Jews, Europeans, and "Whiteness"

Writing in The Times of Israel, Hila Hershkoviz takes on a prickly question—Are Jews White?

In response to Haaretz article “Jews, white privilege and the fight against racism in America” (by Benjy Cannon 4/12/14) I would like to say loud and clear: Ashkenazi Jews are not white.

Every time I read about a Jew somewhere identifying as a white person, I cringe. As an Israeli Jew, who like most other Israeli Jews, is completely foreign to the concept of Jews being “white” I would like to address this article to my Jewish brothers and sisters in America.

Ashkenazi Jews who identify as “white”, please understand the following:

1.History and identity – As late as 1987 the US legally defined Jews as non-white. To the best of my knowledge, 50 years ago Jews had the same skin color as they do today. I deduce that white is not skin color, it is first and foremost an issue history and identity. The “white people world” is represented by its European (often colonial) history, it’s culture, heroes, it’s Kings, ethos, faith etc. – and Ashkenazi Jews are not part of that world. Their heroes are the Maccabees and not the Vikings or Joan of Arc, their Kings are David King of Israel and Hezekiah King of Judah (both archeologically confirmed historical figures) and not Kings Edward and George.

Secondly, Jews are not a “religion”. While in the Western world identities fall under the categories of religion or race, Middle Eastern people have tribal identities that are based neither the former nor the latter. Jews, similar to Pashtuns (who also often have pale skin and yet would not identify as white people) and other Middle Eastern Tribes, are neither religion nor race but a tribe. Jewish identity since the days of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel had always been a tribal/national peoplehood. While tribal practices and customs (which is often incorrectly referred to as “Judaism”) and a strong biological link between many of the members are certainly present, Israelite identity was never based on either of these. Israelite identity has always been a tribal membership that goes by lineage (being born into the Tribes of Israel) or tribal acceptance (which is incorrectly translated as “conversion”). The identity Ashkenazi Jews have today is identical to that of King David whose great grandmother was a Moabite convert, but was nonetheless a Jew by virtue of being born into the Tribes of Israel by lineage.

You are Jews not because of your “religion” (are you even religious?), but because you were born into a tribe/people called the Nation of Israel. You are not “white people” with a “Jewish religion”, you are Jews – members of a people who origniated in Judea, whether you adhere to the laws of the tribe or not.

Thirdly, Ashkenazi Jews have been the victims of Europeans and Western imperialism for centuries precisely because they were not perceived as part of the “white people world”, beginning with the Roman colonialism of their nation state and ending with 6 million of them being killed precisely because they were non-whites.

2.Culture – Whether it’s the Hebrew calendar, the tefillin they put on at their Bar Mitzvah identical to the ancient second Temple tefillin found in Qumran and across Israel or celebrating the Judean revolt for independence in our historic homeland on Hanukkah – Ashkenazi Jews have kept the entire indigenous culture, customs, traditions, books, and to a high extant language and of their ancestors – Judeans and other Israelites.

3.Biology – Although biology is not the main part of the issue, Ashkenazi Jews are not genetically white either. An extensive number of genetic studies show they originated in the Middle East, that despite European admixture they are genetic brothers of other Jews, Palestinians, Druze and Lebanese Arabs and share a highly significant amount of ancestry with Sephardi Jews to whom they are genetically almost identical. Tests also show Ahskenazi Levites are descendants of Hebrews, and Ashkenazi Cohanim share lineage with Sephardi Cohanim.

Lastly, Ashkenazi Jews, whether the world likes it or not (and apparently it does not), are direct descendants of the Tribes of Israel, as we know from history, culture, science and a little something I like to call reality. Those who wish to deny it for political or theological reasons, should try forming an alliance with holocaust deniers because the two are no different.

Jews are not white. People who try to argue otherwise are not only abrogating history and denying our people’s authentic identity, they are in fact (even if unintentionally) also practicing a form of Western imperialism, as nobody has the right to superimpose an artificial Western identity on a people with an ancient Middle Eastern-tribal identity. Nobody has the right to try and make Jews, or any other Middle Eastern people, feel they “need” to fit into the “neat” Western categories of religion and race. Nobody has the right to force Jews into identifying as white people when they are clearly not. As for Jews who identify as white without being forced to do so – please decolonize your identities and understand that the identity your claim to express is a falsification of who you really are.

Ashkenazi Jews have influenced European culture—and been influenced by European culture (perhaps more than this author would like). There has also been a large amount of intermarriage between Ashkenazi (and Sephardic) Jews and Europeans, resulting in a genetic similarity.

That said, as Hershkoviz writes, Ashkenazi Jews have been in Europe, without quite being of Europe.

Pigmentation really is "just skin deep." it's a significant, but by no means definitive element of race. Identity is formed by a combination of race, culture, spirituality, and history. And Ashkenazi Jews have an identity apart from Europeans.

In thinking about this issue, a good place to start is Richard Lynn's The Chosen People: A Stidy of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement.