Jews have been classified as white in the United States, but this has not insulated them against vicious and increasing anti-semitism.
In the previous article, we examined the question of whiteness in the United States, and how migrant communities have been categorised into a racially-ordered hierarchy. Those deemed to be white sit at the top of this racial pyramid, and immigrants, such as Italian Americans, struggled to be classified into the ever-fluid classification of whiteness.
However, what about the Jewish people? Technically regarded as white, they were nevertheless ostracised, subjected to anti-semitic attacks, and denounced as an internally-hostile, potentially treasonous element, in the body politic of American society. This month marks one year since the killing of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Since the election of US President Donald Trump, anti-semitic harassment of and attacks against Jewish communities have increased.
How can an ethnic and religious minority, while legally regarded as white, still be subjected to racial attacks and prejudice? Let’s explore this topic by examining the road to whiteness.
Since the US Congress passed the first naturalisation act in 1790, Jews were defined as white and therefore entitled to apply for citizenship in the new republic. However, Jews were nevertheless the outsiders, practicing an ancient creed and its associated customs. Jews did settle in major cities, and also in those US states where slavery was permitted – the US South. In fact, southern Jews – a tiny minority of them – owned and even traded African slaves.
Mordecai Cohen, a prominent and wealthy citizen of Charleston, South Carolina, owned slaves. David Franks of Philadelphia, descendent of a prominent Jewish family and staunch loyalist during the American war of independence – loyal to Britain that is – owned and traded in African slaves. However, Jews were only a marginal player in the transatlantic racial slave trafficking. However, we must decisively reject the false and anti-semitic claim that Jews dominated and/or controlled the slave trade.
That slanderously false claim, made by former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and recycled by Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, only serves to poison relations between the Jewish and African American communities. This claim is not only historically inaccurate, it recycles the old anti-semitic canard of a malevolent and sinister conspiracy of deceitful Jews, setting out to profit from people’s misery.
The notion of a shadowy global Jewish conspiracy is centuries-old, and has undergone various permutations and manifestations. This subject is too large for the current article, but we can state that American anti-semitism, as elaborated by the US ruling class, has served to divide the white population from its Jewish neighbours. In fact, the United States, especially after the end of the civil war and mass immigration from Europe, increased the volume and scope of anti-semitism.
The new science – actually pseudoscience – of race and eugenics changed national perceptions of ethnic and religious minorities. The influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants – with their customs, traditions and Yiddish language – was accompanied by a national campaign of paranoia that the new immigrants would dilute the ‘purity’ of the white stock and lead to a deterioration of the American lifestyle. The new ‘swarms’ of Jewish immigrants, the teeming masses bringing their culture and refusing to assimilate – these xenophobic themes resonate until today.
Eastern European Jews, escaping the anti-semitic pogroms and prejudice of Tsarist Russia, faced a new type of economic anti-semitism in the new country. Jewish immigrants took up work in the burgeoning factories and growing industries of the capitalist United States.
Henry Ford, the automotive genius responsible for revolutionising car production, was also a vicious lifelong anti-semite. Purchasing the Dearborn Independent newspaper, he used it as a mouthpiece to spread his increasingly anti-immigrant, anti-labour, and anti-semitic views. Ford updated the traditional Jewish conspiracy theory, suggesting that the 1917 Communist revolution in Russia, and its American adherents, were controlled by Jews.
According to Ford, Jewish bankers were responsible for starting World War One, positioning themselves to profit from the destructive conflict. Not only were Jews the sinister bankers at the centre of the financial world, they were also responsible for financing Bolshevik agitators and revolutionaries. The slander of Judeo-Bolshevism was not an exclusive invention of Ford’s, but he did his utmost to publicise this bizarre and ultra-rightist worldview.
The end of World War Two, and the revelation of the horrors of the Holocaust, led to a tactical shift in the United States – Jews would be welcomed into middle-class respectability, moving into comfortable suburbia. Given a small stake in the nation, Jewish communities achieved a level of acceptance, if only grudging, into the white racial hierarchy.
Donald Sterling, the real estate mogul and former owner of an NBA team, is originally Jewish. Imbibing the prejudices and outlook of white America, his bigotry against black Americans led to his disgrace. Able to amass a considerable fortune as a landlord, he held racist views towards African Americans, Hispanics and other racial minorities. His racism was ‘under the radar’ so to speak, during his rise to riches, because he adopted the whiteness necessary for advancement in American society.
However, it would be wrong to regard Donald Sterling as representative of the wider Jewish experience. It is no secret that American Jews participated strongly in the civil rights movement, suffering alongside their African American counterparts in an anti-racism struggle. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King welcomed Jews as equal supporters in anti-racism campaigns. While relations between Jews and African Americans have sometimes been tense and contradictory, there is no question that Jewish people have a long tradition of cross-ethnic solidarity with black Americans.
As anti-semitism rears its ugly head yet again, this time with the Trump administration providing a suitable platform, it is imperative to remember that whiteness is only a chimera, providing at best an illusory protection against racism. The best antidote to anti-semitism is multiethnic anti-racism and solidarity.