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Jews Are Not “White” And We’re Not “Just a Religion”

Last week, a Sephardic member of our shul (synagogue) asked me which Middle Eastern country my family comes from. “None,” I explained, “We’re Ashkanazi.”

“Really?” he exclaimed, “I was certain you were Sephardic.”

After this encounter, I got to thinking: despite being completely Ashkanazi, with both sides of my family hailing from Ukraine, Russia and Poland, I have spent my entire life having to answer, “Why are you so dark?” and “Where are you from?” with the implication that it must be some place “exotic” or “ethnic.”

Although, we often hear that Ashkanazi Jews are “white-passing” with all of the privilege that entails (one of the reasons that some people who fight for minority rights always seem to exclude Jews), this generalization is actually not true. Another completely Ashkanazi friend of mine told me that growing up, because she is so dark, people always assumed she was black.

Some Ashkanazi Jews are white-passing, but instead of asking the darker Ashkanazi Jews, like me, why I’m so dark, the curiosity should really be about the lighter ones: Why aren’t they dark? They are part of an indigenous people that comes from the Middle East. And the answer to that question, in many (though not all) cases would be: “pogroms,” “blood libels,” “expulsions,” and “the Crusades.”

Just like there are lighter black people due to the horrific consequences of white slave owners raping black slaves, so too, many white-passing Jews look this way because some non-Jews in the countries we were forced to live in, after our exile – countries that never made us full citizens nor gave us full rights – had regular practices of raping Jewish women throughout the centuries.

Some privilege.

Yes, some of the mixing of different races occurred due to intermarriage and conversion, but intermarriage was outlawed in many Ashkanazi countries for centuries, and Jews were forced to live separate from gentiles, in ghettos, making conversions less likely to occur.

This leads me to my next point about Jews not just being members of a religion. Sarah Silverman touched upon it last week in her widely viewed podcast about Jewface. We are an ethnicity, not just a religion.

In our holy books and prayers, we call ourselves “Am Yisrael.” We are the “nation of Israel,” not “the religion of Israel.” We are a family with a shared lineage, DNA, land, language, and culture. Yes, we allow people to be “adopted” into our family, by way of conversion, but you can never leave our people.

A Jew, according to Jewish law, can never stop being a Jew, no matter what he doesn’t practice or believe. That’s because you can’t technically ever stop being part of your family. I think the Jewish people are more like a Native American tribe than a religion: a tribal family with spiritual practices, rather than a faith you can just convert into and out of, like Christianity.

Why do these classifications matter? Because not only is antisemitism on the rise around the world, we are simultaneously being gaslit that anything is wrong. The only thing worse than abuse by itself is abuse that is delegitimized. To add insult to injury, while much of the world has woken up to the plight of so many minorities, Jews get excluded from the minority classifications again and again because we are seen as a privileged group.

In fact, there have been social media campaigns from the far left and far right with the hashtags #whitejewishprivilege and #jewishprivilege to prove the “special” treatment Jews are afforded by society even though the FBI continues to show that we are the most attacked religious minority in the country.

Yes, of course it is a privilege to be part of our awesome nation, but identifiable Jews are feeling less safe than ever. (Each of my teenage daughters were called “kike” and “Jew,” while walking with friends on the street in the recent past. What a terrifying thought to consider that we and our loved ones are walking targets.)

If we don’t advocate for ourselves, who will?

According to the Talmud, antisemitism is a spiritual disease that finds a way to exist in every time and place while the Jews are in exile. So according to traditional Jewish thought, it would make sense that even in a time and place where minorities are being protected, Jews would continue to be forgotten, even by many of the people passionate about protecting others.

But still, I’d like to test the theory. I’d like to offer up our history and peoplehood authentically, not with the ways it’s been packaged by others in order to remove us from the minority conversation and see what happens.

Will those who stand up for the oppressed finally stand up for the Jews?

If they do, we’ll be safer.  If they don’t, our faith will be stronger.

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  • Bette says on October 7, 2021

    This is such an important topic, well addressed. Thank you for mentioning what Jews have been trained to avoid discussing: the systematic rape of our foremothers. It’s very validating to those of us having these discussions— especially to those, like me, who happen to be historians — for this subject to be posted by media influencers. I’m grateful to you for publishing it here and on IG, where I saw your post.

    Two slight editing notes: as women writers, we need to guard against qualifying out statements too much. You write, “I think” before making a strong point — that would be even stronger without “I think.” Data show that women do this much more often than men do. Be bold!

    Second, when you’re making the point that Jews aren’t just a religion, avoid calling us a “religious minority.” I understand that people tend to classify us that way. But we’re about resisting that; so, if you just say “minority” or “minority group,” you’ll be correct without falling in line with a categorization we reject.

    BTW my mother, obm, was often asked if she was of Spanish or Italian descent. She was not — recently. And although I’m lighter-skinned than she was, I inherited the tendency toward very dark eyebrows — would have been a unibrow by the time I was 12 if I didn’t tweeze — and very thick, coarse, wavy-to-curly hair. I stopped letting myself be called “white” a few years ago.

    Yasher koach!

    Reply
  • Nancy Bennett says on October 8, 2021

    A few points.

    First of all, geneticists believe that when Jewish populations moved into Eastern Europe, they were disproportionately comprised of men. The “mixing” that occurred was not primarilyJewish women being impregnated by non-Jewish men, but rather the result of Jewish men taking non-Jewish wives (presumably with those women converting). This is demonstrated by the fact that as much of 3/5 of mitochondrial DNA in Ashkenazi Jews is heterogenous, while the Y chromosome is extremely homogenous.

    Secondly, I’m not sure why being Sephardic would make a person “non-white.” No one considers other Mediterranean peoples to be non-white. Consider Sicilians, for example, many of whom are extremely dark skinned, and certainly no one calls Arabs or Greeks “non-white.”

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on October 11, 2021

      Thanks for your comment. It seems that there were some female converts but 20% of the male Ashkanazi DNA is from non-Jews. With intermarriage being outlawed for hundreds of years, this means a fair amount of this could be due to systemic rape.

      Middle Eastern people (except Jews) are considered brown according to intersec. That Italians and Greeks are not in this grouping is puzzling.

      Reply
    • Juliya L Ismailov says on October 13, 2021

      I would mention that there is an internal issue of Jewish solidarity around this issue of color, ethnicity and race. If we can’t get on the same page as a Jewish people, it’s harder to convince the world, and bring Mashiach.

      Reply
  • Jim Austin says on October 10, 2021

    Discussion of Jewish whiteness should be considered in the context of postmodernism that ties race to culture, and more specifically, ties whites to the culture resulting from the Western Age of Enlightenment.

    Western culture went through a Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment which developed an outlook that made possible free, benign, prosperous societies. It was made possible by the likes of Thomas Aquinas who convinced his fellow Roman Catholics that Aristotelian reason was compatible with Christianity. The Age of Enlightenment was all about the discovery and application of reason in its highest stage of development: science.

    Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides who functioned in North Africa had accomplished the same for Judaism about a century earlier. This effectively made Jews more Western than most Westerners, or, to use postmodern parlance, more white than most whites.

    The left started out as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment with the likes of Jean Jacques Rousseau saying that science is bad, that civilization is corrupt and the innocence is to be found among primitives. Postmodernism is just the latest incarnation of the leftist reaction.

    Various leftist causes encourage victims of white oppression, male oppression, or oppression by straights to widen the resentment they feel about their oppressors to encompass the entire Western culture, specifically the values of Western Enlightenment. In so doing, they manipulate such victims into embracing their mortal enemies that also hate the Enlightenment. They get women and gays to embrace Islam that oppresses women and kills gays. They encouraged certain blacks like Louis “Hitler was a very great man” Farrakhan to embrace Nazis and, at least in one instance, the Ku Klux Klan.

    I really hope that Jews don’t allow themselves to be similarly manipulated.

    Reply
    • Joseph Barnathan says on October 11, 2021

      We’re a people, we’re a nation bound to a land and the Torah bestowed upon us from the Almighty through his servant Moshe Rabenu.

      Reply
  • Berel Dov Lerner says on October 10, 2021

    Jews are not white. AskDave Chappelle https://youtu.be/2z3wUD3AZg4

    Reply
    • a yid says on October 12, 2021

      Chapelle’s very antisemitic “jokes”
      “In the comedy special “The Closer,” which premiered on Tuesday, Chappelle made a joke about Jews seeking to conquer in the world. He began by saying UFOs gave him an idea for a movie.
      “In my movie idea, we find out that these aliens are originally from earth. That they’re from an ancient civilization that achieved interstellar travel and left the earth thousands of years ago,” he said. “Some other planet they go to, and things go terrible for them on the other planet, so they come back to earth, [and] decide that they want to claim the earth for their very own. It’s a pretty good plot-line, huh? I call it ‘Space Jews.’”
      While the joke appeared to receive a mixed reactions from the audience, one man in crowd shouted “Free Palestine!”
      Later on in the special, Chappelle made another comment referencing “Space Jews,” when he told a “true story” about a former African American slave who was freed and then went on to become a slave owner himself.
      “How can a person that went through slavery perpetuate the same evil on a person that looks just like him?” he asked. “It’s mind blowing. And shockingly, they’re making a movie about him. Ironically, it’s called “Space Jews.’”
      CAA said it believes Chappelle was referencing the notion that “Jews subject others to the atrocities that they suffered in the Holocaust.”
      A CAA spokesperson said: “Antisemitism and minimizing the Holocaust are no joke. Whilst there is always a place for light-hearted humor, Dave Chapelle’s so-called comedy is barely coherent and plays on the ignorant prejudices of his audience. It is bad enough to do so in the confines of a comedy club, but to be streamed into living rooms around the world courtesy of Netflix is an undeserved privilege for someone willing to mock the trauma of Jewish history and the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide.”
      https://www.algemeiner.com/2021/10/07/dave-chappelle-faces-backlash-over-jokes-in-netflix-comedy-special-about-world-dominating-space-jews/?fbclid=IwAR2Ce3kvsdMmALyojsm0Xld6LgFZMwDjbumqxIxtOPgTLGvDaZatcL-zw3Q

      Reply
  • Deena says on October 14, 2021

    Don’t forget the erev rav, the people of varying nationalities/ethnicities who converted and left Egypt with the Jewish people.

    Reply

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