|IíM NOT WHITE, IíM JEWISH. BUT IíM WHITE:
Standing as Jews in the Fight for Racial Justice1
I must admit that I had some hesitation over accepting the invitation
to participate in a conference on whiteness because, as an activist, I
am skeptical about the usefulness of academic gatherings unless they are
explicitly addressing grassroots community issues. I need to state at
the beginning that I am writing this article because I hope this process
contributes to ending racism and anti-Semitism. For me, the only reason
to talk about these issues is to guide our action. I come from a long
Jewish tradition of using words and our intellectual tools and tradition
as a guide for survival, struggle and liberation.
My fear about academic discussion being divorced from real world
affairs was proven by the conference itself. The conference occurred
during a respite from the threat of a further bombing of Iraq, although
the war continues through the economic sanctions and every day hundreds
of people, mostly children die from lack of food and medical supplies.
The local context for the conference was the daily attacks and raids on
immigrant communities occurring just outside of the Riverside campus.
Both of these situations are a direct result of institutional racism but
were rarely even mentioned during the course of the conference.
The title of my article comes from a story I relate in my book,
A colleague and I were doing a workshop on racism and we wanted to
divide the gorup into a caucus of people of color and a caucus of white
people, so that each group could have more in-depth discussion.
Immediately some of the white people said, "But Iím not
I was somewhat taken aback because although these people looked white
they were clearly distressed about being labeled white. A white,
Christian woman stood up and said, "Iím not really white because
Iím not part of the white male power structure that perpetuates
racism." Next a white gay man stood up and said, "You have to
be straight to have the privileges of being white." A white,
straight, working class man from a poor family then said, Iíve got it
just as hard as any person of color." Finally a straight, white
middle class man said, "Iím not white, Iím Italian."
My African-American co-worker turned to me and asked, "Where are
all the white people who were here just a minute ago?" Of course I
replied, "Donít ask me, Iím not white, Iím Jewish!"
With a little analysis we can see how each of these "Iím not
white" people in reality benefits a great deal from white skin
privilege including better schools, better jobs, better housing and
better police protection than people of color. Whatís disturbing about
this story is not the ignorance, denial and confusion that those of us
who are white feel about being whiteóbut how paralyzing this confusion
becomes when weíre needed by people of color to be allies of theirs.
How can we be effective allies when we are stuck trying to sort out
whether and in what ways we are white? I guess this question could, in
fact, characterize the dilemma of the conference and of all of us who
were participants. How can we be effective allies to people of color in
the fight to end racism when we are focused on the meaning of whiteness?
If our examination of the meaning of whiteness leads to deeper
understanding of racism and more effective strategies for combating it
then we will have taken a step forward. But it will be neither simple
nor easy to do so.
We come to this confusion because of the history of anti- Semitism
and racism and the ways to which white Christian ruling classes have
used these to divide, confuse and exploit us.
To some extent my gut-level response as a Jew is similar to the
"Iím not white" response of other white people. When the
subject is racism nobody wants to be white, because being white has been
labeled "bad" and brings up feelings of guilt, shame,
complicity and hopelessness.
At this point I have to stop and clarify the fact that I am a
European descended Jew, what we call Ashkenasi. Ashkenasi Jews are the
dominant cultural group in the Jewish communities of the United States
and Israel, holding the political and economic power within those
communities. Jews of color make up the majority of Jews in the world, as
well as in Israel, but are largely invisible and exploited both here and
in Israel. As a "white" Jew, I have the privilege of grappling
with this question in ways that Jews of Arab, Spanish, Black, South
Asian or other heritages cannot because they are never accepted as white
either in the Jewish or in mainstream society.
But it is even more confusing then that. Anti-Semitism is similar to,
different from, and intertwined with racism. Groups holding political
power in Europe have exploited, controlled and violated other groups of
people based on religion, race, culture and nationality , as well as
gender, class and sexual orientation, for hundreds of years. There is
tremendous overlap in the kinds of violence that have been directed at
these groups and the kinds of justifications used to legitimize them.
Racism and anti-Semitism are two primary, closely related tools that
groups in power have used to maintain their advantage.
What is important to understand is that the history of justification
of racism predates race as a category. In early Western European history
the Christian church had tremendous power, including the power to
determine the terms used to justify what occurred in the world. Ruling
elites used religious language to justify their policies. People who
were colonized or otherwise exploited were labeled heathens, infidels,
pagans, witches or simply as Godless. I have heard someone say recently
that whiteness is a fairly recent phenomenon and that Swedes, Germans,
English and French did not sit around in Europe and try to decide
whether or not they were white. This only became of concern when they
arrived in the United States. I would agree but contend that they did
sit around and try to decide who was Christian or notóand they killed
those who werenít. The Spanish Inquisition even had a one-drop rule.
No one could be a pure-blooded Christian if they had even one drop of
Jewish blood within the previous three generations.
With the rise of science as an important cultural force, including
its status to explain the world, religious explanations became less
influential and scientific ones moreso. It was only at this time that
race as a pseudo scientific category was created and infinitely adjusted
to explain domination and exploitation. Obviously religious explanations
did not disappear, but this period marked the advent of scientific
racism, categorization of peoples based on skin color, genetics and
other "natural" qualities.
In the twentieth century as scientific explanations of racial
difference became discredited we have seen the use of historical,
sociological and psychological theories to justify and explain systems
of oppression. The very fact of so many different kinds of explanations
undermines the legitimacy of all of them. Different groups rely on
different justifications, but the Christian basis for racism still
carries tremendous force. Therefore we all need to pay a lot more
attention to the Christian roots and current underpinnings of white
racism. I believe that Jews have an important role to play in helping us
focus on these issues.
This historical development contributes to the reasons for my "Iím
not white" response which have to do with the particularities of
being Jewish. To understand them is to understand some of the
complexities of being Jewish and of the ways racism and anti-Semitism
operate as systems of power and domination. When I say "Iím not
white," most white people, i.e. most white Christians would agree
with me. When white Christians say white they donít mean me, they mean
white Christian. All Jews are non-white by this definition and we have
the scars to prove it. White Christians have considered us outsiders,
outcasts, contaminating factors (along the Roma, the mentally
challenged, lesbian, gay and bisexual people and all people of color,
and this has been as true of lay people as of those in power. We have
been considered a threat to Christians because we rejected Jesus as the
son of God, because we were falsely accused of killing him, and we are
still considered to be an obstacle to Jesusí second coming.
Part of my "Iím not white" response is recognition that I
can even say I am white and I still wonít be accepted by or any safer
from oppression from mainstream white Christian culture.
On the other hand. When I say Iím not white most people of color,
including Jews of color, would disagree with me. They would say that I
look white, Iím mostly treated as white and I enjoy many of the
benefits of being white including better education, better housing, and
better jobs than people of color. And they are right. As an European
descended Jew, I do enjoy these benefits.
I am white in the sense that my particular Jewish ancestors lived in
Europe for nearly a thousand years before coming to the United States.
During that time we assimilated a tremendous amount of European culture
in order to survive. We have learned how to adapt, camouflage,
assimilate, sabotage, resist and undermine some of that culture. During
that entire time we have never been safe from spontaneous and systematic
violence and exploitation. Sometimes we have even had to exploit other
people in order to stay alive, or to be allowed to stay in a place we
had lived for hundreds of years. And sometimes we have come to believe
the lies of racism, the justifications for economic and cultural
exploitation that European culture is built on.
It is true that for those of us who come from European backgrounds
and could reasonably pass for white, we were granted conditional
acceptance in this society just as many other European groups were.
There were two conditions for being accepted as white. First, we had
to assimilate and act white, giving up our languages, cultures, foods,
and other parts of our heritage. Second, we had to buy into and
reinforce racism. In exchange for education, housing and jobs we had to
agree to use our new found status to reinforce and perpetuate racism
against people of color.
European Jews have done this at the expense not only of people of
color and our own culture, but with a devastating impact on Jews of
color. There are deep and devastating divisions, often not even
acknowledged, within the Jewish community because of the impact of
racism on Jews of color. This has given Ashkenasi Jews the power to
define Jewish culture in the US and in Israel which renders invisible
Jews of color and subjects them to exploitation even with the Jewish
community. It has also created the impression that racism is a problem
for non Jews, a problem outside the Jewish community. Racism is not an
issue out there for Jews, but one which is within our own Jewish
In whose interest is this exploitation and confusion?
I'd like you to imagine a pyramid and that pyramid will represent
100% of the population of the United States. At the very top of this
pyramid imagine a tiny area, 1% of the pyramid representing 1% or
1/100th of the population. These people control 48% percent of the net
financial wealth of the richest country in the world. The net worth of
each household in this group is over $3,000,000, and the annual income
is over $400,000/year.
Now imagine a portion of the pyramid below this very topmost section
which represents 19% of the population. This next 19% controls another
46% of the wealth of the country. The average net worth of each
household is over $500,000, and the average household income is over
$100,000. The total of the 1% and the 19% = 20% controls 94% of the
wealth of the country.
Now if you imagine the rest of the pyramid--80%--we get to divide up
the leftovers, the remaining 6% of this country's wealth. This leaves us
with a net worth on average of $38,000 and an average income of $23,000.
In fact there is a sizable segment of the population which would
actually be below the pyramid entirely, with a negative net worth. This
is one of the greatest concentrations of wealth that we know of among a
ruling class at any time in the history of the world. Although
anti-Semitic stereotypes would have us believe there are many Jews at
the top of the pyramid, a careful look at the distribution of wealth,
and at political and corporate leaders in this country would reveal few
Jews. Those at the top are primarily white and primarily Christian.
There are a couple of things we should note about this system. One is
that people of color are mostly at the bottom of the pyramid. But there
are also lots of white people at the bottom. To keep poor and working
class white people near the bottom from establishing relationships of
resistance with people of color, white people are constantly given the
impression that they are in danger, in danger from people of color below
them who will take away their jobs and anything else they have, and in
danger from Jews above them who will exploit and control them. This
makes many poor and working class whites feel squeezed between Jews and
people of color. Stereotypes of Jewish bankers and welfare mothers feed
these fears and are part of a common economic strategy which intertwines
racism and anti-Semitism.
The second thing to notice is that racism works by keeping people of
color the center of attention and white Christians the center of power.
Whenever there is national discussion of any issue we are encouraged to
focus on people of color rather than on the economic and political
leaders who are making the decisions which most affect our lives. If we
happen to look up towards the centers of power we are encouraged to see
Jews more visibly than white Christians so that our attention never
quite focuses on the white Christian leadership of our government and
In this situation no one is safe because protection is conditional.
The ruling class offers safe haven, economic success, voting rights,
tolerance and even status as honorary whites such as it has to Jews,
Asian Americans or other groups when support is needed. And then quickly
withdraws those benefits and protection, setting up the wrath of the
rest of the populace, when scapegoats and a diversion are needed. So
what do we do to respond to this complicated set of circumstances? If we
as Jews work against racism, but poor and working class whites and
people of color continue to attack Jews as the common source of their
problems we have increased the risk to ourselves and done nothing to
attack the economic roots of injustice in this country. Therefore we can
only work effectively against racism if anti-Semitism is on the agenda
As Jews we must: a. Identify and attack racism within the Jewish
community, both against people of color in general, and against Jews of
color in particular.
b. Work in solidarity with people of color, but not at the expense of
our own safety.
c. Use whatever contingent status and resources we have as whites to
d. Be visible as Jews and combat anti-Semitism which helps reveal
racism and itís Christian underpinning.
e. work in broad coalition to disperse political, economic and social
power to all people, and create a democratic, anti-racist and secular
Non Jews need to know that as a Jew, I participate in the struggle
against racism as part of my identity and in fighting for justice,
equality, the end of exploitation, and for my personal and group safety.
My greatest effectiveness as an ally to people of color comes from my
history and experience as a Jew.
I want to give some brief examples of where the kind of coalition
politics I am referring to is being attempted by Jews.
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York which is working on
labor organizing and immigrant issues in the Asian community.
The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago which is doing
education and organizing around housing and economic justice issues.
The Poverty Action Alliance in the San Francisco Bay Area which is
connecting individuals Jews and Jewish congregations to grassroots
struggles for social justice.
And Jews of color throughout the country are working to reclaim their
cultures and to establish recognition, autonomy and participation within
the Jewish community. These are examples of not letting the confusion
around the question of identity and whether some Jews are white or not
divert us from the goal of ending racism and anti- Semitism. They are
examples of using that identity as a platform for social action.
Another example is a group I am part of in Northern California called
Angry White Guys for Affirmative Action. Here again we used our
identity, in this case as white males, as a tool for political action to
address the white community. We used our title to challenge the ways
that groups of people are pitted against each other by stating clearly
that we refused to buy into the traditional roles that white men have
been assigned to play in our racial, gender, and economic hierarchy.
The conclusions I draw from these examples is that we must not let
intellectual fascination with these issues distract us from being
active. We must understand the complexities of how racism and
anti-Semitism work without becoming paralyzed by our understanding. We
can acknowledge the depths of feelings we have about these issues
without becoming paralyzed by our feelings. We can join the vast numbers
of white people, including untold numbers of Jews who have always fought
for racial justice.
In conclusion I want to leave you with a quote from Rabbi Tarfon, a
fifth century Jewish leader so that you have something to hold on to
when the discussion about what is white dies down, and the question,
"So what are you going to do about it?" remains. Rather than
being overwhelmed by the task we should remember
It is not upon you to finish the task.
Neither are you free to desist from it.