Responding to a question about Jews and race

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

I really don’t want to be rude but can you explain to me why there is some sort of line between being Jewish and white? I keep hearing this sentiment that people should not compare the two because of religion and culture but that to me is like Russian people saying they aren’t white because of religions and culture. I don’t mean to hurt feelings but I’m black and Native and I’ve face discrimination based on my looks but I’ve never been able to tell when a person was Jewish just by looking them. Help?

Also I know that there are Jewish people of color but this goes back to my ask of what do people see on them, their Jewishness or their skin color because unless Jewishness is a part of color then we would call them mixed instead of Jewish poc because that skin and lineage mixes with another skin and lineage and produces someone with a dual identity. If I’m out of place, sorry but I’m confused cause I’ve never thought anyone was Jewish from looking at them unless they had a religious identifier.

Realsocialskills said:

The very short version: All Jews are affected by anti-Jewish racism. Some Jews, in some contexts, also have white privilege. Both of these things matter.

White supremacists don’t think that Jews are white. And other ideologies of racism have intensely targeted Jews. (Including Nazism, but not limited to Nazism.)

Most living Jews are very closely related to Jews who were murdered by anti-Jewish racists. (Grandparents, parents, great-grandparents brothers, sisters, spouses, cousins, etc.)

Many living Jews are first-generation refugees from anti-Jewish racial persecution, (or closely related to people who are). Jews have been repeatedly expelled from many, many places.

There are a lot of towns in Europe in which every Jewish resident was murdered. And a lot of Jews who were the sole survivors of those places, and who lost their entire families.

(There are few speakers of Yiddish today because so many Yiddish speakers were murdered by racists. The National Yiddish Book Center is dedicated to preserving as much literature as possible).

This isn’t just about culture and ethnicity. Converting to another religion did not save Jews from racial persecution. Neither did assimilating and acting like everyone else. And this isn’t a new thing, throughout history, Jews have been seen as racially suspect even if they convert to Christianity or another religion, regardless of actual behavior

Race and color are not the same thing. Color is a physical fact. Race is a social construct. And it’s socially constructed in different ways in different times and places. In the US, race mostly gets defined in terms of color. It’s defined differently in different times and places. In Europe, demographic forms have often listed “Jewish” as a race.

It’s also true that in the United States, light-skinned Jews have a degree of white privilege. Especially in liberal cities. Especially in comparison to black people and Native people. Jews are far less likely to face employment discrimination, and far less likely to face police violence. (It happens to Jews too, but it happens to black and Native people a lot more.) And any number of things.

But Jews are only seen as white some of the time. There are physical racialized characteristics associated with Jews. For instance, big noses.  There is also an antisemitic belief that Jews have horns, which used to be commonly believed in the US. It used to be fairly common for Jewish women to get nose jobs to escape from that racial characterization. For most white people, being seen as white has not required body modification.

When people look at skin color, they will probably see a white person. When they know that someone is a Jew, they may not see a white person anymore. It’s not about religious beliefs — Jews are seen as less white regardless of behavior and regardless of belief. (Jews who practice Judaism are often more *visible* as Jews, but anti-Jewish racism can’t be reduced to religious differences.) The novel/movie Gentleman’s Agreement is a good depiction of this issue. (It’s on Netflix, and your public library likely has a copy of the book.)

Related to this, white supremacists don’t think that Jews are white. As you know, white supremacy is still significant in the United States. Steve Bannon’s role in the Trump administration is causing Jews to fear for their own safety. People who are consistently seen as white are mostly not asking themselves “Do I need to flee the country?” (Unless they’re also gay or lesbian or trans or disabled or otherwise marginalized.)

There are significant numbers of antisemitic hate crimes in the United States. They’re reported as religious bias crimes, but that’s somewhat misleading. Eg: This article has an image of anti-semitic graffiti with a swastika and the words “Make America White again”  

Tl;dr The answer to “Are Jews white?” is “sometimes, and it depends on what you mean by white”. If you mean ‘light skinned people who have privilege over black and Native people in the US’, then yes, light-skinned Jews are white. If you mean ‘people who are safe from racialized persecution in the US and worldwide’, then no, Jews aren’t white even when they have light skin.

Light skinned Jews have some degree of white privilege in the US, but it only goes so far. Other white people can count on being seen as white. Jews can’t. Even in situations in white Jews are safe, Jews carry the effects of generational trauma from racial persecution, recent and ancient. The ways in which light skinned Jews have white privilege matter, and the ways in which light skinned Jews do not have white privilege also matter. In most contexts, both of these things are important, and both need to be acknowledged.

Hanukkah is not Jewish Christmas

One annoyance of being Jewish this time of year: Many Christians and secular people in English-speaking cultures treat Hanukkah as the Jewish way of celebrating Christmas. It’s not. They’re completely different holidays. Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus. That is not something Jews celebrate, because Jesus is not part of Judaism. Jewish people often come under a lot of pressure to celebrate Christmas, which can be very uncomfortable and invasive.

Christmas is a Christian holiday. Some people celebrate it without any particular religious intentions, but it’s still part of Christian culture. When religious Christians say “remember the reason for the season”, very few people in English-speaking countries are confused about what they mean.

Hanukkah is not Christmas. Hanukkah is Jewish, and it is not part of Christian culture at all. It happens to coincide with Christmas, but it is not actually very similar to Christmas at all. There is some overlap in customs for celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, especially in English speaking countries. That’s largely because winter lends itself to certain kinds of things, and because cultures influence each other. Despite some external similarities, Hanukkah and Christmas are very different holidays.

Christmas is a major holiday for Christians, with tremendous religious significance for religious Christians. Even for secular/cultural Christians, Christmas has tremendous weight. People from Christian cultures almost all prefer not to work on Christmas, and it is a traditional time for major family gatherings. 

Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday for Jews in religious terms. It’s not mentioned in the Bible, and it doesn’t celebrate something with the kind of weight that Christmas has. Hanukkah is very important to many Jews for cultural reasons, but it’s not like Christmas either culturally or religiously. Almost all Jews who live in outside of Israel work on Hanukkah. Jewish children who attend secular schools have no need to miss school in order to observe Hanukkah. The Jewish holidays with that kind of weight happen at different times of the year.

The Jewish holidays that have the deepest religious weight for most Jews are Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, (in the fall) and Passover (in the spring). There are several other Jewish holidays, with a full range of meanings and practices. (None of which are at all similar to the meaning of Christmas; none of which have anything at all to do with Jesus or Christianity.)

Hanukkah also isn’t exactly at the same time as Christmas every year. Hanukkah is eight days long. Sometimes Christmas falls on one of those days; sometimes it doesn’t. (More information on how to find out when Jewish holidays are here.)

tl;dr Hanukkah is not Jewish Christmas. It’s a fundamentally different holiday. The most important Jewish holidays happen at different times of year. Jesus is not part of the Jewish religion, and it’s important to respect the boundaries of Jews at Christmastime.

Updated to add: If you want to know more about what Hanukkah *is* about, I wrote a post about that too.