Race, Class, and Comments

by Ayelet Waldman

I hadn't checked in on the comments section for a while, so I feared I was doomed to end my brief tenure on this blog without once being called a racist. But thankfully some furious Sephardic Israelis rose to the occasion. Rest assured, friends, that I know as much about the demographics of the State of Israel—up until the late '80s, that is—as the next sporadic resident. That is to say, a little.

While I absolutely cannot speak to conditions in contemporary Israel (I haven't been back in 15 years), I can tell you that the Israel I lived in in the 1980s was segregated. Certainly with the exception of a very few neighborhoods in a very few cities, the Jews and Arabs did not live in the same communities. In fact, on one occasion, when an Arab friend drove me home, I received a warning from my neighbors not to bring people "like that" into the building ever again.

More to the point, the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews often lived in segregated communities. My family is about as Ashkenazic as they come (bouncing from Minsk to Kiev and back again for, what, a thousand years?). I lived on a kibbutz that was founded by German Jews and was still overwhelmingly populated by Jews of European origin, with the exception of the families of a small group who'd come from Syria as young teenagers, after 1948.

This segregation meant that if you were an Ashkenazic Jew living in Israel in the '60s, '70s, or '80s, your world was very white. Not nearly as white as your world is if you live in a state like Maine where upwards of 93 percent of the people define themselves as "white," but pretty damn white. With all the privilege that implies.

As to why I consider it a "dubious privilege" to be the whitest state in the Union—well, folks, I live in California though I didn't grow up there. And one of the reasons I choose to live in California and not somewhere else is because I believe that the diversity of the community adds to my life, and to the lives of my kids. It is sure as hell not perfect. My immediate neighborhood is affluent—it's comprised primarily of sizeable single family homes—and the diversity we experience sometimes feels like just a whole lot of rich people of a bunch of different colors. But that's why we do our best to inhabit as much of the East Bay as we can, to participate in as much of the life of our whole city as we can, so we don't end up living in a metaphorical gated community.

I Iove Maine (and oh, yes, I know that as a summer visitor my love is a transient and suspect thing), but the relative racial homogeneity of the state is not one of the things I love about it. Though I know, too, that that homogeneity is changing here, as it is in the rest of the country. There are parts of Maine with growing communities of immigrants from Asia and Africa.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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