Jews, Whiteness & the Idiocy of Racial Identity

Finally, they’re Jew-ing up Downton Abbey. Rose, the troublesome teen who nearly ran away with a black American jazz singer last season, is now falling for Ephraim Atticus Aldridge whose family escaped Russian pogroms. What makes this love affair more acceptable to the Granthams, whose own matriarch comes from Jewish blood? Well, the money and the title help, but the reality is that Atticus is white. Tom the socialist chauffeur worked his way into the heart of the family sans money and title, but could a darker-skinned outcast have done the same? Not in an England where appearances were everything and eugenic theory was at an all-time high. Russian royalty ex-pats won’t accept Atticus as anything but a “Jew” and the jury is still out when it comes to the Crawley clan. Perhaps because, even in today’s England, just because Ashkenazim (European Jews) know how to play the game doesn’t mean they always win.

When I joined the Hillel as a grad student in Texas I was excited to finally not hear the one comment that had plagued me throughout many of my Jewish encounters growing up: “You don’t look Jewish.” Each time I heard the seemingly benign statement from some gorgeous, dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned individual with obvious Ashkenazi roots and a tinge of a New York accent I thought, “Weren’t you in history class when we talked about the Holocaust and the dangers of so-called racial identity?” Our problem with race extends beyond America’s borders. While Israel is the proof that being Jewish has absolutely nothing to do with how you look, Israelis still struggle with “whiteness” and race. The idol of race is a dangerous fence that has to be hacked down if we’re ever to survive as a people.

David wasn’t white or British, but he did enjoy dancing in order to praise God, much to the embarrassment of his wife. Hey, the guy was in love

Biblically speaking, being Jewish has nothing to do with race. A mixed multitude of Jews and gentiles participated in the Exodus from Egypt. Intermarriage was a common occurrence and as scripture illustrates, the issue was never one of race, but of loyalty to God (not gods). In fact, the concept of race as we understand it doesn’t surface in the Bible. When appearance is discussed, it is done in terms of character, not skin color.

Case in point: King David. The Biblical hero, Mr. Macho-Man, was the ugly red-headed runt of the family. God chose David because David “was a man after God’s own heart”. Gentiles may be more familiar with the “simple confounding the wise” principle, the idea that those presumed to be less – less attractive, less smart, less adept – will confound the popular folk. That is the essence of Jewish existence in a nutshell. It is also why our enemies tend to stereotype us by our outward appearance, because that’s all the “wise” see and understand.

Racial identity has never had a good outcome for the Jews. According to the “wise,” Jews were first denoted to be a “race” because of 15th century Purity of Blood Statutes in Spain. This same “purity of blood” concept would develop into Aryan versus Semite ideology that became “an orthodoxy of racial science in Europe” leading to Holocaust. Jews in America caved to the marker of “race” (instead of “nation” or “religion”) in the 1870s when the growing Zionist movement gave birth to the dual loyalty notion that still plagues us today.

In fact, while Europe’s twisted blood purity ideology never made it big on America’s shores, dual loyalty continues to be the suspicion fomenting racial hatred. Dual loyalty was used by the Black Power movement against “white” Jewish civil rights activists in the 1960s. Today, it is used most frequently in the context of party politics, with particular confusion among Republican ranks. Conservative Republicans assert that we are bad Jews if we vote Democrat, because the Democrats don’t support Israel. The old school Buchananites, on the other hand, assert that we are bad Jews if we vote Democrat, because we’re obviously choosing our “race” over the nation in which we live.

The embrace of race theory has led gentile America to believe that all Jews somehow connect to and identify with the nation of Israel. Sadly, this is not always the case, and when it isn’t, the term “white privilege” usually rears its ugly head and judges us as a group. Any group is only the sum of its individual members, each who have their own conscious and ability to make their own choices. Race theory does not recognize this because it is based in the wicked, ancient idea that the blood running through your veins dictates your loyalties. Hence, Jews are always held under suspicion for not supporting Israel enough, or supporting her too much.

Race theory has also lent itself to the nasty notion that the Jews are a weakened people who must defer to approval and assistance from the outside world in order to survive. Jews must be weak because our blood is weak. Military victories are a fluke. You need us to negotiate your peace, to craft your Oslos, to dictate your settlements, to tell you when it is and isn’t polite to speak to Congress. When the leader of the Zionist nation is referred to as nothing more than the “beloved poodle” what does that make us but mutts at the dinner table? And when one of the leaders of the Jewish American world acquiesces to these racial prejudices we’re all encouraged to bow in submission.

Sh’ma/V’ahavta, Jewish prayer quoted from Deuteronomy 6:4-9

According to some critics, the modern embrace of Jewish American identity has become “… a way of rebelling against the homogenized white culture of Middle America.” It is a hard-pressed attempt at best. As long as cultural identity revolves around physical appearance Jews in America, much like their British counterparts, will always be on the losing end of the spectrum when it comes to achieving a clear understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Instead of contributing to eugenic myths by embracing white skin as a marker of Jewish identification, we need to return to the Biblical definition of what it means to be Jewish: being a man or a woman after God’s own heart.