The Growing Jewishness in My Identity
When I was young I thought of myself as white. Sure I was Jewish, I celebrated Passover and Chanukah, sat Shiva for my great grandfather, and ate Chinese food on Christmas. I wasn’t raised religiously and I grew up on Long Island so I didn’t feel that different than my friends. Let’s face it I also had a smaller nose and straighter hair than I do now. My Jewishness was a footnote about me rather than the forefront of my identity. I was naïve to see the stories of oppression as a distant part of history.
More and more I am being forced to place my Jewishness at the forefront of both my activism and my identity. Anti-Semitic sentiments are increasing in both the United States and abroad. White Supremacists carry confederate flags and swastikas. Republicans are running for office on platforms of anti-Semitism and Nazism. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the display of swastikas is the most common hate crime committed in this country.
As a liberal Jew, I struggle with advocacy against anti-Semitism in justice spaces. Until this recent election, I often placed my Jewishness behind my activism for other causes. I didn’t want to make an issue of my heritage while fighting for criminal justice reform or immigrant rights. I am not the first activist to experience this dilemma, and many Jewish activists are starting to publicly discuss anti-Semitism in progressive circles. This, of course, is only a dilemma for light-skinned Jews and doesn’t touch on the intersectional oppressions of Jews of color.
Although I have white skin and therefore white privilege, I am not considered “white” by many in this country. I also was not raised as a fully accepted white American. Jewish children are raised with the knowledge of exclusion and oppression. There was never a time in my life when I didn’t know what Zyklon B was and how it was used (Jews were gassed using Zyklon B that came out of shower heads in camps). My mother used to warn me never to put any religion on government forms and especially not my passport. She explained that depending on where I traveled, it could be dangerous to advertise my heritage. A semester in London showed me that due to my curly hair and prominent nose I didn’t need to check a box on a form for my Jewishness to be evident.
As I said at the beginning I thought of myself as white as a child but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know that in other parts of this country (outside of NYC and Long Island) I looked conspicuous or would be uncomfortable explaining why I didn’t pray or say grace. I had no way of knowing that my friends weren’t also given Holocaust stories to read and brought to see Elie Wiesel speak. The history of oppression and exclusion were ever present-I just didn’t know my friends weren’t hearing the same stories. My family stories were ones of pogroms and getting beat up on the lower east side.
Most people reading this know that Jews historically were not included in whiteness. Whiteness is about more than skin color but refers to full assimilation and acceptance into society. My dissertation is on Jewish citizenship in the 1870s and their inability to receive a fair trial or avail themselves of criminal procedure rights. Jews undoubtedly have white privilege and safety in public spaces that black Americans don’t. However, when we discuss whiteness we’re also discussing safety from bigotry and full acceptance. When anti-Semites carry swastikas they view Jews as another race.
Despite my white privilege I clearly present as Jewish. Put another way I don’t “pass” as a fully accepted white non-Jew. Unfortunately, it’s a common historical story that anti-Semitism is used to scapegoat Jews for problems caused in a changing society. And so, despite my privilege, my identity is not neutral in this world and therefore not safe. When I or other light-skinned Jews say we are not fully “white,” we mean our identities are not safe and accepted. We know what marchers carrying swastikas mean.