When comicbook.com published an article by Matthew Mueller entitled, “Wonder Woman: There IS A Person Of Color In The Lead Role,” arguing that Israeli actress Gal Gadot was the first woman of color to appear in the superhero genre, the question of whether or not Ashkenazi Jews are persons of color became a topic of discussion around Jewish tables and chat-rooms across the country. In response, the Forward published a blistering article by Wonder Woman expert (yes, there really is such a thing) Noah Berlatsky arguing “Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman Is White — Let’s Not Pretend Otherwise.”
Berlatsky denounced Mueller’s characterization of Gadot as absurd on several grounds: he argued that whiteness itself is a “fuzzy” racial concept and that Gadot certainly would enjoy white privilege in Israel (relative to her darker Mizrahi and Ethiopian cousins). Bu the most alarming argument in Berlatsky’s article was the notion that “being white is really just a matter of what people see you as.”
Blogger Dani Ishai Behan took to the Times of Israel with an incisive defense of the uniqueness, historically and ethnically, of Jewish identity. Characterizing Jews as white, Behan argued, erases Jewish experience across every pogrom, torture table, oven and ghetto that has decorated our painful past. The people who persecuted Jews never thought of Jews as either white or European — and Jews never thought of themselves that way, either. Categorizing Ashkenazi Jews as white, Behan argues, deprives Jews of the legitimate protection that all indigenous, oppressed ethnicities deserve, and engages in dangerous historical revisionism. The argument also serves as an intentional rhetorical move by anti-zionists: Jewish whiteness implies Jewish Israelis are merely white, European colonialists.
So, is Gal Gadot white? Is she North African/Middle Eastern and Israeli and Jewish and European and white? Is she all six of these things? Or perhaps something else? Who decides whether Jews are white, and what forces guides those decisions?
The ambiguity of Jewish ethnicity serves as a perverse weapon in hands hostile to Jewish identity. It leaves Jews historically vulnerable to anti-Semitism from extreme ideologies on both sides of the political spectrum; Jews are at once the ultimate insiders (white) or ultimate outsiders (other).
The authoritarian right, as recent studies suggest (and as any casual trip to 4Chan will confirm), couples Jewish privilege to themes of parasitism and conspiratorial, outside power. Message boards and twitter feeds everywhere on the right confirm the alarming growth of these racialized ideas at disturbing rates in right-wing social media. The authoritarian right, like the Nazis, attack the Jew as the ultimate outsider to the singular cause of ethnic nationality.
On the extreme left, Jews assume the mantle of ultimate insider. Unlike right wing authoritarian anti-Semitism, left wing anti-Semitism asserts Jewish whiteness excludes Jews from being persecuted. In this psychological fantasy, Jews emerge as powerful white insiders: the elite. Under the thin veneer of social justice, this poisonous narrative forcibly decouples Jewish identities and legitimate suffering from the causes of all other oppressed persons of color. For the far left, a Jew is the ultimate white person. Stalinists decried the insider, “corrupt bourgeois nationalists” to target Jews specifically and forcibly send them to Gulags en masse and redistribute their wealth.
Being white is the new version of the insider and outsider game in identity politics. Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour argues, in a video by the anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace, that “while anti-Semitism is something that impacts Jewish Americans, it’s different than anti-Black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic. As a Jewish American, particularly a white Jewish American…understanding that anti-Semitism is horrific but it’s not systemic is important] and we need to make that distinction.”
For Sarsour, the rhetorical move that Jews are white clearly means that they fall outside of the intersection of systemic oppression.
On the right, whiteness projections transmute to a mirror opposite. The popular alt-right blogger Radix decries “the rise of a hostile Jewish elite,” a privileged other, he admonishes his readers, threatening the purity of white America itself. In light of this, it is clear that being “white” emerges as a central, modern grammar of “othering” in Jewish existence for both poles of the political extremes.
When we believe, as Noah Berlatsky argues, that “being white is really just a matter of what people see you as,” I would respectfully suggest that history and current events should give Jews pause. For the sake of Jewish life everywhere, let’s start by educating ourselves to understand dangerous nuances of whiteness and how it plays so perniciously into an anti-Semitic reality that we internalize when we believe it. Anti-Semitism, from the left and right, is the largest and most systematic global operation of persecution ever launched against a single people. That operation may succeed, but Jews must never surrender our internal view of ourselves to its hostile visage.