Jews and non-Jews are drawn to debates about whether Jews are white. It’s the sort of question that captivates academics and activists, roping in everyone from Israeli “Wonder Woman” actress Gal Gadot to African American literary luminary James Baldwin.
On the one hand, Jews have been discriminated against for centuries, including by white cultures from Nazi Germany to the United States. On the other, many Jews have attained a significant measure of acceptance, and many can often “pass” as white when not wearing traditional Jewish symbols.
Implicitly at stake in this argument is whether efforts to combat racism should prioritize prejudice against Jews or whether other persecuted populations should take precedence.
Personally, I’ve found this debate beside the point, and this weekend’s disturbing events in Charlottesville perfectly illustrate why: The white supremacists have already made their decision.
When white nationalists descended upon the historic Virginia city to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, their “Unite the Right” rally gathered a veritable who’s who of top neo-Nazis in the United States, including Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and alt-right leading light Richard Spencer, among others.
They immediately went after the Jews. At their Friday night rally at the University of Virginia, the white nationalists brandished torches and chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans, including “blood and soil” (an English rendering of the Nazi “blut und boden”) and “Jews will not replace us” — all crafted to cast Jews as foreign interlopers who need to be expunged. The attendees proudly displayed giant swastikas and wore shirts emblazoned with quotes from Adolf Hitler. One banner read, “Jews are Satan’s children.”
“The truth is,” Duke told a large crowd Saturday, “the American media, and the American political system, and the American Federal Reserve, is dominated by a tiny minority: the Jewish Zionist cause.” Addressing another group, Richard Spencer mocked Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor, Mike Signer. “Little Mayor Signer — ‘See-ner’ — how do you pronounce this little creep’s name?” Spencer asked. The crowd responded by chanting, “Jew, Jew, Jew.” In TV interviews, attendees were not shy about their anti-Semitism.
And James Fields Jr., the man who is accused of mowing down protesters that day, killing one and injuring 19, “had this fascination with Nazism and a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler,” according to his high school history teacher. He was previously photographed at a rally for Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group dedicated to fighting “the international Jew.”
None of this should surprise us. The United States’ white nationalists have made no secret of their special hate for Jews, particularly during the 2016 campaign and its aftermath.
Inspired by Donald Trump, Duke himself ran for Senate in Louisiana, spending much of his time on the primary debate stage ranting against the Jews. When Melania Trump was found to have plagiarized Michelle Obama in her Republican National Convention address, Duke declared he’d “bet a gefilte fish” that it was Jewish sabotage.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump’s alt-right supporters barraged Jewish journalists with online abuse, including CNN’s Jake Tapper, the Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe and me, photoshopping us into gas chambers and concentration camps.
This conduct is not incidental to the white nationalist program; it is essential.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Eric Ward, an African American scholar and activist who has studied the movement for years, recently put it:
“The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem for white supremacist ideology. White supremacism — inscribed de jure by the Jim Crow regime and upheld de facto outside the South — had been the law of the land, and a black-led social movement had toppled the political regime that supported it. How could a race of inferiors have unseated this power structure through organizing alone? … Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes. This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education and even Washington D.C. It must be brainwashing white people, rendering them racially unconscious.
What is this arch-nemesis of the white race, whose machinations have prevented the natural and inevitable imposition of white supremacy? It is, of course, the Jews. Jews function for today’s white nationalists as they often have for anti-Semites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils.”
For this reason, Jews are the only “white people” obsessively targeted by white supremacists. So are they really white, not at all or something in between? After Charlottesville, it’s clear we no longer have the luxury of debating the finer points of this question. For the time being, the racists have settled it for us.
Racism, after all, is essentially the result of socially constructed categories imposed by bigots to separate out-groups from an in-group: white from nonwhites, Germans from Jews and so on.
As such, any serious anti-racist effort needs to confront the racists where they are. When white supremacists are viciously attacking Jews as nonwhite impostors, then any anti-racists worthy of the name must be there to defend them. They cannot impose their own definitions of whiteness on Jews and sidestep their plight. Otherwise, they are simply ceding Jews to their assailants and effectively abetting their persecution.
Jews understand this dynamic from hard experience. For this reason, Israel’s law of return guaranteeing citizenship to any Jew uses the Nazi definition of “one Jewish grandparent,” even as there is a contentious debate within the Jewish community over who exactly is a Jew. When it comes to countering prejudice, however, those concerns are set aside. Given the current moment, we must do the same in the United States.
The question of whether Jews are white is a valuable and engaging one, especially to writers like me. But to debate the intersection of Jewish identity and whiteness tomorrow, we need to protect that Jewish identity today.
Once the white supremacists are consigned to the ash heap of history, we can return to contesting claims of Jewishness and whiteness. Until then, however, the question is at best a distraction from fighting racism and at worst a path to perpetuating it.