Cultural representation decided Jews were white: Are we seeing a reversal of this?

(By Quinn Henderson, Queen’s University)


During the US election cycle I saw a tweet (since deleted) by a Jewish comedian that read: “The alt-right keeps saying that Jews aren’t white and I’m like, that’s the best news I’ve heard in forever!” I think it’s a funny joke, and one that I’ve though about for a while. For neo-Nazis, not being white is the ultimate disgrace that could be put upon Jews. The accusation is now, in all unlikelihood, once again at the forefront of political discourse. With the recent rise of the alt-right in the global political sphere, there is widespread fear that white supremacists and neo-Nazis ideas are making their way into the mainstream society. Jews have been considered “white” for decades. Today 94% of Jewish-Americans identify themselves as “white”. It seems like this should be a settled question, but hatred is hard to unseat. The majority of all hate crimes in America are still perpetrated against Jews.  Some assert that at this point, Jewish cultures are so ingrained and normalized in America, that it is unlikely they would ever be removed. However, as Emma Green points out in her article, Are Jews White?, “it’s not that unprecedented that groups of disillusioned, disaffected populations of workers… lash out and use Jews as a scapegoat for problems that are really caused by a quickly changing society.” The idea of nonwhite Jews is not a new one but it is increasingly relevant.

There is a historical connection between anti-black racism and anti-Semitism that has existed in Europe since the mid-19th Century. Wherever anti-black racism was, it was likely that anti-Semitism coexisted with it. Jewish association with blackness had been around since the Middle Ages,  but it was not until around 1860 that ideas of the “black Jew” and “white Negro” came to the fore. Prior to this, while the Jew was certainly seen as an “Other,” it was for religious and cultural reasons rather than racial reasons. The emergence of widespread political and scientific anti-Semitism in the 1860’s changed this, as adopted ideas of Social Darwinism and racial hierarchies that had been used on blacks since the 1700’s were now being applied to Jews. Jews were now being compared directly to blacks. Relations were being drawn in their physiognomy, claiming that true Jews had African features like black hair, full lips and small chins. As well, cultural comparisons were made, such as attempts to note similarities between the Hebrew and Yiddish and African languages. The goal of this comparison was simply to associate the Jew with the race that would bring the most immediate disgust to Europeans. The Jews may have been hated, but the fact that they were Africanized shows that blacks were the standard of racial inferiority. This same tactic is being used today. However, while the Jew was being Africanized, a black person could not be Judaized.

In his book, The New Jew in Film, Nathan Abrams posits the “normalization” of the Jew in cinema. These “New Jews” were allowed to subvert old stereotypes and do things that Jews were not allowed to perform onscreen before. Abrams argues that, “the function of stereotypes in general, and Jewish ones in particular, especially how they perform cultural work in demonizing minority groups from the outside, and perpetuating group solidarity and continuity from the outside.” Another group bound by stereotypes in media portrayals are African-Americans. In fact, the convergence of Jews and Blacks as the predominant non-Anglo-Saxon white figures in Hollywood has led to both groups sharing a similar space. The two groups have had a both a shared oppression and through this, some shared cultural experiences. However, Abram’s described normalization process was only ever achievable by Jews due to their playing whiteness and eventually evolving into actual accepted whiteness. African-Americans, who obviously cannot play white, were therefore unable to normalize both onscreen and in real life to the extent that Jews were.

But could a process de-normalization be occurring? Abrams’ claims of Jewish normalization have proven to be correct. However, his agreement that the “the politics of multiculturalism gradually supplanted politics of cultural pluralism” is incorrect. While true cultural pluralism couldn’t possibly exist in the melting pot of American culture, to say that multiculturalism replaced it is grossly inaccurate. Just by looking at the case of African-Americans in media compared to Jews we can see that be it through film or music the white establishment has hampered them at every step. Put simply, they cannot normalize because they cannot play white, and there is now there is a sizable contingent doubting the Jew’s ability to play white. Now more than ever, multiculturalism seems out of reach for America and the normalized state that Jews have had for the past three decades appears to be on shaky ground. It seems impossible in a post-Seinfeld world, that the Jew’s screen presence could ever go back to the days where the roles were exclusively as greedy, hook-nosed Shylocks, but that doesn’t mean that the cultural fringes can’t infiltrate the mainstream. The point remains, when the racialist language of old starts to return in modern thought, it is beneficial to keep.

 

 

Sources

A Portrait of Jewish Americans, October 1, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

Emma Green, “Are Jews White?,” The Atlantic, December 5, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/are-jews-white/509453/

Nathan Abrams, The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).

Neil Macmaster, “’Black Jew’ – ‘White Negro’ Anti-Semitism and the Construction of Cross-racial stereotypes,” National and Ethnic Politics, 6, no. 4 (Winter 2000): doi:10.1080/13537110008428612.

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