Over the last few weeks, Cambridge has seen an unprecedented amount of anti-Semitic hate. Most prominently, a series of flyers distributed at the Sidgwick site denying the Holocaust, and a swastika spray-painted on the map of Jesus Green appeared within a few days of each other. That such blatantly horrifying bigotry against Jews can occur in Cambridge, usually thought to be something of a safe haven for Jewish students, has got me thinking about the history of anti-Semitism and the relationship we hold with the mythical category of ‘whiteness’.
A recent article in The Atlantic titled ‘Are Jews White?’ sparked conversation in the international media about the place of Jews in the western world. The answer is of course clearly not necessarily – Jews can be black, Asian, Middle-Eastern, European or anything in between. Even the urge to ask the question seems to represent the very worst parts of 21st century identity politics, where every single person must be successfully placed in a racial category so we can evaluate the seriousness of their grievances. But what people interested in the supposed whiteness of Jews are probably asking is whether Jews like me, Woody Allen or other pale western Jews should be considered a ‘real’ minority – or whether we enjoy enough privileges to be part of regular old ‘whiteness’.
Many groups of people, like Irish-Americans, weren’t considered white for a time. They too were seen as an ethnic minority, and were the victims of white supremacy. But after a long period of integration, differences are smoothed out and the lines between social groups are blurred. This shows that if it is anything, ‘whiteness’ is a kind of socially constructed club, the entry-requirements to which change according to status (although historically, smart-casual dress is preferred). ‘Whiteness’ is a label of privilege and power in western countries. So in asking whether Jews are white, we’re really asking: are Jews privileged enough to be a part of the club?
Recent events notwithstanding, it would of course be silly to claim that Jews in the UK and other western countries are terribly badly off. There are certainly many groups who have it worse than us. But the recent influx of anti-Semitic hate, even in supposedly safe havens like Cambridge, brings home a chilling reminder: this wouldn’t be the first time that an otherwise assimilated and well-liked Jewish population is turned into a vilified enemy.
“Holocaust denial and swastikas aren’t sticks and stones, but they’re not too far off”
Anti-Semitism, historically speaking, is cyclical. Even in 1920′s Germany, Jews were generally a respected, influential and well-educated minority. This is a part of the strange nature of anti-Semitic bigotry compared to most other forms of racially motivated hatred. Jews aren’t seen as the enemy because they are somehow weak, lesser or lazy – rather, anti-Semitism tends to target Jews precisely because of the trope that they are successful, and because this perceived success is seen as a mark of some dishonesty, conspiracy or satanic pact. That’s why anti-Semitism has always been nearly invisible before its rapid recurrence - because it allows Jews to succeed, only to turn on them again. Jews have thus been allowed to become “white” – but only momentarily.
I might sound like I’m wearing a tinfoil hat. I admit that it seems happily unlikely that the system could turn against us as dramatically as it has in the past. But while Jews certainly enjoy many, perhaps most, of the same privileges as white people, recent events even in Cambridge show that these privileges aren’t necessarily secure. Flyers denying the Holocaust and spray-painted swastikas are terrifying signs in themselves, and this terror only deepens when considering the current global political climate.
Whether Jews are called white or not has no significance in itself. But for those who are inclined to think that ‘whiteness’ is a static category of relative social safety, I would point to history. The Jewish people have bounced in and out of of ‘whiteness’, and while it seems peaceful now, it’s seemed similarly peaceful before. What I do think matters is that those of us who care about social justice don’t dismiss the fears and worries of Jewish communities because of their relative privilege. Holocaust denial and swastikas aren’t sticks and stones, but they’re not too far off.
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