Friday, June 19, 2015

Why identitarians are offended by discussing the whiteness of Jews

The reactions to yesterday's post, For anyone who thinks Jews were not always white in the US, surprised me. A Jewish friend said I was showing "an unfortunate bias" for suspecting that Chesnutt was right about Jewish wealth in the South in the 19th century, and someone linked to the post through so it would not get any Google juice and their readers could rate it as offensive. That raised two interesting questions: why is the idea that Jews are white offensive, and in a time when people love to talk about the privileges of different groups, why shouldn't we discuss why Jews as a group in America are wealthier than the general white population?

Lest you doubt the latter, a few reminders via Tani Goldstein's How did American Jews get so rich?, an article which doesn't answer its question, but does offer useful data:
1. Though only 2% of the US population is Jewish, 25% of Forbes' list of 400 wealthiest Americans are Jewish.
2. 46% of American Jews "earn more than $100,000 a year, compared to 19% among all Americans."
Should you think disproportionate Jewish wealth is a new phenomenon, there's this information that I found yesterday:
3. In the South before the Civil War, the 1860 census showed the total number of US slaveholders was 393,964, which was "3.2 percent of the total Southern population" according to Keven C. Julius in The Abolitionist Decade, 1829-1838. The South's Jewish population was only 20,000, but "about 5,000 Jews owned one or more slaves" according to Junius Rodrigues in The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery.
Goldstein's article points out the first problem with discussing the history of Jewish privilege in the US: there are two distinct waves of immigration:
In the mid 19th century, some 200,000 Jews immigrated to the US, mostly from Germany and central Europe. Most of them were Reform Jews, well-established, who saw themselves as Germans and Americans more than as Jews. They scattered across the continent and set up businesses, from small stores and factories to financial giants like Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs.

The great wave of immigration began in 1882. Czarist Russia, which was home to about half of the world's Jews, went through a failed industrial revolution and was on the verge of collapse, while the Jews living in small towns became impoverished and suffered from cruel pogroms.

Within 42 years, some two million Jews immigrated to the US from Ukraine, western Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Romania. They made up 25% of the Jewish population in those countries, about 15% of the world's Jews, and 10 times the number of Jews who immigrated to the Land of Israel during that period.

The US became the world's biggest Jewish concentration. The mass immigration to Israel began in 1924, when the US enacted tough laws which halted the immigration.

The immigrants arrived in the US on crowded boats, and most of them were as poor as church mice. Dr. Robert Rockaway, who studied that period, wrote that 80% of US Jews were employed in manual work before World War I, most of them in textile factories.
Sadly, Goldstein fails to discuss the situation of the remaining 20% of US Jews then, and does not compare the second wave of Jewish immigrants with groups like the Irish, who came with relatively less wealth and therefore statistically fewer of them had the resources to start their own businesses.

As a student and an opponent of racism, I understand why discussing Jewish privilege makes people uncomfortable—the history of Jewish persecution, from pogroms to the Holocaust, should make anyone uncomfortable—but as a socialist, I'm fascinated by every sort of privilege, and a simple fact of privilege in the US is that it's disproportionately enjoyed by Jewish Americans. (Also by Asian Americans and Hindu Americans. John Scalzi has a popular post arguing that being a white male in America is like getting the easiest player setting in a game, but the easiest settings are actually Jewish, Asian, and Hindu.)

When a Facebook friend shared Ashkenazi Jews are not white – Response to Haaretz article | Hila Hershkoviz, I began to see why the subject of Jewish whiteness offends some people so much. I responded there with this:
When the US's South was segregated, Jews went to white schools, used white rest rooms, drank from white water fountains, and sat at the front of the bus. At no time in US history have Jews ever been considered anything other than white. The Secretary of State of the Confederacy was Judah P. Benjamin, a Jew. If Confederates think you're white, you're probably white.
Then I added this afterthought to her claim that a 1987 Supreme Court case established that Jews were legally not white:
Ms. Hershkoviz's first link refutes her. From Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb: "the defendants are also part of what today is considered the Caucasian race." The "also" means both groups were white.
This morning, I got an email about articles at that might interest me. One was White privilege: Jewish women’s writing and the instability of categories | Cynthia Levine-Rasky.

And I finally got it: Like Rachel Dolezal, Jewish identitarians are desperate to escape their whiteness. A common trait of privileged people is the desire to feel they deserve their privileges. Now that privilege theory has made all white people into oppressors, white privilege theorists are clutching at any opportunity to be anything other than white.

It'll be interesting to see if they're more successful than Ms. Dolezal.