Two articles by Emma Green, 1) Are Jews White? and 2) antisemitism at Charlottesville.
White, but maybe not “White”. Jonathan Greenblatt, left, director of the ADL with U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, October 2015. Photo courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League
Trump’s election has reopened questions that have long seemed settled in America—including the acceptability of open discrimination against minority groups.
By Emma Green, The Atlantic
December 05, 2016
When Stephen Bannon called his website, Breitbart, the “platform for the alt-right” this summer, he was referring to a movement that promotes white nationalism and argues that the strength of the United States is tied to its ethnic European roots. Its members mostly stick to trolling online, but much of what they do isn’t original or new: Their taunts often involve vicious antisemitism. They make it clear that Jews are not included in their vision of a perfect, white, ethno-state.
On the opposite side of American politics, many progressive groups are preparing to mount a rebellion against Donald Trump. They see solidarity among racial minorities as their goal, and largely blame Trump’s election on racism and white supremacy. Three-quarters of American Jews voted against Trump, and many support this progressive vision. Some members of these groups, though, have singled out particular Jews for their collusion with oppressive power—criticisms which range from inflammatory condemnations of Israel to full-on conspiracies about global Jewish media and banking cabals.
These are rough sketches of two camps, concentrated at the margins of U.S. political culture. On the extreme right, Jews are seen as impure—a faux-white race that has tainted America. And on the extreme left, Jews are seen as part of a white-majority establishment that seeks to dominate people of colour. Taken together, these attacks raise an interesting question: Are Jews white?
“Jewish identity in American is inherently paradoxical and contradictory,” said Eric Goldstein, an associate professor of history at Emory University. “What you have is a group that was historically considered, and considered itself, an outsider group, a persecuted minority. In the space of two generations, they’ve become one of the most successful, integrated groups in American society—by many accounts, part of the establishment. And there’s a lot of dissonance between those two positions.”
As pro- and anti-Trump movements jockey to realize their agendas, the question of Jews and whiteness illustrates the high stakes—and dangers—of racialized politics. Jews, who do not fit neatly into American racial categories, challenge both sides’ visions for the country. Over time, Jews have become more integrated into American society—a process scholars sometimes refer to as “becoming white.” It wasn’t the skin color of Ashkenazi Jews of European descent that changed, though; it was their status. Trump’s election has convinced some Jews that they remain in the same position as they have throughout history: perpetually set apart from other groups through their Jewishness, and thus left vulnerable.
From the earliest days of the American republic, Jews were technically considered white, at least in a legal sense. Under the Naturalization Act of 1790, they were considered among the “free white persons” who could become citizens. Later laws limited the number of immigrants from certain countries, restrictions which were in part targeted at Jews. But unlike Asian and African immigrants in the late 19th century, Jews retained a claim to being “Caucasian,” meaning they could win full citizenship status based on their putative race.
Culturally, though, the racial status of Jews was much more ambiguous. Especially during the peak of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Jews lived in tightly knit urban communities that were distinctly marked as separate from other American cultures: They spoke Yiddish, they published their own newspapers, they followed their own schedule of holidays and celebrations. Those boundaries were further enforced by widespread antisemitism: Jews were often excluded from taking certain jobs, joining certain clubs, or moving into certain neighbourhoods. Insofar as “whiteness” represents acceptance in America’s dominant culture, Jews were not yet white.
“If you’re a secular Jew, how are you a Jew? It has to be through your cultural or ethnic identity.”
Over time, though, they assimilated. Just like other white people, they fled to the suburbs. They took advantage of educational opportunities like the G.I. bill. They became middle class. “They thought they were becoming white,” said Lewis Gordon, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. “Many of them stopped speaking Yiddish. Many of them stopped going to synagogue. Many of them stopped wearing the accoutrements of Jewishness.”
Jews think about questions of race in their own lives with incredible diversity. There are many different kinds of Jews: Orthodox, secular, Reform; Jews by birth, Jews by choice, Jews by conversion. Some Jews who aren’t particularly religious may identify as white, but others may feel that their Jewishness is specifically linked to their ethnic inheritance. “If you’re a secular Jew, how are you a Jew? It has to be through your cultural or ethnic identity,” said Gordon. “Whereas if you’re a religious Jew, you would argue that you’re a Jew primarily through your religious practices.” As Jews assimilated into American culture, “ironically, investment in religiosity paved the way for greater white identification of many Jews,” he said, allowing more religiously observant Jews to think of themselves as white, rather than ethnically Jewish.
Goldstein sees it differently. “‘Whiteness’ and engagement with the categories of ‘white’ and ‘black’ are a reflection of a level of acculturation into a larger society,” he said. The Orthodox are “not just religiously different [from other Jews], but … socially separated,” he added. “They tend to see the world through the lens of their own community.” In other words, their categories for understanding themselves and others might not be “white” and “non-white”; they’re more likely to be “Jewish” and “non-Jewish.”
Other Jews might not think about race much, in the same way that a lot of white folks in America don’t think about race much. Lacey Schwartz, a filmmaker born to a Jewish mother and an African American father, but who long believed she was born to two white parents, experienced this firsthand. “I grew up in a space where we were all white, but it was almost like we didn’t have a race,” she said. These days, she works as an educator in Jewish communities, trying to help people talk about what race and racial diversity mean—topics they haven’t necessarily thought through before. “Within the Jewish community, we have to talk about whiteness, because people have to understand where they fit in,” she said.
“It’s important for Jews to become more aware of their white privilege.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, argued that Jews do grapple with race—and in fact, they have been at the forefront of struggles for racial equality like the civil-rights movement. “There’s no doubt that the vast majority of American Jews live with what we would call white privilege,” he said. “They aren’t looked at twice when they walk into a store. They aren’t looked at twice by someone in uniform. … That obviously isn’t a privilege that people of color have the luxury of enjoying.” And yet, even though light-skinned Jews may benefit from being perceived as white, “[Jewish] identity is shaped by these exogenous forces—ostracism, and exile, and other forms of persecution [like] extermination. I think there is this sense of shared struggle … programmed into the DNA of the Jewish people.”
As much variability as there is in how Jews might see their own whiteness, there’s even greater variability in how others see them. “For many Americans, if there’s a secular European Jew walking [down the street], Americans are not going to see the difference between a Polish Jew … and a Polish Catholic,” said Gordon.
For those who do see Jews as a distinctive group, many complicated factors might shape their views. For example: If Jews generally lack racial awareness, as Schwartz contends, that may exacerbate the hostility of the far left. “I think it’s important for Jews to become more aware of their white privilege—[it’s] one of the problems Jews have had in relating to African Americans,” said Goldstein. This has often come up specifically over the issue of Israel: Some Jews have found themselves at odds, for example, with those black activists who describe Israel’s actions toward Palestinians as a form of global white supremacy, interpreting that racialized language as offensive.
There’s also ambiguity in whether non-Jews perceive Jewish distinctiveness in terms of race or religion. “When anti-Semites [talk about] Jews, they mean a racial category,” Gordon argued. “I think they’re looking at Jews the way an anti-black racist looks at a light-skinned black person.” In working with Jewish groups around the country, he said, he has found that religious Jews are much more likely to view antisemitism as a form of religious discrimination. But he doesn’t see it that way. “Anti-religion is more like between Protestants and Catholics … or between a Zen Buddhist and Buddhist, or conflicts that Reform Jews have with Orthodox Jews,” Gordon said. “I see antisemitism as a racism. I don’t see antisemitism as simply about being anti-religion.”
The vast majority of American Jews—94 percent, according to Pew—describe themselves as white in surveys. But many Jews of colour—black, Asian, and even Mizrahi Jews—might identify their race in more ambiguous terms. Whiteness isn’t a simple, static category that can be determined by a quick question from a pollster.
“‘White’ is a kind of cultural construct—a way of thinking of yourself, and a way that other people think about you,” said Goldstein. “Whiteness itself is a very fluid and contested category.” Race is not just a matter of skin pigmentation or ethnic background. It is determined by both individuals and their observers, and the boundaries of who’s in or out of one group or another change constantly.
“It’s not that unprecedented that groups of disillusioned, disaffected populations of workers … lash out and use Jews as a scapegoat.”
So, are Jews white? “There’s really no conclusion except that it’s complicated,” said Goldstein. This is not the kind of question that searches for an answer, though. It’s a question designed to illuminate. It can be difficult to understand why many, although not all, Jews are scared of what’s to come in a Trump administration. Even Goldstein, who studies Judaism and antisemitism for a living, said he finds it hard to believe
“that Jews are in any real danger of losing their status in American society. Jews today are integrated into all of the mainstream institutions of American life: They’ve held the presidencies of all the major universities that once restricted their entrance; they are disproportionately represented in all the branches of government.”
And yet, no matter how much prestige Jews may amass, their status is always ambiguous. “White” is not a skin colour, but a category marking power. American Jews do have power, but they are also often viewed with suspicion; and having power is no assurance of protection. According to the FBI’s hate-crime statistics, a majority of the religiously motivated hate-crime offences are committed against Jews each year. This has been the case every year since the FBI first began reporting hate-crime statistics in 1995, when more than 80 percent of religiously motivated crimes were against Jews. These days, that percentage is closer to 50 percent—a sign not that Jews are safer, but that other groups have been increasingly targeted.
“It’s not that unprecedented that groups of disillusioned, disaffected populations of workers … lash out and use Jews as a scapegoat for problems that are really caused by a quickly changing society,” said Goldstein. “It is instructive to know that Jews have been in situations in which they were integrated and had status, and that hasn’t necessarily protected them. Sometimes, it makes them vulnerable.”
“Are Jews white?” is another way of asking, “Are Jews safe, in this unknown future that is to come?” To some, it seems unthinkable that they would not be. To others, it seems unthinkable that they would.
White and proud – state police at one of the statues commemorating General Robert E.Lee. Photo by Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Antisemitic logic fuelled the violence over the weekend, no matter what the president says.
By Emma Green, The Atlantic
August 15, 2017
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was ostensibly about protecting a statue of Robert E. Lee. It was about asserting the legitimacy of “white culture” and white supremacy, and defending the legacy of the Confederacy.
So why did the demonstrators chant antisemitic lines like “Jews will not replace us”?
The demonstration was suffused with anti-black racism, but also with [anti-Jews racism] anti-Semitism. Marchers displayed swastikas on banners and shouted slogans like “blood and soil,” a phrase drawn from Nazi ideology. “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” one demonstrator told Vice News’ Elspeth Reeve during their march. As Jews prayed at a local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, according to the temple’s president. Nazi websites posted a call to burn their building. As a precautionary measure, congregants had removed their Torah scrolls and exited through the back of the building when they were done praying.
“This is an agenda about celebrating the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and celebrating those that then fought to preserve that terrible machine of white supremacy and human enslavement,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL. “And yet, somehow, they’re all wearing shirts that talk about Adolf Hitler.”
For these demonstrators, though, the connection between African Americans and Jews is clear. In the minds of white supremacists like David Duke, there is a straight line from anti-blackness to anti-Judaism. That logic is powerful and important. The durability of antisemitic tropes, and the ease with which they slide into all displays of bigotry, is a chilling reminder that the hatreds of our time rhyme with history and are easily channeled through timeless antisemitic canards.
The University of Chicago historian David Nirenberg has spent his career studying anti-Jewish movements and beliefs. Recently, he spoke to a group of students about antisemitism on college campuses. “At the end of the … talk, I said, ‘I wouldn’t rush from all this material to thinking that this antisemitism is as dangerous as its early 20th-century predecessor,’” he told me. “Seeing the images of the Virginia protest, I must admit, I kind of felt otherwise. … It certainly made me feel that books and ideas that I had treated as very marginal in our society are not as marginal as I might have hoped.”
Antisemitism often functions as a readily available language for all manner of bigotry—a Rosetta Stone that can translate animus toward one group into a universal hate for many groups. “Ever since St. Paul, Christianity and all the religions born from it—Islam, the secular philosophies of Europe, etc.—learned to think about their world in terms of overcoming the dangers of Judaism,” said Nirenberg. “We have these really basic building blocks … for thinking about the world and what’s wrong with it … by thinking about Judaism.”
In the world sketched by white supremacists, Jews hover malevolently in the background, pulling strings, controlling events, acting as an all-powerful force backing and enabling the other targets of their hate. That’s clear in statements made by people like Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who proudly marched with other white supremacists in Charlottesville. Jewish Zionists, he complained to a gathered crowd, control the media and American political system.
“The extreme right considers many people their threat. But it always, always, always comes back to the Jews.”
Anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiment have long been intertwined in America. When the Jewish factory worker Leo Frank was wrongfully convicted of murder and lynched in 1915, two new groups simultaneously emerged: the ADL, which fights against bigotry and antisemitism, and the second Ku Klux Klan, which began by celebrating Frank’s death. Later in the 20th century, Nazis became a natural model for white-supremacist movements in the United States, said Marjorie Feld, a professor of history at Babson College. The logic of white supremacy was similar: Hatreds became universalized through common archetypes. Jews were seen by white supremacists as capitalists undermining local businesses. Black Americans fleeing the South in the Great Migration were seen as taking away crucial labour. Catholics were seen as immigrants stealing American jobs.
After the Holocaust, neo-Nazi movements were largely consigned to the country’s political fringe, although they never fully left the American landscape. In 1978, for example, a Nazi group pushed to demonstrate in Skokie, Illinois, deliberately selecting an area densely populated by Holocaust survivors. The proposed march caused a national uproar, and the American Civil Liberties Union famously defended the group’s First Amendment rights in court. Eventually, they ended up demonstrating in Chicago.
The Charlottesville demonstration differed from the planned Skokie march in two important respects, Nirenberg said. First of all, there’s a political context for the “Unite the Right” demonstration. It fits into debates over free speech and college campuses as the front lines of cultural battle, he said. The Skokie march was also widely and vigorously condemned by political leaders. “That strong, clear commitment to certain values of inclusion from our political leaders is not present in the same way,” Nirenberg said.
On Monday, President Donald Trump held a press conference about the violence in Charlottesville. “Racism is evil,” he said. “Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” This statement came two days after his initial comments on the protests, in which he condemned the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”
The suggested equivalence between the white-supremacist demonstrators and their counter-protesters shocked politicians and public figures in both parties, who quickly criticized Trump’s unwillingness to condemn neo-Nazis and the KKK. “It’s very clear that the people marching in Charlottesville felt very supported by the shape of the public statements made by President Trump,” said Nirenberg. On Tuesday, the president held another press conference in which he reiterated his previous claims, saying, “What about the alt-left that came charging … with clubs in their hands? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
Greenblatt argued that the backlash against Trump’s comments is not about politics—it’s about recognizing a pattern of antisemitism. There was the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that didn’t mention Jews; the conspiratorial meme of Hillary Clinton and a Star of David that Trump retweeted during the campaign; the infamous Nazi salute and shouts of “Hail Trump!” at an alt-right conference following the election. In the past several days, a number of groups have renewed their calls for Trump to fire Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, in part based on Bannon’s role in heading Breitbart, which he called a “platform for the alt-right.”
To people like Greenblatt, these are all signs that, at best, the White House does not take antisemitism seriously enough. At worst, the Trump administration indulges bigotry so as not to alienate some supporters. “Heck, there’s Jewish grandchildren running around the White House,” Greenblatt said. “But make no mistake, the extreme right considers many people their threat, but it always, always, always comes back to the Jews.”
“You just can’t say this as a historian, but I feel like we’re at this critical juncture.”
As Nirenberg pointed out, the violence in Charlottesville was part of a broader political context. The fringe right is reacting to other political movements with nostalgia, Feld said—a yearning for people, including minorities like Jews and blacks, to “know their place.”
“It makes sense to me that just as … we’re seeing people of all backgrounds be brave enough to insist that these monuments about slavery” be toppled, Feld said, “these people would come out and say we would want to return to the way things were.”
The identity politics of the intersectional left are radically different from the generalized bigotry of the far-right fever swamps. And yet, they are in relationship: Universalized movements that aim to fight oppression against all peoples in all of their identities necessarily invite backlash from those who feel that they’re losing their place in society. “It would really reduce and impoverish debate to see this example as primarily an anti-Jewish rally … [or] as entirely an anti-African American rally. It’s all those things,” said Nirenberg. “To the extent that we separate those and claim, ‘No, it’s only about my identity,’ we fail to understand basic aspects of identity politics in the present.’”
Of course there are neo-Nazis in our time. There are those who hate Jews in every time. It’s a hatred that easily flickers between the universal and the particular, melding with the similarly particular hatreds of blacks and immigrants and other minority groups. “You just can’t say this as a historian, but I feel like we’re at this critical juncture,” Feld said. “I don’t feel like the world is unsafe for Jews. I really don’t. But I do feel like all social groups need to pay careful attention and speak out against what’s happening.”
Like Nirenberg, Feld was trained to look at the images coming out of Charlottesville and see not a freak occurrence, but the echoes of history.
“God,” she said. “It’s fucking scary.”