This piece originally appeared in New Voices.
After the election, my friend’s younger brother called from Israel. “Are we white?” he asked.
Her immediate response was, “Not anymore.”
As I listened to my friend talk about this exchange, I wasn’t sure which part was more telling, the question or the answer. The question – how we fit into America’s racial landscape as Jews – is an old one. But our specific worries about what our conclusion may be are new. Since the election, the next generation of Jews is asking, “Are we white right now? And, if we’re not white in Trump’s America, what does that mean?”
Trump or no Trump, Jews have always had a complicated relationship with whiteness, first off, because we’re not monolithic. Many Jews identify as Jews of color.
Yet there’s also no getting around it: Many Ashkenazi Jews benefit from white privilege in modern-day America. We’re not getting stopped at traffic lights for searches because we’re Jewish. We don’t face the deep and systemic challenges people of color experience in our country every day. We can walk around with the comforting realization that people likely think of us as white and, if they know we’re Jewish, it’s unlikely to make a difference.
Our white privilege as Jews in America, however, is also pretty newly acquired. No one saw my great grandparents, Romanian Jewish immigrants, as white. The word “kike” was still in fashion when my grandparents were kids. My dad got beat up on the playground for being one of a few Jewish students at his school. Because whiteness is a social construct, its borders – who it includes and excludes – shift over time. I now reap the rewards of a privilege my great grandparents may have hoped for but never imagined.
As a result, many Jews, even those who appear white, simply don’t feel white – no matter how much we benefit from society’s assumption that we are. We have a long communal memory of persecution and our own culture, practices, and jargon that fall outside of mainstream white ‘Murica. Even if Jews still can’t agree (after 5,000 years) whether Jewishness is a religion, culture, or both, it’s our amorphous identity, and many of us subscribe to it as our label of choice.
Meanwhile, the alt-right has definitively decided we’re still not white enough. More than 800 Jewish journalists have been harassed on social media with Holocaust imagery and conspiracy theories about our grand cabal of world-dominators. (If Jews rule the world, I haven’t gotten my check in the mail. Just sayin’.) Meanwhile, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the CEO of the alt-right platform Breitbart, didn’t want his kids going to school with Jewish students, according to his ex-wife in a sworn court declaration in 2007.
So, are pale Jews white right now? If whiteness is defined by white privilege, probably. If it’s defined by how we identify, maybe not. And if it’s defined by the alt-right, hells no. Our status is, it’s complicated. But, in the wake of this election, I think we need to ask a different question.
Do we want to be white right now?
Because this weird gray area arguably gives us a choice. We can choose to identify with minorities or we can choose to identify with the majority in power.
Historically, Jews have had to ask themselves this question time and time again: When a governing entity comes into conflict with other groups, with whom do we side? As a heavily persecuted people, our answer was often whoever would keep us safe or leave us alone. For example, there’s a reason our synagogue services include a prayer for the government. Sure, we can be patriotic and our sages taught good government is key to peace – but we’ve also prayed for the safety of czars, sultans, and kings in the hopes they’d appreciate the gesture and let us be. Particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, Jews made diverse and difficult choices about whether to identify with colonial powers, their neighbors, or both, based on their convictions and what seemed safest at the time.
My two cents: Now that our President-elect won on campaign promises to deport “bad hombres,” ban Muslim immigration, and expunge crime with stop and frisk, it’s high time for American Jews to side with minorities. People of color aren’t blessed with a choice – but, as far as we know, at this moment in history, we are. We can embrace the label recently bestowed on us by the whims of the white privilege fairy, or we can realize what her transient gifts deny others. We can stand with power because it makes us feel safe, or we can find more steadfast solidarity in standing with other communities that face discrimination under this administration.
So, as a white-looking Jew, am I white right now? In Trump’s America, I have no idea. But I’m choosing to answer, “Not anymore.”