How calling people ‘White Jews’ became an insidious slander - Comment

The debate over whether Jews are “white” has a long history in the US. Books and researchers have looked at how Jews fit into America’s history of racial classification.

An orthodox Jewish man walks next to a vendor at one of the entrances to Jerusalem's Old City March 9, 2020 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
An orthodox Jewish man walks next to a vendor at one of the entrances to Jerusalem's Old City March 9, 2020
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
As protesters across the United States confront police brutality some commentators have tried to push an antisemitic agenda. As part of this attempt to exploit a political awakening about race relations a new term has been coined: “White Jews.” Over the last several years this attempt to not only classify Jews as “white” but to single out Jews for “whiteness” has been pushed quietly in US publications and social media. Now the slander is getting worse.
The debate over whether Jews are “white” has a long history in the US. Books and researchers have looked at how Jews fit into America’s history of racial classification. Because the US has a dark history of racial segregation there has often been discussions over who is “black” and “white” in the US. This means shoehorning various groups into whether they are “people of color” and minorities, or part of the white majority. Jews have had to navigate this complex system of race relations in the US.
Excellent books on this subject, such as The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton and The Price of Whiteness have explored this history. However, today in the US the discussion is not a nuanced question of whether Jews pass for being “white” while still suffering antisemitism, instead there is an attempt to append the word “white” to the word “Jews” to mark Jews as “white” so they can’t be minorities.
The “white Jews” agenda has percolated up and found its way into mainstream Jewish publications such The Forward. It tends to boil down to bifurcating Jews into “black” and “white.” Sometimes this is an internal Jewish discussion. There is even a petition to remove a Jewish oped editor, suggesting they “systematically used her platform” to “put white Jews against Black and Brown folks.”
Outside the Jewish internal debate about whether there are “white Jews” and “black Jews,” is an increasing crescendo of attacks on Jews as “white Jews.” That means people don’t write “there are a bunch of Jews” but “there are a bunch of white Jews.”  The use of the term “white Jews” is almost always negative and used as a pejorative to single out Jews and no other group as “white.”
Why is the word “white” added to the word Jew? In the US there have been discussions in the past whether being Jewish is primarily a religion or an ethnic belonging. If the Jewish faith is seen as just a religion, like being Muslim, then why would one need to append “white” to it. Do they write “white Catholics” or “white Muslims”? If only Jews are said to be “white” then the coded inference is that there is something wrong with Jews who are white. It is used to mark Jews, because if the assumption was that Jews were just a religion then no one would need to append this term.
If, on the other hand, Jews are generally seen as an ethnic group with roots in the Middle East, then the use of the term “white Jews” is solely to single Jews out. No one writes “white Armenians” or “white Arabs” or “white Turks” or “white Copts” or “white Persians” or even “white Italians.” This is because to be Greek or Italian, Turkish or Coptic is to be a member of a group. Insofar as most Italians in the US are seen as “white,” no one need to remind anyone of this. Only Jews are called “white” in this context. No one writes “white Irish.”
The use of the term “white Jews” is used by those who feel uncomfortably with the knowledge that Jews are a historic ethnic and religious minority. The increasing use of the term “white Jews” is also used to deny the complex and diverse history of Jews. It negates the reality of the Jewish experience in Yemen, Iraq, Greece or the Pale of Settlement. It prefers to see Jews solely through an American lens of racializing groups. In this way Jews are twice victims, first of antisemitism and then of being reclassified as “white” so a to castigate them for being part of a “white” power structure.
This use of the term "white Jews" also appears to be a term of abuse that is sometimes linked to the Nation of Islam or other groups that blame Jews for the slave trade in an antisemitic re-writing of history. In this narrative there are "white Jews" who are called "fake Jews" and black Jews are seen as authentic. Sometimes those who use the term "white Jews" innocently do not realize they are playing into this bifurcation that has also created categories such as "Black Muslims" to differentiate a uniquely US experience from the global experience of Jews and Muslims.
US history is full of stories of people forced to navigate the US focus on the black-white divide to racialize themselves in the US context. In The Senator and the Socialite, a history of an African-American dynasty, the author tells of a black man named Barrington Guy who changed his name to “Sharma” to pretend to be Indian. The author says this was done to “pass as white or Indian.” Jews also changed their names when immigration to America. One article notes that they were told their names were “too long, too foreign and too Jewish.” If Jews were indeed “white” then they wouldn’t have needed to change their “Jewish” names, and they wouldn’t have suffered discrimination at clubs and universities.
It appears that in popular debate in the US when it was considered bad to be non-white, Jews were perceived as non-white, and now that the overwhelming conversation has shifted to oppose white supremacy, Jews have been reclassified as being “white” to make them on the wrong side of the equation again. The term “white Jews” in increasing a term of abuse or a term used to try to set Jews apart from other minorities, such as Muslims or Arabs. With increasing numbers of Jews living in the US who are more recently from the Middle East or who are of mixed ancestry, it appears the term is being pushed more today to try to force Jews into a  category at the very time when they are more diverse than in recent history in the US.