Jews Think Calling Themselves White is No Longer “Good for the Jews”
Posted by mythoughtsandnews on April 29, 2006
Color Me Jewish: One Group's Quest For Whiteness
By Nathaniel Popper
April 21, 2006
The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity
By Eric L. Goldstein
Princeton University Press, 320 pages, $29.95.
Last fall, researchers published a study claiming that higher IQ scores
among Jews were a result of natural selection. This biological
explanation for stereotypically Jewish traits was widely discredited by
geneticists, but it didn't stop a number of high-profile publications
from trumpeting the study's findings. It seems the hunger for stories
about the "Jewish brain" is floating in the Zeitgeist these days. By
giving such prominence to the story, editors were picking up on the
increasing tribal identification among American Jews, reflected
everywhere from the "Jewcy" T-shirts to the popularity of the
Birthright Israel program — all of it coming a decade after
intermarriage became the great bugaboo of the American Jewish world.
As it turns out, this is hardly the first time that Jews have been
drawn to a biological or racial envisioning of their peoplehood. As
Emory University professor Eric Goldstein tells us in his new book,
"The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity," American
Jews in the 1880s similarly embraced a racial conception of Jewishness
on the heels of a panic about rising intermarriage and assimilation. In
1887, the rabbi at Boston's largest synagogue told his congregants that
"it remains a fact that we spring from a different branch of humanity,
that different blood flows in our veins." While Jews are generally seen
as the unwitting victims of biologically deterministic thinking,
Goldstein argues that they have also frequently been among its most
Goldstein's well-timed book traces the fraught history of Jewish
particularity from the era in which "Hebrew" was a category in the
census to today's society, in which scientists are again reviving
chimeras of Jewish race. In the popular mind, race has loomed large as
the most immutable of character markers — a trace in the blood that
can't be altered. But Goldstein suggests that Jews' perception of their
own racial coherence has been an unsteady concept, changing constantly
and depending primarily on the acceptance of Jews in American society.
He argues that Jewish identity has largely been shaped by a tug of war
between two contradictory desires: on one hand, to be fully accepted in
the white majority, and on the other, to maintain the boundaries of the
Jewish community. And combing through nearly every racially charged
historical moment of the past century, Goldstein produces the rare
academic book that uses history to enlighten, rather than complicate, a
very contemporary debate.
The starting point for Goldstein's book is the mid-19th century, when
German Jews on these shores first began to adopt racial terminology to
explain the unity of their community. Before this, American Jews,
inspired by the Enlightenment, had frequently described themselves as
part of the nation of Jews. But in America, the "nation" label
conflicted with the ideal of immigrants leaving behind their old
political allegiances for the New World. Race was appealing because it
carried no political connotations.
But just as German Reform rabbis began embracing racial terminology, it
suddenly became less attractive. The onslaught of Eastern European
immigrants at the turn of the century muddied the apparent coherence of
the Jewish community. But more importantly, the newcomers made the
Jewish community visible and large enough to run up against the racial
discourse that was becoming ever more dominant in American discourse:
the black-white divide. Jewish leaders wanted to avoid the lot of
American blacks, and so racial terminology itself became less
attractive. When the 1910 census rolled around, Jewish leaders fought,
unsuccessfully, to have the "Hebrew" categorization removed.
In Europe, Jews had been the quintessential "others" against whom white
societies could define themselves. In America, that role fell to
blacks. In the 1920s and '30s, when racism against blacks reached a
fevered pitch, many corners of the growing Jewish community made public
efforts to separate themselves from the black community. When Booker T.
Washington suggested an affinity between the black and Jewish history
of oppression, the Jewish Ledger, a New Orleans newspaper, called him
an "impudent nigger." "To compare the Jew, who occupies the highest
pinnacle of human superiority and intellectual attainment, with the
Negro, who forms the mud at its base, is something only a Negro with
more than the usual vanity and impudence of his race could attempt,"
the Jewish Ledger's editorialists wrote.
Goldstein rests his arguments a little too heavily on the Jewish fear
of blackness — and on the converse desire to be white — as the primary
factor driving Jewish identity. As a result, the story becomes less
engaging after World War II, when antisemitism began to fade.
Goldstein's interest seems to fall off at this point — since Jews had
achieved their early desire to become white — though Jewish identity
continued to evolve.
Which brings us to the current moment, one in which certain Jews are
moving in the opposite direction from the one noted in Goldstein's
book, demanding that their difference be noticed. Goldstein finds an
early trace of this in Adam Sandler's "The Hanukkah Song," in which
Sandler listed celebrity Jews who are identified not by practice but by
birth. More recently, the tribal instinct that Goldstein identifies has
taken the form of identification with blacks, e.g., through the surge
of Jewish musicians involved in hip-hop and rap. Identifying with
Jewishness has become, finally, a way of rebelling against the
homogenized white culture of Middle America. Whether it is a lasting
elixir for Jewish continuity is another question.
Nathaniel Popper is a staff writer at the Forward.