A Jew converts to Catholicism and becomes a priest. On the morning of his first mass, a number of local clergy, who have been watching his conversion and ordainment with interest, are in attendance at his church to see how he will perform. After the services, the local Bishop comes up to the Priest to offer his congratulations.
“Father Goldberg,” he says, “that was a magnificent mass! Simply magnificent! Only one thing – next time, please don’t start your sermon with ‘Fellow goyim…’”
In the past week, two articles have appeared in the Jewish publication Forward that are principally concerned with the question whether or not Jews are White. One, by Karen Brodkin, contends that Ashkenazi American Jews have ‘become’ White, but stand in danger of ceasing to be White; the other, by Micha Danzig, contends for a variety of reasons that Jews are not and have never been White. Both pieces, my arguments shall show, are seriously confused, and their confusion only obscures the nuances of what is today a very important question. The principal target of my essay, however, is Brodkin’s article, as it is her article that best exemplifies the disingenuity and hostility of liberal Jewish attacks on White Identity, although much of my response to her shall address the errors in Danzig’s.
The central thesis of Brodkin’s essay is this: after being discriminated against for decades, American Jews in the middle of the 20th century managed to ‘become’ White; although, in the wake of Trump’s election, Jews stand in danger of losing their privileged White status. The evidence for this danger, Brodkin claims, consists of certain “chilling parallels” between Trump and early 20th-century eugenicists – in particular, Trump’s suggestion that his success is a result of good genetics, various ‘dog-whistles’ to certain undesirables on the part of his supporters, and the apparent re-emergence of the swastika as a prominent symbol in American life.
Obviously, this supposed evidence is nothing but the smoke and mirrors of paranoia and hysteria. To suggest that someone’s success is a result of their good genes is no more to create a parallel with eugenicists than it is to create a parallel with the majority of Jewish mothers in this country (whose children, as science confirms and most Jews silently acknowledge, are genetically predisposed to have those traits most conducive to success). Moreover, to imply that our evaluation of Trump ought to take into account the ‘dog-whistles’ of his supporters is equivalent to saying that we ought to attribute to Trump views that certain people he has never met are merely suspected of having – and this is surely ridiculous. “Trump’s plan to impose a compulsory registry for all Muslims echoes Hitler and yellow stars,” claims Brodkin, but it echoes this no more than Brodkin’s own claim that it echoes this echoes the ‘echoes’ used by online anti-Semites to identify Jews. Just as I would not, on this basis, accuse Brodkin of ‘dog-whistling’ to anti-Semites, so no one ought to accuse Trump of the same. There is simply nothing that Trump has said or done that might warrant any fear that Trump is anti-Semite.
But more troubling than Brodkin’s irrational fear of Trump is the confusion she sows regarding the nature of White identity. According to Brodkin, White identity (of which she is so disdainful that she puts the very term in quotations) is nothing but a “claim to ownership, power and privilege for [whomever is deemed] non-White.” To be White, on this view, is nothing other than to attain to a certain social class, enjoying various privileges that other groups do not have. But if this is the right analysis of White identity, then Whites in South Africa must be non-White, which is absurd.
Instead, it is obvious that to be White is simply to be part of a certain group of people who share a common set of ancestors in Europe many thousands of years ago, just as to be Jewish is to be a part of a certain group of people who share a common set of ancestors in Judea many thousands of years ago and to be Black is to be part of a certain group of people of people who share a common set of ancestors in West Africa many thousands of years ago. That, at a certain point in the past, various people who had the right sort of ancestry in Europe were not called ‘White’ does not prove that Whiteness is membership in some sort of sinister social club, but only that people used to use the term ‘White’ in a different way than we do now. Analogously, we now consider many more people to be disabled than we once did, and on that basis give many more people disability benefits, but this does not in any way suggest that being disabled just is a matter of receiving disability benefits. Rather, we simply have found that the meaning of the term ‘disabled’ includes many more people than we previously thought it did.
There is much anthropological and philosophical complexity to the question whether racial terms like ‘white’ refer to biological groups or merely social constructs, and it is not my intention to settle the issue here. Rather, I should like to remark only on the disingenuity and hypocrisy of any Jew who adopts Brodkin’s stance on race. For such a Jew, inasmuch as they consider themselves to be White, attains to the privileged position of being able to, just as Brodkin does, decry Whiteness and slander White identity not as a hostile outsider but as an apparently repentant insider. Because Brodkin considers herself White, she must surely feel no compunction in admitting that her Whiteness is something hateful, bigoted and shameful. In other words, Brodkin’s self-identification as White allows her to make attacks on White people and their identity; whether or not these attacks are warranted by historical systems of power and oppression and present-day instutions of privilege is not germane to the issue: what is relevant is that Brodkin takes herself, as a White person, to be in a position to attack other White people.
But unlike the great majority of those White people in attacking whom Brodkin takes herself to be justifed, Brodkin is not truly attacking herself. For Brodkin has a competing identity behind which she can retreat in the face of her own invective: namely, Brodkin identifies also as a Jew. Brodkin’s own fears about anti-Semitism are evidence that she does not see herself as responsible for any history of power, privilege, and oppression, but rather as a precarious minority in the midst of a potentially hostile majority – a minority sometimes accepted as equals, but always separate and in danger of oppression. As such, Brodkin herself does not bear the personal weight of her attacks against White identity, and whatever justification those attacks might have obtained in virtue of her supposed Whiteness is merely disingenuous illusion.
For Brodkin, who considers herself both White and Jewish, does not appear to take into account that most American Whites do not consider themselves to be anything other than American Whites. When told that their identity is oppressive, shameful, and ought to be eliminated, most American Whites do not have any other identity toward which to turn. Brodkin’s attack on their identity, rather, is an attack on the only identity that they have. As such, its disingenuity is doubly vicious.
This is not to say, of course, that Ashkenazi Jews should never consider themselves partly White, or at least something approaching White. I have argued elsewhere that while Ashkenazi Jews may consider themselves either Jewish or White, but not both. Nevertheless, Brodkin and others are right to note that different racial groups can occasionally merge together, so let us grant on this basis that Ashkenazi Jews can indeed consider themselves both Jewish and White. Still, even if this supposition is true, what is White about Ashkenazim is not membership in any privileged social class, for what makes us partly White was apparent in us long before we attained to full social acceptance in the middle of the past century. As recent studies have shown, up to half of Ashkenazi ancestry is European rather than Levantine, and the culture of Europe is deeply imbued in Ashkenazi history and identity – to be sure of this, one need only look at the long list of Jewish classical musicians, scientists, philosophers and artists, or at the traditional central and eastern European dishes that we eat at our Shabbat tables. We maintain, to be sure, our own separate, Jewish identity, but there can be no doubt that Europe and European culture have left an indelible mark on our own culture and heritage, just as we have left our mark on them.
But should we choose to embrace this European heritage and consider ourselves partly White, it ought not be in order to acquire a mere guise behind which to criticize those other Whites from whom we are still, as Jews, apart. Should we choose to think of ourselves as White, we ought to consider other Whites as our friends and allies, as compatriots in a civilization that we have built together. We should not deny that gentile Whites have a robust identity as the descendants of a great European civilization whose culture, history, mythology and achievements belong to them just as the culture, history, mythology and achievements of East Asian civilizations belong to the East Asians and the culture, history, mythology and achievements of Jews belong to the Jews. All of this is, needless to say, consistent with a view that objects to racism and hatred against others: there is nothing about taking pride in the culture and heritage that produced Bach, Kant, Einstein and the Arthurian legends that commits one either to hatred of the cultures and heritages that produced Jazz and algebra or to the belief that non-Whites should be oppressed. For this reason, should we choose to identify ourselves as White, we should take no less pride in that which makes us White than we already do in that which makes us Jewish, and we should never deny the same pride to gentile Whites.