In response to my article, “Are Jews White?,” some people, primarily on Twitter, have voiced concerns about the headline. Here’s an example:
This is a discussion we are having in America in 2016!!!!— Amy Siskind (@Amy_Siskind) December 5, 2016
From Are Jews People, to this?
WTF is going on!
This reader, along with a number of others, seems to have interpreted the headline, and found it lacking, in a few different ways (I reached out to Siskind on Twitter for more details on her reaction but haven’t heard back):
- Some seem to read it as a dog-whistle to white nationalists who seek to show that Jews are part of what they regard as a non-white, inferior racial group, thus reinforcing tropes of anti-Semitism.
- Others seem to see it as an earnest questioning of whether Jews belong in the “white” racial category, thus promoting the use of racial categories.
- And still others claim the headline reinforces old stereotypes within the Jewish community—specifically, a blindness to the experiences of Jews of non-Ashkenazi or non-European descent, many of whom might not self-identify or be seen as white by other people in the American context.
We’re keeping the headline, and I want to explain why.
“Race” is a historically contingent and subjective category that is used to justify violence against minority groups. I specifically wrote about American Jews because their experiences—which are incredibly diverse and varied—show the hypocrisies and limits of these racial categories. Looking at the historical experiences of this one particular group, and the present-day tensions its faces, is a means of critiquing the way “whiteness” is used to delineate who is and isn’t considered powerful and valuable in society.
When I was first looking into writing this article, I worried that the question might be stale. A number of scholars, including Emory’s Eric Goldstein, whom I interviewed; UCLA’s Karen Brodkin; and, most recently, Princeton’s Mitchell Duneier have written about the way Jews relate to whiteness, from a variety of different angles. I wondered whether this debate would seem too esoteric and niche—a conversation of interest only to a small group of Jews and scholars, but effectively irrelevant outside of those circles.
The reaction I’ve gotten has been surprising, and shows that this is clearly not the case. Certain parts of the Jewish community are having conversations along these lines; others seem stunned that this is a question at all. A lot of people seem to feel strongly that talking about Jews in terms of race—even to challenge the notion that Jews could ever fit neatly into a single racial category, which is what my article is about—is thought-provoking or, at worst, dangerous. One reader, Melissa Bender of New York, put it this way in a phone conversation:
It really was a reaction to the headline and the graphic together. ... I thought it was provocative in an unfortunate way. It focused attention on the wrong question—I think the real question is: Have white supremacists been able to influence the content of mainstream media far more than they ever could before the election? Obviously, that’s the case. ...
Judaism is not a race, it’s a religion. And second of all, the only reason people are thinking about whether Jews are white right now is because there are white supremacists influencing the conversation and pointing it in that direction. ...
I felt like it was essentially allowing the white-supremacist conversation to dominate the headline. I felt that it could have the dangerous effect of making that the question—Are Jews white? Should they have fewer rights than white people?—and push the conversation in a more prejudicial direction.