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In the ‘Crisis of Whiteness’, Where Do Jews Fall?

There’s nothing quite like getting trolled by alt-right Twitter to make you an amateur expert in this coherent new ideology. But what’s struck me — both in tweets at me and in ones I’ve just seen floating around — is that there isn’t quite the unanimity of anti-Semitism one would expect. That is, there’s this sort of muck where Jew-hatred coexists with (something passing itself off as) pro-Israel advocacy, and in one memorable case, with a sort of aesthetic fixation on the beauty of Israeli women. (A stock image of a beautiful, ostensibly Israeli woman was this one bizarre account’s avatar.)

In a New York Times piece from earlier this week, Amanda Taub analyzes the “crisis of whiteness” occurring in the United States and abroad. Taub’s point — and it shouldn’t be a particularly controversial one — is that people who’ve long benefitted from whiteness, and who don’t have much else going for them in today’s society, get angry and resentful when whiteness stops being as valued as it once was. Yes, that phenomenon is racism, but referring to it as such doesn’t, unfortunately, make it go away.

But one passage really jumped out at me:

“There has also always been a certain fluidity to this concept of whiteness. Irish and Italian immigrants to the United States, and Jews in Britain, were once seen as separate from the white national majority, and are now generally considered part of it, benefiting from racial privilege. At the same time, Jews’ white skin did not protect them from being cast as outsiders by some of Mr. Trump’s supporters who have circulated anti-Semitic memes on social media.”

This “fluidity” angle is key. Specifically, for white-skinned Jews, this question of where we’d land if the Trumpists win the day.

It’s easy, if you’re a Jew stepped in modern European history, for your mind to turn to the Holocaust. Easy, and appropriate. Look at what’s happening! We’re looking at a political realignment that effectively excludes Jews from mainstream conservatism. (See the “resurgent anti-Semitism” passage.) Surely if neo-Nazis, white supremacists, or alt-right Trump supporters are in charge, we’ll be looking at a return to the bad old days where Jews didn’t merely have historical memory of being the Other, but are Other once more. I know that when I so much as hear the name “David Duke” or the term “paleoconservative,” there isn’t a doubt in my mind that a new order would have me headed to CanadaEuropeIsrael by late November.

But what if that’s not how it plays out? After all, 21st century American racism isn’t mid-20th century European racism. The landscapes, the histories, are very different. It’s entirely possible that the American racist emphasis on whiteness would wind up letting (white) Jews in, as it were. Possible, that is, because that’s where Trump himself, as best as I can tell, seems to fall, saving his overt racism for other groups.

What, then, do those of us who are white American Jews do with this, that is, with the chilling possibility that an explicitly white-supremacist new order would accept us?

No definitive answers here, but I guess where I land on this is, it doesn’t much matter. The fact that this is even a question — and that there’s been this new emergence of anti-Semitism — means that Jews willing and able to do so need to combat Trumpist racism not so much as white allies but as Jews.

Whiteness, writes Taub, “is the privilege of not being defined as ‘other.’” And that’s not quite where Jews are in 2016 America.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at [email protected]. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.


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