Ashkenazi Jew Off-White Christian Gentile White

agnes martin

Speaking personally, as a performative speech act, I will never self-identify in public “as a white Jew.” While I am white, or some kind of white, and while I certainly enjoy white privilege, I do not identify myself as such. 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. Ashkenazi Jews 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 not POC, about that one can clearly agree. But are Jews white? I cannot speak “as a Mizrachi Jew,” and Jews of Color will dissent that, no, not all Jews are white. But can we at least say that Ashkenazi Jews and Ashkenazi Judaism are white? Is European Jewish memory white? Or, in America, are Ashkenazi Jews but a special shade of white, perhaps off-white, and always differentiated as such. Neither POC nor exactly white, Ashkenazi Jews are Jews, and off-white as such. As such, the whiteness of Ashkenazi Jews is a negative identity, ascribed to Jews by others, by POC. 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 have to suffer is an ongoing and systematic difference, specifically in relation to the experience of systemic disenfranchisement and state violence. For many on the social justice and intersectional left that is and should be the end of the story, but in ways that then work 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? In short, 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. Alongside places and things like mainline churches, fin de siècle Boston Brahmin culture, golf pants and penny loafers, martinis, the country club and restricted residential covenants, other emblems of white Americanness are the overstuffed lounge chair, the gas guzzling SUV, all you can eat buffets in Las Vegas, super-sized drinks. Comfort is a psycho-physical, political disposition. You count among the 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? In America, this may in fact be so for the last sixty years or so, largely on the coasts 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.

Next: 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 folklore can correct me, but it’s my understanding that by “goy” was generally meant white people, most typically the sub-set of WASPS. Were African Americans ever goyim? The s-word, a derogatory term derived from Yiddish was the special term used for them. Happily, there is a lot of discomfort today with both types of Jewish racism among liberal and more-assimilated Jews. But omitting the category of “gentile” from the discussion of Jews and whiteness obscures the fact that, at the intersection of whiteness, Christian-ness and gentile-ness are the two other dominant hegemonic social structures in this country. On one hand, this is complicated by the fact that the vast majority African Americans are either Christian or post-Chrisitian. Conversely, and it is an odd thing to have to say, 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. Whites don’t identify as white except for the extreme racists, whereas garden variety racism simply presumes 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 gentile culture dominated by Christians, Christianity, and post-Christian gentile culture. The genuine “comfort” that is the sense that one take for granted the order of things that Ashkenazi Jews can and do enjoy as white people in America 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 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 gentile comfort that lies as an essential mark at the intersection of whiteness.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics.
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5 Responses to Ashkenazi Jew Off-White Christian Gentile White

  1. Irene says:

    Just shared this on my Facebook page — this striking a chord with me.

  2. dmf says:

    depends on the time, place, and company, whether I’m seen as one or the other, or feel like one or the other, but when push comes to shove white christian nationalists will always find a way to blame the jews, now for all the rightwingnut zionists who supported Trump and co. where are they now?

  3. Zachary- this is a really excellent piece, and deeply resonant. I’ll just add one more nuance, which I don’t think contradicts any of your points, but is an interesting addition (I think). I heard this idea first from Melanie Kaye-Kanrowitz’s writing, and it has been true to my life experience as well, as an Ashkenazi Jew who has lived half of my life in Ohio and the other half in Jerusalem: the only place on earth in which Ashkenazi Jews might fully and truly said to be white is in the modern State of Israel. I think this reinforces your argument about Jewishness and whiteness in America, but is an important reminder of how porous identities can be – and how my whiteness can literally slip on and off during a 10 hour plane ride.

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