I was eight years old when I first experienced anti-Semitism. I was at Disney World with my family in the gift shop. I asked the sales clerk how much something cost, and then I tried to bargain with her. She immediately responded, as if on instinct, “well it looks like we have a little Jew here.”
My parents were horrified. Resisting the temptation to get her fired, my father reprimanded her instead. “If you have kids, be careful, or they will grow up to be racist just like you,” he told her.
As a third grader, I was presumably confused, and I buried the experience somewhere in my subconscious.
I was fourteen or so the second time I experienced anti-Semitism. My friends and I were bicycling home from McDonald’s, a trek that required passing through an impoverished neighborhood. Some tough looking teenagers taunted us, shouting, “Look at those rich Jews.” They said nothing else and they let us go. But we steadfastly avoided that route on future occasions, taking the longer inconvenient way home.
Did the sales clerk and street toughs know I was Jewish? In the first instance, I exhibited what is often denigrated as stereotypical Jewish behavior: cheapness and bargaining for a better deal. In the second case my friends and I, all white-skinned Ashkenazi Jews, had no visible markers of Jewishness. But we were wearing nice clothing, riding expensive bicycles, and heading toward, quite literally, the other side of the tracks where the Jews lived.
In both cases I initially passed for white; I enjoyed the privilege of having white skin. But that is all it was, a privilege, and privileges can be revoked, which is what happened on these two occasions.
I was publicly maligned as a Jew because of the way I spoke, what I wore, and where I ostensibly lived.
As an adult, I have encountered anti-Semitism more times than I care to remember during numerous research trips to the former Soviet Union. I experienced unprovoked Jew-hatred in Kiev, Ukraine in 2005, while standing peacefully in front a monument to Sholem Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer who never did any harm to the Ukrainians among whom he lived.
A couple of Ukrainians came up to the statue and shouted (in Ukrainian) “Sholem Aleichem, what a kike,” spat on it, and then continued on their stroll.
Did they know I was Jewish? It is unlikely, dressed as I was like any other white-skinned North American traveler. But that knowledge hardly quelled my sense of unease, given that I was in the very region where Cossacks massacred tens of thousands Jews in the 1640s, and where three hundred years later, Nazi execution squads, aided by eager Ukrainian auxiliaries, annihilated just as many Jews and with far greater efficiency, accomplishing their genocidal task in a matter of days.
In 2005 I was safe, because I could pass for white.
With this in mind, I feel compelled to disagree with Nylah Burton, who has published two pieces in The Forward rebuking Ashkenazi Jews for calling themselves “white-passing.”
Burton insists that Ashkenazi Jews are functionally white, and have no business using a term that generally refers to fair-skinned African Americans who can evade the liabilities their people continue to suffer.
But my experiences, and they are hardly unique, are precisely what it means to pass for white as an Ashkenazi Jew.
It’s true that I am not condemned to bear the cruel institutionalized racism that impedes the social, economic, and educational mobility of black Americans. I can go about my daily life walking the streets of America without having to worry about being outted as a Jew. When I am pulled over by the police, I can rest assured that I will be treated no differently from any other white driver. I can go to the bathroom at Starbucks without having to justify my presence through the purchase of a five-dollar macchiato.
But what if our white Gentile neighbors start looking for Jews?
I hold the sole chair in Jewish Studies at the sole university in my deeply Christian city in North Carolina, which means that my Jewishness comes up whenever I am asked what I do for a living. And although I have never encountered outright hostility, I have been asked more than once if I am concerned that my rejection of Jesus will lead to eternal damnation.
This may not be dangerous bigotry and, if anything, I am more amused than upset. But then the 2016 election happened. And then the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia happened. There were armed Nazis patrolling an American town, surrounding the synagogue, chanting anti-Semitic threats in a small southern community, not so different from my own.
How long would it take them to find the Jews if the ever-diminishing constraints that hold them in check were to completely disintegrate? Would our Gentile neighbors protect us? This is not unwarranted hysteria. We Jews have been down this road enough times in our troubled history.
Burton writes that “when someone is white-passing, it often means that their white privilege is limited, and it can be snatched away if their true ethnicity is discovered.”
That is exactly what the Jewish encounter with modernity has been in many European countries and, at a handful of moments, in America as well. Burton not only refuses to accept this history, but further claims that this historical narrative — my historical narrative — erases her identity and the horrific generations of American black victimhood.
Not surprisingly, Burton’s first piece provoked a visceral backlash, which included a revoltingly racist Twitter storm, the sort that we have grown accustomed to in our ideologically charged moment. But Burton responded, avowing that “I don’t need anyone’s permission to write about my experiences and opinions. My blackness permits me.”
And yet, we can acknowledge our respective histories of persecution and exclusion without making claims about who has had it worse.
Alas, we live in a time and place where competitive victimhood between ethno-cultural communities has become the norm, a practice that is unhealthy and ultimately self-defeating. Collective memories of suffering cannot be quantified and ranked. Neither can the collective fears of Jews, blacks, Latinx, Native Americans, or anyone else. All this does is lead to mutual recrimination and social media outrage.
And it leaves us distracted when greater threats loom on the horizon.
Jarrod Tanny is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of “City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa” (Indiana University Press, 2011). He is currently writing a book on Jewish humor in America.