Back to the Tribe: Intersectionality Through a Jewish Lens

A post by reader S.F. Katz


“Is a string of attacks against Jews in Brooklyn really a sign of antisemitism?” Or is it more because black people tend to view Judaism as “a form of ‘hyper-whiteness’.”

So goes the paraphrased thought process of Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Black Movement Center, a non-profit group promoting communal organization in the black community of Crown Heights, New York.

Indeed, as gentrification spreads throughout the United States, the conflated image of Jews as the epitome of white folk based on their reputation for socioeconomic prosperity reigns supreme. To worsen matters, the schism continues to grow between Ashkenazi Jews who tend to associate themselves with whiteness and western ideals, and Mizrahi Jews who tend to uphold the remnant of claim Jews still have to a Middle Eastern homeland in the eyes of the western left.

In a time and world where intersectionality unfortunately pits “white” against
“non-white”, Jews living in the West must recall the atrocities of the Holocaust – a tragedy that revolved around the notion of the non-white European Jew – and re-embrace their Middle Eastern roots.

Jews in the West have never been mainstream white

The left in particular has begun using the fact that Ashkenazim in particular have spent generations in Europe as a means to label them as white – “white” here meaning an ethnically European people who never set foot in the Levant prior to the period of Anglo-French colonization. Thus, many Ashkenazi Jews might feel a tug-of-war between accusations of white privilege by the left and “mongrel yids” by white supremacists. Indeed, the notion persists that despite historical evidence to the contrary such as the Holocaust and ongoing incidents such as the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pennsylvania, status as an allegedly invisible minority has spared Jews from experiencing prejudice solely based on race.

Race is defined as a group of people with similarly distinguishing physical characteristics. Contrary to the notion that Jews never face discrimination based only off physical appearance or, perhaps more importantly, that they are even recognizable by physical features, the myriad examples of large nose and curly hair indicate the quintessence of physical stereotype. Just this past year in March 2019, the Belgian street parade sporting well-known Jewish caricatures of trollish, hook-nosed fiends demonstrates how these phenotype-based prejudices remain quite relevant.

By the same token, the former Soviet Union required Jews to identify as “Hebrew” on their passports rather than Russian, again highlighting this sense of otherness projected by European Diaspora governments upon their resident Jewish populations.

Meanwhile, across the pond in the United States during the 1930s, fifty three percent of the population viewed Jews as different and in need of government restriction. In fact, many Jews at this time ran the risk of denaturalization, in the face of American leadership’s view of them as an Asian people from the Levant.

Furthermore, while the majority of Jews don’t face the same threat of being needlessly pulled over and potentially assaulted or shot by police as a black American might, hate crimes against Jews remain the highest among all faiths. For instance, the white supremacist terrorist who committed the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue evidently cared not that the majority of his victims were Ashkenazi.

If Jews in the West should feel solidarity with anyone given their historical encounters with hardship, it should be with the struggle of African-Americans for justice in the face of wrongful incarceration as well as the fight for Native American territory amidst ever-encroaching industrialization by the US government, and the battle against Islamophobia. Jews, regardless of skin tone or the languages of the various Jewish Diaspora communities and despite the prosperity of some Jews in the West, continue to live on the social periphery of western civilization.

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