Ethnic studies tries to figure out if Jews are white. (Repost)
Washington’s leading ethnic studies organization weighs in on Jews.
“Anti-Semitism successfully turns Jews into the symbol of whatever a given civilization defines as its most sinister and threatening qualities. When you look through this dark lens, you can understand how, under communism Jews were the capitalists. How under Nazism, Jews were the race contaminators. And today, when the greatest sins are racism and colonialism, Israel, the Jew among the nations, is being demonized as the last bastion of white, racist colonialism—a unique source of evil not just in the region but in the world. Whatever role “the Jews” are needed for, well, that is the part they are forced to play.”1
When I wrote about Washington state’s ethnic studies framework last October and its questionable relationship to the Jewish community, I included quotes from the director of the state’s prominent ethnic studies organization, Washington Ethnic Studies Now, a radical educational nonprofit led by the controversial Tracy Castro-Gill. In my article, Castro-Gill questioned the role of Jews in the ethnic studies conversation and accused them of being white people gatekeeping the work of people of color while (illegitimately) claiming people-of-color status.
Castro-Gill is now tackling the relationship of ethnic studies and Jewishness on the WAESN blog, starting with a conversation with a Jewish friend and Seattle Public Schools librarian Jeff Treistman. The central question they discuss: Are Jews white?
At best, the conversation is a good-faith discussion that makes some bad-faith arguments. At worst, it’s performative curiosity. I’d like to work through some of the things I find most challenging.
First, Castro-Gill makes clear her position: “…this blog post is being written as a conversation between myself and Jeff in response to some criticism I’ve received from some Jewish folks recently over my insistence that most Jews are white, my view of Israel as a settler-colonial state, and my support of Palestinian Studies in ethnic studies programs.”
As a non-Jewish person, I want to be sure I’m not missing anything, and that I’m listening to reasonable Jewish people with a deep understanding of Jewish history and contemporary concerns about the recent rise in antisemitism. I say, “reasonable,” because there is a trend of white Zionists shutting down and working against anti-racist scholars of color. Members of California’s Jewish legislative caucus penned a letter denouncing the work of ethnic studies scholars of color saying, “We cannot support a curriculum that erases the American Jewish experience, fails to discuss antisemitism, reinforces negative stereotypes about Jews, singles out Israel for criticism, and would institutionalize the teaching of antisemitic stereotypes in our public schools.” The thing is, ethnic studies, historically, has never been about Jewish Studies. The focus has always been on racially minoritized groups. Also historically, there are four races: European, Asian, American (including all of the Americas, not just the USA), and African. Oceanian was recently added as a fifth race. Ethnic studies has always been about Black, Latinx, American Indian, and Asian experiences. European Jews don’t fall into these categories.
Let’s take this line by line. Castro-Gill wants to understand Jewish concerns, but right out of the gate she sets boundaries around which Jews get the floor. She will only talk to “reasonable Jews.” Reasonable Jews are differentiated from Zionist Jews. Why call them Zionists? And who? The California Jewish Caucus? Was everyone who was concerned about the California curriculum a proven supporter of Israel — and if so, would that disqualify them from having an opinion? No. It’s because Zionism is a slur. Zionism implies racism, it implies colonialism, it implies exploitation — as opposed to a liberation movement. It’s a way to separate and isolate “good Jews” from “bad Jews.”
These white Zionists were apparently behind the trouble around that state’s ethnic studies curriculum when they called it out for erasing the Jewish American experience and reinforcing negative stereotypes about Jews. (Read the whole letter here.) One might think that leaders in an educational movement dedicated to uplifting marginalized voices and bringing justice and fairness to education would pause at these concerns. But Castro-Gill dismisses them and blazes on. Jews should not be concerned about anti-Semitism in an ethnic studies curriculum because…ethnic studies does not include Jews. It’s not about ethnicity at all, in fact, but rather race. (One may also be forgiven for wondering where in this racial paradigm Arab Palestinians fit in.)
Then Castro-Gill talks about her conversation with me. When I interviewed her, she asked to record the Zoom call in the event I misrepresent her. Fair enough. After the fact, she asked if she could post our conversation to WAESN’s YouTube channel. I declined, because I was unprepared for a public discussion. She went ahead and posted it anyway. I was able to successfully petition YouTube to take it down on the grounds of privacy violation, but I figured it would resurface, and it does here. Castro-Gill, who was the subject of formal investigations by the Seattle Public Schools for accusations of harassment and insubordination (it was the latter that cost her the position of SPS ethnic studies lead), has no compunction about violating a privacy agreement.2 She takes the moral high ground by accusing me of misrepresenting her, but this is unfounded.
She goes on:
White Jewish people [i.e., representatives from the Jewish Federation] insisting on being included in a curriculum that has never been about them reeks of white privilege, and when I say that, Jewish folks come back with something along the lines of, “Well, Jewish identity is complicated.” Aren’t all identities?
Again, if a curriculum that’s not about a particular group employs negative and exclusionary tropes about that group, it’s not “privileged” for that group to be worried about the educational goals of the curriculum. (And for the record, other interest groups, including Koreans and Armenians, took issues with the original California curriculum draft.)
I am also going to go out on a limb here and say, actually, Jewish identity is more complicated. Jews come in all colors and from many countries, and we’re considered Jewish if we disavow God or if we used to believe in a different God. We are the number one target of religiously motivated hate crimes in this country year after year. We’re not exactly a religion, not exactly an ethnicity, not a race (though we have been categorized as such in recent memory), and not exactly a nationality. Some of us can prove our Jewish ancestry with DNA testing. Others cannot. This inability to fit Jews into a tidy, modern, and socially constructed category is why we have been persecuted time and again. Yet people like Castro-Gill are flummoxed by Jewish resistance to feeding their already-intersectional identity into an intersectional matrix that is obsessed with victims and power. If only we would admit our white privilege and get out of the way, so people of color (who, of course, are not monolithic and not even necessarily politically aligned, but who cares) can get to work.
Actually, wait, no, this is all about white Jews shutting down support of brown Palestinian people and defending the colonial, racist enterprise called Israel. If only we’d hand that land back over, everything would be so much easier. Then we could go back to ignoring those annoying Jews like we used to be able to do, and also their disempowerment and probable slaughter would be justified.
Castro-Gill asks Treistman how to navigate questions of power and Jewishness without stepping on an anti-Semitism landmine. She references a fascinating article by David Schraub titled “White Jews,” in which Schraub calls for a deeper understanding of intersectionality between Jewishness and whiteness:
Part of the difficulty is that Jewishness crosses over and blurs categories that theorists—particularly nonintersectional ones—often wish to keep separate. It is simultaneously national, racial, ethnic, and religious in character, but not reducible to any of these. As Albert Memmi, the renowned Tunisian Jewish anticolonialist3 writer, wryly observed, it is the “sociologists’ lack of imagination” that renders them unable to latch on to the peculiarity of the Jewish case and instead sees them grasping about for a more familiar box in which to place Jews.
While yes, most Jews in this moment, in this place, appear indistinguishable from white non-Jews (a luxury not afforded in some majority-white places like Russia), many Jews bristle at being called white. If whiteness means power, and power is the prime conspiratorial accusation thrown at Jews, then what does it mean to be white and Jewish? Schraub delves into these ironies: we live in a world where “Judeo-Christian” absorbs Judaism but doesn’t understand or honor it, and where Jews are both part of a majority “white” voice yet marginalized by that very same group:
When non-Jewish Whites assimilate Jewish entities or practices into Whiteness for purposes of criticizing them, they circumvent the need to put in the hard work of understanding Jewish experience as a distinct entity that they do not simply “know” by virtue of an assumed shared Whiteness. They also substitute out the genuinely necessary work of self-examination in favor of a literal Jewish scapegoat. It is a product of Jewish Whiteness that allows it to occupy this ambivalent role—included so that it can be virtuously excluded. (Emphasis added)
Without careful attention to the particular social location that exists where Whiteness and Jewishness intersect, the Whiteness frame can reinscribe—even accentuate—deep antisemitic tropes of Jewish power, hegemony, and dominion.
I wish we could take a step back from “whiteness” and focus on the role Christianity (and Islam and Nation of Islam) play in defining and reframing Jewishness. In any case, many Jews do welcome the introspection involved with anti-racism, and indeed those of us who are pale and “white passing” can stand to acknowledge that we do benefit from a certain ease of life that other Americans may not have. Complicating this experience is the rather sad history of Jewish-black relations, in which Jews have been major contributors to the Civil Rights movement (Jews comprised a disproportionate number of Freedom Riders, and two Jewish civil rights activists, along with a black man, were murdered in Mississippi in 1961) yet have also, maybe even more so, been thought of as exploiting the black community. We could all benefit from diving more deeply into this complicated relationship — something some of our synagogues do through interfaith study groups with black churches.
When you take a long view of history, all this categorization is absurd, because we’ve always existed on the edge of definition. Whenever new utopian ways of imagining society emerge, Jews wait for the blame for the problems to land on their heads. We are on board with fighting white supremacy (the biggest threat to American Jews), and we probably put more effort into that than any other group, you’re welcome. But it gets weird when the people you thought were your allies are now calling you a white supremacist — or worse, a Jewish supremacist, a term some on the left use that originates with Hitler and has been repurposed by David Duke. Jewish history exists in chiastic structure.
Are the Castro-Gills of the world anti-Semitic? They don’t think so, at least, and they make public statements standing by Jews when needed. Reasonable Jews, that is. Attacks on “unreasonable Jews” barely make it into the news, and when they do, they are often given a conditional clause. As author Dara Horn points out in her book, People Love Dead Jews, when religious Jews or Israel-supporting Jews are attacked, their victimhood is often framed as part of a larger narrative or denied any systemic qualities. Opponents of Israel attacking American Jews on the streets of LA during a Gaza-Israel war? How random!
Horn proposes the concept of Purim anti-Semitism and Hanukkah anti-Semitism. Purim anti-Semitism is the top-down, annihilation-focused anti-Semitism of Haman, Hitler, Ahmadinejad, Hamas, Duke. Hanukkah anti-Semitism is horizontal. It’s soft, it’s under the radar, it’s maybe even unconscious. It’s the anti-Semitism of the Seleucids and the Soviets. It requires Jewish buy-in to dismantle Judaism in exchange for acceptance and protection.
These people are used as a cover to demonstrate the good intentions of the regime — which of course isn’t anti-Semitic, but merely requires that its Jews publicly flush thousands of years of Jewish civilization down the toilet in exchange for the prize of not being treated like dirt or murdered. For a few years. Maybe.4
Treistman rightly says that any critique of the Jewish community should demonstrate knowledge of our history. He points out that most Americans don’t know much about Judaism and also that most Jews don’t know much about Judaism:
Most people are ignorant of Jewish history because it is not taught in public schools and that is why Jewish Studies is such an important topic on the university level. Many Jews try to give their children some Jewish education both in religious and secular schools and don’t rely on public school for that part of their education. Even so, many Jews have only limited knowledge of their own cultural history.
Well shoot. I have an idea: Why don’t we include Jewish history in ethnic studies?
Treistman also posits the idea that anti-Semitism and Judaism are co-dependent. This is somewhat true. Anti-Semitism keeps us motivated to make the world a less hateful place and to outlast our enemies. But truly, anti-Semitism isn’t what keeps the Jews united. Summer camp is. Education is. Family is. Torah is. Shabbat is. When one lives a committed Jewish life in even a semi-traditional way, he or she is hemmed in by community, traditions, Torah, and a supportive social circle. Going to minyan two or three times a day, eating a huge meal with your friends and family every Friday, or whatever one does to experience the rhythm of Jewish life, is why Judaism has kept us connected, even when other enchanting paths have tempted and lured us with illusive promises of freedom and acceptance.
What I want is for Jews to be afforded the same authentic curiosity that other groups are afforded. Don’t take ownership of our culture or assume you know what it means to be Jewish, not least because we appear to be “white.” Take or class or invite a rabbi out for coffee. Read a book. Reach out to Jews you wouldn’t normally interact with, even if they might be Zionists. Check out AJC’s #translatehate glossary and check your biases. Instead of dismissing us as “reeking of white privilege,” ask us with genuine interest what we can bring to the table, what our fears are, and how we can use our 2,000-year-old resume to help. We want to be part of the solution. But not if it we are erased in the process. Not this time. Not anymore.
Bari Weiss, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, p. 32
I left this comment on the video, which Castro-Gill (or someone on her team) deleted twice:
Tracy asked me if she could post this on WAESN's YouTube channel. I said no, mostly because I was not mentally or physically prepared for a video interview (I would have put on some lipstick at least!). After my article came out with direct quotes and accurate information, Tracy emailed the following:
"This is why I recorded our session. You are completely unethical. 1) I was not fired or removed from my position. I resigned with a perfect personnel record and a glowing letter of recommendation from my immediate supervisor. 2) I am not WAESN. I am one person in WAESN. I was not directly involved with the creation of the framework. I was consulted on a limited basis, so saying I initially denied involvement is misleading. I was not an official member of OSPI's ESAC, but several WAESN members were. Please correct these false and misleading statements or I will address them publicly."
According to public SPS records, Tracy has a history of intimidation and lying. This is further proven by her attempt to intimidate me and her subsequent decision, against my request, to publish this video.
In this interview, she says some things that are indeed troubling to Jewish listeners. She speaks for herself.
Anti-colonialist and a liberal Zionist.
Dara Horn, Jewish Review of Books, as reprinted in Bari Weiss, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, p. 47.