The Complexities of Jewish Identity, Voice, Allyship and a Seat at the Table
Authro’s Note #2: If you’re a therapist and you’re Jewish, find community and be an advocate at The Jewish Therapist Collective. We’re a 600+ member strong international and non-denominational assocation of Jewish therapists.
Author’s Note: I initially posted this on Facebook after Charlottesville and, though there have been many, many antisemitic attacks since then in our society, and Jews are still the biggest target of religion-based hate crime per capita in the US (per the FBI), I’ve decided to leave the original text without adding the more recent events. At the time, even though we were as centrally targeted as POC and Immigrants (and some people are all three!) in the demonstrations, we were left out of much of the discourse, and often asked to “ally with” those targeted. It brought up a lot of feelings in the community around being unseen, erased and excluded. It also brought up a lot of shame for many of us: navigating the feelings around wanting to continue with our social justice efforts as allies with other marginalized communities while also trying to find space for our own lived experiences. My Facebook page is private now (owing to a certain someone’s boundary problems — we all know one, right?) but a friend was hoping to pass along the piece to someone beyond my circle so I thought, “why not put it up as my first Medium story?”. One more thing I want to own here is that much of this may read as Ashkenazi/Sephardi centered, it’s that way for a reason, which is our complex relationship with whiteness. Anyway, here it is:
Someone asked me to make this post public. Well here’s goes. If you’re going to harass or express bigotry here, you’re going to get booted — I don’t care if you’re also a POC; bigotry is bigotry no matter your heritage. In fact, I judge you folks harder because you know what it’s like and you know better.
Someone asked me about the (ancestral) Jewish relationship with whiteness. From an American standpoint:
So first off, Jews are a diaspora people who were exiled from our indigenous homeland over a thousand years ago. We are everywhere from China and India, to Britain, to Northern Africa and the Middle East, to Eastern Europe (kicked out of Iberia in the 14 and 1500’s and extinct in much of the Middle East owing to antisemitism). When communities are diaspora, they end up looking like the peoples amongst whom they are living, because, even with (in many cases) minimal biological admixture, pigmentation is one of the fastest acted-upon genetic data sets (learned in anthro genetics back in the day), so it’s possible to “look” white and even “pass as white” even if you’re ethnically predominantly from middle eastern (most extrapolations put Levantine DNA at over 50%). Moving forward from there:
Europe’s Jews never really had a place, in most situations. Kicked out of some places, prevented from owning land nearly everywhere, pogroms, etc. When some came to the US, assimilation was at once a pressure, an art, a science, a compulsion and a performance. Jews were banned from places in the commons, or quotas were created to cap Jewish achievement (law firms and universities, etc). While much of those are either unspoken or totally gone now, intergenerational pressure for performance of whiteness for survival has led many Jewish-Americans to try and claim our space at that table by claiming whiteness.
However, in many cases, it doesn’t work. Take for instance, the Leo Frank case, his lynching, and what it meant for southern Jews. Also, hate crimes (Jews have the highest instance of them, per the FBI), micro aggressions (I could go on for days about those) and other things.
Prior to the last few decades, Jews have historically been treated much like Arab-Americans in the degree to which they were permitted to move in conditionally white spaces: from where they went to school during segregation to how they were counted once the census began tallying race (a bio-scientifically bankrupt concept, but a socio-scientific phenomena worthy of voice, to give voice to those affected, nonetheless).
Moving onto white passing privilege, or conditional whiteness: these are terms that many of us use to describe our racial identity as contextualized by the American landscape. It means that we are often granted a transient and easily revoked form of white privilege. For example, we can drive while Jewish and not get profiled by cops, just like other white-passing folk. We’re typically allowed to buy a house in white neighborhoods, although we might need experience various degrees of compulsory hiding in plain site and/or victimization based on our ethno-religious culture anyway (again, see FBI stats). That said, the quotas are gone from institutes of higher learning so we aren’t forced to compete to that level anymore.
Then you have the “power tropes” (what I call them). White gentiles and non-Jewish POC (consciously and subconsciously) believe a series of myths about our power and control in society. Even though these things aren’t true (most of us carry debt like everyone else, we don’t own the media, we don’t own the government…), we’re read as powerful and systemically white so we’re often denied a seat at the intersectional justice table. Or, we’re relegated to allyship, which to be fair, we’ve historically been fighting for pan-POC rights since before the civil rights era. The four killed in Ohio during the Vietnam war protest? Jews. The “white” people in suits, marching alongside black people in Alabama and throughout the south? Mostly Jews.
But our conditional whiteness, paired with the unfortunate propagation of troupes about us in both white and POC communities (which, to be clear, dates back to the influence of antisemitic Europeans on black and Latinx indigenous folx), has robbed us of the voice and solidarity we do desperately need.
Last weekend, all the Jews in Charlottesville who were at synagogue, prayed in fear as white supremacists with assault rifles were performing Nazi salutes outside; they all left through a side/back door and remained in groups for safety while the media paid no attention.
Also, it’s very important to note that this context includes people of the Jewish faith (by birth and by conversion) as well as people who have and identify with their Jewish heritage (whether religious, secular, or Jewish-appearing and Jewish in ethnicity but practicing another faith). (LOVE to all of you who feel un-included in traditional dialogues.).
So okay I know I went down a bunch of paths but I’ll break it down to this:
-In a multi-ethnic landscape, some light-skinned Jews (like lighter-skinned people of other POC groups) have white passing privilege or conditional whiteness in some venues, but for Jews, it’s due to a performative drive for survival in our heritage and needs to be viewed contextually.
— Jews are targets of white supremacy and we desperately need empathy, trust and a seat at the table. It’s hard to do this emotional labor and we need support too.