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 anti-Semitism. 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 that 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 color. Taken together, these attacks raise an interesting question: Are Jews white?
“Jewish identity in America is inherently paradoxical and contradictory,” says 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 anti-Semitism: Jews were often excluded from taking certain jobs, joining certain clubs, or moving into certain neighborhoods. Insofar as “whiteness” represents acceptance in America’s dominant culture, Jews were not yet white.
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,” says 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,” Gordon says. “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 says, 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 says. The Orthodox are “not just religiously different [from other Jews], but … socially separated,” he adds. “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 “nonwhite”; 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 says. 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 says.
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 says. “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,” Gordon says.
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,” Goldstein says. 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 argues. “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 says, he has found that religious Jews are much more likely to view anti-Semitism 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 says. “I see anti-Semitism as a racism. I don’t see anti-Semitism 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 color—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,” Goldstein says. “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.
So, are Jews white? “There’s really no conclusion except that it’s complicated,” Goldstein says. 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 anti-Semitism for a living, says 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 color, 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 religiously motivated hate-crime offenses 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,” Goldstein says. “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.