Identity can be a fickle, fascinating thing. I learned that recently in two separate occasions while traversing the ins and outs of the Jewish community.
The first occasion was when I found myself debating the appropriateness of BDS in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, at a place where many non-Jewish people of color, their self-proclaimed allies, and many people of Arab descent had decided to dedicate the day to what they called a teach-in for Palestine, complete with all the anti-Israel antics I’ve come to expect.
There was nothing particularly fascinating or new about the exchange. My debaters denied Jewish indigenousness, trivialized the long nightmare of persecution against Jews in European society, and then derided them for having white skin—as if paleness makes one unable to experience the horrors that all mankind are capable of enacting upon each other.
My arguments were simple: The folly of BDS lies not merely in the fact that many of its proponents are anti-Semites—even though they are—but in its proponents’ dismissal of and refusal to see the Israeli: his indigenousness and sacred ties to the land; his pain and trauma, a real product of the fact that in his people’ s sordid history, many have called for his murder; and his fear of not being able to stop those would-be murderers from doing so. BDS proponents lack the ability and bravery to confront that, wrestle with that, acknowledge the truth of that so that reconciliation between Palestinian and Israeli communities can come into fruition.
What was new about this experience however was that for some people in the room, only I, as a person of color, could make the argument that Jews with pale skin whose ancestors had been massacred in Europe should not be treated as unimportant, nor should their collective yearning to return to Eretz Yisrael be made light of. If, God forbid, you were an Ashkenazi Jew with a pro-Israel position and you wanted to speak for yourself, you would have been dismissed for “centering yourself” in the conversation or engaging in “whiteness,” a vague term meant to suggest that people with white skin are a pathology constantly committing the sins of dominating a space while oppressing others, and projecting a sinister and exploitative nebulous power everywhere on everyone. This contains a double irony: It was that suggestion that led to the death of millions of Jews in the Holocaust; then, the accusation wasn’t that whiteness was problematic but that Jewishness was and the people advancing the argument weren’t people of color but Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
The second irony is that if whiteness suggests domination while shutting others down, then it was many of the people who were the least white in the room exercising whiteness. They repeatedly sneered and hissed at Ashkenazim who had different opinions. But this idea of course is silly, since anyone can behave in an exploitative fashion toward his or her neighbor regardless of skin color. To do so is not “whiteness” but human.
Which brings me to the second lesson I’ve learned about identity.
Recently, there has been a debate within the Jewish community about the negative treatment of Jews of Color within Jewish circles that are majority Ashkenazi. As part of that debate, a war of words has been waged in the pages of the Forward between African-American Jews who insist that Ashkenazi Jews are white, and Ashkenazi Jews who insist that not only are they not white, but to insist that they are is an insult to their lived experiences as being persecuted in white-dominated spaces.
By “white” those involved in this debate don’t mean “pale skinned” but, once again, practitioners of whiteness—that dominating pathology that exploits and abuses and colonizes everything in its path. The debate has been at times spirited, at times disparaging with both parties expressing sometimes interesting things while throwing mud on each other. Both of the parties in this debate are passionate and well-intended and also wrong.
To believe in the presence of “whiteness”—albeit in the name of defeating it—is to accept a premise made by pseudoscientists and Nazis in the 20th century. They had many words for it: Aryanism; scientific racism, etc. They called such a thing superior, cosmic, and all powerful and in the name of that belief waged war on all others who were not white. When Jewish POC (or any People of Color) claim that such a thing exists, they are accepting the premise of a racist notion in order to fight against the effects of that racist notion. This is a contradiction that will not end well. Likewise, when Ashkenazi Jews claim to not be white—i.e., not be practitioners of so-called whiteness—they too are accepting the premise of a racist notion in order to claim to belong to no part of it. This exercise in linguistic gymnastics is madness.
The world is large and we humans are fickle. No color or continent has a monopoly on the act of plunder. Arabs have enslaved, Africans have been dictators, Asians have oppressed, and Europeans have pillaged. All colors, classes, and creeds have participated in domination of the other during the wild and wondrous history of mankind. This, again, is not whiteness nor is it a pathology belonging exclusively to a people with a particular skin color; it is human.
For me to assert such a thing on forums, on social media, and in discussions with Jewish POC or with Ashkenazim was not a new thing for me. But what was new was to be told by certain Jewish POC that I was “catering to whiteness” by virtue of disagreeing with some positions put forth in the community. Not only that, but that I was “harming” Jewish POC by not agreeing with them or by having my voice elevated by other Jews who were not POC. I was out of line, they argued, not because my arguments were faulty but because I’m not Jewish.
Imagine the irony of vying for equal representation while telling someone they are not welcome to the table because they do not check all the boxes you belong to. Imagine complaining about exclusion while excluding others. Imagine complaining about certain negative behaviors exhibited by others while not realizing you’re practicing those same behaviors yourself. It’s almost as if such behavior were human—not an aspect of whiteness. Ah, but there’s the rub.
But hypocrisy is not the only reason to protest this impulse; there’s another reason to eschew this new trend both within and without the Jewish community of reducing bad behavior to skin color: It doesn’t actually correct bad behavior; it does not lead to the shoring up of a sense of civic responsibility we should have to each other, and it does not lead to the creation of a virtuous society. It instead takes the easy way out and produces endless shouting matches on social media.
When a white police officer wrongfully shoots an unarmed black man and abuses his power, in mass media we do not speak of his lack of temperance, circumspection, duty, or lack of loyalty to a fellow citizen. And for the most part, the same can be said when we encounter anti-black bias in predominately Ashkenazi spaces where synagogue members question whether a black Jew is really, truly Jewish. We speak only of whiteness, a pathology that services our own sense of self-righteousness in fleeting moments of anger and passion. We do not speak of a lack of virtue on the part of those who have behaved badly toward us—which would require us to exhibit said virtues ourselves.
We do not do this, and thus there is infighting, feelings of ill will toward each other, and no resolution to problems we face as communities and as societies. This is madness and it will continue unless we are courageous enough, vulnerable enough, and honest enough to demand that actual virtues be exhibited by our leaders and in our communities—a dictate that is only made possible if we ourselves exhibit them in our own lives. This does not require raging against “whiteness” but against vices both outside and within our own personal lives.
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