If, like me, you are a Jew who grew up in America in the second half of the twentieth century, your Jewish identity was molded by a set of what seemed like self-evident propositions. First and foremost, Jews are different from other people in that they belong to a community that was both a nation and religion. That means you could be a Jew even if you didn’t buy into the God and mitzvah stuff. Second, only racists and Nazis maintain that Jews are racially (that is, biologically) distinct in any significant way from other people. Indeed, “race” is a bad word used mostly by people who want to deny equal rights to Jews, blacks, and other minorities. Third, Jews straddle the great racial divide in American society. We are white of skin, but black in spirit. Sharing a history of oppression and slavery with the blacks, we have a peculiar ability and duty to emphasize with their plight-empathy that the blacks appreciated at first, but strangely stopped appreciating as the century progressed.
Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006) is a fascinating account of how Jewish identity in the United States was formed in the context of American race relations. In the process, Goldstein shows that our self-evident identities are self-evident only in the framework of the peculiar American experience. That’s one reason why American and Israeli Jews so often miscomprehend each other’s sensibilities.
We often forget that when Jews first started arriving in the United States in relatively large numbers, at the end of the nineteenth century, race was not a bad word. Not only not a bad word but, in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, race was science. Respectable scholars, and the public in their wake, maintained that humanity was divided into biologically distinct groups that differed in their native characteristics, abilities and intelligence. In this context, Jewish leaders sought to define their people as an ancient race with its own unique gifts.
But in the racial rankings, blacks were, of course, inferior. So, as Goldstein shows, anti-Semites sometimes sought to classify Jews as a black race, or at least as something different than totally white. In reaction, Jews, especially in the South, sought to assert their racial whiteness. At the same time, they were concerned that racial discrimination against blacks would legitimize similar discrimination against Jews.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Jews were accustomed to viewing themselves as a distinct race, and indeed had a hard time viewing themselves in any other way. But this identity became more and more problematic given the black-white divide. Furthermore, the rise in immigration from Eastern Europe brought greater diversity into the American Jewish community and made it harder for acculturated American Jews to project an image of belonging to a race akin in its virtues and mores to white America. Jewish leaders no longer wanted their people to be seen as a distinct biological entity, but rather as part of the greater American public. “At a time when cultural differences were seen to be markers of race, distinctions of dress, language, and custom all threatened to highlight Jewish racial difference,” Goldstein explains, so Jewish leaders sought to make Jews into Americans. This happened when my maternal grandmother was growing up in Cleveland; now I understand a lot better her insistence on being wholly American, and that by being American she was being a Jew.
World War II brought another change:
As long as Jewish racial status had remained problematic in American culture, Jews faced continual dilemmas about how to assert their whiteness without adopting forms of white racism that sat uneasily with their own self-image as a persecuted people. But as white Americans’ fears about the racial status of Jews began to recede, so did much of the tension surrounding the Jewish approach toward African Americans. In fact, for many Jews pursuing social acceptance during this period, whiteness and racial liberalism often became two mutually supporting aspects of their emerging identities.
Furthermore, Nazism discredited racial classifications. American social scientists rejected the doctrine that any significant biological distinctions existed between human beings. Jews began to prefer the term “ethnic group” to “race”; the new state of Israel’s diverse population of Ashkenazim and Sepharadim was cited as evidence that what Jews shared was culture, language, and religion, not skin color and physiognomy. So in the world my parents grew up in, Jews were proud Americans who opposed racism; in my generation, we were part of a pluralistic nation that included many ethnic groups that shared a common history.
Goldstein’s epilogue addresses the generation of our children, who are growing up in the age of multiculturalism. Blacks no longer seek cultural integration into white society but rather to stress their own unique heritage. The Jews have followed suit.
Much has changed since 1945, when Jews still worried that their Jewishness might keep them from being accepted as full members of white society. Today, many Jews fear that their thorough implication in that society may sever some of their strongest ties to Jewishness. Jews no longer have the language of “race” to express these deep attachments, but instead rely on the echoes of Jewish racial identity, a discourse of “tribalism,” which gives voice to the feelings of loss Jews are experience in a world resistant to seeing them as a group apart.
In other words, as Goldstein concludes, Jews no longer necessarily want to be seen as part of the white world, because the benefits that once accrued to that association are no longer salient.
The Price of Whiteness shows how much Jewish identity is influenced by the political and cultural milieu in which we live. Awareness of how Jewish identity has evolved over time can help us understand other generations better-and also other societies, like Israel’s, in which Jewish identity is shaped by a different set of forces.
I’ve also written about two of the other Sami Rohr prize books. See:
Next week: Yael Hedaya’s “Accidents”
Note: Minor edits to this post were made on 20.6.08-hw