Monday, May 31, 2010

Were Jews considered "white" in the US?

I was a kid in Florida in the early '60s. The Supreme Court had ruled for integration and against school prayer, but Southern schools resisted. When I, a fourth-grade atheist and junior civil rights activist, spoke up in class to protest the daily prayer and Bible reading, my teacher pointed to one of my classmates, a blond friend, and said, "John's Jewish, and he doesn't object. Why do you?" But when I spoke against segregation, there were no blacks for her to point to.

In the South, white Jews were white. There was a very simple test for race then. Could you use toilets and drinking fountains and schools for whites? White Jews could and did. Most people then assumed "Jew" implied "white." In 1960, when Sammy Davis Jr., a popular black entertainer, converted, Time magazine ran Religion: Jewish Negro. (There were some obscure exceptions to the "all North American Jews are white" assumption, of course. Two fascinating examples I just learned about: The Black Jews of Harlem and Wentworth Arthur Matthew.)

When people talk about Jews in the US, I always bring up one of my favorite historical figures, Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy, "the first Jewish Cabinet-member in a North American government, and the first Jew seriously considered for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court (he declined an offer of nomination twice)." And I like to note that prejudice declined as people went west. The Goldwaters thrived in Arizona.

Prejudice against Jews has nothing to do with race. Mormons faced prejudice, too, including death at the hands of angry mobs.

Some people who argue that Jews are "of color" will point to the Bombing of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple. What they don't mention is that the temple was targeted, like many churches, because its congregation was involved in the civil rights struggle.

Some people will cite the lynching of Leo Frank. What they don't mention is that lynching in the US has never been reserved for people who are not white; the Tuskegee Institute recorded 1,293 lynchings of whites between 1882 and 1968. (See Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968 for its  Table of State and Race Lynchings, Table of Causes of Lynchings, and  Table of Years and Race Lynchings.)

Neoliberal anti-racists cite Karen Brodkin's How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America. But the book was poorly received by objective readers. PW said, "She repeats her overall thesis—that racism and the construction of racial identity is the foundational principle of American identity and American capitalism—over and over, but her argument is no more convincing for all the repetition. " And Kirkus said, "Unfortunately, Brodkin's perspective, which draws heavily on ``African American, neo-Marxist and critical race theory,'' neglects entirely or scants a number of key factors in the growing acceptance of Jews as full-fledged whites, such as the post-Holocaust rejection of the concept of a ``Jewish race.'' Brodkin also errs in other ways, such as romanticizing the degree of ``reciprocity'' (ethnic cohesion and mutual aid) found among Lower East Side immigrant Jews. While containing a great deal of interesting material from several disciplines, including popular culture, Brodkin's book ultimately is unsatisfying because it rests on too narrow a theoretical base and contains too many unwarranted generalizations. Thus, the author fails to sustain the view that the story of the Jews' successful assimilation into ``white culture,'' during an era of persistent discrimination against those who are now known as ``people of color,'' reflects something important about the role of race in American life. "