Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Gray area

I recently finished Eric L. Goldstein's The Price of Whiteness. Highly recommended. For a thorough, helpful review of the book, see Sam Brody here. For my less coherent take, see below:

It was hard, given what I study, not to implicitly compare each moment of the American Jewish history Goldstein describes with what was going on in the same period for French Jews. I did what I could not to make reading the book a busman's holiday experience, but the urge was overpowering. So much of the two histories mirror each other--the emergence of a religion-only definition of Judaism coinciding with a Jewish population that behaved as something more than just a religion; the centrality of intermarriage to communal discourse; the changes dealt with in the late 19th century, upon the arrival of unassimilated Jews from Eastern Europe. Yet so much is different, far more than I'd have room to get to in this post.

While reading, I kept noticing how much the discussion of Jews and the black-white spectrum in the U.S. resembles attempts to situate North African Jews in the Arab-European, colonized-colonizer binary. Many scholars of Algerian-Jewish history find it hard to contain their bias, praising instances when Algerian Jews sided with the colonized, and condemning those who considered themselves 'European.' While there's nothing wrong with an anti-colonialist tilt per se, using the colonizer-colonized binary as a lens to understand Algerian Jews has its drawbacks. Algerian Jews--some of whose presence in Algeria preceded that of Arabs--had interests throughout the colonial period and during the Franco-Algerian War that differed greatly from those of either the Muslim indigenous populations or the Christian European ones. That did not put them in some magical bubble protected from the colonial hierarchy. What it did mean was that Jews were working under a different set of constraints than members of the two larger populations. Anti-Semitism, which preceded but continued through the colonial period, was often a greater source of oppression than colonialism itself. If Algerian Jews over time became 'French,' one could interpret this as evidence of Jews being sell-out racists, as some scholars do. Or, one could recognize that Jews had been second-class citizens prior to French colonization, and that the French, for all their difficulties (pogroms, followed by Vichy) offered an escape from a not-always-pleasant dhimmi status.

The point of this somewhat off-topic, highly oversimplified history is to say that while colonizer vs. colonized is the 'big story,' as it were, of French Algeria, contemporary scholarly attempts to place Jews in one category or another lead inevitably to unflattering, not to mention inaccurate, portraits of the Jewish community. Scholars' Jewish subjects find themselves penalized for being the objects of an oppression that was not the oppression one thinks of when one thinks of colonization.

Goldstein's book, meanwhile, attempts to understand American Jewish history through examining where Jews sat (according to themselves and others) in America's black-white binary. Black vs. white is, needless to say, the big story of race in America. After the nation's founding, America's great crime was against blacks, not Jews, as any reasonable person would admit. To deconstruct the binary is, in most cases, to reinforce it. Just as calling Jews 'neither colonizer nor colonized' maintains the colonizer-colonized binary, calling Jews 'neither black nor white'... you get the idea. But while it's a given that America can be better understood through the lens of black vs. white than through that of Jewish vs. gentile, what do we learn about American Jews in particular through this approach?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. While Jews in Europe were the racialized enemy-of-choice for centuries, Jews in America stopped being considered a race apart just at the moment Europe's Jews were being massacred on racial grounds. This is bizarre, and while it would be nice to believe Jews were spared because of American liberty being superior to Old European hatreds, clearly the difference in situation between my ancestors who came to the States and those who did not has something to do with the fact that America already had a scapegoat race, and Jews weren't it.

The Algeria comparison is thus an imperfect one. Still, one way I'd say it does relate is in Goldstein's evident preference for times in American-Jewish history when Jews not only sympathized but identified with blacks. Instances of Jews claiming not to identify with blacks, Goldstein regularly interprets as examples of Jews feeling or wanting to be perceived of as white. He implicitly argues throughout the book that there is some kind of inescapable identification of Jews with the black experience, one that Jews sometimes repressed and sometimes admitted. The problem with such an argument is that not every marginalized group's experience is the same. A Jew (today, or even in the early 20th century) might identify as neither black nor white, not because he wants to distance himself from blacks, but because he genuinely doesn't see the two narratives as similar enough for the comparison to be made. And a Jew might identify as more white than black, because he thinks identifying as black would be offensive to those who, well, are black, and who experience discrimination on account of that fact. This, and not a desire to preserve their 'white privilege,' is what keeps Jews on the left today considering themselves white.

Another difficulty in examining Jews and whiteness is the inescapable fact that, in a country with a black-white binary and an overwhelmingly Ashkenazi Jewish population, Jews look more like white people than we do like black people. When a Jew in jeans and a t-shirt takes the bus in New York or Chicago, he is white, whether he's 'embraced whiteness' or not. (I'd imagine I'm typical of Ashkenazim in that I have no more trouble hailing a cab or looking pasty in a swimsuit than others classified as white.)

Scholarly examinations of 'race as a construct' reach certain limitations when they gloss over that which is not constructed. I'd imagine that if someone who'd never seen a Jew read Goldstein's book, this reader would guess that cultural and economic factors alone explain how Jews and not blacks came to be thought of as white. Even I, someone with heaps of knowledge of what Askenazi Jews look like (pale), was starting to picture a population that looked halfway between black and white, that is, racially ambiguous. While it's understandable that Goldstein does not weigh in much himself on what he believes Jews 'are,' but obviously physical appearance does play a role.

That said, anti-Semitism, even racial anti-Semitism, I would say especially racial anti-Semitism, is rarely about skin color or even visible differences between Jews and non-Jewish whites. The fear comes from the fact that Jews don't look different enough--thus the need to make Jews wear silly hats, stars of David, and so on. Back to the bus scenario: out of context, I don't usually know who's white and who's Jewish, so imagine how complicated this might be for people who did not grow up in New York. Acknowledgment and even fear of Jewish whiteness is central to modern anti-Semitism. Our pallor is interpreted not as a trait over which we have no control, but as a sneaky attempt to pass as white. Thus the accusations of a Jewish--rarely a black, Latino, or Asian--'cabal.' In a sense, the Jewish experience is far closer to the gay one than to the black one. Mainstream society never knows for sure that one of those just moved in next door. Gays not holding hands, Jews not sporting sidelocks, fail to draw attention. This prevents the sort of blatant forms of discrimination faced by blacks, women, or any other group with hard-to-ignore physical differences. Blending in does not eliminate discrimination, but simply channels it from its more immediate forms into the realm of what those folks do behind closed doors, something nefarious, one imagines. It's the groups that blend in that are more readily accused of having singlehandedly set forth waves of cultural decay.


David Schraub said...

I wrote my own half-baked comments on Goldstein's book last December.

(apologies if this commented was posted twice -- I might have screwed up).

Michelle Frank said...

Nice post. Loved it.