In preparing for last week’s post, Intersectionality Makes For Strange Bedfellows, one of the sources I came across while rummaging through the Internet was a 1999 article, Placing Jewish Women into the Intersectionality of Race, Class and Gender, by Jessica Greenebaum.
Greenebaum writes about the refusal by feminists to include Jewish women into their discussion of identity, oppression and intersectionality — the linking of all forms of social oppression and victimization. The exclusion of Jews implies they are somehow different from other groups that are marginalized, and Greenebaum sets about examining why and how Jewish women are excluded from feminism.
The insights she offers apply to intersectionality in general and the way it is being applied today — and shows how Jews today are a challenge to the easy stereotyping of privilege and oppression that proponents of intersectionality push.
As Greenebaum sees it, the challenge to both feminism and intersectionality is the apparently unique position of Jews:
American Jews of European descent straddle the fence of difference; they are neither the standard nor are they “totally” different. On one hand, being Jewish is often an identifiable characteristic; yet at the same time, many Jews are capable of “passing” into the dominant white, Christian culture…being different yet similar to both the dominant society and other marginalized groups.
Greenebaum illustrates her point with her personal experience in a feminist organization on campus that should have been open to problems of an oppressed group, yet could not bring itself to accept the request of its Jewish members to add antisemitic and anti-Jewish issues to the agenda.
Today, we see the same deliberate exclusion of Jews, with self-proclaimed feminist Linda Sarsour (who tweeted the names of women about whom she said she wished she “could take their vaginas away”) and who has now decided
I want to make the distinction that while antisemitism is something that impacts Jewish Americans, it’s different than anti-Black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic…
This coming from the person who organizes protests and then refuses entry to the 90% of American Jews who support the State of Israel.
Jews Are Not Oppressed Enough
Greenebaum notes that “the excuses for the exclusions are endless.”
For one thing, there is the claim that because Jews are seen as successful and not suffering from the same material inequality as most oppressed groups — Jewish oppression is “insignificant”
Since economically, Jews have enjoyed ‘relative’ success, more than other marginalized groups but less than the Christian elite, Jews have ‘justifiably’ been ignored from the discussions. Thus, the definition of oppression does not include Jews who simultaneously hold positions of privilege or power.
Jews are not alone in this. I’ve mentioned in a previous post an article Are Asian Americans White? Or People of Color?, which admits that “on average Asian Americans are among the most successful in the United States” yet insists on their ‘oppression creds’ due to the experience of “discrimination, hate crimes and racial violence, xenophobia, concerning levels of racial/ethnic bullying in schools, and other indicators of racial marginalization in the U.S.”
White Is Not A Color…Nor A Race
Speaking of People of Color, Greenebaum quotes the experience of a Sephardic Jew, who describes how she was made to feel unwelcome among other people of color because she was Jewish:
Once I said I was Jewish, not Latina, I felt people’s interest in me diminish. It was painful to realize that though my appearance remained the same, my value as a person within a self-consciously multi-cultural context lessened because I was a Jew.
And when it comes to being white, that itself is a fabricated concept — it is neither a natural distinction nor is it scientific:
Since, the category whiteness is historically and culturally located, the “…cultural construction raceis unstable and has different meanings and different purposes in different times and places…” (Kaminsky 1994:7-8). People did not always consider Jews white – as they do today in America. [emphasis added]
And of course in America itself, Jews at the turn of the 20th century were defined as mongoloid, slavic or even Asiatic before eventually being “accepted” as white.
Purveyors of Intersectionality do not acknowledge the fluidity of “whiteness,” a changing definition that is illustrated by the history of Jews in America — and undercuts the self-righteousness of Intersectionality. Fixating on whiteness while twisting its definition to serve an agenda is itself a bias of oppression.
The fact that Jews can be categorized as white, despite their being oppressed — both historically and currently — should bring the concept of whiteness into question.
But it doesn’t.
Labeling Jews in America as white does more than malign them as members of a privileged class, according to Greenebaum:
[W]hen we consider Jews ‘just’ white, we do not see them as having an ethnicity and culture. In fact, many Jews resist the cultural construction of themselves as ‘only’ white and Judaism as ‘only’ a religion. Jews interpret Judaism and ‘being Jewish’ very differently from non-Jews and each other. Many Jews consider Judaism to be an ethnicity and culture as well as a religion. Some Jews incorporate the ethics and morals of Judaism into their politics and lifestyles. Other Jews identify as Jews without practicing Judaism. Restricting the definition of’Jew’ erases the multiple identities tied up in Jewish lives.
Labeling Jews as white denies them that choice of identity, which is ironic when those who proclaim the importance of identity are ones so ready to deny Jews their identity, just as those people deny Jews the right to define what is and is not antisemitism.
Saying Jews Are White Negates The Jewish Identity
Being a Jew is more than just being white, and the Jewish identity is formed by a multiplicity of components:
What is ethnicity and why are Jews an ethnic group? According to Nagel (1994:152-153), “ethnicity is constructed out of the material of language, religion, culture, appearance, ancestry, or regionality.” Ethnicity is a dynamic form of identity since it is “continuously [being] negotiated, revised, and revitalized” (Nagel 1994:153). While people tend to embrace their ethnicity, outside forces often impose an unwanted identity upon them.
Even in daily life, forms that require a person to identify themselves, leave Jews with little choice — “there are categories for Whites, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans, but not for Jews…Jews must consider themselves either white or other.”
An L. A. Times article last year notes that about 3 million people of Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern or North African descent currently live in the United States, and 80% of them feel forced when filling out the census to call themselves white.
A possible solution for them is to add a category for Middle Eastern or North African descent — will an option be made available for Jews?
How Do Jews “Pass” As White?
Non-Jews profess the easy access Jews have to pass (as white, as Christian) and assimilate into American culture; which, interestingly, implies that Jews are not ‘originally’ a part of this culture. Often people use this to silence the claim of anti-Semitism in American culture. It is interesting that we use the term ‘passing’ in reference to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who are falsely assumed heterosexual (intentionally or not). [emphasis added]
The term “passing” in this context, when applied generally, implies that one is mistaken for part of a group, but not really part of it. One’s status as oppressed is not diminished because they can “pass” as a member of a more privileged group.
Unless we are talking about Jews.
Then, the implication is that Jews actually are part of that group, are privileged by it and therefore forfeit their status as oppressed. On the one hand, “even though gays, lesbians, and bisexuals can ‘pass’ as straight, homophobia and heterosexism are still unacceptable.” But when it comes to Jews, we are expected to stop complaining.
Jews may be able to blend in, but historically there is a price Jews pay for assimilation as they are swallowed up into the dominant culture.
And assimilation itself is hardly a long-term solution either:
The relative success of Jews does not give non-Jews permission to ignore the existence of anti-Semitism. While economic success has protected Jews from the economic effects of racism in the United States, it has not shielded us from anti-Semitism. The system constructs boundaries of success; when threatened, the reigns tighten and a backlash occurs. Nazi Germany is the prime example in which the success of Jewish men led to the scapegoating of Jews for Germany’s economic problems. Historically, Jewish men have always been the scapegoat for the failing economy and a source of fear for the civilized world. [emphasis added]
Antisemitism vs Racism
Contrary to what today’s intersectionality leaders claim, this antisemitism is not quite so easy to evade.
Speaking from the standpoint of 1991, Greenebaum writes:
Jews have faced (and sometimes continue to face) discrimination in housing, employment, school, social organizations, and key political positions as a result of anti-Semitic beliefs. Vandalization and desecration of synagogues, graveyards, and other Jewish sites continue to occur sporadically.
Of course today, to the desecration of synagogues, we can add the massacres of Jews in their synagogues. This discrimination is rampant on campus and getting even worse as it spreads now into society in general, especially as Israel has become a proxy for Jews as a target.
In another insight, Greenebaum anticipates the argument today that seeks to belittle antisemitism by comparing it to anti-Black racism — and finds antisemitism wanting.
But, while anti-Semitism and racism fall under the umbrella category of oppression, they are not identical. First of all, racism only focuses on people of color, and as stated earlier, Jews do not easily fit this category. Secondly, condensing these two forms of oppression into one category can be insulting to both experiences. African Americans did not lose one-third of their population to a Holocaust; and similarly, American Jews were never slaves in the land in which they currently reside and which continues to block their success.
…While racism and anti-Semitism diverge; they are not “equal” oppressions…to ignore anti-Semitism on the basis that Jews are “less oppressed” also ignores history. While Jews do not experience the same daily exploitation, we must remember that Jews consistently experienced persecution throughout history (the crusades, Spanish Inquisition, 19th century Pogroms, and the Holocaust are only a few examples).
The Bottom Line
Perhaps it should not be surprising that just as antisemitism is unique and defies a simple definition as it has metastasized over the centuries — so too the Jewish identity is not easy to corner either.
Not that those pushing an intersectionality agenda haven’t tried.
But the attempt to sweep antisemitism under the carpet demonstrates a fundamental failure to honestly address oppression.
And the exclusion of Jews on the basis of the color of their skin highlights the hypocrisy of those who proclaim their dedication to human rights.
This exclusion of Jews and antisemitism should serve as a warning of ulterior motives and a self-serving agenda by those who claim to act in the interests of “intersectionality.”