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Jews consider their place in America’s fraught racial landscape and ask: ‘Are we white?’

The writer explores a three-decade quest to understand her mother’s words: ‘‘We’re not white. We’re Jewish.’

SHARE Jews consider their place in America’s fraught racial landscape and ask: ‘Are we white?’

Rabbi Sam Spector, of Congregation Kol Ami, and Rev. Russell Butler, of Christ United Methodist Church, stand on the steps of First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City during a peaceful protest on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Growing up in the Deep South, I remember the first time I — as a Jewish girl — understood myself to be something other than white.

It happened in the fourth grade. I was standing in line for the swings. A Black classmate stepped ahead, butting my best friend — who happened to be Arab. “Hey,” I cried, “it’s Christy’s turn.” The girl swiveled around. “Cracker!” she shouted as she socked me in the stomach. 

Having no idea what the word meant, I asked my mother over dinner. “It’s like ‘poor white trash,’” she said, adding that some people considered it offensive so I shouldn’t repeat it. 

As I speared a piece of broccoli onto my fork, I wondered if we were ‘poor white trash.’ I knew we were poor and I was pretty sure, too, that we were white. Because we lived on the edge of a Black neighborhood — and our county was still trying to desegregate public schools by busing Black children to predominately white areas — I was the only white kid on the bus. When I boarded every morning, the Black kids greeted me with a reminder: “White girl.”

But I wasn’t sure about the trash part. I knew I was somehow different from most of my white classmates and that it had something to do with riding what they called the “Black bus” to school. I felt my difference again, at lunch time, when most of my white friends sat down at the cafeteria tables while I filed through the lunch line — stopping, shamefaced, to mumble my name to the hair-netted woman at the cash register holding what I knew to be the “free and reduced lunch” list.

I also knew my difference had something to do with the chai — the Hebrew word for life — that I wore around my neck; some of my white, Christian classmates pointed at the pendant, laughing, “What’s that? It looks like a dog! Why are you wearing a dog around your neck?”

Stepping carefully around the now-forbidden-word “cracker,” I asked my mom, “Are we poor white trash?”

“No,” she said, setting her fork down, chewing her chicken. “We’re not white. We’re Jewish.” 

Are Jews white?

Thirty years on, I’m still struggling to make sense of her words, especially now as some in the Jewish community argue that our place in the country is shifting.

They point to the 2018 and 2019 attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and San Diego County, California, as evidence. And in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — as well as the #JewishPrivilege hashtag that trended on Twitter just a few weeks ago — many Jewish Americans feel a renewed sense of urgency around the issue: Where do we fit into the country’s fraught racial landscape? 

Dr. Marc Dollinger, a professor in San Francisco State University’s Department of Jewish Studies and the author of numerous books including “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the alliance in the 1960s,” responds: “In each moment there is a specific answer.” 

And that answer, he explains, changes with respect to who is in the vicinity. 

“White is a relationship to power,” Dollinger says. “If people were going to point to examples of (Jews) being (considered) nonwhite, look at Pittsburgh — Jews were killed while they prayed in a synagogue. But when I walk into a 7-Eleven, a security guard doesn’t follow me.”

Jews, Dollinger argues, occupy a liminal space in the country — we are ”part of multiple communities simultaneously but accepted fully in none of them, anywhere.” 

Thus, he says, Jews have to be aware of how others perceive them and what is their relationship to power — to whiteness — is relative to theirs, identifying ourselves accordingly. 

Using the social justice work he does with undergraduate students as an example, Dollinger explains, “When we walk into a room full of Black and brown people we have to understand that, in that moment, we are white.” He said Jews need to be aware of “the privilege they have that comes from being white-presenting.”

At the same time, Dollinger is quick to add that we need to respect the contradictory feelings of Jews who feel more like part of an embattled minority: “But in Charlottesville, Virginia, when (white nationalists) say ‘The Jews will not replace us,’ we need to listen to Jews who are afraid of that.”

“We need to make space,” he says, “to hold all” these contradictory views and feelings at once. 

A Jewish gene?

When it comes to whether or not we’re a race, as the old adage goes: “ask two Jews, get three opinions.” 

Some researchers claim that there are Jewish genes — or, to be more precise, that the history of the Jewish people can be tracked through our genes.

In part because Judaism is matrilineal, many Jews believe that there is a biological component to our heritage. But the fact that anyone can convert to Judaism complicates things — as does the fact that the children of a female convert would be considered as Jewish as those born to a Jewish mother who, herself, had been born Jewish.

And asking whether Jews are white overlooks our diversity. Researchers estimate that Jews of color number between 12% to 15% of American Jewry. Consider the Syrian Jewish community in New York City, or the tens of thousands of Persian Jews who live in the Los Angeles area. There are Arab Jews, Cuban Jews, Puerto Rican Jews. There are Jews from India, from Central Asia, from Ethiopia. We are a beautiful and varied tapestry.

Some claim that even posing the question “Are Jews a race?” is taboo because it plays into the hands of anti-Semites. After all, the Nazis used a racial definition of Judaism: anyone with three of four Jewish grandparents was considered Jewish, regardless of whether or they — or their grandparents — identified as such or practiced the religion. 

The modern state of Israel also follows a racial definition, offering citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent. But because religious authorities control the marrying and burying, this sometimes creates a paradox: one can be Jewish enough to be naturalized but not meet the religious definition of a Jew and thereby excluded from certain life cycle events. Take, for example, the many Israeli couples who must leave the country to marry because one or both partners doesn’t meet the rabbinate’s criteria of Judaism; consider the Israeli soldiers who have died in the line of duty only to be buried separately from their brothers in arms

Recent years have seen Jews — whatever we are — increasingly racialized in the U.S.: In 2018, a Louisiana civil court judge ruled that Joshua Bonadona — a man who had been born and raised Jewish but converted to Christianity — had indeed been discriminated against on the basis of race when he was passed up for a job on the basis of what his potential employer called his “Jewish blood.” The judge extended the protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — a move Bonadona’s lawyer called “precedent-setting” and that commentators argued amounted to tacit declaration that we are a race. 

Then, in 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order extending Title VI protections to Jews, a move that left some Jewish Americans conflicted. 

Did Jews ‘become’ white?

When most people think of Jewish immigration to the United States, they think of Ellis Island, the gateway that millions of immigrants — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — passed through as they entered America. But Jews have a longer history in the United States. Present from the colonial era on, they were, by and large, accepted. Part of this assimilation was legal: Jews gained American citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1790, which extended the right to “any alien” who was a “free white person.” 

But in her book “How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America,” Dr. Karen Brodkin argues that while the country’s first Jews were considered white, the mass of Jews that came at the turn of the 20th century weren’t. The same was true for some other immigrant groups, she says, like the Italians and Irish. 

Brodkin attributes this to the anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic sentiment common among the white protestants who formed the ruling class. But it’s also got to do with money — the sorts of jobs commonly held by Jews and other immigrants, and the fact that these people were poor. As Jews moved up the class ladder and into more respectable work, Brodkin argues, they became white. But she wonders, was it the chicken or the egg: were Jews increasingly accepted as white, thus allowing them to move up the class ladder or vice versa?

But Dr. Hasia Diner, a professor at New York University, argues that American Jews didn’t “become” white. Pointing to the Naturalization Act of 1790 and immigration records, Diner says that we are and have always been white. 

The conflation of race and color is relatively recent, Diner adds, “Throughout much of American history the word race didn’t mean color. They talked about the Alpine race and the Celtic race. Race was a word that was used into the first third of the 20th century as ethnicity or nationality.” 

Immigration forms developed in the late 1890s, Diner says, “had two columns — one for race and one for color. Jews were defined in that way as a race — as a Hebrew race or Semitic race.” 

She is quick to add that we also viewed ourselves as such, “Jews considered themselves a race as well they saw themselves as different and … felt that they had bonds to each other that were very different than non-Jews, who were always called goyim.’”

In 1911, the U.S. Immigration Commission published the “Dictionary of Races or Peoples.” In that book, Diner observes, “There are a gazillion categories, (including) groups that we would never think of as races” in the contemporary sense of the word.  

There were many races and there were only two or three colors and what really mattered was the color that was assigned. “People defined as nonwhite were incapable of naturalization.”

“Jews were always white,” Diner says. “There is never a time when their ability to naturalize and acquire citizenship and acquire a political voice was in jeopardy. It doesn’t mean they didn’t experience discrimination. But they were, by law, white ... they could hold office and vote and sit on juries. They could feel pretty confident that the state would protect them. That was just not the case for nonwhite people.”