Are Jews white? And why it matters

Did we personally experience antisemitism? If so, to what extent? Overall, how accepted did we feel here?

Protesters walk in the rain down 23rd Avenue South in Seattle on June 12 during a silent march organized by Black Lives Matter to protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd  (photo credit: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON)
Protesters walk in the rain down 23rd Avenue South in Seattle on June 12 during a silent march organized by Black Lives Matter to protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd

In a recent group discussion on antisemitism in our Seattle Jewish community, participants were asked to tell the story of our own experience of the “Other” growing up in America. Did we personally experience antisemitism? If so, to what extent? Overall, how accepted did we feel here?
An American-Israeli friend took me by surprise with her answer. She has lived in America for decades, but her formative years growing up were in Israel. She said growing up in Israel she didn’t experience antisemitism. When I asked her about the hostility of Israel’s neighbors, she said: “That’s different. We were being attacked as Israelis, not as Jews.” And, when I pressed and said: “You mean you didn’t identify the attacks against you with the kind of antisemitism Jews in the Diaspora have experienced for centuries?” And, she said “no.” 
This is an important touchstone of what separates Israeli and American Jews. Understanding it better also suggests a path to greater connection.  Both Israeli Jews and American Jews tend to respond to attacks on the Jewish people through the lens of the narrative that we are most comfortable with. It’s been said that on the continuum of universalism and particularism, American Jews weigh in more heavily on universalist values, and Israeli Jews are more particularistic. However, I wonder whether we rather differ in the nature of our particularism.
Israeli Jews and American Jews have made a different bet about what keeps Jews safe. Both American and Israeli Jews believe that being a minority in majority cultures has made the Jewish people extremely vulnerable through our history. But, American Jews believe that America is different from all the previous Diaspora communities. In America, Jews are safe because here everyone is a minority. Therefore, the best defense for Jews in America is to promote the values of diversity and tolerance which we believe are at the heart of American culture.
For this reason, we American Jews are heavily invested in continuing to see ourselves as a minority. The resurgence of white supremacy threatens a lot of minorities – Muslims, Asians and Blacks, as well as Jews. So, in responding to antisemitism, focusing most of our attention on white supremacy reassures us that we are, in fact, still a minority and that we are in solidarity with all of the other American minorities. This response fits our core narrative.
But, are we a minority? Much of America no longer sees us that way. In fact, a lot of antisemitism is being directed at us because we are perceived as being the majority. In America, we’ve been kicked out of the ‘club of the oppressed’ and we are increasingly seen as white and privileged and therefore part of the oppressing class. Israel is seen by many on the Left as being a majority culture oppressing a minority.
When other minorities attack us, we are confused about how to respond. One response is to deny the problem. Another response is to deny that we are “white.” And, we wouldn’t be wrong. The term white as it is used today often has more to do with socioeconomic status than skin tone. To question whether Jews are “white” is not to ignore the fact that a percentage of us are people of color in the way that term is being used today. It is to question whether the term “white” describes any Jew, especially when it is used as a political tool to deny us the status of a persecuted people. 
So, when Spike Lee in his film Black KKKlansman invites us back into the minority club, we feel good. This fits our traditional self-perception. And, when here in Seattle a local Muslim leader declares the roots of antisemitism are in white supremacy and therefore Jews and Muslims are fellow victims and natural allies, it’s tempting to embrace this narrative, and sweep the complexity of our relationship under the rug.
But, by focusing almost exclusively on white supremacy (reinforcing the perception that we are not ‘white’) we are rendering ourselves incapable of responding to:
a. The antisemitism which results from re-framing us as enemies of people of color – in America and in Israel, and
b. Systemic antisemitism in the Muslim world (which has been acknowledged by courageous Muslims like Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post; and, see the television series Ramy for a refreshingly honest call out of Muslim antisemitism by a young Muslim whose parents are Egyptian-born Americans).
ISRAELI JEWS, on the other hand, see themselves as a majority and a sovereign country. The whole point of Israel was not to be a minority anymore. So, when Israel is attacked, it can’t be because Jews are a minority. Been there, done that. We’re not like those Diaspora Jews in history or like Jews around the globe. We’re more like France being attacked by Germany in World War II.
So, it’s confusing to Israelis when radical imams around the world portray Israelis in classic antisemitic terms. And, it’s confusing to Israelis that, despite the attempt to escape minority status, Jews are a minority within the Middle East and that a lot of the way the Middle East relates to Israel is very similar to the way Jews were related to as minorities within countries in the Diaspora. That’s hard to accept because it flies in the face of the classic Israeli narrative that the very existence of the State of Israel was going to solve the problem of Jew hatred once and for all.  So the tendency is to distance oneself from the Diaspora experience of antisemitism.
Here is the good news. What all of this suggests is that Israeli Jews and American Jews have a lot more in common than we think: Both American Jews and Israeli Jews are majorities/minorities. Israeli Jews are a majority in their own country, and a minority in the Middle East. American Jews are a minority vis a vis Christians, but because we are so successful, we are perceived as being part of a white majority. This is a mixed blessing, but it’s a reality we have to deal with.
Why does it matter? In the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd, there is increasing talk about rebuilding the Black-Jewish Alliance in America. Here in Seattle, for the past year, a group of nine rabbis and nine African American ministers have been studying Bible together as a path towards having a courageous conversation about the Black-Jewish relationship. At a recent meeting, our African-American colleagues turned to us in a heartfelt way and said: “Your public support is very important to us.” But, even more encouraging was that they also said, “It is very important to us that we hear your story, too.” 
In order for us to reimagine the Black-Jewish relationship in America we have a lot to learn about how we see each other. African Americans appreciate when we don’t wave off their pain by pointing to all the progress America has made in racial relation in the past fifty years. And, we need to speak honestly with our Black brothers and sisters about the damage that is done to the Jewish people globally when we are simplistically framed us as “white and privileged.” 
It is not a coincidence that in 1957 at precisely the moment that prime minister Golda Meir was leap-frogging over the Middle East and reaching out to emerging nations in Africa, American Jews were getting emotionally invested in the success of the civil rights movement. And it was at about the same time, the early 1970s, that our alliances on both sides of the ocean were badly frayed. Jews in America felt betrayed by the rise of Black antisemitism. Israel Jews felt abandoned by African allies who bought into the “Zionism is racism” resolution.
For both Israeli Jews and American Jews these parallel outreach initiatives and their breakdown had both practical and moral significance. Strangely, until now, we have not often wondered how deeply these parallel efforts are connected to each other. But, it is critical that we see the connection. Because, now is a moment of opportunity. On both sides of the ocean, we have a unique chance to renew ties with old allies and to reframe the way we are perceived in the world. Israel has been reaching out again to African nations. And, for American Jews there is no better time than now to rejuvenate the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities.
If these new outreach efforts are going to bear fruit, it is essential that Israeli Jews and American Jews begin speaking differently with each other. American Jews need to realize that in allowing ourselves to be frame unchallenged as “white and privileged,” we are unwittingly strengthening a global narrative in which Jews in Israel and America are portrayed as “colonial oppressors.” As early as the late 1960s the same term was being used for Jewish shopkeepers in Harlem and the Israeli Jews in relation to Palestinians.
If we are going to overcome this narrative, Israeli Jews need to realize how expelling African workers, neglecting Ethiopian Jews in Israel and moving unilaterally towards a one-state solution impacts the global perception of Jews. This is not just an American Jewish problem. The white Jewish oppressor narrative directly contributes to the isolation of Israel among the nations of the world.
It’s true enough that American and Israeli Jews do not have identical interests. The experience of being a minority or a majority imposes different ethical lenses on us. And for this reason it is inevitable that American and Israeli Jews will clash on some key moral issues. In our minority mode, American Jews naturally empathize with new immigrants, and we support policies that make them feel welcome. That stance is central to our safety. In Israel’s majority mode, immigration of non-Jews potentially threatens the Jewish demographic dominance which is central to Jewish safety in Israel. No wonder it makes Israeli Jews anxious.
Yet, more and more, these two great branches of the Jewish people are operating in a global environment, where what one of us does profoundly impacts the other. And, as different as we are, it would benefit us both to realize that increasingly we share both a practical and moral agenda. n
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum is the rabbi emeritus at Herzl-Ner Tamid Congregation in Mercer Island, Washington and the founder of Healing the Divide: Using Bible Study to Unite Conflicted Communities