November 15, 2019

We, the Israelites

Growing up, I never fully understood the idea of whiteness. My family is olive-skinned and hazel-eyed; the summer sun would awaken our souls and deeply brown our skin. I always felt far closer to Egyptian princesses than European royals, but it was not something I ever really questioned until I came to New York City after college. Here, every cabdriver thinks I am from wherever he is from. “You’re Turkish, right?” “Persian?” “From Syria?” 

No, I’m from Philadelphia. Pause. “That’s it?” Well, my family is from Russia. “No, no, no …. ” Um, I’m Jewish? “Ah, that’s it!”

What the cabdrivers have known instinctively has taken years for the Ashkenazi community to even begin to discuss. But the discussion finally has begun, and the data are fairly conclusive: Like our Sephardic, Mizrahi and African brethren, we, too, are not “white.” We hail from the Middle East, the Levant, the Kingdom of Israel. We are Jewish by religion but Israelite — Judean — by ethnicity. The Romans and other assorted colonizers kicked many of us out of our homeland, but they couldn’t change our DNA, which shows our lineage as distinctly as the latest archeological find. 

I expected pushback to the idea that Jews aren’t white. Jews of a certain age feel an understandable insecurity in giving up this notion in a country that has only recently fully accepted us. While Jews here have been legally “free,” discrimination in terms of quotas, housing, jobs and clubs persisted well into the 1970s.

But the loudest pushback I’m seeing is coming from a place I would least expect: the left. You would think leftists would be saying things like: “See, the Palestinians are our genetic brothers!” (Which is actually only marginally true.) Instead, they are so caught up with the words “power” and “privilege,” that they are demanding that Jews stay in their place: at the top of the privilege hierarchy and the bottom of the victim hierarchy.  

Leftist Jews argue that they don’t want to belittle “real racism.” But the ferociousness with which they cling to their whiteness belies an inconvenient truth: leftist Jews seem to like their “white privilege” as much as they like to decry it. They have become invested in being colonized.

Whiteness, of course, is a cultural construct. It has little to do with skin color — fair-skinned Jews (who became fair-skinned because of years of exile in Europe) have the same genetic makeup as those with darker skin. But whiteness is also not based on “privilege.” In pretending that all descendants of Europeans are “privileged,” leftist ideology erases entire swaths of humanity. I can hear Irish and Polish immigrants say, “If only.”

Jews have a special relationship with whiteness. After centuries of persecution culminating in genocide, all based on our “otherness,” we now get to be told by leftists that, for the sake of kowtowing to “real victims,” we again need to be demonized — but this time as white.

Like our Sephardic, Mizrahi and African brethren, we, too, are not “white.”

Meanwhile, in a historic ruling, a federal judge has found that Jews are finally entitled to protection from race-based discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ruling is based on a Louisiana College president’s refusal to hire a young football coach because he had “Jewish blood.” Will leftist Jews fight the ruling, insisting that Jews are white and anti-Semitism is not “systemic”?

I think it’s well past time to embrace our ethnicity — as descendants of the Tribes of Israel. And to counter centuries of being told how we fit (or don’t) into artificial Western categories, we should re-appropriate the term Israelite. We are Jews yes, but we are also Israelites, a distinct identity with a distinct heritage and culture. This would nicely follow the new Israeli law declaring Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Those of us who don’t live in Israel are not Israelis, but we are still Israelites.

Imagine the bridges of light we could build if we fully embraced our distinct identities. We, the Israelites, could offer a more nuanced view of immigration. We, the Israelites, could help other minorities with their unique struggles to thrive. We, the Israelites, can do tikkun olam without erasing either our religion or ethnicity.

We, the Israelites, can be that light unto the nations.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York.