Skip To Content

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe

Jews are just as confused about our race as Whoopi Goldberg is

To the editor:

Like Nora Berman, I also felt that Whoopi Goldberg’s Holocaust remarks were a teachable moment — but I’m a teacher, so to me most moments are.

Fifty-plus years as a Jewish educator have taught me that hardly anyone, including many Jews, really understands antisemitism.

We have long denied that we are a race, arguing that we don’t want others to define us, and we bristle when someone references “the Jewish race.” But we get angry when told we are not victims of racism.

Our own inability to define who is a Jew doesn’t help. It’s like defining great art: I’ll know it when I see it.

Then we have the problem of who is not a Jew. Where do we draw the line?

In a class on this subject at Hebrew University in 1968, we were asked to define a Jew. One born of a Jewish mother or who converts? One who considers one’s self a Jew? One who others consider to be a Jew? One who practices the Jewish religion? One who does not convert to another religion?

Is Judaism a religion? A culture? A nation? A tradition? An ethnic group?

The answer, of course, is all of the above.

This fluidity is great for us, but confusing for those who are not Members of the Tribe.

The race designation has often served American Jews well. In Gold Rush San Francisco, for example, Jews were welcome to become full members of society because, for the first time in our history, we were considered members of the white race, since we weren’t Asian or Black.

But I know I’m not the only Jew who feels uncomfortable checking the box when asked my race on a form. Should I check Caucasian? Maybe I’m Other?

I don’t believe Whoopi Goldberg is an antisemite. I believe she is a non-Jew who sees race as most Americans do: through skin color.

Defining Judaism is complicated, and shouldn’t be surprised when others are confused. I thank Goldberg for making this a topic of national discussion.
— Meridith Patera

To contact the author, email [email protected].

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.