Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A reader asks: Are Jews white?

Dear DB:

The other day, I had the opportunity to visit the new museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. In addition to the informative and interesting exhibits, they had an interesting interactive activity that provided some information that you and your readers might want to comment about. The activity consisted of responding to a survey-type question by writing your response on a post-it note and sticking it to a wall. The questions were of the "yes," "no," "maybe" type, and the post-it notes were appropriately colored. There was also room on the note to write a more detailed explanation. However, the main effect of this was to get a rapid visual estimate of the statistical distribution of the answers. I didn't participate becuase, (1) my family was bugging me to move on, and (2) it reminded me too much of the way we decide stuff at work, and I was on vacation. But maybe if I go back, I'll try it again.

 The particular question they posed that I'd like to pose to the DovBear community is: "Are Jews white?"

At first glance, this seems ridiculous, the overwhelming majority of American Jews are eastern European Ashkenazis and are definitely "white." Even well-tanned Mizrachim from Israel have "Caucasian" morphology aside from the skin color. Of course, the latest consensus by social scientists is that "race" is a social, not a physical construct. By that definition, I would say that the overwhelming majority of American Jews would be counted, by culture, lifestyle, and other social indicators, as "white." I would say that the overwhelming majority of European, Australian, etc. Jews are "white," and I would even say that the najority of Israeli Jews (even a lot of the well-tanned Mizrachim) are "white." I would say this becuase (1) we tend to be at least middle-class and not particularly persecuted, and (2) despite some of our cultural quirks (including the obvious religious stuff), we generally participate in the majority "white" culture. (And I even include the frum in this; the comments here, and in places like Frum Satire shows that despite the best efforts of the rabbis, the frum appear to be just as familiar with mainstream culture as the rest of us.)

But what astounded me was that the vast majority of the posts on the wall (and the crowd in attendance appeared to be overwhelmingly middle-class suburban Jews) answered "No," they didn't think that Jews were "white." As the bloggers say, WTF? There seems to be some sort of psychological process going on here to have middle-class American Jews be so blind to the reality of their position in the American social system. Yes, 100 years ago. maybe a lot of American Gentiles thought of Jews as "non-white," but they thought the same of Poles and Italians, and such, too. But times have changed. and most of the people who lived through the older era are no longer with us. I could imagine a black person visiting the museum, seeing that wall of answers, and scrathcong his head in puzzlement at the crazy Jews, who seem to have some sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy to dump all of the achievements that have been documented in the exhibits they have just visited.

Why, indeed, do Jews not want to be "white?"

Search for more information about Are Jews White? at 4torah.com.

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