Americans have long made the mistake of grafting their domestic culture wars onto foreign conflicts, and the one between Israelis and Palestinians is no exception. Contemporary concepts of race, oppression, and privilege are now the yardsticks by which many Americans measure unrelated events thousands of miles away in the Middle East. At a rally in May, in the midst of hostilities between Israel and Gaza, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib declared, “What they are doing to the Palestinian people is what they continue to do to our Black brothers and sisters here.” Missouri Rep. Cori Bush similarly informed the House, “Until all our children are safe, we will continue to fight for our rights in Palestine and Ferguson.”
In the minds of many, Israel has become the embodiment of global whiteness, a concept synonymous with racial supremacy. Thus could Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen write a December 2020 New York Times article denouncing “white writers” and “white privilege” that segues, without explanation, into a denunciation of Israel as a “like-minded,” “settler colonial state.” (The only other country Nguyen mentions is the United States.) Nguyen’s crude understanding of Israeli demographics speaks to a central theme of the larger woke movement: Delegitimizing the success of certain minorities and their causes by saddling them with a perceived form of hereditary privilege—whiteness.
In the rapidly changing social landscape of the United States, some are trying to transform American Jews into symbols not only of white privilege, but of white oppression. In 2017, flyers posted across the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois showed a cartoonish power hierarchy, the top of which read: “Is the 1% Straight, White Men? Or Is the 1% Jewish?” The following year, at Stony Brook University, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) compared Zionists to “Nazis, white nationalists and KKK members.” Such rhetoric appears to be relatively commonplace.
But the whitening of both domestic and foreign Jews is not an isolated phenomenon. It is also a foreboding sign for other American minorities caught in the cultural riptides. The attempt to whiten Jews in order to demonize or discredit their history in America has many parallels with similar attempts to racially recategorize Asian Americans.
The stories of Jewish and Asian Americans in many ways mirror one another. As the journalist and businessman Jeff Yang wrote over a decade ago about Jewish and Asian Americans, “We both know what it means to be alternately held up as examples of the American dream, scaling the generational ladder from poverty to professional success, and as major players in the American nightmare—labeled as ‘parasites,’ libeled as insular and self-serving, dismissed or demonized as exotic aliens and permanent outsiders.” Despite the obstacles confronting Jews and Asians in America, both communities have made remarkable inroads: Today both groups are among the wealthiest and most educated in the United States and have helped reshape the intellectual and cultural landscape of the country, establishing beachheads across journalism, academia, entertainment, business, and technology.
The imposition of whiteness on American Jews, with all its attendant political baggage, has simplified a complicated story of immigration and hardship, discrimination and success, into a simple story of privilege. The era of comradeship American Jews naively envisioned following participation in the civil rights movement and other progressive causes never materialized. James Baldwin famously quipped at the height of such activism that “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They Are Anti-White.” Once some level of communal success was achieved among American Jews, the label of whiteness was imposed to confer complicity in, and active exploitation of, an irredeemably racist system. After all, how else could Jews have succeeded to the extent that they did? How else could Asians be succeeding now?
The charge of “white adjacency” now being leveled at Asian Americans has placed the community in a strange position. During a 2019 New York City Department of Education panel to combat racism, two presenters “outlined a racial-advantage hierarchy, with African Americans at the bottom and whites at the top,” the New York Post reported. When a mother in attendance, whose adopted daughter is Asian, asked what status Asian Americans held, the presenters informed her they were near the top—close enough in “proximity to white privilege” to “benefit from white supremacy,” the mother was reportedly told.
Reshuffling the racial deck has also left Asian Americans vulnerable to self-professed advocates of diversity. In reporting on Google’s diversity report in 2020, for example, a Forbes equity and inclusion reporter decided that Asian Americans no longer constitute a people of color. In fact, Asian Americans were placed in direct opposition to that category: While Google reported only “modest gains in representation for women and people of color,” it remained a “disproportionately white, Asian and male workforce.” The lesson is clear: Asian Americans are no longer a people of color who have achieved a measure of success. Rather, their success—both real and perceived—has invalidated their identity as a people of color.
The author Kenny Xu wonders when exactly Asian Americans started being white. “Many of these people’s parents were penniless immigrants fleeing communism just a few decades ago,” Xu pointed out in a July Tablet essay. “On what basis should they be lumped in with white people, as if their historical experiences were similar?” Indeed, it seems America’s turn-of-the-century anti-Asian immigration policies enacted to combat “yellow peril,” the treatment of Filipinos as a “contaminated race,” the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, and “boat people” escaping the ravages of war in Vietnam have all gone down the memory hole.
Whereas Jewish quotas were once mandated at elite universities such as Harvard, today the Supreme Court is facing a suit by Asian American students alleging similar discrimination. Nearly a century ago, Harvard President Abbott Lowell sought to contain “the Hebrew problem” through an explicit cap, permitting a maximum allotment of 15% of the university’s student body to Jews. Over the past decade, the share of Asian Americans at Harvard has frozen at 20%, despite the community’s status as the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. Estimates by Peter Arcidiacono, an economist employed by the plaintiffs suing Harvard, found that “a male non-poor Asian-American applicant with the qualifications to have a 25% chance of admission to Harvard would have a 36% chance if he were white. If he were Hispanic, that would be 77%; if Black, it would rise to 95%.” Similar findings were independently revealed by an internal report from Harvard. Nor is this phenomenon new: As Daniel Golden wrote as far back as 2007 in his book The Price of Admission, “Asian Americans are the new Jews, inheriting the mantle of the most disenfranchised group in college admissions.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in debates surrounding standardized tests. As Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi contended last year, “Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds and legally exclude their bodies from prestigious schools.” But as Atlantic columnist Caitlin Flanagan recently demonstrated with regard to the University of California system, the initiative to dismantle such tests in the name of “equity” implicitly targets Asian Americans, who are the only “overrepresented” group on campus. If such exams are “the most effective racist weapon ever devised,” how can they be simultaneously inclusive of a visible nonwhite minority? Simple: Asian Americans are no longer a nonwhite minority.
What lessons does the American Jewish experience have to offer? The most obvious may be that activism in support of progressive causes and solidarity with other minority groups may be perfectly desirable and even moral on their own terms and for their own sake, but don’t expect much reciprocity—once you’ve been recategorized as a privileged and thus exploitative race, the label that trumps all others is difficult to overcome. For example, during huge spikes in hate crimes against Asian Americans in the past year, the full-scale media and intellectual mobilization expressing Black-Asian "solidarity" and dismissing the "trope of Black-Asian violence" was more or less futile, yielding no discernible impact on the trajectory of violence. It likewise has had no effect on the “anti-racist” view of testing, education, and hiring, which continues to maintain that as 7% of America’s total population, Asian Americans must be confined to a 7% proportion of admitted students and hired employees.
The reason is that the woke wing of the progressive movement, like the radical wings of earlier liberal social movements, is rooted in power politics. In its Manichean, zero-sum worldview, positive trends for one racial minority are necessarily interpreted as negative trends for others. Like Jews once were (and in some cases still are), Asian Americans have become associated in the popular imagination with positive educational, professional, and socioeconomic outcomes—which are thus interpreted as proof of collaboration with an unjust, unethical, and immoral system. If Jews thought they were the sole targets of such conspiratorial and indeed racist thinking, they should perhaps take heart that they are not, in fact, alone.
Ari Blaff is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. His writings have appeared in National Review, Quillette, Israel Studies, The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish News Syndicate, Israel HaYom, The Tel Aviv Review of Books, and the Canadian Jewish News.