February 25, 2020

The Questions of no Consequence Department: Is Gal Gadot white?

Gal Gadot is a movie star. Her new film, Wonder Women, is a success. I cannot say I’m not happy for her. I am. I will not say that I don’t find her slight accent endearing. I do. I cannot say I don’t feel a certain sense of childish pride because she is Israeli. I do. I will not say that Lebanon’s even more childish decision to ban the film – because the star is Israeli – does not feel personal. It does.

Gadot is an Israeli success story. Not the first one, and hopefully not the last one. She is also – and this surely plays a role too – a Jewish success story. Naturally, Israelis focus more on the Israeli component of Gadot’s identity, while Jews in America emphasize her Jewishness. But all in all, it seems as if Jews in both Israel and America have a certain sense of ownership when they converse about Gadot. She is a member of their tribe. She is demonstrably and proudly a member of the tribe. Of course, we love her for that.

Then, there is the issue of Gadot’s whiteness. I have read two or three articles on this subject until I got tired of it. Too soon. According to the Washington Post, “The debate ‘Are Jews white?’ has seen a resurgence since the presidential election last year and was resurrected surrounding the release of ‘Wonder Woman.’” Apparently, there are people with enough free time on their hands to spend on this question. And they do it with the kind of intensity and vigor that should be reserved for really vital questions.

Take a look at this guy, Dani Yishai Behan, writing for the Times of Israel:

Yes, Wonder Woman is intended to be a white woman, but just because Gal Gadot landed that role doesn’t mean she’s white. It means she’s phenotypically ambiguous/light skinned enough to pass as white. Are Arabs, Latinos, Native Americans, and Iranians who look just as white as her (if not whiter) white? Or do Jews get to be special? And while we’re on the subject of phenotypes, Gadot’s physical appearance is actually very common among Levantines, Israeli or otherwise.

So I realized that this was an issue, I spent some more time reading some more articles about this issue and looking at some tweets too (Yes, it is a waste of time, but for me it is a professional vocation). When I was finally done, the following questions lingered:

Do we want Gadot to be “white” – or do we (and by we, I mean the Jews) want her not to be white? I get a sense that some Jews believe that calling Jews “whites” is an insult to Jews, because it denies them the legitimate claim they have as a group that suffered from discrimination, or something of this sort. I also get the sense that some Jews feel the opposite: tagging us as non-white denies the Jews of European descent among us our claim to whiteness. Some people even believe that calling Jews non-white is an insult to non-white people because the Jews they know are generally, well, white.

Another question: by “white,” do we refer to color (Gadot’s is whitish)? Do we refer to social status (Gadot is now successful and probably rich)? Do we refer to geography (She comes from the Middle East)? Do we refer to privilege (her accent has little to do with privilege)? Reading some articles on Gadot’s whiteness, there seems to be a confusion – writers use the word “white” to mean different things. In fact, it is not that difficult to determine if Gadot deserves to be called “white” or “non-white” when the meaning of whiteness is clearly defined.

And my last question: why does it matter? Let’s say Gadot is white – does that deny her of any title? I get it: if she is white, we cannot say that Wonder Woman is a woman of color. But why does it matter if Wonder Woman is a woman of color? Had Gadot had demonstrably black or brown skin, one could argue that having someone with such skin play a leading role in such a film points to a change in American society. But Gadot’s skin is not demonstrably black or brown, and hence the debate people are having is detached from the reality on screen. Saying that Gadot is not white will not make her not white to the viewers of her film. It will mean nothing.

And what about Gadot’s tribe, the Jews – should we care whether we are categorized as white or non-white? No, we should not. This debate about Jews is artificial. It is an attempt of some American Jews to have a part in something that has nothing to do with them. Or with Gadot. Who’s Jewish. And that’s more than enough baggage to have to deal with.