Less than a century ago, Jews portraying whites were defined as blacks. White supremacist arbitrators of whiteness – in an obsession with racial categorization as the scientific justification for a hierarchy of power – have dissected this topic. In this conceptualization, the color of the skin was not determinant for the race. This could not be the case, for whiteness was considered pure, and the Jews were (and continue to be) seen as an impure threat to whiteness.
Rather, race was a holistic determination, and having “black blood” signified genetic and moral inferiority. A British scientist by the name of John Beddoe went so far as to rate Jews on a “Darkness” scale, classifying us as 100% Black.
Fast forward to 2021. I recently watched the pilot episode of âBlack AF,â a sitcom starring Kenya Barris and Rashida Jones. In this episode, a Jewish assistant to Mr. Barris rejects the notion of Jewish whiteness, only to be told angrily “Jews are white, Jews are white, Jews are white”, in a litany recited by Mr. Barris and Mrs. Barris. Jones, who is herself of Jewish descent.
It seems the tables have turned – although white supremacists still reject the whiteness of Jews, others now see us as entirely white, thus placing the evils and responsibility of white supremacy on us.
In the progressive movement, of which I am proudly a part, our focus is on dismantling systemic racism and defeating white supremacy. But my Jewishness is either completely erased, and I am labeled white, or my Jewishness is generally rejected, because my whiteness must be the dominant identity that influences me. Despite the intense focus on intersectionality, I am reduced to a one-dimensional figure: a white person.
Whiteness was a pseudo-scientific creation, designed, among its other evils, to justify domination over non-whites. Classifying Jews as non-white has become an ideological basis on which to justify hatred of Jews, and ultimately genocide of the Jewish people. When blackness was synonymous with subhuman, Jews were seen as black by white supremacists and European colonial power structures. Now that whiteness is seen as inherently harmful in progressive spaces, Jews are being credited with whiteness.
It is difficult to escape the idea that social constructs of race ultimately label Jews as negatively as possible. And it follows a pattern familiar to the Jewish people.
One way or another, the Jew is blamed by both sides for a given problem. For the capitalists, we are communists. For communists, we are capitalists. For white supremacists, we are a non-white threat to whiteness. For black supremacists, like the Nation of Islam, we are ultra-white and responsible for the transatlantic slave trade. The end result is that the Jewish community isolates itself, ultimately paving the way for intense anti-Semitism, exclusion of Jews from public spaces, and systemic violence against us.
Let me be clear on a few things: Jews are of all colors. We have dark skin, fair skin, and ancestors from all over the world. Our dispersal was no accident. We have been violently exiled from our homeland, sought refuge wherever we can and, for thousands of years, have faced endless attacks and marginalization, and hundreds of expulsion events that sent us back to seek refuge elsewhere.
We are, however, a people, a nation ââ not just a diverse religious community. We are united by our indigenous history in the land of Zion, the root from which our diverse Jewish tree is grown. This story unites us with a common culture, history, language and set of traditions – because Jews of all colors, in countries around the world, have a common desire for our ancestral land.
The derisory racialization of Jews, or the attribution of white or black race to us, is a harmful act most often inflicted by non-Jews, usually in the pursuit of an agenda that is either explicitly anti-Jewish or steeped in anti-Jewish ideas, which ultimately lead to oppression.
It is essential that progressives who genuinely want to be allies of the Jewish people – as most do in my opinion – recognize that the current trend carries risks and follows the same nefarious patterns that have made the oldest community and the oldest vulnerable. most historically attacked in the world. For a movement so deeply committed to identifying implicit prejudices, we must recognize the anti-Jewish prejudices that are at the heart of so many parts of our world.
It is our duty to be careful not to help the roots of anti-Semitism deepen in our communities, whether intentionally or not. This is essential both for the survival of the Jewish people, and because while history is a teacher, growing anti-Semitism portends growing hatred and racial violence that touches every community.
Lauren Deutsch. Esq. is a lawyer with a background in gender-based violence litigation, a professional activist for reproductive justice, health equity and immigrant rights, a proud Jew and a parent of three, living in Brighton, New York .