Opinion: Jews as racial villains – from Jewish blackness to Jewish whiteness

In a familiar pattern, social constructs of race ultimately assign Jews the most negative possible label.

By Lauren Deutsch, The Algemeiner

It was less than a century ago that white-presenting Jews were defined as black. White supremacist arbiters of whiteness — in an obsession with racial categorization as a scientific justification for a hierarchy of power — dissected this topic.

In this conceptualization, skin color was not dispositive of race. It couldn’t be, because whiteness was viewed as pure, and Jews were (and continue to be) viewed as an impure threat to whiteness.

Rather, race was a holistic determination, and having “black blood” meant genetic and moral inferiority. A British scientist named John Beddoe went so far as to score Jews on a “blackness” scale, classifying us as 100% black.

Flash forward to 2021. I recently watched the pilot episode of “black AF,” a sitcom starring Kenya Barris and Rashida Jones. In this episode, a Jewish assistant to Mr. Barris pushes back on the notion of Jewish whiteness, only to be angrily told “Jews are white, Jews are white, Jews are white,” in a litany recited by Mr. Barris and Ms. Jones, who is herself of Jewish heritage.

It seems the tables have turned — though white supremacists still reject the whiteness of Jews, others now deem us to be fully white, thus placing the ills of and responsibility for white supremacy fully upon us.

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In the progressive movement, which I’m proudly part of, we focus on dismantling systemic racism and defeating white supremacy. But my Jewishness is either fully erased, and I’m labeled white, or my Jewishness is generally dismissed, as my whiteness must be the dominant identity that influences me. Despite the intense focus on intersectionality, I am reduced to a one-dimensional figure: a white person.

Whiteness was a pseudo-scientific creation, designed, among its other evils, to justify dominion over non-white people. Classifying Jews as non-white became an ideological basis upon which to justify Jew hatred, and ultimately genocide of the Jewish people.

When blackness was synonymous with subhuman, Jews were deemed black by white supremacists and European colonial power structures. Now that whiteness is viewed as inherently harmful in progressive spaces, Jews are assigned whiteness.

It’s hard to escape the notion that social constructs of race ultimately assign Jews the most negative possible label. And this follows a familiar pattern for the Jewish people.

Somehow, the Jew is blamed by both sides of any given issue. For capitalists, we are communists. For communists, we are capitalists. For white supremacists, we are a non-white threat to whiteness. For black supremacists, such as the Nation of Islam, we are uber-white, and responsible for the transatlantic slave trade.

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The end result is that the Jewish community becomes isolated, ultimately paving the way for intense anti-Semitism, exclusion of Jews from public spaces, and systemic violence against us.

Let me be clear about a few things: Jews come in every color. We have dark skin, fair skin, and ancestry from every corner of the world. Our dispersal wasn’t an accident. We were violently exiled from our homeland, sought refuge wherever we could, and over thousands of years, have faced endless attacks and marginalization, and hundreds of expulsion events that sent us seeking refuge elsewhere again.

We are, however, one people, a nation –– not just a diverse religious community. We’re united by our indigenous history in the land of Zion, the root from which our diverse Jewish tree is grown. This history unites us with a common culture, history, language, and set of traditions — as Jews of every color, in countries around the world, have a shared yearning for our ancestral land.

The derisive racializing of Jews, or assignment of racial whiteness or blackness to us, is a harmful act most often inflicted by non-Jews, typically in furtherance of an agenda that is either explicitly anti-Jewish, or infused with anti-Jewish ideas, which ultimately lead to oppression.

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It’s critical that progressives who genuinely want to be allies to the Jewish people — as I believe most do — recognize that the current trend carries risks, and follows along the same harmful patterns that have left the world’s oldest and most historically attacked community vulnerable.

For a movement so deeply committed to identifying implicit biases, we have to recognize the anti-Jewish biases sitting at the heart of so many parts of our world.

It is our obligation to ensure we don’t help the roots of anti-Semitism grow deeper in our communities, either intentionally or unintentionally.

This is essential both for the survival of the Jewish people, and because if history is any teacher, growing anti-Semitism portends growing hatred and racial violence that touches every community.

Lauren Deutsch. Esq. is an attorney with a background in gender-based violence litigation, a professional activist for reproductive justice, health equity, and immigrant rights, a proud Jew, and a parent of three, living in Brighton, New York.