As a visible Jew in a country where Jews make up less than 2% of the population, I never thought of myself as “white,” but rather as a member of a historically recognized minority ethnicity. But on many campuses like ours, history is being rewritten to reject Jewish experience and ethnicity because of skin color alone. We now face an ever-more-popular ideology which demands that in order for my opinion to be heard, I must admit that I am nothing but a white man with a beard and a funny beanie.
In a recent medical ethics class discussion, a student demanded that two professors “acknowledge their whiteness” in order to speak about the ethical ramifications of certain medical policy issues on minority communities.
Apparently the professors, one with Jewish ancestry and the other the Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor, couldn’t sufficiently empathize with terrible events in black history like the Tuskegee syphilis study. Later, I pointed out to students that Jews have their own Tuskegee, in the form of Josef Mengele, the torturer of Auschwitz whose name has become synonymous with extreme unethical treatment of human subjects. I added that in any case, skin color has nothing to do with one’s ability to empathize. I was simply told to stop playing in the “Oppression Olympics” and recognize my own white privilege before offering an opinion.
Dismissive remarks like this that label Jews as “white” unfairly identify them with categories like “privileged” and “majority.” In our political climate, these words are strongly associated with oppression of minorities and are unfair and ahistorical when applied to the Jewish experience. If we don’t talk about “white Muslims,” “white Latinos,” or “white Arabs” in our public discourse, to single out the Jews, the perennial minority, is not justifiable.
This is not the first time the narrative that Jews are white has been used to make them feel unsafe and unwelcome. The bully tactic of excluding Jews by calling them white has made it possible for people to believe that the object of Hitler’s Final Solution can themselves be white supremacists. This cognitive dissonance was made obvious last year during a speech by Ben Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew. While Shapiro spent most of his speech lambasting the alt-right, protestors outside yelled anti-KKK slogans, apparently without any sense of irony.
The narrative that Jews are white is also frequently used to make ahistorical claims about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Flipping reality on its head, we are often fed the lie that Jews returning to their historical homeland is no different than any other European colonial venture. Our millennia-long presence in the land and the historically recognized site of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem are frequently denied in Palestinian media and by Palestinian leaders. Lies like these are the centerpiece of many classes on our campus and others, but are sadly in line with traditional academic anti-Israel bias. Our history is denied and written off as lies made up by the Jews, who are impugned as white foreigners from Europe.
But it goes beyond the antisemitism inherent in the anti-Israel sentiment on campuses like ours, where antisemitic cartoons are posted with impunity, and well-known antisemites like Linda Sarsour are invited to speak. American Jews are the victims of more hate crimes per capita than any other ethnicity by far. The likelihood of a hate crime against Jews consistently hovers around 3 times more than any other group, despite likely underreporting of anti-Jewish hate crimes.
This Winter break alone, the American Jewish community was rocked by almost daily reports of assaults, murders, and terrorist attacks against them. I personally have been beaten up, harassed, cursed at and insulted and yet I am told that I can never empathize with what it really means to be a minority because I have light skin.
A discussion in a medical ethics class may seem small, but it is representative of the double-standard American Jews face: They are portrayed as part of a privileged majority and yet constantly victimized as a hated minority. Intersectionality is wrong: Perceived privilege of a group should never be a reason to deny any individual a voice. Otherwise, as incredibly privileged Stanford students, none of us should ever be heard. But even if we accept the axioms of intersectionality, to specifically exclude an ethnic group that continues to experience millennia-old hatred is the ultimate hypocrisy.
Radical attempts to caricature individuals according to their skin color is an ineffective way to fight historic injustice, racism and oppression. Activist intersectionality has failed the Jews because of this myopic reduction of our collective and personal experiences to a simple melanin test. It’s time we reexamine these attitudes and contradictions and refuse to exclude anyone from the conversation because of their skin color alone.