Sunday, June 14, 2020

Isn’t it racist to obsess over Jews’ “whiteness”?




Last week a workshop was scheduled for the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) called “Jews and Whiteness in Colonial Spaces.” While the workshop itself was postponed due to COVID-19, the topics to be discussed seem obsessive on the question of Jews and “whiteness,” including:

1.     Jews as colonial settlers: their “suitability”, acculturation, encounter with native population, other settler groups, Imperial powers; “Whiteness” for Zionism, Territorialism

2.     The racialization of African Jews in colonial and post-colonial contexts

3.     The extension of European citizenship to native Jews in North African under European colonialism, and its effects

4.     The racialization of Middle Eastern Jews in circuits of migration during colonial times: e.g. Jewish-Iraqi migrants eastwards - to India, China - and westwards, the the UK

5.     The question of “whiteness” for Sephardic/Mizrahi communities in Europe and elsewhere

6.     The place of “whiteness” in antisemitism, historical and contemporary, and its relation to colonial and anti-colonial discourses

7.    How does the materiality and fluidity of place-making correlate with the operation of whiteness for Jews in such spaces

The papers are not yet available. Yet the choice of topics almost all seem to be an academic cover for effectively calling Jews, or Ashkenaz Jews, white supremacists. (The main exception is #3, which presumably deals with the French offering Algerian Jews French citizenship and how that affected their relations with their Arab neighbors.)

The entire question of Jews’ “whiteness” is racist. The fact is that Jews have been treated differently than the majority population of nearly every country they’ve lived in, sometimes better than other minorities and sometimes worse, and color has nothing to do with it.

Interestingly, Americans treated many Italians as non-white in the 19th century. Arab immigrants to America tried to be classified as white in order to gain entry, some were and some weren’t. Studying those cases in the context of the history of American racism is acceptable, of course, but this workshop is specifically trying to paint Jews as inherently racist, especially topic #1, which assumes that Jews who returned to their ancestral homelands are “white colonialist” racists invading the land of the Arab people of color. The entire point is to add a racial component to the conflict, but only one way – only the Jews are the racists, while the Arabs who treated Jews as second class citizens for centuries are not accused of anything.

This obsession with characterizing Jews as “whites,” and therefore as oppressors, is academically and socially acceptable antisemitism.

It is also racism itself to try to place every group of people into a paradigm of “whiteness” or “people of color” when the world is so much more complicated than that. Just like racists, these new left-wing racists justify their racism, but it doesn’t make their racism any less reprehensible. Studying the history of racism is necessary, using academic cover to categorize Jews as “white” is just more racism.

The organizer defended the workshop by saying that it was  “a critical and honest discussion about racism, anti-blackness, and whiteness in the Jewish community.” This is garbage. There are no “critical and honest discussions” in academia about black antisemitism, or Arab antisemitism, or Arab slavery, or historic Muslim colonialism, or “settler colonialism” in Latin America, or any of hundreds of other topics that aren’t politically correct while there are huge numbers of papers about how evil Jews and Zionists are. This isn’t an honest discussion. It is an academic cover for the world’s oldest hatred under the imprimatur of an academic conference – while whining about how difficult it is to hold such a conference.

(h/t Andrea Zanardo, who also wrote about this in Times of Israel)