The Complicated Status of Being Jewish in America

The recent synagogue shooting has prompted me to be more open about my thoughts and feelings on being Jewish* in today’s America. We’re caught somewhere between whiteness and historical disenfranchisement, a simultaneous well-known and invisible minority. 

Is it surprising that a mass shooting targeted Jews in their place of worship in a major city in 2018, or is it surprising that it took until the end of 2018? Anti-Jewish acts post-WWII, or after the widespread cultural acceptance of Jews somewhere in the 70s or so, or even post-9/11 seem oddly unjustifiable, don’t they? Didn’t we move past this as a society, we wonder. Didn’t we fight a war over this? Aren’t Jews part of the American mainstream culture? Didn’t we rally, don’t we support Israel as a country? Frankly, none of these efforts, even if what we know about them is true, constitutes acceptance. In 2018, Jews are still outsiders to American society, but at the same time we are the definition of white.

In the weeks after 9/11, my predominantly-Jewish NYC prep-school received almost daily bomb threats. They multiplied my confusion about that time – how was a massive coordinated terrorist attack on a major landmark related to these isolated, amateurish threats on one school with 1,000 students? The rumor among the kids was that it was just seniors who didn’t want to take tests calling in the threats, because who else would do that? As an adult, this episode makes more sense to me: when there’s a threat in the public consciousness, people circle the wagons around what they see as their community, and attack the ones who seem like outsiders, even if they are unthreatening.

How can Jews still be seen as outsiders in the US in 2018? Our country has been explicitly siding with Israel for decades, Jews are some of the most prominent contributors to finance, entertainment, and education, and Yiddish has even made its way into the vernacular. In some ways, Jewish culture is American culture. Jewish attempts at assimilation created some of the defining aspects of American, even Christian, experiences. White Christmas and the entire image of the New England winter holiday was invented by Jewish artists, immigrants and the children of immigrants, like Irving Berlin. It’s because of these efforts that Jews are the epitome of whiteness, insomuch as white=uncool. The Jewish nerd is an exhausting stereotype, and if you want an explanation of what that is, just watch the first season of Glee, where that’s the premise of half the jokes – the two most intentionally annoying characters are Jewish and constantly mocked and even verbally abused, while the tough guy is revealed to also be Jewish as a reversal of expectations. If you want to give an example of a dorky, corny, opposite-of-fashionable gathering, you pick a Bar Mitzvah, hence the existence of this song (which I will admit is very funny). Jews exist as the butt of this joke because Jews wrote a lot of these jokes – we’re kicked around, we’re the unthreatening little guy, it’s Woody Allen’s entire schtick. But there are so many Jewish writers peddling the Jewish experience in media that this joke isn’t being told by or for Jews anymore, it’s just part of the American canon, and in that position it just turns into a kind of abuse.

As much as Jews have been visibly and unnoticeably producing American culture, we’ve stayed separate socially, both intentionally and unintentionally. It’s ironic, really, because to most people Jews are no longer ethnically distinct. Many people who consider themselves Jewish have a parent who was not born Jewish – they are not racialized as Jewish. Looking at turn of the century anti-Jewish propaganda now is almost confusing – who is this caricature? What is this supposed to be mocking?

And yet the physical features that have often traditionally defined Jewishness racially – large bent noses, dark curly hair, short stature – remain undesirable. It’s not racial hatred that keeps Jews separate, nor any other definable features that can be pinned on individuals in the group. It is the group itself, the idea of Jewishness, whether linked to communism (yes, still), government conspiracy in support of Israel, or the idea that Jews control all the financial institutions (which, yes, technically as people, but certainly not as a group).

Which is why it makes sense that if you’re going to attack Jews, it’s going to be people who are obviously Jewish based on their behavior or dress, in a place that they congregate because they are Jewish, but not because you object to anything in particular about Judaism as a religion. The religion has nothing to do with it – no one is standing on a street corner raving about the sin that Jews in particular won’t accept the divinity of Jesus. And this is where discrimination against Jews gets really muddy, because it’s not against the religion, most people can’t (or won’t, even) identify Jews as a race, a growing number of Jews in the US over the last 50 years or so don’t really identify as Jewish, and Jews as a group have assimilated to the point of creating standards of popular American culture. As illegitimate as any discrimination is, it’s not even clear what anti-Jewish language or action is even about.

Think about any Christmas episode of a TV show you’ve ever seen (yes, I’m giving another stupid pop culture example, but bear with me, these things still inform our public consciousness even when we know they’re dumb). There is always some part of it that either has a Jewish character talking about how they are in some way left out because they don’t celebrate Christmas, or simply a strange nod to Chanukah for no reason, given that the holiday is totally unrelated and typically falls 2-4 weeks ahead of Christmas (is that how we spell this word? can we figure out a system of transliteration that makes sense?). Why does this plot point need to exist? Does a Thanksgiving episode think that Halloween is going to feel left out? Or Canadian Thanksgiving? That holiday is over and done with already and is observed by people outside of the target audience. If anything, the inclusion of Jews or Chanukah in Christmas episodes is there to make note of exclusion, to express the anxiety created by the fact that we don’t know why this group is different, but we maintain that it is.

You could argue that Jews ourselves perpetuate the exclusion of Jews, and certainly this has been my experience in a lot of ways. My extended family has done a lot to emphasize that being Jewish is more important than anything else that could define you, and my grandparents certainly promote a self-segregationist mindset (that is also probably backed by real acts of discrimination against them). But beyond intentional attempts to create Jewishness outside of Americanness (things like keeping kosher or attending Hebrew school, you know, the normal practice of religion), the awareness of being Jewish, what people call “cultural Jewishness” is itself a kind of segregation. You are the same, except that you identify as something different. This doesn’t lack justification, it’s just that the justification is perhaps merely historical. Cultural Jewishness is rooted in the idea of memory – the stories we pass on about discrimination and survival, the knowledge of the traditions that we only half perpetuate, the names we give our children to honor the dead. We continue to be Jewish because we say we are, and there continues to be hatred for us because we say we are Jewish. The hatred would go away if we disappeared into the dominant culture, but only because we as a group would disappear. It doesn’t matter that each individual Jew doesn’t necessarily feel a part of the group or perpetuate the tradition, it only matters that a group ethos exists at all – this keeps the group, the separateness alive.

Jews are the original Other in the pre-modern Mediterranean world and, by extension, the cultures that harken back to it. In that role, we can’t simultaneously exist as a defined group and live unbothered within the dominant culture, because our existence as a group is opposition to the dominant culture. In this vein, I think about the Jews of medieval Europe, who were under the direct protection of the local lord or monastic authority, and were at the mercy of whether it was economically expedient to keep them around, or socially convenient to expel them from the town. I think about the attacks on Jews during the Crusades, when crusaders from further west stomped through German cities, breaking down church doors and slaughtering priests in order to kill Jews, not because their directive told them to (it didn’t), not because Jews “came from” the Holy Land (in the awareness of the time, they didn’t), not because they couldn’t tell the difference between Jews and Muslims (they certainly could), but because they were not part of the dominant group, and therefore they were an abomination. And yet, in this long history of European-ness, Jews have ceased to be racially Other in the way that we now understand it. In, but not of society.

As far as I’m aware, we don’t have a word for this kind of marginalization in our current vocabulary of civil rights and social justice. We don’t know how to talk about a group that can be the motor of society but also its victim, a minority so visible its culture is interwoven and yet inherently foreign. We don’t know what to say about discrimination that isn’t systemic and yet isn’t directed at individuals as representatives of their group. I suspect that this is because we are still working out the mechanics of the driving forces of exclusion, honing the concepts of dominance, minority, and discrimination. The muddiness here matters because it encourages Jews (and indeed, other groups) to act against their own self-interests. Just because Jews remember the Holocaust doesn’t mean we don’t also support movements that isolate, abuse, and ultimately approach genocide. Just because we were kicked doesn’t mean we don’t also kick. So it behooves us as a society to get our act together and acknowledge the real, constant discrimination that doesn’t fit our expectations but still haunts Jews in this country, but also as Jews to recognize our own hatred and fear and unjustifiable actions. We deserve to be a community and a culture, and we also deserve a place in society, but we don’t deserve to be used as a figurehead of discrimination and then whitewashed into the dominant culture.

*There is a really important, often overlooked point here, that American Jews are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi (hailing from Eastern Europe since the Middle Ages), and as a result the common awareness of Jewishness is defined by Jews who also happen to be white Europeans. There are still plenty of Sephardic (originating in Spain by way of North Africa) and Mizrahi (native to the Levant) Jews in the US, Europe, and Israel, as well as Ethiopian, Yemeni, and Chinese Jews (i.e. Jews who descend from those regions and therefore have mixed ethnicity), among others. The experiences of these other Jewish groups are subsumed or entirely ignored by the Ashkenazi experience, which has been prioritized for the same reason that the West is always prioritized. Suffice to say, there is further and even more complicated marginalization at play in these groups, but that’s another essay.

I also want to make a point about my terminology. I refer to this kind of discrimination as “anti-Jewish” and not “anti-Semitic” because that’s how we mean it. Semites are a large group that encompass peoples descending from the Levant and other parts of the Middle East. There is a broader concept of anti-Semitism, but it’s a subset of Orientalism – a distrust and infantilizing of Semitic peoples as a means of controlling them and coopting their resources and cultures. Thanks to the Israel/Palestine conflict, Jews are hardly ever lumped in with other Semitic groups, and so we refer to Arab persecution of Jews as anti-Semitic even though that doesn’t really make sense. The pitting of these two groups against each other in some eternal struggle is anti-Semitic, since it exploits Semites writ large. But a mass shooting in a synagogue is anti-Jewish. Furthermore, I use the terms Jew and Jewish both because they focus on the people, rather than the culture, and because they are Germanic and carry the historicity of Jewish oppression in Eastern Europe. I shy away from Judaism (leaning instead on Jewishness) and Hebrew, because these terms refer to a much longer and broader history and religion, that implies a direct link between the Jews of today and those who lived in Judea 4,000+ years ago. Regardless of whether you think there is, that association is so protracted that it’s irrelevant in the fact of the comparatively recent history of Ashkenazi Jews.