Growing up on Long Island in the 1990s, I was rarely singled out for my Judaism. My awareness of anti-Semitism in the world came not from first-hand experience, but from history lessons and family stories. Unlike many human rights atrocities, including those committed by the U.S., the Holocaust received a full unit in history class. This knowledge was supplemented by stories passed down from family members. My maternal grandparents told me of aunts, uncles and grandparents murdered in the Holocaust. My father’s accounts of anti-Semitism, which were geographically and historically nearer, focused on exclusion - exclusion from Greek Life at the University of Pennsylvania; exclusion from social spaces; exclusion from certain neighborhoods. My mother shared that she was once called a ‘dirty Jew’ by her fifth grade boyfriend. Though I listened attentively to all of these stories, I did not understand.
I did not understand because I had grown up white in America. After millennia of genocide, displacement, persecution, and exclusion throughout the world, and decades of discrimination and rampant anti-Semitism in the United States, Jews had been accepted by White Christian America. By the time I was growing up in the 1990s, Jewish Americans had been thoroughly assimilated into dominant society and, as a result, had procured the myriad benefits that Whiteness carries with it.
This transition, which took place throughout the latter half of the 20th century, brought tremendous benefits to Jewish Americans. Though many Jews had been given formal citizenship prior to the 20th century, they were still largely considered non-white by the American majority through the 1940s and were targeted by racist housing and education laws alongside Black Americans and other people of color.
Being seen as white and fully Americanized meant that Jews could unreservedly participate in America’s political, economic and social institutions for the first time. It meant that they could purchase homes in the suburbs and take advantage of educational opportunities such as the G.I. bill, which was closed off to Black and Brown veterans. It meant that Jewish children could have the same opportunities for upward mobility that other white children did. While they were once marked as separate from America’s dominant culture, they were now a part of it.
Others were not so fortunate. Immigrant groups who had come to America from non-European countries, African Americans who had forcefully been brought to America against their will, and indigenous Americans whose land had been stolen by European colonizers were never offered an opportunity to assimilate into Whiteness. This is not because America’s definition of ‘white’ has ever been based on objective criteria, but because the institution of Whiteness depends on exclusion and hierarchy; without non-whites, Whiteness could not exist. Whiteness is not a scientific category but rather a socially constructed and politically motivated system that has instilled in us the ideology of White Supremacy.
Though American Jews have benefitted from being considered white for the past several decades, history has taught us that the borders of Whiteness can contract as easily as they expand. Emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, members of the “alt-right”, a movement that promotes white nationalism and the superiority of the white race, have made it clear that their vision of a purist, white ethnic state does not include Jews. At a recent alt-right gathering held to celebrate Trump’s victory, the president of the National Policy Institute, Richard Spencer, proclaimed “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” to thunderous applause and Nazi salutes. Further, Steve Bannon, Trump’s Presidential campaign CEO and newly appointed Chief Strategist, was exposed by his ex-wife in 2007 as having said that he disliked Jews and didn’t want his children going to school with them.
The great majority of Jews are still undeniably considered white in the U.S.; for such Jews to claim otherwise is disingenuous. But the words of those like Spencer and Bannon should remind Jews of their history of violent oppression and their obligation to protect those today who face the concrete threat that they once did.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the Jewish American community has responded to the current political moment in this manner, choosing instead to cling to Whiteness and their place within it. In November, Carl Reiner, the famed Jewish American actor, director and writer, responded to Bannon’s appointment by tweeting, “I, a Jew, was willing to give Trump a chance til I heard his cheif [sic] of staff say he’d not allow his kids to go to a school if Jews attended.”
Though it’s undeniably scary to be reminded of how fragile one’s acceptance within American society is, Reiner’s words sadden me. I want to ask him why he felt Trump had earned the benefit of the doubt, despite all of the racist, sexist, ableist, xenophobic and otherwise hateful and abhorrent things he had said and actions he had promised to take.
Further, I wonder what this middle-of-the-road perspective, which is shared by many, says about the Jewish community’s awareness of its own intersections. Most Jews are not straight, cisgendered men, as Reiner is, and are personally threatened by many of the sexist, homophobic and transphobic policies that Trump has sworn to enact as president.
Further, the Jewish American community, though largely white, includes a multitude of racial identities. The Center for Jewish & Community Research estimates that 20 percent of the American Jewish community consists of African, African American, Latinx, Asian American, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi, biracial, and multiracial Jews. The Jewish American community is not a monolith; on the contrary, it contains as many diverse identities as America itself, and therefore its freedom can never be disentangled from the freedom of every other marginalized group.
I believe that Jews can overcome fear and use this moment to condemn racism, sexism and xenophobia in all its forms. As we witness this political and cultural shift toward White Nationalism, we have an opportunity to draw upon our history of religious persecution and oppression to defend the rights of all people, not just ourselves. We can use this moment to join together with other communities against the interconnected forces of hate and oppression that plague our country, as many Jewish Americans did during the Civil Rights movement. We can, and must, also condemn and intervene in human rights atrocities occurring globally, such as the crimes being committed against the Palestinian people by the Israeli government.
Our history of religious persecution does not excuse us from speaking out against acts of violence and genocide that don’t directly involve us. In fact, it makes us even more obligated to do so. Whiteness has served us very well here in America, and it’s made us forget where we come from. It’s made us forget what happens when people stay silent in the face of injustice because it doesn’t directly affect them. It’s time for us to divest from White Supremacy, and the first step is acknowledging our complicity and investment in it.