I don’t think that someone can identify as a Person of Color simply for being Jewish. There are a fair number of Jews who are People of Color, but there are also a lot of Jews who are white. I am a white Jew – my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe and I have white-skin privilege.
I believe that historically, eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States were not considered to be white, just like Irish immigrants were excluded from the “white” construction. As we assimilated into the dominant (white) culture, we were granted membership into the proverbial white club, with its membership benefit of white privilege.
It gets tricky because Christian culture often intersects with white culture. I have often felt like my experiences don’t match up with the dominant white narrative, or like I don’t fit in with groups of other white people. But upon examining what makes my experiences different from those of other white people, it’s the fact that I’m Jewish and not Christian, rather than a difference in skin color. My religious and cultural narrative is not reflected by the dominant Christian narrative, but my skin color and associated privileges are reflected by the dominant white narrative. Is it possible that someone could deny me a job interview based on my obviously Jewish name? Yes. Is it possible that someone could be harassed, discriminated against, or brutalized for wearing tzit tzit, tfillin, and a kippah? Absolutely. But those actions are a reflection and result of Christian supremacy, not white supremacy.
Of course, many white people do not fit perfectly into the white narrative, because much of the Christian narrative is the same as the white narrative. There is definitely a constructed ideal of what it means to be a “perfect” white person, and one of the characteristics of the ideal white person is Christianity. But I think there is room for a nuanced analysis that notes the varying degrees to which people with white-skin privilege actually conform to the white ideal.
Judaism is a religion and a culture, not an ethnicity or race. The fact that people can and do convert to Judaism illustrates the fact that it is not an ethnicity or race – I can’t convert to being Black or Ainu. There are Jews all over the world from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds – some are People of Color, some are not. Judaism in and of itself does not make someone white or a Person of Color.
Thank you for this post! I’ve also heard from people about being ethnically Jewish too, though? I don’t know. Certainly, I’ve had a lot of trouble when trying to convince white Jewish people that they are white and do, in fact, have white privilege. :P Also, trying to clarify the differences between being ethnically and racially oppressed and how they may often go together or blend together for people of colour, but, like, for, say, a Welsh or an Irish person, they may experience ethnic oppression but not racial oppression (anymore). If that makes sense? My thoughts keep being confused on this, but I am very tired of how white ethnically marginalized people will compare their struggles to mine as a person of colour who is both racially and ethnically marginalized … as though they’re the same thing. And they’re not, they’re really not..
No, they’re not the same thing, but being Jewish is an ethnicity—or rather, several different ethnicities, and I find it kind of odd when people try to deny that. The fact that you can convert into Judaism (as a religion) doesn’t make Jewishness (as an identity) not-an-ethnicity. If I were to decide I don’t want anything to do with being a religious Jew today, that would not change the fact that I grew up in a culture with distinct differences from the American mainstream. Nor would, I suspect, my conversion make me okay in the eyes of extreme white supremacist/Neo-Nazi bigots. White Jews today mostly have white privilege, but that doesn’t mean we never experience racialization. Not to the same extent of PoC, of course, but it does happen on occasion. (This is all from an American point of view. In other countries, it may be different, I don’t know.) And no, I don’t consider the position of an Irish-descended person in the U.S. to be at all equivalent to being Jewish.
I think the dominant anti-racist viewpoint currently does a poor job of acknowledging the American Jewish experience. That doesn’t give white Jews a get-out-of-privilege-free card, but as a Jew I often feel miffed by the anti-racist narrative of whiteness. Because I haven’t ever felt fully a part of the dominant white American culture, nor can I relate to some of the stuff that’s said about what whiteness is. Like the stuff about whites feeling as though they don’t have a culture, etc.? That’s never been true of me, at all.
This is complicated stuff. I really recommend “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” for a good discussion of many of these issues.
I admit to sometimes being frustrated to non-Jews telling Jews what our identity should be and explaining our identities and experiences of oppression and privilege for us. I’m not saying that non-Jews have no place in the conversation, but I think there needs to be some acknowledgment that just as we may not know your experiences, you are not the experts on ours, either.