‘Are Jews white?” is, no doubt, the strangest controversy spawned by “Wonder Woman,” the new hit movie starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot. It’s a debate that I, as a Russian-born American Jew, find both surreal (probably because it would have never occurred to me to regard myself as nonwhite) and disturbing. Partly, that’s because the last time this issue came up, it had to do with white supremacists who want it known that Jews do not belong in their club, and partly because there is something profoundly creepy about the focus on the biological classification of human beings. Yet in fact, the current polemics about the whiteness of Jews are not about biology or skin color but about cultural status and privilege. And ultimately, this debate reveals less about Jews than about the flaws of current progressive discourse on “privilege” and “whiteness.”
The question of Jewishness and race has many aspects, including the complicated relationship among religion, culture and ethnic heritage in the definition of a Jew and in racial diversity in the Jewish community. But ultimately, the debate is about whether Jews qualify as “privileged” or “marginalized.”
A year ago, freelance writer John-Paul Pagano published a powerful essay in Tablet magazine about ways in which the current rhetoric of anti-racism erases anti-Semitism. It was inspired by a series of tweets from hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, who insisted that while Jews may have “had it bad,” they still “enjoy skin privilege” — not just in the United States and Europe, but “worldwide,” too. As Pagano noted, this assertion ignores not only a history of horrific brutality toward Jews (including the Holocaust), but also the fact that anti-Jewish bigotry frequently takes the form of accusing Jews of being too wealthy or powerful. Pagano also discussed instances in which blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric on college campuses was excused because it was seen as coming from the oppressed African Americans or pro-Palestinian activists and targeting the privileged.
Many Jewish progressives believe that the answer is to fully include Jews under the umbrella of “intersectionality” — an approach that focuses on the interaction of different types of oppression and the overlap of marginalized identities. For some, the way to do this is to claim that Jews are “people of color.” Others counter that the discrimination and prejudice experienced by Jews cannot simply be equated with the burden of racism, which is correct in the American context but far more complicated in a global perspective.
But maybe the real answer is to drop rhetoric that treats “whiteness” as a stain of original sin and “color” as a mark of innocence — and rethink the often simplistic framework of “privilege.”
This is not to deny the obvious fact that some people and some groups have more advantages than others. But as Forward contributor Phoebe Maltz Bovy argues in her recent book, “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’” “those hierarchies don’t explain all injustice” and don’t account for individual variation. Some people thrive despite being from a disadvantaged group; others struggle despite being from an advantaged one.
This is especially true, since most proponents of “intersectionality” pay only lip service to class disadvantage while they focus on racial, ethnic, sexual or cultural identities. Poverty or disability can never absolve the straight white male, who — according to “woke” satire — faces no hardships in life except for the rising power of women and minorities.
Add to this the fact that racial and ethnic dynamics in America in 2017 are highly complex. Despite her critique of the “privilege” framework, Bovy accepts that, generally speaking, being white in America means benefiting from systemic racism. Yet Asian Americans, who certainly qualify as “people of color,” today have a median household income 25% higher than white Americans; some groups of Arab Americans and African immigrants are also wealthier than average. And many forms of racial disadvantage that hurt blacks and Latinos, such as higher risk of police harassment and abuse, do nothing to benefit whites. As Bovy notes, decent treatment by cops should be seen as the norm, not as a privilege.
Progressive rhetoric constantly belies defensive claims that “privilege is not an accusation.”. Jeers at the “white dude,” or even the “white lady,” can be treated as sufficient rebuttal to an unwelcome opinion. A progressive Jewish college professor, Bret Weinstein, can be physically threatened, accused of “white supremacy” and literally chased off campus for opposing a one-day campus ban on whites to support minorities — with little reaction outside of the conservative media. Researchers studying growing death rates among middle-aged white Americans can face hostility for focusing on whites.
One may disagree about the extent of racism and sexism in modern-day America and still agree that presuming and stigmatizing privilege is no way to address those problems. To treat “white” and “whiteness” as pejoratives simply inverts the hierarchy. Instead, we should confront injustice and prejudice wherever they exist. Imagine not having to worry about racial labels before you can show concern for human suffering — or oppose anti-Semitism.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood” (Ticknor & Fields, 1989). Follow her on Twitter, @CathyYoung63