A Jewish convict in California has applied to the state’s courts to have the penal system reclassify him from “white” to “other”, for practical reasons of personal security: When the prison is locked down because of any clash among prisoners, prisoners are segregated on ethnic lines. That means in a moment of stress in the prison, he’d find himself sharing a cell with Aryan Nation thugs, for whom his yarmulke is an invitation to a pogrom. But while his purposes are prudent, Steven Liebb has raised an interesting question. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the extent to which that question makes many Jews uncomfortable.
Jews, historically, are no more “white” than Jesus was. Our roots are Semitic, not European. And the emergence of more typically “European” features among some of us – blond or red hair, blue eyes, for example, or even simply the pinkish skin that is misnamed “”white” (as Steve Biko pointed out when asked how people with brown skin could call themselves “”black”) – all of these are likely signs of our interaction with others in Europe, whether on fortuitous terms or unfortunate ones. (When Woody Allen wailed “My grandmother was too busy being raped by Cossacks,” he wasn’t speaking only for himself – and Jewish law had accomodated such realities hundreds of years previously, in the early centuries of the Diaspora, by making a Jewish mother the source of the faith’s genetic transfer.)
But the term “white” as Steven Liebb in his prison cell has recognized has little to do with features, or even with culture or ethnicity. As the South African experience taught all too well, “white” is simply a political boundary, a term of inclusion and exclusion.
I was also reminded of the odd relationship between Jewish identity and “whiteness” recently when a friend forwarded to me one of those bizarre emails that circulate among right-wing Zionists revealing supposedly “expert” arguments in defense of their most vile prejudices – this one ostensibly from a Spanish columnist in Europe crying crocodile tears for the Jews of Auschwitz — by destroying its Jews, the argument went, Europe had instead inherited “20 million Muslims who brought us stupidity and ignorance, religious extremism and lack of tolerance, crime and poverty.” I responded angrily, in an email, that the Spanish had actually driven out their Jews, along with their Muslims, in 1492, almost 500 years before Auschwitz. And as for “stupidity and ignorance,” his column was evidence that those qualities had continued to flourish in the interim. But it was worth noting that the Muslims of Andalusia had, in fact, introduced in Europe everything from mathematics to toothpaste, deodorant and laundry detergent.
But then I got to thinking about why it was that feeble-minded Zionists would draw comfort and relief from the crocodile tears of a Spanish racist, suddenly willing to recognize the Jews as an ally against the “Muslim horde.” (That also overlooked the fact that it was for the most part in the lands of Islam that Spanish Jews took refuge from Christian persecution in Spain. And we shared with the Muslims a common victimization at the hands of the Inquisition and the Crusades. When Saladdin drove the Crusaders from Jerusalem, the first thing he did was invite the Jews to return — the great Rabbi and philosopher Maimonides was the personal physician to Saladdin, the most venerated Muslim warrior in history.) But something tells me the people who circulate these emails would be very uncomfortable with the knowledge that for hundreds of years, we were far more at home with the Muslims — even a militant jihadi like Saladdin — than we ever were among the Christians of the West. Nor would they, and probably many other Jews, be comfortable acknowledging that we might not be entirely “white.”
I was invited, growing up in apartheid South Africa, to imagine myself as “White.” I lived in neighborhoods reserved for white people, went to schools reserved for white people, where I was taught the brittle racist mythologies that undergirded minority rule; I was allowed the vote (although I never exercised it) and was expected to serve two years in the military, like other white men my age. (Another piece of South African “whiteness” I managed to avoid.) But at the same time, there was never any doubt that we Jews were accepted as “white” somewhat under sufferance.
Although a small number of British and German Jews had settled in the Cape in the 19th century, when the first Ostjuden arrived in the rough and tumble mining town that was Johannesburg towards the turn of that century, they were widely, if somewhat inexplicably, termed “Peruvians.” The “white” people of South Africa had also placed immigration quotas on Jews in the 1930s. Like Greek and Portuguese South Africans, we were labeled “see-kaffirs” (“ocean-niggers”) by some Afrikaners – politically unreliable; culturally alien; preferred soccer to rugby (that being, in the apartheid imagination, a “black” game over a “white” game); and, in the case of Jews, we bore the burden of the inherited stereotype that the “whites” of South Africa had brought from Christian Europe (stingy, conniving, untrustworthy, damned by the killing of Christ, that sort of thing…) as well as the latterday suspicion, grounded perhaps in the wildly disproportionate number of Jews among “white” people who had actively aligned themselves with the liberation movement, that we were all inclined to be “kaffir-boeties” (culturally translated as “nigger-lovers”).
Despite the resulting low-intensity social anti-semitism, the regime needed all the help it could get. Even though many of them had been active Nazi sympathizers, they had enough realpolitik to welcome the Jews into the system – even more so when they began a fruitful military collaboration with Israel, one of the few countries willing to ignore international sanctions against the apartheid regime.
But South Africa was also a good education in the meaning of “white.” It implied no singularity of identity, but rather an exclusion set, as captured in the traditional apartheid signs on all amenities reserving them either “For Whites Only” or for “Non-Whites Only.”
The meaning of “white” is best illustrated by a slang term I encountered at school: someone deemed to be trying to act above their station was accused of “getting white,” as in “don’t get white, hey!”(Of course this was used among people classified white, and the put down was in implying that someone else wasn’t, because to be other than white in apartheid South Africa was to be subordinate.) The apotheosis of this usage, for me, came in a documentary by Guy Spiller, in which he recorded a white working-class family watching TV footage of the release of Nelson Mandela. “Fuck it,” one of the sons clucks resignedly, “the kaffirs have been getting white lately, but now… now, they’re going to get whiter than white.”
And then of course there was the “flexibility” in the system driven by realpolitik. The B-List soul singer Percy Sledge came to Cape Town in 1970, and was put up at the President Hotel, which was reserved for “Whites Only.” It was good for the system to have Percy there, though, separately entertaining black and white audiences with “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Come Softly,” however, so an accommodation was made: Percy was housed in a separate suite, in which he was served his meals and held his parties, in the process pioneering a new category in apartheid legalese that allowed others to follow: He was the system’s first “honorary white.”)
So are Jews “white”?
Well, we’ve begun to establish that this is a political rather than “ethnic” question. We weren’t for a long time, although that began to change in Western Europe in the wake of the Reformation. And in the last century, many of us have been, uh, acting white. For various political, economic and moral reasons, we’ve been accepted into the mainstream “white” establishment in much of the West. The Zionist movement in its early discourse explicitly appealed to the European imperial powers on the basis that Jews emigrating to Palestine would help bear “the white man’s burden,” serving as an outpost of Western civilization against the native hordes. And it’s hardly surprising to me that once that outpost was established, the apartheid regime recognized it as a fellow traveler, an outpost of Western civilization defending itself against the brown-skinned hostiles.
In South Africa, of course, the mainstream leadership of the Jewish community did its best to persuade the apartheid regime of its “whiteness,” and to distance itself from Jews (like Joe Slovo, Dennis Goldberg and Ruth First) had become leaders of the liberation movement. Rather than taking pride in the fact, they were acutely embarrassed by the preponderance of Jews among the white faces in the dock alongside Mandela, or in the ranks of the ANC more generally. I’ll never forget debating the head of the Jewish Board of Deputies at an annual Habonim camp on “The Role of Jews in South Africa.” After my pep talk about a Jew’s place being in the struggle, and how these idealistic young people would find a natural home there in a movement that has long idolized the likes of Dennis Goldberg (then a political prisoner jailed along with Mandela), Joe Slovo (then commander of the ANC’s armed wing), Ray Alexander, Rusty Bernstein and so on; the Board of Deputies guy stepped up and began “Jews are not radicals, Jews are not subversives…” Now he was talking to an audience of 17-year-old in their second week of a socialist summer camp, where the air was filled with raging teenage hormones, the occasional whiff of weed and rampant change-the-world idealism. And this while the townships were burning. Let’s just say it was no contest. After all, if Judaism is about values and ethics, rather than just a tribal identity, then anyone who wasn’t a subversive or a revolutionary in apartheid South Africa wasn’t a very good Jew. Trying to be “white” in South Africa wasn’t a very Jewish choice for Jews.
And between the collaborationist instinct of the Board of Deputies in the apartheid years, and the glee that right-wing Zionists appear to feel when they mail around diatribes by some Spanish fascist arguing that the big mistake of Europe’s “whites” was to rid themselves of their Jews, there is a link.
Let’s just say when Jews try too hard to be “white” they often end up in political spaces where no Jew should feel comfortable.