White. But Trying Not to Be. (Feb. 2021)

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg famously quipped about Jewish denominationalism: “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.” I’ve always taken his words to mean that, while Jewish denominations are useful in clarifying theological positions or practice, too much energy is put into what divides us. And when we focus so very much on what separates us, we run the risk of forgetting what unites us. Greenberg thinks we should be embarrassed about that.

But there is something that unites us that we should also be embarrassed about: race. Somewhere between 80-90% of American Jews are white. This wasn’t always the case. While it’s true that Jews were considered “free white persons” by the 1790 Naturalization Act (and therefore granted citizenship), we were regularly discriminated against as a class. There were neighborhoods in which we could not live, restaurants and clubs from which we were banned and quotas at major universities, including here in Baltimore. In the post WWII era, Jews were increasingly accepted into the majority in a process that has been called “becoming white.”

During the Trump era with its stunning rise in antisemitic rhetoric and violence, some Jews question whether we still belong to the white race. But Jews with white skin consistently reap the benefits of whiteness, despite the very real threat antisemitism poses. David Schraub of UC Berkeley uses the term “Conditional Whiteness. “…An American Jew whose grandparents immigrated from Austria might unambiguously benefit from White privilege when passing a highway patrol car, but not enjoy it in any way whatsoever when White supremacists are looking for a target to harass.”

Traub’s observation was driven home for me January 6 when the US Capitol building was ransacked by a mob of white supremacists. They fashioned nooses, carried and shouted racist slogans and wore clothing with abhorrent antisemitic messages. This was whiteness taken to it most brutal and sordid extreme – a brash and violent assertion of power by members of what they considered a superior race. This behavior on behalf of and in the name of whiteness was made worse by its having been incited by the president himself, leading to his historic second impeachment.

Given the legacy of white supremacy in this country, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Jews who look like me ought to feel about our whiteness. My answer? We should feel embarrassed. While there are many virtuous white people, whiteness as a social construct is no virtue. James Baldwin makes this point in his essay “The White Man’s Guilt.” “The record [of white supremacy] is there for all to read…. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it…. The fact that they have not yet been able to do this – to face their history, to change their lives – hideously menaces this country.”

The recent menacing attack on our democracy is only one, albeit stunning, reminder of how important it is for white Jews to paradoxically accept and reject our whiteness. Jewishness should be a source of pride. As should Gay pride. As should Blackness for African Americans. But whiteness exists only to marginalize, disenfranchise and do harm to non-white people. For this reason, describing our whiteness thoughtfully is key. How best to do so?

“White Jews” is accurate but unnuanced. “Ashkenazi Jews” doesn’t take into account Jews of Color whose familial and cultural traditions can derive from Eastern Europe. “Jews with white skin privilege” is better because it honors our Jewishness while acknowledging the unearned benefit which we are afforded. The only problem is that this term says nothing about our Jewish responsibility to help dismantle racism. So, lately, I’ve been leaning toward another phrase, one that is equally honest about who we are and the America to which we should aspire:

Jewish and also white – but trying not to be.

A version of this post appears in the February 2021 issue of Jmore.

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