December 7, 2018

It is December 6, 2018.  It is 6 days after the death of George HW Bush and 103 days after the death of John McCain.  Even though much time has passed in our speed-of-light popular attention span since the death of the later, I can still recall the visceral dis-ease that churned in me digesting the near canonization of Mr. McCain in the week following his death.  Today, I observe uneasily again the enactment of our American rites of civility, the rites of posthumous canonization, of our most powerful political figures.  As depicted in the public forum, these rites are presented with false neutrality and safeguarded as personal and sanctified.  Yet these moments of public performance of grief, reifying our mostly undisputed notions of heroism, are simultaneously rife with political meaning as they thrive, fester, and multiply in the unswerving spotlight of the commercial media gaze.  As we both consume and re-tell these stories we deepen the restrictive groove of a key myth of America, a deep and blinding trench, bound up in extoling unexamined valor, dependent on amnesiatic honor, and forever reducing complexity into biblically simple moralism.

No matter where you read the paper in America today, this morning’s front page imagery perfectly exemplified this vision of false American heroism combining militaristic pomp, genteel nobility, and religious piousness. We saw an American flag-draped casket escorted into and out of an Episcopalian church known as The National Cathedral, by a U.S. Naval Honor Guard, while bells (church) tolled, and choirs (church) sang, and cannons (military) sounded.  All the while, mourners held their hands over their hearts in a clear display of patriotism.  This conflation of Christian symbols and actions and American symbols and actions is dizzying, but not confusing.  It is repeated and clearly explained and demonstrated at every level of patriotism.  According to its website The National Cathedral is a place “grounded in the reconciling love of Jesus Christ … and is a house of prayer for all people, conceived by our founders to serve as a great church for national purposes.”  Christian and American symbolism thus overlaid is not merely complimentary as it works in tandem as a direct expression of cultural moralism, but in fact, these religious and patriotic symbols and structures are inextricably linked in our institutions of governance.  Christian hegemony.  Cultural Hegemony is the ideological domination of a culturally diverse society by its leaders who impose their own beliefs, values, and mores onto the masses thereby coercing the leadership view into the general worldview.  Once the imposed ruling-class worldview becomes accepted over time as cultural norm this view then serves to justify social, political and economic status-quo as inevitable and natural, rather than to expose the worldview as benefiting the ruling class.  Christian hegemony in America is not new and is not neutral.

I set out to write this article as a continuation of the exploration of Jewish whiteness in the context of antiracist activism.  I set out to ask and address the questions Are Jews white?  Is Jewish white-skin privilege different and how does Jewish whiteness operate differently?  Ultimately, the question of the precariousness of Jewish whiteness pervades all these sites.  And though I will address those questions here, and continue my dedicated pursuit of teasing apart these complexities, something of unavoidable curiosity has derailed my determined search.  If Jewish whiteness is different, then what is it different from?  “Normal” whiteness?  If so, what is this normal whiteness?  Is it not Christian whiteness? 

Like many feminist theorists before me, I posit not only the usefulness but also the necessity of understanding the material implications of hegemonic language.  Linguistically speaking, in our American patriarchal worldview, men and maleness are normal and neutral rendering women and other gender expressions aberrant – necessary of naming.  By declaring a special nature of women’s work it is implied that “normal” work is men’s, and goes, literally, without saying; and all other gender variations are invisibilized in this binary construction.  Is not the same true of the way we use language to reaffirm implicit whiteness as the baseline of normalcy in our racialized and racist nation, wherein everyone who is not white must be named “of color” in order to preserve the implication of a neutral skin color, white?  What we say matters.  What we don’t say, matters too. If there is Jewish whiteness, then what is it projected against?  I assert we must engage with the Christian nature of American whiteness, and not assume the neutrality of Christianity by rendering it invisible, and thus normal.  Though white skin privilege operates materially for all those who have, what Nancy Lopez calls, a white “street race,” we must examine the construction: historically, culturally, intellectually, and ideologically, of American whiteness in order to engage with, and disarm it fully.  Without understanding the Christian hegemony that frames and informs American whiteness, as much as misogynist patriarchy, and capitalist economics, we cannot honestly critique and disable the structures and institutions that authorize, defend, and reiterate racial oppression in the US.

“We need a word for the system that normalizes and honors Christianity, just as racism names the system that normalizes and honors whiteness.  Our very lack of a word illustrates the problem. How do we challenge what we have no language to discuss?  Christian hegemony?  Not very catchy, but the assumption of Christianity-as-norm does exercise a negative impact on Jews, and is erasive and diminishing.  Jews usually designate this erasure as a form of antisemitism, but it’s not only a Jewish issue: erasure and marginalization of non-Christians denigrates all non-Christians.  We sorely need a term such as Christiansim to name the system of Christian domination”

Kaye/Kantrowitz, Melanie.  The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

 The material benefits of white skin privilege to white Jews is equal to that of all white people in this country, and the necessity of understanding white racial construction is key to dismantling the racist systems, structures, and institutions of American racism.  Within the pervasiveness of what Kaye/Kantrowitz terms Christianism, Jewish whiteness can be explored as different from normal whiteness in three different, and informative, ways.  First, the monolithic assumption that all American Jews are white is contestable because as a diasporic and modern American people, not all Jews are white.  Second, Jewish whiteness is derivative, because in the United States it is entirely dependent on American assimilationist culture grounded in what I call “pathological individualism” which draws heavily on an implicit Christian moral codes and values.  Third, Jewish whiteness is dangerous when regarded in the environment of historical and cyclical antisemitism that frames its very precariousness, and expresses both racially and religiously.

“And what about other Jews, the ones who don’t look white, those who by anyone’s definition are not white:  Jewish African Americans, Jews from the Middle East, Latin America, Ethiopia, the Caribbean, India, China.  Jews of any race who chose Judaism.  Biracial and multi-racial Jews.  Children of mixed marriages.  Children of color adopted by Ashkenazim.  Invisible, marginalized, not even imagined.”

Kaye/Kantrowitz, Melanie.  The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

As a diasporic people, Jews have long been mythologized as cosmopolitans, as people without national allegiance.  This myth, which has been a consistent and reoccurring theme in antisemitic narrative, has meant that Jews are not considered patriots, and cannot be trusted in a national context.  Cosmopolitanism today is not only a reference to the historic soviet expression rootless cosmopolitans which called for the exposure and persecution of “passing” Jewish writers and intellects, but also as modern social science understand the term: citizen of the world.  This term, along with its associates, elitist and globalist however, have dual usage; they function in academia as theory, yet become coded into popular political rhetoric as well, in often destructive ways – not only in mid-20th century Stalinist Soviet rhetoric but also in current day America.  These words are projected against terms like nationalism and America first, which muchly implies white Nationalism, and white Americans, and the coding is clear.  Jews are neither white Americans nor are they trustable Americans.

Jewish whiteness is also an expression of assimilative American culture defined by Liberalism, and entirely dependent on passing as white.  Once a Jew is outed, or outs herself, even if she is a white Jew, she is no longer seen as quite white.  She is now seen as something a bit different. She is seen as less white.  Jewish whiteness, then, exists in a confounding place where whiteness is both absolute and has shades. 

This Jewish whiteness then exists in an American narrative of free-market economy which insistently reiterates the American individual as the primary operator of power.  The only possibility for salvation, success, and survival, according to Liberalism (and thereby NeoLiberalism), lies in the hands of each individual.  We are all responsible for our own fates, the story goes.  However, this story can only work as a societal ideology if the internal moral compass of every individual is working.  This internal moral compass is the balance of the destructive human capacity of greed, ego, and violence; government regulation (of the economic or political spheres) in Liberalism is not the balance to this imbedded danger.  This internal moral compass however, in the American historical context, is intrinsically limited as it is defined by Chrisianism and thereby cannot, by nature, serve the best interests of a diverse population.  Within this frame, Jewish whiteness is precarious as it paradoxically depends on the efficacy of an internally functioning moralism in each member of the American society which is defined by Christian morals and values.  These Christian morals and values, as they effectively play out, place non-Christians lower in a moralistic hierarchy, and thus reify the precariousness of all non-Christian whiteness, including Jewish whiteness.

Again, I re-emphasize that white skin privilege for Jews is real and we must face the totality of the privileges of whiteness reaped in order to be effective and honest accomplices to the dismantling of the violent and dehumanizing systems of American racism.  But aren’t Jews a race?  An ethnicity?  In many various theories of race, Jew can be located and understood as a race.  The biblical themes of Jews as originating from a singular genetic stock, The Cohain priestly lineage, falls squarely within a Natural or Biological racial theory. Cultural stories abound (both within Jewish circles and in greater social groupings) about the ethnic specificity of Jews, both in appearance and behavior, and position Jews inside the non-white (ie: Christian white) cultural construction of American race. A class-based racial understanding is easily identifiable with the colloquial definition of the American Jew and is strictly enforced, among many other concepts, by the false notions about the Jewish relationship to money (there are many poor jews.)  These are simply a few of the many examples of the way white Jews, despite the real and material benefits of their whiteness, can be understood to simultaneously inhabit a non-white and white place within an American racialized structure. 

 “… the idea that one’s religious practice is at fault is consistent with torture and forced conversation, and with death for the obstinate; but a racial definition of Jews is consistent with extermination.  The racialized being simply is.  Extermination is, then, the appropriate final solution.”

Kaye/Kantrowitz, Melanie.  The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

If we extend the political memory far enough back to encompass the history of antisemitism, we are reminded of the unusual and cyclical nature of this particular oppressive cultural degradation.  The hundreds year history of antisemitism necessitates both periods of success and assimilation followed by periods of persecution.  In order to justify the implementation of the stereotypes of Jewish domination and secrecy during periods of tyranny (like now), there must also be a modicum of perceived realness to these stories, which is supported by the degrees of success and assimilation experienced in the periods where antisemitism recedes underground and seemingly disappears.  According to an interview with Dove Kent, former director for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice “Antisemitism tells the story that Jews are the ones really in power.  It offers a seemingly rational explanation for an increasingly irrational world. The system of global capitalism, the workings of the global economy are very complicated. The multiplicity of reasons behind people’s economic suffering is not particularly easy to explain. It is far easier to believe that a specific group of people are pulling the puppet strings behind your suffering.  In this way, antisemitism looks different from other oppressions in that it punches up. That’s confusing for people.”  And the consistent historical usefulness of this mode of antisemitism is the way it distracts attention and responsibility away from the ruling class and scapegoats the Jews instead.

 But as Kaye/Kantrowitz has informed, there are two different strands of antisemitism: religious and racial.  These strands work in tandem to both physically and psychically call into question the functional stability of Jewish whiteness.  Last weekend, I sat in a circle of community members convened by Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that works for justice, equality and dignity for all in Israel/Palestine, as a part of an open forum on antisemitism.  There were about 30 people in the room, ranging from early 40s into late 70s.  As far as I could perceive most were white, though there was a Native person, a Black person, a Hispanic person, and a person who identified as Palestinian American.  About 75% of the people in the room identified as Jewish.  Each person spoke freely about what antisemitism meant to them, why they were in the room, and their personal experiences of antisemitism.  To a person, each of the Jews that recounted a personal experience of antisemitism told a story of religious antisemitism which orbited around the central theme that Jews are seen as Christ killers, or as doomed for Hell. 

I have my own story that echoes this claim.  In seventh grade, at my elite, private middle school, I was confronted one afternoon by two of my classmates, girls with whom I played after school sometimes, enjoyed spontaneous laughter and dancing, and admired for their fashion, intelligence, and poise.  I considered them friends.   This day, in the context of thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, I recall them saying to me “We like you so much and wish you would just join us and believe in Jesus so you can come to Heaven with us and don’t have to go to Hell.”  I was so surprised and taken off-guard that I didn’t say anything.  I felt confused and churned sickly inside.  I knew enough at the time to understand this has something to do with the proselyting ideology of the church they both attended, Hoffmantown Baptist, and that what they were expressing was in its own perverse way, a form of love for me.  But I did not understand the recoiling and shrinking inside me which I now know was responding to the very pointed expression of antisemitism directed right at me.  It must be stated overtly, Christianism is implicit here.  The only people expressing this type of antisemitism are Christians.  And as evidenced by my story, and the countless other stories of this type of religious antisemitism I have heard, the answer to the “problem” of Jewish non-believers (in Christ), is to convert them. 

Though this religious antisemitism is the type most Jews have actually physically experienced, we must remember that this religious form of antisemitism in America rarely takes shape in physical violence on its own, though it contributes deeply to a sense of otherness and exclusion in the lives of most who identify as Jews in this country.  As we have seen recently at the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, the form of antisemitism that animates violence in this country, is most usually driven by racial hatred, and can be easily seen in the engine of White Nationalism and the Alt-Right.  However, since most American Jews have not experienced actual physical harm in the face of antisemitism, there emerges yet another paradox and precarity of Jewish whiteness. There is both physical and psychic danger experienced by American Jews, and yet these cannot be directly mapped either experientially or emotionally in a linear way.  The bodily experience of antisemistism in the United States produces emotional precarity as otherness, and the mostly symbolic and infrequent acts of real violence produce overwhelming fear and insecurity, and a pervasive (muchly imagined) sense of bodily danger.

With all this tenuousness, and in the persistent pervasiveness of Christian hegemony, where do we as antiracist activists find ground upon which to stand to do the crucial work of facing Jewish white privilege, revealing Christianism, understanding antisemitism, and dismantling the tyrannical structures of American racism?  I find refuge, inspiration, and energy in historically informed practice, process focused organizing, and the spiritual wisdom evident in nature.

I recall, many months ago, when I embarked on this project of confronting my own Jewish whiteness, and the Jewish whiteness of those around me, I had a seminal conversation with my mother.  She was trying to explain to me that, for people of her generation, it was impossible to separate out white privilege from the insecurity associated to her identity as Jewish.  Specifically, she was talking about the historical trauma of The Holocaust as a defining moment in the lives of American Jews and a deep dampening of their capacity to experience a sense of privilege.  I said to her “yes, Mom, but that time is over, it’s not The Holocaust anymore, and we need to confront and acknowledge the totality of our privilege as middle class white Jews today.”  I see in my own response a learned American response, a rational-seeming request for historical amnesia, a willful forgetting of important political and historical context.  I’m grateful to see this in myself, and as a result of seeing, be able to have the opportunity for a “do-over.”  Today, upon revisiting this conversation with my mother I was able to hold the multiple truths of the situation.  Truth 1: Historical trauma is real, and long-term effects must be addressed directly.  Truth 2: Historical trauma may be passed on cellularly, and may be at work in me, too.  Truth 3:  Experiences of danger and persecution in one regard do not counter-indicate experiences of privilege and safety in other regards.  After all, isn’t this a significant conundrum of Jewish whiteness?

I am shored up by models of process based organizing to work in concert with the catalytic potential of organizing across difference by not demanding or enforcing false unity.  I am re-dedicating myself to engage in antiracism consciousness raising in the white Jewish community as well as call on Christian white people (which includes those whose culture and heritage/ancestry is Christian even if their active belief system/practice of religion or spirituality, is not) to examine Christianism.  Specifically, for Christian white people there must be self-reflexive interrogation of the false American myth of the separation of Church/State to understand the absence of Christian neutrality and the presence of Christian hegemony.  This hegemony, Christianism, must be acknowledged as a mechanism in the legitimation of mainstream racism. This mainstream racism is animated and normalized, in part, by the racial antisemitism of White Nationalism and the alt-right.  These Christianist ideas are deeply infused, right at the American political middle, and must be reckoned with directly in the context of waking up to whiteness.  It is incumbent on Christian whites to do this work, much in the way it is incumbent on all people who experience and benefit from white skin privilege to examine whiteness.  People of Color must not be made responsible for this work, as it is reinjurious to them.  At the same time, non-Christian white people must not be the singular carriers of this message to Christian white people.

I have yearned to find a Jewish story of this cosmological, archetypal knowledge of living in harmony.  I have found one.  This is my version of the Jewish mystical origin story, from the 14th century Kabbalistic teachings.  This is a new story to me and an old story, too, for me.  I’ve heard this story many times, though I didn’t know it was this story.  But it is, this story. The story of the beginning of the universe and the Jewish story of healing …

Before now, before anything we can know or measure or understand, there was nothing but divine darkness, holy darkness, the ein sof, the source of life.  And in that darkness, was everything.  And then, there was a moment.  A moment like a big bang, a sound like a little hum, a wind like a flicker of consciousness, and it was like nothing before or since in this space-place-time-dimension.  And in that moment all that was in the divine darkness, all that is everything, all that is this entire universe of a thousand thousand things, turned inside out and burst forth from the heart of the holy darkness in a great ray of light.  The fountain of light poured into vast gorgeous vessels.  The vessels filled to overflowing with the fountain of light that was the everythingness of the divine darkness turned inside out, and the everythingness of the whole universe.  The vessels filled and filled and filled with this inconceivable brightness, with the wholeness of the universe, and when they reached capacity the vessels brilliantly shattered.  And with this shattering the light dispersed, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light and these fragments of light fell into all events, into all people, into all places, into all plants, into all animals, in absolutely everything, and became the light in everything, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.  We are all born with the capacity to find this hidden light in all events, in all people, in all places, in all plants, in all animals, in absolutely everything, and to lift this light up and make this light visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness in the world.  And this is also the story of Tikkun Olam, of Repairing the World, one speck of light at a time. And in Jewish mysticism, the story of the beginning of the world and the story of the restoration of the world, are the same story.  And wherever the spark of light is found, wherever the fragment is revealed, which is in everyone and is everywhere, there is healing.

 There is another reference we know, of a thousand points of light.  In 1988, George H.W. Bush said, during his speech accepting the presidential nomination “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”  He repeated the phrase in his inaugural address on January 20, 1989 saying “I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led …”  When I hear this phrase, from a devout Protestant, patriarch of one of America’s most powerful political families, an arguable icon of Christianism, I am reminded of 2 things.  I am reminded of the Jewishness in Christianity, and moreover, I am reminded, yes, there can be light found, there is light found, everywhere.