“So, Are Jews a Race?” Lessons from Purim and Beyond

We’re about to celebrate the holiday that I sometimes think of as the Jewish festival of passing. On Purim, which starts Wednesday night, we read the Book of Esther, in which we learn that our stunning Jewish ancestor was married to a Persian king who did not know she was Jewish. Esther was closeted until the very survival of her people depended on it. But she only revealed herself after her uncle implored her to step forward, “for perhaps it was exactly for a moment such as this” that she had ascended to royalty (Esther 4:14). 

We have had many Esther moments since, because not only do we still do more passing than we should, but in 21st-century America, we’ve allowed ourselves to pass and enjoy many of the privileges of being white.

Just last month, before we were intimately familiar with the map of Ukraine, our focus was on a comment Whoopi Goldberg made on The View. Goldberg clearly had no idea how deeply problematic her words were when she said the Holocaust wasn’t about race because the Nazi genocide of six million Jews was a conflict between “two groups of white people” and mere evidence of “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Today, with a horrendous war raging in Europe, it may sound picayune to plumb the depths of an ignorant comment from an actress and talk show host. And yet, it continues to be relevant, in that the idea of the Holocaust as a raceless event still comes across almost as absurdly as Putin saying he is going into Ukraine to “de-Nazify” it. Perhaps the comment sat with us so uncomfortably in part because as time marches on, the facts of that chapter of history are in danger of becoming both forgotten and distorted. As a journalist-turned-educator, I’m watching warily as books like Maus are banned from school curricula and legislators in my adopted home state of Florida have just passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, banning teachers from acknowledging that my daughter’s best friend has two fathers. I’ve read all the surveys about the low level of knowledge about the Holocaust and even skepticism about its veracity among millennials and Gen Z, but it wasn’t until one of my students this semester struggled and failed to pronounce the word Auschwitz in class that this troubling deterioration hit me in a more personal way. 

To dive deeper into Goldberg’s comment, it’s worth considering for a moment why many of us are so uncomfortable with being deemed white. We Ashkenazi Jews were never “white” in Europe, where people weren’t thought of as white or black so much as Germans, Poles, Italians and so on, and some of us, myself included, don’t identify as white here, either. Some of us actually are people of color. Others have European roots, but present as racially ambiguous. Many Jews like me, who’ve been blessed with brown skin, dark eyes and features that get loosely designated as Middle Eastern or Mediterranean, are the same tone as other people of color. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been mistaken for Latino, Arab, Afghan or Pakistani. 

The 1935 Nuremberg Laws, with their warped view of reality, certainly designated us as a race apart. After initially targeting Jews, the definition was expanded later that year to include Romani and Black people. Among the things that scholars now know, but American children will likely not be taught because it might make them uncomfortable, is that the Nazis took inspiration from America’s Jim Crow anti-miscegenation laws. Hitler saw America make racial discrimination legal, so why couldn’t he?

In recent decades, American Jews eventually came to be seen as “white,” because in a country for whom race is seemingly locked in a black-white binary–or as law professor and author Anthony Paul Farley has termed it, “the continued fact of white-over-black”–most American Jews are phenotypically closer to Europeans in appearance than they are to Africans.

Today we know that race is largely a social construct and not a biological fact. Scientists argue that it’s more accurate to speak of genetics as tied to specific geographical areas or populations, while race mainly serves a political role. 

Regardless of how we appear–some of us phenotypically European, and many others decisively brown and vaguely “Eastern” looking–the underlying truth is that Jews were treated through the ages as a separate race, and we’ve been deeply ambivalent over what to do about it. When my maternal grandfather arrived in New York harbor 99 years ago this month, the ship’s manifest listed his race as “Hebrew” and his country of origin as Russia, according to government documents archived at Ellis Island. In fact, he was from Khotyn, a small city in Ukraine. I realize now more than ever how fortunate he was  to leave when he did. A year after his arrival in 1923, the Johnson-Reed Act was passed, making it much harder for people from Eastern Europe to immigrate to the U.S.  I understand now, as we watch Anatevka writ large, with columns of distraught refugees seeking shelter, how it came to be that my grandfather and his brother made it here, another brother made it to Israel, another found his way to Uruguay, and those who didn’t make it out perished. In the fervent anti-immigration environment in Washington a century ago, one whose rhetoric might make a Tucker Carlson monologue look tame, it made all the sense in the world for Jews to work toward being accepted as white. Our parents and grandparents struggled to blend in and adopt the mantle of American whiteness, promoting a definition of Jews as a religious minority, nothing more. 

Now many of us wake up to find that, like Esther, we no longer want to pass. Former President Trump signed an executive order in 2019 that was meant to afford additional protections for Jews under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. It could prove to be a helpful tool in battling antisemitism, but the designation also effectively treated us, for the first time in a century, as a race. I don’t think we knew whether to cheer or cry.

Of course, our resistance to identifying as white has sociopolitical underpinnings. We don’t want to be white if white is Derek Chauvin at George Floyd’s neck, if white is the murderous men who shot Ahmaud Arbery, if white is a cop blowing away Breonna Taylor, then getting acquitted for doing so. But are we doing enough to combat the systemic racism that we’re not supposed to talk about in class or in any corporate workplace, because it might make white students or employees feel bad?

Jews’ role in the civil rights struggle is well-documented and doesn’t need a recap. But perhaps we’ve run into complications about how fellow Americans–particularly Black Americans–view us because we tried so hard for generations now to pass. Perhaps we need to stop trying to have it both ways: We can’t pass for white when it’s convenient and enjoy white privilege (for most of us) but then claim that antisemitism is indeed a form of racism and that, whether we like it or not, the world deems us a race apart. Or at least, we can’t continue to do that and act surprised when people like Whoopi Goldberg are confused or misinformed.

It’s not just Esther we can learn from on this holiday. Take the arch-villain Haman, who tells the Persian king, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.” From Haman to Buchanan to Bannon, there have long been men who were not great fans of the Jews. Trump himself charged during his presidency that Jews who don’t support the Republican party are demonstrating “great disloyalty,” resurrecting the old “dual loyalties” canard that triggers us perhaps far more than a misguided comment by a Hollywood celebrity. That “certain people” pasuk verse (Esther 3:8) stops me every time, although interestingly in Hebrew the text simply says am ehad ( עַם-אֶחָד) one people. Haman could not countenance our being a people or nation (race was not yet a concept) while simultaneously serving as loyal subjects or true citizens. Arguably, that’s something the antisemites of the world still have a hard time wrapping their minds around.

Perhaps the next time someone doubts whether we can simultaneously be different, but also be loyal to the countries in which we live, they should look no further than the man of the hour and new global folk hero, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Offered Washington’s help in being evacuated and perhaps operating in exile, he reportedly said, “I need bullets, not a ride.” He is the antidote to the Jew-baiters who think that we cannot be trusted to do our duty in an hour of national need.

Zelensky, dark-haired and dark-eyed, standing all of 5-foot-7 and hardly resembling the stereotypical citizen of the largely Slavic nation who elected him, is leading the resistance against a better-armed bully and is willing to pay the ultimate price if necessary. I cannot think of a more inspiring model of bravery and belonging. Perhaps it was for a moment such as this that he came to rise to his position.


Top image: Purim mask (Credit: Sharon G. via Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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One thought on ““So, Are Jews a Race?” Lessons from Purim and Beyond

  1. Davida Brown says:

    Although it seems to be an ambivalence as to whether the term “Jewish” refers to race, ethnicity or religion, it is, above all a spiritual identity. The root word is Yehude(a) which denotes praise of God, specifically, Israel’s God. It began to be used in the Bible, its original source, in reference to the people of Judah (land) and earlier, the person of Judah, a son of Jacob/Israel who is described by the father, Jacob, as one who will be praised by his brothers, even worshipped by them (“your father’s sons shall bow down to you.”) Genesis 49:8. He is also compared to a lion and is described as a future ruler, which we know is referring to a Messiah, or Anointed One. All this to say that the term “Jew” or “Jewish” has strong spiritual connotations, therefore provokes strong feelings in others as to what this all means. Being known as “the Chosen” is also a provoking term, making an assumption that others are not chosen. Who doesn’t want to be chosen?
    All the discussion on race, color, ethnicity or religion is futile. The Bible does refer to the Jews as a race, yet anyone can join into that
    group and many did by believing and obeying the God of Israel and His Word. Think of Ruth, daughter-in-law of Naomi. Color matters not for the same reason. Ditto ethnicity. That leaves us the term religion; Jewish religious leaders do not recognize certain ethnic Jews who believe in certain other religions. Israel determines who is a Jew primarily based on the father/mother’s Jewish lineage. It used to be based only on the mothers, yet the Bible determines Jewish lineage only by the father. Think of Joseph and his marriage to an Egyptian priest’s daughter, producing two sons, Ephriam and Manasseh, who later became two of the tribes of Israel in spite of having a pagan Egyptian mother. You may ask if this is at all relevant to the conversation. It totally is! In fact, it is of utmost importance. Ultimately, this is a spiritual issue that will have a spiritual outcome of great importance. It is all revealed in the Bible of the Jews.

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