars” and others like them so intent on never seeing beyond the color of someone’s skin?

It’s also true that a large and growing community of Black Jews are demanding the recognition and acceptance they have long sought. The same holds true for Mizrahi Jews — whose numbers are exploding both in Israel and here in the US. One wonders if they appreciate being told by academics — almost all “white Jews” with a leftist political agenda — that “whiteness” has become the norm for Jewishness in this country.

Perhaps Jews should reject feeling guilty about being “white” and grapple instead with how to collaborate with other minorities in helping shape the new “beige” America.

From studying our history — and today’s hate crime statistics — it’s clear that Jews are not part of the “white privilege” set. And maybe Jewish professors should examine their ideological pursuit of “whiteness studies” and what it reveals about them.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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