Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ashkenazim are defining themselves as non-white

Has Sigal Samuel of the Forward had a Eureka moment? As a 'Mizrahi ' Jew she has always defined herself as non-white, in opposition to Ashkenazi 'whites'. Under pressure from Donald Trump and his 'white supremacist' supporters, Ashkenazi Jews are being pushed into joining her in that space, she claims. But well before Donald Trump Jews in Europe were being rejected as 'oily Levantines' who should go back to Palestine*. Or are these ethnic categories, borne of an obsession with identity politics, simply absurd? 

Sigal Samuel: non-white

“I have lived for 26 years under the illusion that I am unconditionally white…. Recently I have started looking at my face and going, ‘Oh man, do I look too Jewish?’” Sydney Brownstone, the reporter who voiced this question in a recent Blabbermouth podcast, is not alone in wondering this. Many Ashkenazi Jews who have always assumed that they’re white are noticing that they’re not white enough for Donald Trump’s white supremacists. Suddenly, they’re asking themselves: Wait, how white am I, exactly?

To tackle this question, try a little visualization. Picture all American Jews arranged along a spectrum. On one end are the Ashkenazi Jews who identify as white and get coded as white by society. On the other end are the Jews of color who can never pass as white: black Jews, Chinese Jews and others who get read as non-white on the street. In the middle of the spectrum are Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, who sometimes pass as white and sometimes don’t.

As a Mizrahi Jew — my ancestors come from India, Iraq and Morocco — I inhabit that ambiguous middle space. For a long time, it’s been a lonely place to be, since Ashkenazi is Judaism’s default setting in America. It’s also been massively confusing, since I often reap the privileges of being white-passing, even as I get selected for “random additional screenings” by the TSA or for “Where are you really from?” queries from strangers on the street.

But here’s how I think about what’s happening now: Ashkenazi Jews are increasingly getting pushed into the middle space with me. The ascendant discourse of white supremacy, which posits that Jews are not “pure” whites, has thrust them into this space — a space where the lines of your identity are perpetually blurry, where a sense of racial belonging constantly eludes you, and where the category of whiteness is always already in crisis, because your inability to situate yourself cleanly inside it (or cleanly outside it) shows how logically incoherent the category must be.

Read article in full

*The Israeli writer Amos Oz famously recalls: " When my father was a little boy in Poland, the streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, "Jews, go back to Palestine."


Scott Auerbach said...

She must have a lot of free time on her hands if one of her primary concerns is whether people on an online alt-right forum consider Jews to be white or not.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps she should spend some time with Keith Ellison, Calypso Louie, and their ilk. Or maybe Rabbi Susan Talve.

Rodin New York said...

Mizrahi Jews should invest time in matters other than defining themselves as unwhite. And Jews with roots in N. Africa and the Levant and Spain and the Balkans are just as unwhite as Ashkenazi Jews.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

This is one of those questions that can be answered by "It's relative" as well as by other answers.
The ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds did not see themselves as Black. They clearly distinguished themselves from African Blacks, then called Aethiopians in Greek and Kushim in Hebrew, etc. To be sure, a dynasty from Kush [northern Sudan of today] conquered Egypt and it appears that the Queen of Sheba came from this dynasty, Sheba being the former name of Meroe on Nile in today's Sudan [also called Nubia in Roman times]. These Black people were called as-Sudan in Arabic, which simply means black and referred to all of Black Africa, just as Kush and Aethiopia also referred to all of Black Africa. The country name of Sudan is then the Arabic word for Blacks. Thus, the Arabs distinguished themselves from Blacks.

The notion of non-white did not exist then under any name, as far as I know. However, many of the Mediterranean peoples such as Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Syrians/Lebanese, Italians and Spaniards came to the USA in the last few hundred years. Many of these people, were olive-skinned or swarthy or sallow-skinned (olivastro in Italian), the terms often used in the past. Their rights and social status in America was higher than that of Blacks or mixed race people in general. They were typically treated as whites, although there were those who looked at them cross-eyed and suspected them of being not quite white. Indeed, around 1900, when the US congress was passing laws against East Asians, like Chinese and Japanese, Syrian/Lebanese Americans went to court to get themselves officially and legally identified as "white," whatever their exact skin tone may have been according to a photometer. These Syrian/Lebanese won their case and were thus declared white. Therefore, they were legally exempt from the laws against Asians, although Syria and Lebanon are in Asia.

When I lived in the USA, I recall that sometimes I was seen or referred to and/or Jews and Italians generally were referred to as being not quite white. Moreover, in some places in America there were very rich people who considered themselves racially superior to Jews, not to mention Blacks, and enforced racial covenants on housing sales in certain rich suburbs, like Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

In the Israel-Arab context, skin color is a red herring.

Anonymous said...

Otherwise "free-thinkers" have trouble with their thoughts when they feel identified as white.
http://washingtonjewishweek.com/33648/you-should-know-leanne-gale/ feels strongly that,
it's "unconscionable for the Jewish community to abnegate our responsibility for trying to dismantle the system of racism and white supremacy because we may disagree with black lives matter organizers around some things on Israel/Palestine."

Patrick Kelmer said...

Sigal Samuel is paler than me, and yet I am to buy into her skin obsession identity politics which have no place in judaism what so ever?