October 31, 2004

Shades of gray in the Jewish world

In her op-ed piece ("Jewish-conspiracy theorist surfaces at Duke," 10/22/04), Phoebe Maltz boldly and cleverly outlined the major flaws and absurdities of Philip Kurian's article "The Jews" in a recent edition of Duke University's Chronicle. Yet Kurian's article, as well as Maltz's critique, highlights serious problems of identity and perception within the Jewish community, both in the world and on our own campus. Just as I was glad to see Maltz take a stand in exposing such vile (and frankly inane) accusations about the status of Jews in American society, I was dismayed by the concessions she allowed in order to make her argument seem more amenable to a general audience. I refer specifically to her unwillingness to explore further the American myth that Jews are "white," a label conferred by leading segments of the mainstream American society only within the last seventy years.

Maltz writes: "While much of Europe has long been divided between Jew and Christian, America has been divided…between black and white, with (most) Jews falling into the second category." The most fundamental problem with this line of reasoning is that it presupposes an oppositional relationship between Jews and Christians. Christians are a religious group, transcending national borders and peoples. The Jews, a vestige of a more ancient time when each people subscribed to its own national religious cult, are one people who have retained their indigenous religion against the pressures to adopt one of the dominant multinational religions of Christianity and Islam. This continuing act of resistance against foreign religious dominance alone has done much to spurn the hatred that Jews have endured throughout the history of their diaspora. While other nations, such as the Armenians (they were the first), the Greeks, and the French acceded to the adoption of the transnational Christianity, Jews remained stubborn. To say that "much of Europe has been divided between Christian and Jew" is incorrect, and it would be more appropriate to state that much of Europe has been divided between Jews and a host of other nations.

Yet this statement still does not satisfy: Why focus attention on Europe? For most of the last eighteen centuries, the country with the largest Jewish diaspora population has been none other than Iraq. The sojourn of vast numbers of Jews in Eastern Europe—the locale called to mind for most Americans as the land of the wandering Jew—did not begin until the early Renaissance. Throughout the history of the Jewish exile, large communities could be found in Egypt, Iraq, North Africa, Ethiopia, and Spain as well. At what point, then, did Jews become "white?"

In American society, there is a construction of race and ethnicity very different than that of the Old World. Just as much as Americans have, throughout their early history, sought to create a new order under a new republic with a renewed religious enlightenment, so too have Americans invented a new standard for dividing people into arbitrary groups. Much of this social construction, it may be deduced, is a result of the need for fair-skinned European settlers in the New World to reconcile their horrific enslavement of black Africans by grouping them as "the Other." Before one's race was French or Russian or Chinese; now it had become "black" or "white."

But who could be "white?" Until the period of the Second World War, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans were not. Neither were Jews. Only after that bitter conflict had seen both the deep commitment of each group to the national effort and the increased entry of the Irish, Italian, and Jewish second and third-generation immigrants into the American middle-class were mainstream Americans willing to grant them "whiteness." Also, the growing tensions between white America and the still-disenfranchised black America were growing, eventually coming to a head in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. After the war, "white" Americans were quite eager to expand their ranks (excluding country-club memberships and college admissions, of course). We are witnessing a similar extension of this "whiteness" today, as many colleges and universities have begun grouping Asian Americans into the "white" category for the purposes of affirmative action and other admissions considerations.

This "white" identity, which in the last few decades has grown among most American Jews, is very dangerous to the survival of the Jewish people in this country. Foremost, it threatens Jewish national unity—many Jews are not as fair-skinned as those in America, whose ancestors came largely from the destroyed communities of Northern and Eastern Europe, where Jews sojourned for several generations—by fostering new, artificial divisions within the Jewish civilization. Like many nations, but unlike some in the West, the Jews' national identity rests not on the tint of its members' skin but in a shared cultural, religious, and historical experience.

Second, it helps to fuel dangerous misconceptions about the reestablishment of Jewish independence in Israel. It is far easier for those who fear the Jews' exercise of political sovereignty to smear the Jewish national liberation movement as one of "colonization, occupation, and imperialism" if the Jews are just another group of "white" infiltrators. In a sense, if one were to compare the relationship between ethnic tensions and racial labels in the Middle East to those in America, it would be the Jews, Kurds, Assyrians, and other historically oppressed minorities who must be termed "black."

What, then, does this teach us? Though I may have been a bit unfair to Maltz in my treatment of her critique, I feel it is my duty to underscore a reality that is absent in her prose. If Jews living in America wish to dissolve into the fabric of the American quilt then reinforcement of these artificial and self-defeating social divisions will only prove helpful in hastening the death of this country's Jewish community. I and many other Jews like me, both in the general population and on our campus, choose not to "revel in the luxury of my ‘yarmulke'-free existence," as does Maltz. Rather I actively embrace my national identity. It is with pride that I elect to don a "kippah" (a more appropriate word for that traditional head-covering), and in so doing I express my undying faith in the ability of all peoples in the world to find the elusive harmony that has been so absent since the beginning of human civilization—one in which the Jews, too, may be accepted and respected as an equal in the family of peace-loving nations.