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Why the Question of Whether Jews Are White Is Getting Increasingly Loaded

The question provides us with the chance to assert ownership over Jewish self-definition.
[additional-authors]
March 10, 2021
Photo: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

Are Jews white? This question keeps appearing in different forms within Jewish communities and in broader circles of society. It is often driven by news: from controversy surrounding a recent BBC (non-Jewish) panel debate about whether Jews should be considered an ethnic minority, to uproar about Gal Gadot playing Cleopatra in an upcoming movie, to heavily publicized battles over California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.

Implications of whether Jews are white and related questions about Jewish societal power and influence bear upon a number of important aspects of Jewish life. Their impact extends to Jewish inclusion in intersectional organizing and to the perceived legitimacy of Jewish claims of vulnerability or discrimination (including regarding the Jewish state). More fundamentally, they can undermine the right of Jews to self-define framing the Jewish experience according to concepts and language that reflect the unique nature of Jewish vulnerability, including that it tracks differently from other dominant experiences of oppression.

Questions of Jewish whiteness and Jewish oppression arise in the context of today’s contemporary progressive discourse, which is centered on skin color- and class-based conceptual categories and oriented to radical change. It has increasingly affected the way Jewish communities and agendas are positioned within progressive circles and on the broader left.

Within contemporary progressive discourse evolves a new strain of an old threat: “erasive anti-Semitism.” Whereas recent anti-Semitism on the left most directly posed a threat to pro-Israel agendas, erasive anti-Semitism also extends to U.S. Jewish communal ones. It threatens not only the Jewish national collective but also the broad Jewish collective. At stake is the very right to define Jewish identity, experience and vulnerability.

Within contemporary progressive discourse evolves a new strain of an old threat: “erasive anti-Semitism.” At stake is the very right to define Jewish identity, experience and vulnerability.

What is erasive anti-Semitism? In a soon-to-be-published Reut report (of which I am lead author), we build upon a concept coined by author Ben Freeman to describe a de-facto undermining of Jewish narrative self-determination. It is a “by-product” of a conceptual mismatch that occurs when contemporary progressive paradigms meet the Jewish experience, evident when Jewish identities and agendas are challenged within, and excluded from, progressive movements and discourse.

Importantly, erasive anti-Semitism does not necessarily feed on hatred; rather, it is sustained by an acceptance of prevalent framing on the progressive left. Its main disseminators are not anti-Semites, despite engaging in acts of erasive anti-Semitism. At the same time, there is a marginal fringe that purposefully advances anti-Jewish and anti-Israel agendas utilizing its tenets, and continues to amass influence on the left. They are able to exploit contemporary progressive paradigms to challenge Jewish inclusion and support for Jewish and pro-Israel agendas on the left.

But the potency of erasive anti-Semitism’s threat lies in a tricky loop it sets off: Being designated as a “white oppressor” means you don’t get to define the terms of conversations, the pertinent features defining your identity or the priority level your perceived vulnerability receives. It confers upon its bearer an implicit obligation to renounce the right to contest it.

Progressive circles often identify the Jewish experience as uniformly part of, or disproportionately responsible for, oppressive power structures that the progressive movement is fighting against. As a result, the Jewish right to narrative self-determination — and ability to challenge or contribute to shaping Jewish positioning in progressive paradigms — can effectively be confiscated.

This framework risks neutralizing Jewish voices on Jewish and pro-Israel agendas, challenging the legitimacy of Jewish advocacy for individual or collective Jewish security and against discrimination. Within progressive frameworks, Jewish collectives and individuals can implicitly or explicitly be expected, by acknowledging their privilege and power status, to renounce claims of prejudice, discrimination or insecurity experienced individually or collectively.

The good news is that questions such as “Are Jews white?” do keep coming up and are opening important conversations. This provides us with the chance to assert ownership over Jewish self-definition — which may not always fit neatly in dominant conceptual categories — within progressive discourse.  

The question provides us with the chance to assert ownership over Jewish self-definition.

Currently, these conversations remain at the stage of causing confusion. Dividing Jews on the basis of these conceptual categories generates rancor within Jewish communities, exacerbates tensions around the role of race within Jewish communities and threatens the basis of connection between world Jewry and Israel — the notion of Jewish peoplehood.

Now is the time for a more focused inter- and intra-communal dialogue. We do not have to answer whether Jews are white but seek to understand what this dominant framing means to Jewish identity, empowerment and ability to self-define externally.

From this dialogue, bold, progressive Jewish leadership can guide a process aiming to describe and combat erasive anti-Semitism: applying a broadly shared understanding of what it looks like and ensuring that Jews have the right, like other societal groups, to define their own experience. Doing so offers an opportunity not only to re-assert Jewish voices on the broader left, it can also introduce a more fundamental conversation about Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood amidst the disruptive period we inhabit.


Daphna Kaufman is an independent consultant in research, communications, and strategy, and is the lead author of Reut’s report on the emerging threat posed by erasive anti-Semitism. The full Reut report characterizing the erasive anti-Semitism threat and offering response guideline was initiated and commissioned by the Julis Foundation for Multi-Disciplinary Thinking and will be published in the coming days and be accessible here.

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