theatlantic | In response to my article, “Are Jews White?,” some people, primarily on Twitter, have voiced concerns about the headline.
- Some seem to read it as a dog-whistle to white nationalists who seek to show that Jews are part of what they regard as a non-white, inferior racial group, thus reinforcing tropes of anti-Semitism.
- Others seem to see it as an earnest questioning of whether Jews belong in the “white” racial category, thus promoting the use of racial categories.
- And still others claim the headline reinforces old stereotypes within the Jewish community—specifically, a blindness to the experiences of Jews of non-Ashkenazi or non-European descent, many of whom might not self-identify or be seen as white by other people in the American context.
We’re keeping the headline, and I want to explain why.
“Race” is a historically contingent and subjective category that is used to justify violence against minority groups. I specifically wrote about American Jews because their experiences—which are incredibly diverse and varied—show the hypocrisies and limits of these racial categories. Looking at the historical experiences of this one particular group, and the present-day tensions its faces, is a means of critiquing the way “whiteness” is used to delineate who is and isn’t considered powerful and valuable in society.
When I was first looking into writing this article, I worried that the question might be stale. A number of scholars, including Emory’s Eric Goldstein, whom I interviewed; UCLA’s Karen Brodkin; and, most recently, Princeton’s Mitchell Duneier have written about the way Jews relate to whiteness, from a variety of different angles. I wondered whether this debate would seem too esoteric and niche—a conversation of interest only to a small group of Jews and scholars, but effectively irrelevant outside of those circles.
The reaction I’ve gotten has been surprising, and shows that this is clearly not the case. Certain parts of the Jewish community are having conversations along these lines; others seem stunned that this is a question at all. A lot of people seem to feel strongly that talking about Jews in terms of race—even to challenge the notion that Jews could ever fit neatly into a single racial category, which is what my article is about—is thought-provoking or, at worst, dangerous.