Chapter I. Are Jews White?

in The Color of Jews by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, pg 1-10. 2007. Permission to Reprint from Indiana University Press: Bloomington & Indianapolis.

People have suggested that if I have experienced racism, I am of color. But what if I have experienced racism in Israel and white privilege in the United States? I read essays that describe Arab Jews as Jews of color, but still I feel confused. If I am light-skinned, am I of color? What if I am light, but others in my family are dark?
–Julie Iny1
No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country. It is probable that it is the Jewish community–or more accurately, perhaps, its remnants–that in America has paid the highest and most extraordinary price for becoming white. For the Jews came here from countries where they were not white, and they came here in part because they were not white; and incontestably– in the eyes of the Black American (and not only in those eyes) American Jews have opted to become white. . . .
–James Baldwin2

If I were to snap my fingers and bring every Jewish person in this world into the room, we’d be more colorful than a rainbow, but when I walk into the average mainstream synagogue in the United States and talk about Jews of Color I often encounter the assumption that to be a Jew of Color one must be a convert or adopted. –Yavilah McCoy3

In the early 1980s, as an experienced anti-racist activist, I began thinking and writing about being a Jew, and became engaged in progressive Jewish politics. As I wrestled with racism and antisemitism, people asked me constantly, Are Jews white? Are they? Are they white? The urgency and anxiety behind the question were palpable and took me a while to understand. First assumption, there was one answer for all Jews. Second, the answer was either yes or no: Jews were white or they were of color. Third, whichever category one chose to file Jews into was a political decision: Jews were either down with the people of color, innocent and victimized, or lumped in with whites, guilty and victimizing.

The more I have learned about Jews, antisemitism, and race and racialization, the more complex it gets. I still get asked, but now I want to give several simultaneous answers, and they are all questions: Have you heard of Arab, African, Indian, Asian, Latin Jews? Were European Jews white in Europe? What do you mean by white? Why are you asking? What does it matter?

And when I answer tersely and correctly, Jews are a multiracial multiethnic people, the asker most frequently succumbs to a tempting shorthand: Yeah, but white Jews: Are white Jews white?

What’s White?

1952: I am seven, my ex-dancer mother enrolls me in dance class. The teacher, Ronnie All, is a tall graceful young man. His most important characteristic from my point of view is: he is not mean. I am a clumsy child and he does not mock me. On parents’ day my mother comes to observe. Afterwards she gushes to me, my father, all her friends, and the gush content is this: I have not noticed or mentioned that Ronnie All is Negro. For my ever self-reflexive mother, not saying/not noticing means that she has raised an unprejudiced child.

Let me credit her aspiration, more than most Jewish housewives in Flatbush aspired to in the early fifties, “niggerlovingcommiejew? stereotypes not withstanding. The truth is I don’t notice not because I am color blind– who by age seven is?–but because I come from a Jewish family and neighborhood with wide varieties of skin color in which someone like Ronnie All – a light-skinned black man– does not stand out as different (except maybe for being gay which I realize now he probably was). Had his skin been darker, would I have noticed? Probably. Would I have mentioned it? I’m not sure. Might I have already absorbed the polite hushed norm? I certainly knew that my mother’s response was peculiar, that not noticing was a weird thing to get credit for.

In 1964, at a Freedom School organized in a Harlem Church as part of a public school boycott, I lead a discussion with half a dozen seven-year-olds. The smallest girl, hair tightly braided, sits in my lap. Lenora. I am eighteen years old, not much more than a child myself.

“Why are you here instead of at your regular school?? I ask.
“Because our schools are bad. They don’t teach us anything.?
“We don’t learn about black people.?
“We don’t learn about freedom, like here.?
“The schools are segagated.?
“Do you know what segregated means? I ask these seven-year-olds.

Silence. How to explain this in a way that doesn’t make the presence of white people sound like salvation?
“Segregation is separating people of different races, you know. Black and white people.?
“If white people come to my school, I’m going to throw them out the window,? Lenora says.
“My father says white people are bad and mean. They do terrible things. I’d throw them out the window.? She sits snuggled into my lap. I debate whether to tell her. Then I say it.
“Lenora, I’m white.?
She looks at me with affectionate scorn. “No you’re not.?
“I’m not??
“No way.? She shakes her head emphatically.
“What am I??
“Sort of pink.? I look at my hand. She has a point.
“What’s white??
She scrambles off my lap, takes my (pink) hand and drags me around the room looking for something. The other seven-year-olds trail behind.
“This?–Lenora waves a piece of white paper triumphantly–“is white!?
Understanding dawns.
“Lenora, have you ever seen a white person??
“No. My father told me about them from when he was in Mississippi.?

Point one: the minute I ask ‘what’s white?’ the stories that bubble up into memory are framed by blackness. Whiteness, in the words of Cornel West, exists only as “a politically constructed category parasitic on ‘Blackness’.?4

Point two: children need to be taught absolute distinctions of color. Left to their own eyes, who knows what they would see? A Jewish woman with a common Ashkenazi last name and skin tone like my sister’s turns out to have a Sri Lankan mother. A labor organizer I have known for years, and never wondered was she Jewish or was she African American (in other words, I wordlessly assumed she was neither) turns out to be an African American Jew.

Point three: slippage. The white in both stories is me and/or my family, i.e., Jews. But the people in Mississippi who did horrible things to Lenora’s people were most probably not Jews. Probably did not see Jews as white. Probably would have wanted to do those things to my people too.

1998: I am teaching a class at Brooklyn College called “Antisemitism, Racism and Class.? One of my students, Marina Stein, is a Jew from Ukraine. She tells us how Jewish was stamped on their papers, how children in Ukraine mocked and teased her and her sister, refused to play with them. One summer they went to camp and Marina lied about her name, “and I was the most popular there, and so was my sister.? In the course of a semester she will tell us this story at least three times.

Since coming to the states, Marina tells us, she hates Russian Jews: they’re so insular, so conservative, stupid and racist.

During the last week of classes, Marina suddenly blurts out, “ I’m sick of hearing about race. I’m sick of talking about it. I just want to be a person. Can’t we just be people??

In America, in Brooklyn, she has been told that this is possible, for her.
“That’s what racism costs you,? I explain. “That’s your cost. You don’t get to just be a person.? I tell the class about a bumper sticker I’ve imagined: “When men stop raping women I’ll pick up male hitchhikers.? The women are nodding, the men aren’t sure, the turf has suddenly shifted.
“Until there’s no more rape,? I explain, “mistrust poisons the air, and that’s the cost to men. It’s not the same as for women, whose cost is much much higher. But I guess every woman would like to say, I just want to be a person. And I guess every person of color might say, yeah, I just want to be a person. No one gets that as long as there’s sexism. As long as there’s racism.?

Point one: In Ukraine Marina was a Jew. Here she has perhaps the opportunity to become white.

Point two: Marina wants this opportunity. She can be tired of race, can experience racism as an annoying bundle she’d like to put down, while her classmates with dark skin don’t get to be tired of it, can’t stop thinking about it. That’s Marina’s white privilege, courtesy of the U.S.
What is white that shifts from continent to continent? Mostly the question hasn’t been asked. Yet suddenly by 1998, according to an article in the New York Times magazine, where political, cultural and intellectual trends get translated into popular middlebrow knowledge, investigation of whiteness had become an academic minifad.5 The Times article stressed the work of those who proudly identify “white culture? with “white trash,? a home kick, nouveau-chic nosethumb at a hyper-refined institution, an impassioned choice of beer and chips over sherry and biscotti; macaroni and cheese instead of pasta and arugula with chevres (goat cheese).

We might speculate that these whiteness enthusiasts are at least partly animated by the ravenous need of young academics for new topics. But while White Studies provides fresh meat for the feeding frenzy of doctoral students, upper class white culture remains significantly unnamed and unexamined, ignoring both whiteness as privilege and the existence of economically privileged whites. This emphasis is odd, given that “Racial inequities in unemployment, family income, imprisonment, average wealth and infant mortality are actually worse than [in 1968] when Dr. King was killed.?6

To examine and honor white working class culture is a fine idea, if class is the leading edge, and whiteness is probed. But with class submerged and whiteness foregrounded, what gets celebrated in part is racial dominance. Like the Harvard student who flew a confederate flag out her window to honor her southern heritage, claiming–and perhaps believing–she was not (also) celebrating slavery.7 Right wing racist organizing–bizarre and marginal as these groups are–is on the rise: neo-Nazi, militia, Christian identity, white identity, National Alliance all distribute literature and mobilize especially among young white disenfranchised men, and, more recently, among women as well.8 For these groups, whiteness is palpable, sacred and endangered; they are not investigating whiteness but organizing to strengthen its power.

Unmentioned in the Times article is the less trendy but more significant work which follows in the tradition of social constructionists like Theodore Allen, Michael Omi, Howard Winant, and David Roediger.9 These scholars expose the process of racialization, the arbitrary construction of race and racial distinctions when the truth is we are almost all mixed; and seek to develop new analyses to undergird anti-racist activism. Anti-racist examinations of whiteness stress two things: privilege and an apparent emptiness, an unmarked status. As the construct a doctor, a woman doctor reveals the unmarked status of male, the normalness– no one says a man doctor– so constructs like the writer/the black writer, my friend/my Chinese friend, the teacher/the Puerto Rican teacher reveal the unmarked, the implied: white.

Thus Robert Terry notes succinctly, “To be white in America is not to have to think about it,?10 and Peter McLaren, “Being white is an entitlement. . . a raceless subjectivity.?11 Ruth Frankenberg, in White Women, Race Matters, defines whiteness as a location of structural advantage.12 Whiteness carries with it a sense of normality, safety, a constant assurance of superiority. Peggy McIntosh, whose article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack [of white privilege]?13 has a become a standard text in Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies classes, offers a long list of advantages not available to people of color, from irksome (“flesh colored? bandaids and makeup) to life-threatening. However we problematize Jewish/whiteness, when I, with my–in Lenora’s words–“pink? skin, am stopped by police, they do not assume I am a criminal; they smile, wave me on, say, We’re looking for a car like this. Sorry.

Sorry. What of all the stories I’ve heard from people of color, in which a quick look is not followed by a friendly wave and an apology? Stories of beatings, arrests, terror. Life and death. Anthony Baez, playing football in front of his Bronx apartment, strangled by a cop in broad daylight. Amadou Diallo trying to show his wallet to four plain-clothes cops who fired at him 41 times in the lobby of his apartment building. I could go on.

Faddist White Studies fails to acknowledge the larger context of racism against which whiteness exists. “No one was white before he/she came to America,? James Baldwin observed in the mid-eighties. They were English, German, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish. . . . In the U.S. race begins to be produced by European land-theft and murder of the people who lived here, and with the enslavement of Africans and suppression of their cultures. By the time the founding fathers imagined a meritocracy, race was commonly invoked to naturalize slavery, as, later, it would simultaneously mask and naturalize class. A construct of whiteness begins to appear, conferring on indentured European labor the privilege of not being the lowest in the social order, and justifying theft, massacre, and enslavement on the ground of white supremacy and Christian morality. From there, as Toni Morrison remarks, “It is no accident and no mistake that immigrant populations (and much immigrant literature) understood their ‘Americanness’ as an opposition to the resident black population.?14 As American identity is born, the indigenous people of the North American continent are confined to reservations, made invisible, thier religion suppressed and frequently overlaid with enforced conversion so that American easily equals white/Christian. In the 19th century, expansionists would invoke manifest destiny. Born to rule.

Constructing white identity took time and law. In Black, Jewish, and Interracial, Katya Gibel Azoulay, points out that the Supreme Court 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that legalized segregation, the doctrine of separate but equal, also set a “legal definition of what constitutes a black person.?

In this case Homer Plessy had argued that he was visibly white and therefore should be allowed to sit in the train’s white section. Overriding his skin color as an indicator of not being a Negro, the Court instead took “judicial notice? of the fact that a Negro is any person known to have Black ancestry.15

In a later essay Gibel Azoulay clarifies: “. . .Homer Plessy was a white-skinned man who had to inform the railroad company that he was a Negro who intended to sit in the Whites Only car in an intrastate train. Without the advance notice, his white skin would never have drawn the attention of either the conductor or his fellow passengers.?16 Black by notification. Similarly, in 1982-83 in Louisiana, Susie Phipps, “having lived her whole life thinking that she was white. . . suddenly discovers that by legal defnition she is not. . . The state claims she is black.?17 Phipps challenged the state to change her racial classification from black to white, but her suit was denied, reaffirming a 1970 state law which designated anyone with 1/32nd “Negro blood? as legally black.

And then there’s white by notification; Gibel Azoulay talks about speaking in Indiana
. . . and an Ethiopian American came up to me and said, did you know Ethiopians are considered white? So that kind of shocked me. She said she had a relative in litigation over a job position because he wanted to be counted as a minority. But because he came from Northeast Africa he was officially categorized as white.18

Official categories notwithstanding, in 1988 Ethiopian Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death by white skinheads in Portland, Oregon, for being a black man on the street.19

Visuals, law, custom, history shift from moment to moment and site to site. What does not change is a fierce attachment to racial boundaries. Wherever they are drawn, the critical point is that they be closely monitored. Evidence of race-mixing still evokes near-psychosis in racists. In 1998, for example, a baby of mixed racial parentage who died and was buried in a Georgia churchyard near her (white) mother’s people, almost got dug up by the white church deacons when they realized that the baby’s father was African American. Only after media exposure and public uproar did the deacons relent and let the baby rest in peace.20 Shall we count this as progress?

The Turner Diaries, a scarily popular novel written and published in 1978 by neo-Nazi William Pierce under the pseudonym “Andrew Macdonald,? depicts impending race war in service of imposing absolute segregation. The novel describes the gruesome hanging of thousands of “white women who were married to or living with Blacks, with Jews, or other non-White males.?21 Significantly it includes Jews, along with mixed race people, as “mongrels? who need to be killed first because they confuse things. White supremacists want their racial differences clear.

Love, especially sex, across racial borders is enraging and terrifying to white supremacists; perhaps merely titillating or fetishistic to white liberal racists. Racism of either sort inevitably conspires with contempt for the flesh and fear of its desires, projecting all sexual impulse onto the racial other. Such love also contradicts core racist ideology, namely that we are naturally different, naturally antagonistic, and most important, naturally unequal: no way might we be humanly connected enough to love.

Never mind that these unions and these children are increasing all the time. As people fall in love, marry, reproduce across race lines, we note an increasingly fierce policing of racial borders. Whites, as we know, are already a minority in the world, a rapidly shrinking majority in the U.S. A minority can retain privilege, perhaps not forever, as South Africa exemplifies, but for a long time. However, sooner or later racism requires a police state. Across the nation we are building more prisons than schools in which African American and Latino children disproportionately land with heavy sentences, marginalized and disenfranchised.

And Jews? Along the city streets and state highways, where black and brown people are routinely stopped, harassed, sometimes tortured and killed, it is fair to say that some Jews pass freely, however typically “Jewish? (European/Ashkenazi) they may look. In stores no one immediately pegs them as shoplifters. Encountering these Jews in apartment building lobbies or elevators, no one assumes that they don’t belong. Hate violence against these Jews manifests, almost always, in Jewish spaces or to Jews who visibly mark themselves, meaning, usually, orthodox men.

And the other Jews, the ones who don’t look white, those who by anyone’s definition are not white: Jewish African Americans, Jews from the Middle East, Latin America, Ethiopia, the Caribbean, India, China. Jews of any race who chose Judaism. Biracial and multiracial Jews. Children of mixed marriages. Children of color adopted by Ashkenazim.

Invisible, marginalized, not even imagined.

1 Julie Iny (Iraqi-Indian/Russian-American Jew), “Ashkenazi Eyes,? in Khazzoom, ed., Camel, 89.
2 James Baldwin, “On Being ‘White’. . .
3 Interview, Yavilah McCoy, 9/8/03 and 12/24/03; update 1/30/06..
4 Cornel West, Keeping Faith Alive. . . , 19.
5 Margaret Talbot, “Getting Credit for Being White.?
6 According to United for a Fair Economy’s 2004 report, “The State of the Dream: Enduring Disparities in Black and White,”by Dedrick Muhammad, Attieno Davis, Meizhu Lui and
Betsy Leondar-Wright. “Progress has been made in narrowing the [white/black] divide in per capita income, poverty, homeownership, education, life expectancy and median wealth, but so slowly that the gaps would take decades or even centuries to close at the current rate.? Cf. the Community Service Society’s study “based on data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and focus[ed] on the so-called employment-population ratio–the fraction of the working-age population with a paid job–in addition to the more familiar unemployment rate, the percentage of the labor force actively looking for work.?
7 Patricia Williams, The Rooster’s Egg,. . . , 29.
8 Kathleen Blee, Inside Organized Racism. . . .
9 Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, vol. II ; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation. . . ; David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness; Others include Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color; Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White.
10 Robert Terry, For Whites Only (Detroit Industrial Missions, 1970), cited in Amanda Miriam Chaya Seigel, “Vital Distinctions: Ashkenazi Jews and Whiteness in the Contemporary United States,? unpub. paper, Hampshire College, 1998, 4.
11 Peter McLaren, “Decentering Culture. . . .,? in Wyner, ed., Current Perspectives on the Culture of Schools, 244.
12 Ruth Frankenberg, White Women/Race Matters, 1.
13 Peggy McIntosh, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,? in Peace and Freedom (July/August, 1989), 10-12.
14 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark:. . . ;, 47.
15 Katya Gibel Azoulay, Black, Jewish, and Interracial. . . , 93.
16 Gibel Azoulay,“Jewishness after Mount Sinai. . . ,? Bridges: 9.1 (2001), 33.
17 Omi and Winant, Racial Formation. . . , 53-54.
18 Interview, Katya Gibel Azoulay, 8/12/03.
19 See Elinor Langer’s compelling analysis, A Hundred Little Hitlers.
20 “Biracial Baby Remains Interred in All-white Cemetery: Thomasville, Ga., March 28, 1998 (UPI).
21 The book, for many years available only by mail order, in survivalist stores, or at gun shows from the likes of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, has sold between a quarter of a million and 300,000 copies according to its publishers, an astonishing feat of underground distribution. The Turner Diaries : A Novel (Hillsboro, WV: National Vanguard Books, 1995; 1st pub., 1980); on the web, at

Permission to Reprint from Indiana University Press: Bloomington & Indianapolis.