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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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  • Avatar photo 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
    • Avatar photo Susan Cohen says on February 3, 2022

      Yes, I need to chime in on this. YEARS ago, I asked why my other-wise carbon-copy of his own father Dad was 6’4″ with blue eyes – but an aquiline profile & black curly hair. I got the answer “I took after an uncle”. It wasn’t until I was grown, with children of my own, that I realized that he HAD to be he evidence of a Cossack having raped an ancestor. I took a DNA test, & yeah, right there – a solid chunk of SLAVIC DNA.

      I also refuse to call myself white. We only got to be grudgingly allowed into the “White Club” after they massacred 6 million of us – but the revoke that privilege whenever it suits them – shooting up our synagogues & attacking us in the streets. If there’s no slot for it, I defiantly fill in “Ashkenazi” for race.

      Reply
  • Avatar photo 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.”

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    • Avatar photo 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
      • Avatar photo cg says on October 20, 2021

        I resent this type of conjecture, as it implies that a large part of the white-looking Jewish population are mamzerim (bastards). This is a horrific claim to make against the Jewish nation, and being that there is no way to prove this and that the light skin color can be attributed to other sources (converts, or, as I suspect is possible, simply people’s skin color adapting to the climate), this claim is irresponsible as well as offensive.

        I am not disagreeing with the historical fact that at different times and in various places Jewish women have been subject to rape. But I am not willing to accept the low-lying fruit of this supposed “proof” and malign the purity of the entire Jewish nation in exchange for some persecution points on some oppression scale, for validation in the eyes of the world that yes, Jews really are oppressed.

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        • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on October 20, 2021

          I’m sorry this is upsetting. Having a non-Jewish father does not make a person a mamzer. No one has exact numbers, it’s true. But when you look at how many generations we were locked in ghettos and how many places banned intermarriage and how many pogroms, expulsions, blood libels, and crusades there were, there is a decent chance that anyone who is lighter skinned has this painful past somewhere in the DNA. Just because something is painful doesn’t make it false.

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          • Avatar photo Help says on June 27, 2022

            I know this is dated but I have a pressing question. You’ve mentioned a number of times about Jews not mixing due to Ghettos. Can you source this information? The majority of the growth in Ashkenazi population was the last few centuries in the Kingdom of Poland/Eastern Europe (Poland, Galicia, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania). I’m wondering because there were no Ghettos in Eastern Europe (& not much elsewhere either), except a few years during WWII. But 100, 200, 300, 400 years etc. ago If Jews were free to mix due to a lack of Ghettos wouldn’t that disprove your thesis?

          • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on July 18, 2022

            Jews were actually forced to live in ghettos from the 1500s-1800’s. Even after Jews were emancipated and allowed to live among non-Jews, Jews marrying non-Jews was illegal in most places until not that long ago, even in assimilated countries like Germany. There was, as a result, a wave of conversions to Christianity for convenience in the early 19th century, especially in Berlin (not just for marriage but also for career advancement). But those people don’t consider themselves Jewish any more. Starting in the mid-19th century, there were more instances of actual intermarriage where the Jewish partner stayed Jewish as the law relaxed in some places. That’s when the debate between the Reform and Orthodox really heated up about conversion to Judaism for the sake of marriage. In Russia, intermarriage without conversion of the Jew to Christianity remained illegal right up to 1917. Many of those families also assimilated into non-Jewish society.

        • Avatar photo Yocheved says on February 2, 2022

          To clarify, a mamzer is literally the product of a married Jewish women who has a child with someone other than her husband. This does not include women who are not married being impregnated when having pre-matital relations or Jewish men producing a child with any unmarried woman, Jewish or not. The even a married Jewish man having child out of wedlock with another woman other than his wife does not produce a mamzer, if that woman is not married– this seeming double standard arises from the idea that men, according to the Torah could have more than one wife therefore the woman could marry him in theory. The child of a married Jewish woman with a man other than her husband is a mamzer because there’s no law allowing women to be married with more than one woman at a time. I hope that clarifies some things.

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          • Avatar photo Mimi says on February 3, 2022

            If a married Jewish woman is raped by a non-Jew and she gets pregnant, that child is not a mumzer. I am not sure if the child would be a mumzer if the rapist was a Jew because she was forced into that situation. Also, I believe that the married woman would have to willingly want to have sexual relations with another Jew for her to be an adulteress and any child from that union would be a mumzer. Check with your LOR for a definitive answer.

    • Avatar photo 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
    • Avatar photo Susan Cohen says on February 3, 2022

      Until quite recently, Mediterranean people were NOT considered white, either.

      Reply
  • Avatar photo 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
    • Avatar photo 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
  • Avatar photo Berel Dov Lerner says on October 10, 2021

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

    Reply
    • Avatar photo 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
  • Avatar photo 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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