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When People Ask Me Where My Family Comes From, I Now Say Israel

Last year, at a car rental company, a Muslim man from Iraq who was bringing us our car, noticed my younger son, who looks the most like me of all of our children, replete with olive skin. It was the end of January, and even so, both my son and I looked brown. The Iraqi man noted how cute my son was and asked where our family is from. From the yarmulkes my husband and sons were wearing, our Jewishness was obvious. We began to stammer: first we said Ukraine, then added in Russia, then Hungary, Austria, Poland. But none of it was making sense. None of that explained why my son looks the way he does. Eventually I said “Israel.” The Iraqi man said, “I know. Your son is adorable. He looks like an Arab boy.” I said, “I know. Because we are cousins.” The Iraqi man nodded.

In Morocco, later that year, in a souk, after I purchased a scarf, the shop owner told me that I have the face of an Arab. Again, I explained it’s because we’re cousins and again he agreed. And finally, just last week, again at a car rental place, a Black man behind the counter was putting together my reservation and asked where I’m from.

I told him where we live – I thought he needed my address for the reservation. He explained that he was interested in my family origin. I was giving off an “ethnic” look in the middle of February. I told him it’s funny that he ask, because I used to answer the question differently. I used to say where my family was exiled TO (that would be Eastern Europe, making me an Ashkenazi Jew) but it doesn’t really satisfy the question of why I look the way I do. So I told him that I now say “Israel” – that explains my darker, “ethnic” look. I noted that my ancestors didn’t choose to be taken out of their land on slave ships any more than his did. He agreed and then told me that his Black mother is only one shade darker than me. This didn’t surprise me. Earlier that week, I was scrolling through Twitter (X) and saw an ad for makeup. The Dominican actress who was applying the foundation called herself “a woman of color.” She was wearing my winter shade. In the summer, my foundation is two shades darker.

I’m not alone in being a brown or ethnic looking Ashkenazi Jew, although I spent most of my life feeling alone. A couple years ago, I wrote about the experience of being treated “brown” or “ethnic” my whole life, yet being excluded from the conversations surrounding Jews of color, because my family was exiled to Europe. After writing about this experience, other non-white passing Ashkenazi Jews came out of the woodwork to share their similar experiences. This made me realize that I should not have to explain why my skin is darker. I come from Israel! Instead we should wonder why some Ashkenazi Jews look lighter. And when there is no knowledge of intermarriage or conversion, in many cases, the answer is violence against our foremothers, while we lived as second class citizens in Europe for 1000 years.

And on that note, while people love to call Ashkenazi Jews “European Jews” these days, let’s consider what actual Europeans thought of Ashkenazi Jews while we lived there. Pierre Joseph Proudhon said, “The Jew is the enemy of the human race. This race must be sent back to Asia or exterminated.” Johann Gottfried Herder wrote,“The Jewish people is and remains in Europe an Asiatic people alien to our part of the world.” Voltaire, described Jews an, “An Arab horde.”

What about in the US? As I wrote about before, Jews experienced systemic racism and segregation in this country for most of its existence. Yes, in the last few decades, a decent number of Jews who are white-passing were able to benefit from white-privilege, but shortly after these Jews got considered “white” in some circles (never by white supremacists), being white became a negative thing.

Because of my newfound curiosity to learn just how common non-white passing Ashkenazi Jews are, we recently did some polls on social media. The term “brown” is a term that most Ashkenazi Jews don’t feel comfortable using, because it’s been assigned to other groups. No matter what an Ashkenazi Jew might look like or the fact that we originate Israel, the term brown is less commonly used. Instead we asked if they are 100% Ashkenazi (to the best of their knowledge) and olive-skinned or tan year round. Out of 735 response, 45% reported to being olive or tan year round. We then asked the question differently. We wanted to know among our 100% Ashkenazi followers, how many get mistaken for Sephardic, hispanic, Arabic, or “ethnic?” This time, we heard back from 1105 respondents. 49% affirmed that they are mistaken for an ethnic, non-white minority group.

And yet, the studies that have been done on Jews of Color or Jews and race look very different. According to a 2020 Pew Study on US Jews, 92% called themselves “white.” According to a study done by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, researchers estimate that Jews of Color represent at least 12-15% of American Jews. How do we make sense of this? Why are so many Jews calling themselves white, when probably less than half are even white-passing? Well, in an effort to assimilate and not be burdened with antisemitism, a lot of Jews, like other minority groups, did whatever they could to become more “white,” be it straighten their hair, change their last name or get a nose job. While Hispanic and Arabic people were originally labeled as white in the US Census, they are now advocating to be considered non-white. And the Biden administration is on board.

Jews never actually became white, and associating Jews with whiteness is empowering the movement that is trying to disconnect us from our land. In the current diversity framing, a Jew only gets to be considered a person of color or marginalized if he was exiled to or mixed with a country that the progressive world deems a place or person of color. This makes no sense and we should reject it. The Jewish indigeneity to the Israel should be considered the same way any other non-Jewish person from the Middle East is seen. Keeping Jews out of this framework is based on pure antisemitism.

These people call Jews “white European colonialists.” While some people push back by saying how many Mizrachi or Sephardic Jews live in Israel (2/3  of the population), this is the wrong argument. None of us are colonialists and none of us are European. Engaging this way validates the arguments of our enemies.

Which is why I no longer say I’m from Ukraine or Russia or the places that tortured my ancestors and yours. I grew up knowing the Hebrew words “Ashkenazi” (Jews exiled to Europe) and Sephardi (Jews exiled to Spain) but I didn’t grow up knowing the word for the Hebrew word for “Jew” (Yehudi – for Yehuda – Judea, our ancestral homeland)! I recently realized that the two main exile countries we renamed ourselves according to Seferad (Spain) and Ashkenaz (Germany) are the two places that did the most atrocious and violent things to their Jews!

Maybe we just need to be Yehudim again. Maybe we need to say “Israel” when people ask us where we’re from and put less focus on where we got exiled TO. Maybe we should be checking off the Middle Eastern box when it gets on the Census. I know I will be.

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9 comments

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  • Avatar photo Matthew says on February 22, 2024

    I always wondered how some ashkenazim got their white skin tone? Is it from
    Abuse mentioned in your article – is there any evidence for a mass conversion or intermarriage ?

    Reply
    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on February 22, 2024

      Sexual violence against Jewish women started when Rome colonized Judea and took us as slaves. The women were sex slaves. It happened systematically during countless pogroms and the Crusades. Intermarriage and conversion was illegal in most nonjewish governments and the Jews who intermarried after Jews were emancipated did not have Jewish descendants.

      Reply
      • Avatar photo Josef Flaschner says on February 23, 2024

        Very appropriate for African American History month

        Reply
    • Avatar photo Ivriyah says on February 22, 2024

      In addition to what Allison said above, there were some Roman converts when our land was colonized by Rome.

      Reply
    • Avatar photo Joel Goldberg says on February 22, 2024

      Yes it was from rape and abuses. The reason for matrilineal passage of Judaism

      Reply
    • Avatar photo There certainly was rape . Intermarriage was uncommon says on February 23, 2024

      Intermarriage was uncommon . Rape was not ,

      Reply
  • Avatar photo Susan says on February 22, 2024

    During the pogroms of Eastern European rapes undoubtedly occurred. I suspect that one was committed against my paternal great-grandmother in the Ukraine towards the end of the 19th century. The family story is suspicious. My great-grandmother had a great desire to go to America and went there alone, my father’s sister (the family historian) said. She left a baby girl with flaming red hair and green eyes behind to be raised by neighbor. The baby was my grandmother. The child’s coloring was unique in their community and she was treated like a servant by the neighbor. When my grandfather – the handsome, spoiled son of grocery store owners married her, he treated her like a servant, too – my father said. No one ever mentioned the existence of my grandmother’s father. And no one ever saw my great-grandmother after her alleged immigration to America. Not even my grandparents, who immigrated to Canada and managed to stay in touch with my grandfather’s brothers and sister who lived Stateside. My grandmother’s origins remain a mystery and every time I look in the mirror and see light brown eyes flecked with green I wonder who’s DNA created that. But my curiosity is short-lived. I would rather remember my grandmother as the loving lady she was than as a child of rape.

    Reply
  • Avatar photo Vivian Rabin says on February 23, 2024

    The problem with checking off Middle Eastern on forms is that surveyors believe everyone who checks that box is Arab, Persian or Turkish, certainly not Jewish, and over time that will lead those tracking statistics to conclude that the Arab, Persian, Turkish population of the region or entity doing the surveying is growing. If we really want good data, we need “Jewish” as a separate listing in these demographic surveys. I personally would prefer if we get away from classifying people based on race or ethnic origin altogether and stop collecting this data entirely.

    Reply
  • Avatar photo Tom Schwartz says on February 25, 2024

    For years I’ve wondered why I pass for white so easily. This breaks my heart.

    Reply

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