By Mark Tseng-Putterman
A few weeks after the election, I had dinner at my grandparents’ house. I typically associate my visits to their home with raucous family gatherings of a cross-section of our grandparents’ six children and twenty-odd grandkids. But this was an unusually intimate setting—just my sibling and I across from them at their dining room table.
The relative silence refracted objects and half-memories in the way that only an old home can. The Magen David brooch around my grandmother’s neck; the overflowing pile of kippot in the foyer, amassed from decades of B’nai Mitzvot; the ice bucket that has chilled four generations’ worth of cocktails. This is the desk where my father chipped a tooth, climbing to reach a misfired toy dart in his childhood bedroom. Here is the piano bench where his uncle, the World War II veteran turned wedding singer, taught him to play by ear. These are the wedding albums, full of awkward bar mitzvah photos, the elegant portraits of black-and-white elders wearing garb of the Old Country that perhaps is now gathering dust in my grandmother’s attic.
My grandparents are of a generation that believes in security. They were teenagers during World War II—young enough that my grandfather avoided the draft, but old enough to acutely understand the terrors of the Holocaust. They married in 1948, the same year that the State of Israel was officially founded. They reference this fact not as a mere coincidence but as a statement of purpose. They have lived biblically—been fruitful and multiplied—perhaps in deference to the 6 million European Jews who were taken from the face of the earth during their lifetime. They have an elaborate home alarm system, and let the radio stay on whenever they leave the house to deter possible house robbers. In my mind, these fragments all fit together to tell a single story.
Our conversation is dominated by politics. Over a pre-dinner nosh, my grandmother tells us that she knows Trump “has the same heartbeat” as Hitler. When I replay that scene in my mind, she clutches her brooch as she says it. Later, over plates of spaghetti and chicken cutlets, they tell us how they came to buy the house they’ve inhabited for sixty-four years. It’s a story that starts with my great-grandmother’s birth in a Lower East Side tenement and ends with my grandparents choosing this Tudor-style house, after they learned a neighboring Long Island suburb wouldn’t sell to Jews. Without saying so, I know this story is of the same thought as our conversation about Trump and the anti-Semitism of decades long past. I come to realize that this house, with its Brady Bunch doorbell and white Cadillac in the garage, is a symbol. The end point in a journey from tenements to vodka tonics. This is where my Jewish family truly became American. This is where they became white.
In recent years, my grandmother has voiced her concern that my generation doesn’t understand what anti-Semitism is. But with Trump’s administration reinvigorating the worst segments of the American political spectrum, I think that’s one less thing she has to worry about. With this week’s vandalization of a St. Louis Jewish cemetery, a targeted campaign from neo-Nazi website Stormfront attempting to terrorize a Montana Jewish community, and 69 bomb threats targeting Jewish Community Centers over the past two months alone, American anti-Semitism is becoming visible in ways I have never seen in my lifetime. Coupled with the Trump administration’s toxic combination of known anti-Semites and right-wing Jews, resurgent anti-Semitism is challenging the existing political and analytical frameworks of our movements.
The contentious times have rekindled an old question: are Jews white? Unsurprisingly, the conversation has centered white Ashkenazi Jews, continuing to erase the experiences and raised stakes for Jewish people of color living under both anti-Semitism and white supremacy. A partial consequence of that erasure is that the question is typically framed less as, “Are Jews white?” but more as, “Do white Jews still feel white?” But “white,” as people of color know, denotes more than merely a feeling of safety, of security, of belonging. It is more than an “invisible knapsack”; whiteness is a legal and political construct, one created and perpetuated to serve the institution of white supremacy.
The conversation thus far has given primacy to a particular brand of white nationalism: the type of neo-Nazi ideology in which the most violent anti-Semitism tends to be found. From Richard Spencer’s “alt-right” movement to the American eugenics movement of the 1920s, it’s clear that white Jews have no place in neo-Nazis’ imagined white America. But grounding our understanding of whiteness in neo-Nazi ideology belies the fact that “white nationalism” isn’t just the domain of the alt-right fringe; it is the guiding logic of our nation’s narrative. And it is in the context of this American political project that European Jews like my grandparents have been invited to share in the institution of whiteness.
In his brilliant essay “On Being White and Other Lies,” James Baldwin writes that “no one was white before they came to America.” So how, and when, did America make European Jews white? Most theorizing around Jews and whiteness, as in Karen Brodkin’s excellent How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race in America, locates the post-WWII era—when my grandparents moved from the Bronx to the Tudor house—as the moment of European Jews’ acceptance into whiteness. While it is true that era represents a turning point in the social status of European Jews, in order to understand the broader history of American race-making, we need to look at the original institution that necessitated whiteness as a legal category: slavery.
The legal distinctions between white-skinned masters and black-skinned slaves was central in converting European immigrants into white people. And where European Jews were concerned, there was no question as to which camp they fell into. The 1705 Virginia Slave Codes was one of the first laws to distinguish white indentured servants from black slaves on the basis of “race,” granting white servants the right to testify in court and own slaves and property. The law had religious dimensions, too: Jewish and Muslim “infidels” were allowed to own Native and African-descended slaves, but they were prohibited from having white Christian servants. The intermingling of racial and religious discrimination is noteworthy: the central function of the Slave Codes was to create a Black and Native underclass whom European Jews were granted access to exploit.
Beyond the “right” to slave-ownership, access to citizenship has historically been another privilege contingent on being seen as white in the eyes of the law. The 1790 Naturalization Act restricted the right of naturalization to “free white persons,” a right that was extended to “persons of African descent” in 1870. But while East and South Asian migrants were legally deemed “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” European Jews were never barred from naturalizing as “free white persons.” Even when Japanese and Indian plaintiffs brought their arguments to the Supreme Court (Ozawa v. United States, 1922 and Thind v. United States, 1923), the court doubled down on its definition of white, ruling that “the words ‘white person’ were meant to indicate only a person of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race.”
Even in the 1920s, during the height of the eugenics movement that pseudo-scientifically broke down the “Caucasian” race into Aryan, Mediterranean, and Alpine subtypes (as in Madison Grant’s influential Passing of the Great Race—not coincidentally a book that Adolf Hitler would later refer to as “my bible”), European Jews were positioned firmly within the “Caucasian” category. While strict anti-miscegenation laws such as Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act solidified the “one-drop rule,” mandating that “white” only apply to “the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood but Caucasian,” and forbade individuals classified as white from marrying any non-white person, there is no mention of forbidding intermarriage of European Jews and other “Caucasians.” Even as explicitly anti-Semitic immigration laws were implemented to curtail the flow of Jews from Eastern Europe, the pseudo-scientific and legal definitions of “white” continued to include European Jews like the black-and-white forebears on my grandparents’ mantle.
My point is not to deny the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in past and present America, nor to erase the specific mechanisms of anti-Semitism in Europe, but to urge an analysis of anti-Semitism as complementary, but not foundational, to American white supremacy. Only when we recognize the founding American logics of slavery, genocide, and Orientalism can we make sense of the ways that anti-Semitism has been used to absorb critiques of capitalism, to make the face of capitalist exploitation the Jewish banker rather than the predominantly white, Christian, male politicians who cut deals with Wall Street over Main Street. Only when we recognize the hurdles that both anti-Semitism and white supremacy play towards achieving a true economic populism can we defang the fearsome, genocidal ideologies that move those in the European Jewish diaspora to pledge “never again.”
To draw from Baldwin once again, being white is “a moral choice (for there are no white people)”. And European Jews, he writes, “have paid the highest price for becoming white.”
In the short time since Trump’s election, too many leaders of the institutional Jewish community have made the immoral choice: to align with the new administration, to sacrifice whatever Jewish values were still in tact in exchange for a supposed seat at the table. We have watched the Jewish Federations of North America, representing over 300 Jewish organizations, refuse to denounce Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, under whose leadership Breitbart flourished as the news source of choice for racists, Islamophobes, and anti-Semites. We have seen the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations host their annual Chanukah party at a Trump Hotel, despite protests from some of their member organizations. And we have seen a political push for a federal “anti-Semitism” bill designed not to fight the rise of neo-Nazism, but to curtail critique of Israel.
These leaders have made the moral choice to sell their souls to whiteness rather than stand alongside other communities facing the hatred and vitriol of the incoming administration and its allies. Their choices, to put right-wing Zionism over the moral calls of justice, will not make American Jewish communities safer. Only deep solidarity with communities of color, including those within our Jewish communities, can build the political movement necessary to defeat white supremacy. In aligning with the Trump administration that 76% of Jewish voters voted to condemn, they risk losing their legitimacy as self-appointed representatives of our communities. That is a wedge we will continue to push.
Let’s not ask if European Jews are white. The more urgent question is: what price have they paid in colluding with whiteness? The price of heritage, of language, and of culture? Or the price of dignity, of accountability, of moral authority? Far from giving white Jews a free pass on confronting their own white privilege, I hope that answering this question might just lead more of our Jewish communities towards truly joining the multi-racial, multi-faith fight against white supremacy.
* * *
The entryway to my grandparents’ house is adorned with family ephemera: Mother’s day cards and birthday messages; a matzo man cutout I made in Hebrew elementary school; unflattering portraits scrawled by kindergarten grandchildren. But recently, there has been a new addition: a photograph of me, their grandson, being placed under arrest in a Jewish Black Lives Matter protest, part of a civil disobedience led by seven Jewish people of color, myself included. In the background of the photo, a protester blows a shofar, the ram’s horn—a call for renewal, repentance, for justice.
I didn’t expect them to put up the photo when I emailed them about the protest last summer. But there it was, taped conspicuously to the front door, when I arrived for Rosh Hashanah 5777. Fittingly, it’s a year the Jewish left is calling the year of Jewish Resistance.
Baldwin is right. There are no white people, only those who choose to collude with whiteness. I take heart in the fact that the moral choice—to acknowledge white privilege while working to dismantle the system that confers it—remains open.
Mark Tseng-Putterman is a writer and organizer active in Asian American and Jewish leftist spaces in New York City and beyond. He is a Visiting Scholar at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU and a member of the Jews of Color Caucus organized in partnership with Jewish Voice for Peace, and the JVP Network Against Islamophobia.