Fighting Racism, We All Have Skin in the Game

Jewish skin has tended to reflect whatever hues are most disliked.
December 1, 2020
Gal Gadot attends The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 06, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)

This October, Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress best known for playing Wonder Woman, announced that she would star in a movie about Cleopatra. In response, the actress was widely lambasted for appropriating a role that some thought should be played by a woman of color. Gadot’s critics insisted that an Israeli Jew of Ashkenazic background — even one who can stop bullets with her bracelet — does not qualify.

“Shame on you, Gal Gadot,” one critic tweeted, “Your country steals Arab land & you’re stealing their movie roles.” Those who mistakenly believe that Cleopatra was a person of color accused Gadot of denying “important roles to women of color” in “another attempt to whitewash a historical figure.”

But the Macedonian Greek monarch was not the only person who was whitewashed. Long before the Cleopatra kerfuffle, debate raged as to whether people like Gadot, as a Jewish woman, should be considered white.

Over the years, research has shown that Jews have been viewed as white, not-white, off-white, newly white, continually negotiating whiteness or constantly shifting position on a scale of whiteness. Jews have been perceived as Black or Asian, depending on the nature of the perceiver’s prejudice. Indeed, Jewish skin has tended to reflect whatever hues are most disliked.

To make a complicated situation worse, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah weighed in on the topic. Appiah, whose New York Times column is self-styled (unironically) “The Ethicist,” addressed a reader whose question was summarized as, “I’m Jewish and Don’t Identify as White. Why Must I Check That Box?” Appiah acknowledged that some Jews might prefer not to self-describe as white, either because of anti-Semitism or to avoid racial dichotomies. Nevertheless, Appiah insisted that Jews must stay within the “white” box.

“Alas,” he wrote, “it is not up to us as individuals to determine the meaning of our racial terms.” Jews must identify as white. “Being white is not just a matter of identifying as white; it involves being treated as white, and that isn’t up to you.”

Appiah concluded that Jews have only one choice. They may “speak up in all-white settings when people venture anti-Black remarks.” Jews are, in other words, trapped in others’ perception of their skin with no escape except to fight anti-Black racism. “In the struggle against racism,” Appiah concluded, “it sometimes helps if you don’t have skin in the game.”

For those who doubt whether Jews have “skin” in the racism “game” (in other words, those who lack rudimentary knowledge of world history), the Gray Lady went further. In the pages of that same newspaper, Professor Natalie Hopkinson wrote a glowing article about Louis Farrakhan. When pushed about why she did not mention Farrakhan’s long record of anti-Semitism, Hopkinson tweeted, “somehow among a million possible concerns, you believe yours are supposed to jump to the top. That is called privilege.”

These comments all come as anti-Semitism continues to soar globally and in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League recorded more anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 than any year since it began tracking them in 1979. And the American Jewish Committee released a survey reporting that 43 percent (nearly half) of American Jews feel less secure.

On college campuses, this scenario plays out repeatedly. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the student government recently passed a resolution that combines support for the anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement with endorsement of the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. As a statement read by Jewish students during debate so aptly described, Jewish students were given the “impossible choice between renouncing Zionism or selecting a position inconsistent with our support for human rights and the quest for equity.” In other words, students were asked to give up the skin they have in the game, stay in the box they were assigned, and condemn both anti-Black racism and their own Jewish identity.

What does it mean to be stripped of our skin? The most horrifying scenes in the work of Haruki Murakami may be those in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” where prisoners are skinned alive. The novel’s main character imagines himself stripped of skin, left as nothing but a “bright-red lump of flesh.”

What does it mean to be stripped of our skin?

In Oskar Panizza’s nineteenth-century novella, “The Operated Jew,” the main character sought to escape his Jewishness through plastic surgery. The doctor excised his stereotypically Jewish features, including wheat-colored skin, his hooked nose and a Jewfro. This skinning and fixing was intended to make the Jew more white. Freed of his Jewishness, bleached a “Caucasian color of skin,” the character wedded a blonde gentile. Unfortunately, the groom’s old Jewish features unavoidably resurfaced. He then crumpled into his quivering old “Asiatic” flesh, his Jewish self unable to fully assimilate.

In the United States, some have sought to escape discrimination through assimilation. Others have doubled down on their ethnic identities. Both have faced resistance from those who insist that they fit themselves into one box or another. The fact is, there is no right answer other than what one chooses for oneself.

To be clear, Jews should speak out against anti-Black racism. African Americans should likewise condemn anti-Semitism. Many have. But no one should be asked to step out of their own skin to do so, or be told they have no skin in the game, or be urged to undermine their own community in order to support another. We support one another best when speaking from our own experience, not as whitewashed lumps of operated flesh. Wonder Woman, above all, should be whomever she wants to be.

Kenneth L. Marcus is Chairman of The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which is supporting Jewish students at the University of Illinois. He served as Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights (2018-2020).

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