I will never self-identify in public as a “white Jew,” despite the fact that I am “Jewish” and “white” and enjoy white skin privilege in the United States, while in Israel I would be unambiguously “Ashkenazi.” In America, the term “white Jew” eludes so many scales of historical and social-cultural difference and creates so many disassociations for it to do anything but jar. First, it is not an indigenous Jewish category. Second, it flies against the principle of self-determination. Jews whose people immigrated from Central and Eastern Europe become white people in America. But are Jews, even Ashkenazi Jews, white “like” non-Jews? Do they carry the same easy privilege as “other” white people? Or are they defined by a set historical circumstances and social constellations that are unique to their own situation and that have gone undertheorized of late?
Ashkenazi Jews are definitely not POC. The suffer none of those indignities suffered by POC in a racist society. Ashkenazi Jews are not POC, and with that comes definite privilege and opportunity based primarily on skin color. That Ashkenazi and perhaps most Mizrachi Jews do not suffer with what POC including JOC have to suffer is an ongoing and systematic difference, specifically in relation to the experience of systemic disenfranchisement and state violence. Ashkenazi Jews participate in and contribute to a racist society and culture; Ashkenazi Jews are white people who are racist just like other white people; JOC suffer racism in the Jewish community. For many on the social justice and intersectional left that is and should be the end of the story. But ending the story with such decision is to obviate the question of Jewish difference in a gentile majority society. Are there then no other intersectional factors left to complicate whiteness as a distinct social category, factors that real and imagined Jewish difference might actually serve to highlight? If whiteness is itself an intersection, there are major parts of it that exclude Jews, even Ashkenazi Jews.
To begin with, whiteness is a majority status, a “comfort” or fit into the general order of things as norm. Comfort is a psycho-physical, political disposition. You count among the majority. As part of a majority, there is no larger and more powerful thing out there to perturb one’s sense of self or place in the world. Whiteness in America entails that one moves safely and unrestricted about in a large world that extends beyond one’s immediate circle. Perfectly free and genuinely loose, without an iota of surface anxiety, one does what one wants, confident that everything reflects one’s image –clear skin, straight hair, clean hands, and strong legs. Are “American Jews” white like that? Do they stand out like that? Does that picture of white comfort comport with the standard experience or picture of American Jewishness? This may in fact be so for the last fifty or forty or thirty years or so, largely on the coasts, in New York and Boston, and in other big cities like Chicago, mostly in those regions, neighborhoods, institutions, and industries that Jews tend to populate in disproportionate numbers. I am not so sure about the fit of Jews and Judaism into the rest of the country, in the South, South West, Mountain West, or even Midwest, in rural America, where Jews and Judaism stand out and don’t “belong.”
Connected to the question of place, unnamed in discussions today in leftist intellectual and activist circles are two essential categories that complicate stabilized questions about Ashkenazi Jews and race. Those are Christian-ness (not Christian belief per se) and gentile-ness. Amongst themselves, Jews of my parents’ generation were still quite fluent about the real and imagined kinds of difference represented by “goyim.” The children of immigrants, they would not have considered themselves to be white precisely because they perceived themselves in relation to gentiles. Specialists in American Jewish history and folklore can correct me, but it’s my understanding that by “goy” was generally meant white people, most typically the sub-set of WASPS and other ethnic European whites. Were African Americans ever “Jews” in this popular conception? Were they even “goyim”? (The s-word, a derogatory slur derived from the basic Yiddish for “black” was the special term used for what were then referred to as “negroes” in polite company.) Omitting the category of “Christian” and “gentile” from the discussion of Jews and whiteness obscures the fact that, at the intersection of whiteness, these are the two other dominant hegemonic social structures in this country, one that is complicated by the fact that the vast majority African Americans are Christian or come from Christian families. Counterintuitively, if all Ashkenazi Jews were Christian, then they would not, for the most part, be Jewish; almost but not certainly, they would then be “perfectly white.”
It is commonplace to note that for most white people there is no need to name whiteness, to name themselves as white. That seems to be changing with the current rise in racist white ethno-nationalism, one that excludes Jews from the white tribe. Whites don’t identify as white except for these extreme racists, whereas garden variety white racism simply presumes its own dominant, majority status. That Jews have to self-identify, to assert their difference by way of naming it makes them more like POC than your standard white people. While this may or may not remain true for Irish, Italian, or Scandinavian Americans, the question of identity is especially fraught for American Jews as a community that is part of a people with a historically pronounced minoritarian experience and self-awareness.
The complementary fact that Jews are named as such by others, even gratuitously called out alike by white racists and by POC, usually at the activist fringe, makes the same point about the non-standard character of Ashkenazi Jewish whiteness. While Jews and even Judaism fit here and there more or less comfortably into specific sections of white America, one still wants to ask if that fit can ever be perfect in a white America dominated by Christians, Christianity, and gentile culture. For Ashkenazi Jews, the genuine “comfort” that is the sense that one can take for granted the order of things is subject to all kinds of disruptive shocks, when all of a sudden Jews get singled out on either the fascist alt-right or on the anti-Zionist left in social justice movements.
Despite everything that we know about real and imagined Ashkenazi Jewish privilege, what all Jews, regardless of color or personal life history, will always lack is the comfort of numbers. Jewish identity of whatever racial stripe is a small social formation. It is small vis-à-vis the big white world, and also small in relation to large so-called minority communities in this country (African Americans, Latino American, or Asian Americans) who together, very soon, will constitute a majority in the United States, communities whose members number in the many millions. With constitutional protections and promise of equal citizenship, America is a unique phenomenon in the history of the Jews. As a small social formation, Jews have historically been reliant on the larger configuration of a hegemonic “host,” whether or not they contribute to that social body, participate in that social body, and identify with that social body, enjoying or not enjoying privileges conferred by that participation. This participation is punctured by multiple points of disconnect between Jewish and gentile society (itself white, black, and brown). The Jewish community is too small to be white. There are simply not enough Ashkenazi Jews in this country to be able to count in complete comfort as anything but off-white, always at least a little different and sometimes very different than the white Christian, gentile majority, depending always on social milieu. Sooner or later if not now and forever, there will always be something that calls a Jew out, undercutting the comfort that lies as an essential mark of whiteness.