Jews and the Social Construction of Race

Immigrants at Ellis Island, 1907. (Library of Congress)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to my article, “Are Jews White?,” some people, primarily on Twitter, have voiced concerns about the headline. Here’s an example:

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.

I found that last thought from Bender instructive—she read into the headline, in combination with the image, the implication that even asking a question about Jews and race is the first step toward undermining Jews’ rights. Her argument also seems to be about context: Because anti-Semitic, racist, white-supremacist perspectives have been elevated during this election season, and because Trump and Bannon are about to move into the White House, any imagery or phrase that echoes anti-Semitic imagery and phrases is going to be interpreted as anti-Semitic, or at least as engaging anti-Semites on their own terms. She compared our graphic, which was designed in-house, to the anti-Semitic graphic of Hillary Clinton overlaid on a Star of David that Trump retweeted.

Here’s what I’d say to these objections: Racial categories exist in American society. Everyone—including and especially Jews, a group that is arguably constructed not just around religious identity, but also ethnicity—has to grapple with their relationship to those racial categories. As I argue in the piece, racial categories are flawed, socially constructed, and ultimately premised on control and power. But ignoring questions about race is not a way of bringing about racial justice or overturning white supremacy. It’s a way of stifling understanding, debate, and awareness.

The most important objection here, and one that I take very seriously, is about Jews of color—people who would never claim to be white, and who would likely never be seen as white in the United States. It’s true that most American Jews are from a “white”—i.e., European—background, at least based on polling numbers; researchers at Brandeis put their estimate at 89 percent in 2013. That estimate is itself based on overly simplistic categories devised by pollsters—but that downside is built into the nature of polling.

Among this large group of Jews, a lot of whom might identify or be identified by others as white, many people probably don’t think about their race very much. To that point, here’s a line from the piece:

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.

Asking, “Are Jews white?,” is a way of questioning the lack of racial awareness among some American Jews. It’s meant to highlight all of the things that challenge the notion that Jews are un-complicatedly white—including the experiences of Jews of color. It’s a point made memorably by the scholarship of Lewis R. Gordon, the former founder of Temple University’s Center for Afro-Jewish Studies and current professor at the University of Connecticut, who’s prominently featured in the piece, and who is himself a Jew of color.

I have also gotten feedback from the other side—folks who believe that questioning racial categories is part of the scourge of “leftism”:

To those folks, I’d say that the American experience of race shows otherwise, and the Jewish experience, in particular, shows the ways in which racial categories are not objective, but constructed.

As a final aside, I think it’s instructive to look at how real Nazi sympathizers reacted to my piece. David Duke, who is a Holocaust denier, former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard, and unabashed white supremacist, was also apparently enraged by our headline—he seems to have read it as an argument that Jews are white:

The fact that this makes David Duke angry—that the mere suggestion that Jews might be considered white by some people sets him into an all-caps Twitter rage—is exactly why I wrote this piece.