When I wrote a piece at the Forward pointing out that Gal Gadot is white, I did not expect there to be a backlash. Gadot is, after all, playing a white character; she was clearly cast because people see her as white.
The argument that she was a person of color was transparently made in bad faith; it was meant to distract from actual POC folks asking for better representation. I thought I was making a fairly uncontroversial point.
White people, though, really don’t like to be told that they’re white. The piece prompted a number of rebuttals, including one by Dani Ishai Behan at the Times of Israel and a piece by Joel Finkelstein at the Forward’s contributor’s network. Both Finkelstein and Behan argue that Ashkenazi Jews are a distinct ethnicity, and that Jews often face prejudice. The first point is debatable — ethnicity is not much more stable than race. The second is indisputably true. Both are, however, beside the point.
The discussion about Gadot as a POC is about representation. Women of color have pointed out, accurately, that Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman does not answer their demands for heroic roles for black women or for women of color. Jewish women who are white, on the other hand, have no trouble getting high profile roles. Scarlett Johansson is probably the single most successful female actor alive at the moment. Natalie Portman, who is an Israeli Jew, regularly gets roles playing white protagonists like Jackie Kennedy. In that context, it is absurd to say that a white Jewish woman like Gal Gadot is shattering barriers for women of color.
Finkelstein and Behan, though, barely mention the issue of casting. Instead, they both spiral off to argue that Jews are oppressed. Jews certainly have been oppressed in some times and places. But white Jews are not currently shut out of roles in Hollywood. If someone says, “I cannot get a job because I am discriminated against,” and you respond by saying, with Behan, “well, my ancestors may at one point have been raped by Cossacks,” you’re not participating in a good faith discussion. You’re trying to cloud the issue so you don’t have to face the particular injustice that’s in front of you at the moment.
The move to talk about something else — anything else — is, ironically, typical of the way in which whiteness defends itself when challenged. Finkelstein and Behan insist they are not white. Okay, then. Why then are they so desperately uninterested in the injustices and indignities meted out to people of color? Finkelstein says it is anti-Semitic to advance a narrative that “decouples Jewish identities and legitimate suffering from the causes of all other oppressed persons of color.” But there is not a word in his piece about the causes of those other people of color, even though the conversation was originally about the fact that people of color don’t get represented as heroes in Hollywood. There is an issue facing people of color on the table. When you talk about standing with them in suffering, are you actually standing with them? Or are you standing on their necks?
The history of Jewish oppression should, ideally, be a way for Jews, white or otherwise, to align themselves with marginalized people. The legacy of anti-Semitic caricature, as just one example, should make Jewish people aware of the importance of media representation. Film and television can lead people to hate others, to ignore others, and even to doubt themselves. There are vanishingly few women of color in starring superhero roles on the big screen; there are few starring roles for women of color in general. Every women of color in a heroic role is a painful, hard-won victory in the face of a culture that, as a rule, views women of color with indifference and contempt. Pretending Gal Gadot is a POC for those purposes is not a way to fight for women of color. It’s an intentional effort to trivialize their struggle. It’s yet another way to tell people of color that their exclusion is righteous and normal, and that white people’s stories are the only stories that matter.
Jews who are white have a choice. We can side with the marginalized, noting that Jewish safety in a white society is uncertain, and what is done to others may one day, again, be done to us. Or we can leverage our particular history of past discrimination as a rhetorical weapon against folks who face discrimination now. To do the latter, no matter one’s color or background, is to embrace whiteness.