Last week I received an email from my good friend and Brown University colleague David Josephson. David took issue with some comments that John and I made about race and the changing social status of American Jews. I suggested that, over the course of the last fifty-or-so years, the barriers to Jews’ inclusion in the mainstream of American cultural had pretty much come down. Intermarriage, assimilation, and the broad rejection of any perceived conflict between Jewish identity and American identity has led to the absorption of Jews into the American social matrix in much the same ways that Irish Americans and Italian Americans have been absorbed. (Which is not to say that America is free of antisemitism. It isn’t.)
David objects to the suggestion that Jews are therefore, in some sociological sense, “white.” I won’t rehearse his entire argument here, but he raises some important points, especially about the specificity of Jewish religious institutions and practices. I’ll leave it to David to explain his own position, and I’m looking forward to reading your comments.
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Good afternoon, Glenn,
I've just watched your latest conversation with John McWhorter, “The ‘People of Color’ Coalition Must Be Stopped.” As stimulating, sane, and thought-provoking as it is brief.
On one issue, one that touches me as a Jew, I think you're not quite right. Here are your words, or as close to them as I got after several shots at the video: “European ethnic identity differences faded with intermarriage and assimilation through the course of the past century, so that being Irish or Italian Catholic or Jewish didn't mean the same kind of modular distinction and differentiation in 2000 as it meant in 1900 ...”
My first instinct was to suggest that a “black” American's lumping “white” Europeans together is no more acceptable than a “white” American's (in my case, Canadian's) lumping BIPOC together. I think I got the gist of what you were aiming at, namely, that Italians, Irish, and Jews, all seen by themselves and by the northern European Protestants who ruled America in 1900 as different from each other, came to be seen by 2000, through assimilation and intermarriage, as merely different variations on a common white European theme: different nations sharing a common heritage.
You could have gone further with the notion—at least concerning Italians and Irish—that through assimilation and intermarriage with the descendants of northern Europeans, they came to identify themselves as all of one group; and, together with Jews, they came to be identified by non-Europeans—i.e., black Africans, café au lait Americans, brown Latinos, yellow and brown Asians, red Indegenes—as of all one group (forgive the color reductionism).
And there's the rub. Who does the identifying of whom? Do you let me identify you as black or café au lait or mixed-race, or as post-race American tout court? Or do you claim the right to identify yourself in the way you wish to identify yourself? Do I let you identify me as white or Canadian or Jewish, or do I claim the right to identify myself in the way I wish to identify myself? (How about by what I do instead of by who I am?) And why the either/or? In your discussion, McWhorter drew the line at culture: Black American culture is different from white American culture, he asserted. True, he mentioned two other cultures—Latino and Chinese—in passing. But his framework was clearly binary and racial. You're of this culture or of that one. You can't be of both. As if (to name two Canadians) Frank Gehry and Justin Bieber shared a “white” culture, or two Americans, Leontyne Price and you, shared what he calls a “black” culture.
But to get back to your pulling Irish-Italian-Jewish together. Never mind that Jews are not indigenous to Europe any more than blacks are indigenous to the United States. What I think I heard in your statement was your sense that Irish, Italians, and Jews are each nations, peoples, and there we agree. What you missed is the religious piece. Irish and Italians are both Catholic, so that after they came to America, they were able eventually to assimilate and intermarry because they attended, and were married in Catholic churches presided over by Catholic priests, they observed the same Catholic rituals, they celebrated the same Catholic holidays, they sent many of their children to the same Catholic schools. Not Jews. They had different houses of worship with different names, different priests called rabbis, different articles of faith, different rituals, different holidays, different professions, different schools for their children. Those differences were definitive, even if non-Jews “of color” didn't and still don't recognize those differences. Intermarriage and assimilation remained rare, and even towards the end of the last century unusual. Some Jews, mostly liberal (i.e. Reform)— non-traditional, non-observant—today see themselves or want to be seen as white in this race-drenched society; and I imagine that most blacks and browns and reds and maybe yellows see Jews, whatever their stripe, as white. I get it.
But they're mostly wrong. Jews are white to the extent that we are allowed to participate in most of the majority society. Most, but not all. I was too Jewish, too non-white, to be allowed to join the Dunes Club in Narragansett twenty years ago, which had and has Protestants and Catholic members, Irish and Italians, but virtually no Jews (and I suspect no blacks or other non-white people either). The reason Jewish communities founded more than a hundred hospitals in America is that Jewish doctors couldn't get admitting privileges to hospitals that did admit Italians and Irish. It was the same with private schools and universities, with business clubs, with golf clubs. In my home town, Montreal, the dividing line between Jew and everyone else was as thick as the Berlin Wall far past the mid-century, and it remains largely intact today. Which I why I bridle when a non-Jew tells me I'm white. Maybe at Brown I am. And maybe in commercial venues. To that extent, McWhorter is correct to draw a line: I'd be seen as white at a Hilton, I imagine, while he'd be seen as black there. But however I'm seen, I know that I'm not white. I'm brother, Canadian, colleague, father, friend, Jew, male, mentor, musician, partner, professor, scholar, son. Those are my identities. End of list (in alphabetic order, to keep matters straight).
If Jews are white, how do we explain the oldest racism of all and its recent outburst in America and at American universities? Brown's chief diversity bureaucrat, Sylvia Carey-Butler, got matters half-right, half-wrong in a recent letter to the university community following an anti-Semitic incident on campus. What she got right was identifying the incident as “deeply troubling,” “disturbing,” intolerable. What she got wrong was her all-too-predictable lumping of the incident with “reports in recent weeks of other incidents against Jewish, Black, Asian, LGBTO+ and other underrepresented individuals on campus and in the surrounding community,” none of which she identified. Apparently Jew-hatred alone is not enough to elicit a statement from Ms. Carey-Butler. Her predecessor showed no such compunction after the killing of George Floyd two years ago. It was enough to protest anti-black behavior. No attack on Jews, Asians, LGBGQ+ persons, or “underrepresented individuals” needed mentioning. When it comes to hatreds, the double standard is unmistakable. Oddest of all was her identifying Jews as an underrepresented minority, which they are, true enough, on NFL and NBA teams, but not, I believe, at American universities. Not yet, anyway.
Lots of mud to wallow in here.
"Never mind that Jews are not indigenous to Europe any more than blacks are indigenous to the United States."
How long do your ancestors have to have lived someplace to be considered "indigenous" to that location? According to Genesis, Abraham came from Mesopotamia to current day Israel. Does that mean his descendants are NOT indigenous to Israel?
Aside from some possibly some populations in Africa, NOBODY is indigenous to their current location.
It's not a meaningful way of characterizing people.
I've known people who were black Americans and I've known people who were immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The black Americans were much more "American" than they were "African."
As a Jew, I will admit to being entirely Caucasian. This is not the same as being white. My Caucasian-ness won't get me into the local KKK chapter or, if they're still organizing, the local Nazi Party.
Let us observe a distinction that both KKK/Nazis and Progressives make, some unwittingly.
Black and White is not the same as black and white. David Duke is White, and Louis Farrakhan is Black. Note the capitalization - it is an expression of identitarianism. I am pretty sure Thomas Sowell is black and Ron Paul is white, according to their own worldviews and senses of self. I'd call that racial incidentalism and distinguish it from identitarianism. This matters greatly, and I note the vast majority of mainstream media are now casting all African American historical figures as "Black" such as Martin Luther King jr. who certainly saw himself as "negro", or possibly "Negro". The do not have the right to project this on historical figures and while exhausting, they need to be challenged on it. It's a falsity that advances a Marxist and divisive agenda that harms society, but as they repeat it over and over, it becomes axiomatic nevertheless because it goes unchallenged. And it gets back to this discussion, which is the degree to which others are allowed to define the affinities and identities of those with different ancestries and/or phenotypes. I argue that human beings, being mostly able to speak for themselves, get to define their group affinities individually and should never be assigned those affinities without being asked. If that's too inconvenient for others to do, then the decent thing to do is to not assign an affinity at all.