OPINION | Racialization of Jewish identity perpetuates antisemitism

Billy Bernfeld, Staff Writer

Hailie Goldthorpe

Antisemitism in the United States has proliferated to dangerous levels in recent years. The tirades of Kanye West and Nick Fuentes have made headlines, but a lesser-known form of anti-Jewish hatred still thrives in this country.

While its cause has been relatively unnoticed, a significant portion of antisemitism on both sides of the political spectrum originates from the racialization of Jewish identity — that is, the intentional perception of Jewish people as a racial group rather than an ethnoreligious one.

Although the concept of race has been around for thousands of years, the modern definition of racial identity can be traced back to the 16th century or so, when European colonizers first began their centuries-long invasion of Africa and the Americas.

It was at this point that race was transformed into a hierarchy used by white supremacists to paint distinct human ethnic groups as lesser than, in order to legitimize the atrocities committed against them. This idea became a core tenet of white supremacy — and through the horrors of settler colonialism, enslavement and genocide, it has been deeply ingrained in U.S. society from law enforcement and criminal justice to education and electoral processes.

In the mid-1930s, the Nazi regime and its supporters exploited this concept to advance antisemitism and fuel their hideous agenda. By portraying Jewish identity as racial rather than ethnoreligious, the Nazis’ systematic dehumanization of the Jewish people permeated every aspect of life.

Through the tactic of racialization, my people were gradually stripped of our rights because we were perceived as lesser than the German concept of a “master race.” We were slaughtered on a scale hitherto unseen by the world — made possible through the weaponization of white supremacy and the racial hierarchicalism it thrives upon.

Unfortunately, the misconception that Jewish identity is racial in nature is not limited to right-wing nationalists. In some cases, progressive spaces can be guilty of such a thing. However, they use the modern concept of race to discriminate against Jews in a different way.

As of now, the majority of U.S. education on antisemitism comes in the form of Holocaust education — which, unfortunately, is waning in some parts of the country. It is indeed necessary to learn about the Holocaust, and in doing so we gain a better understanding of the mechanics of antisemitism. However, Jewish history is much older than the 1930s, and anti-Jewish hatred dates back to far before people labeled us as a racial group.

If all we are taught is a small sliver of the history of anti-Jewish persecution — albeit one of the most significant examples in recent times — then people will naturally associate their perception of us solely with Ashkenazi Jews — the primary demographic persecuted during the Holocaust.

Ashkenazi Jews are a diasporic Jewish population who settled in central and Eastern Europe around the 12th century after being forced out of Judea-Samaria, due to ethnic cleansing by the Crusaders. After centuries of forced assimilation, Ashkenazi heritage intersects with the whiteness our ancestors were pressured to adopt in order to survive — but the two identities are not one and the same.

As an Ashkenazi Jew whose family hails from Ukraine, I am white — however, my whiteness is separate from my Jewishness. In reality, the Jewish community and its identity is far more diverse than modern racial constructs, from the Sephardic community along the Iberian Peninsula to Mizrahi Jews in the Middle East and North Africa.

We are not a “race,” but rather a people with a common ethnic and religious identity. No matter where we come from or how we look, regional identities may overlap with Jewish ethnic identity — but they do not exclude it.

Because Jews in the United States are often perceived as white by a significant portion of the country, it is assumed that we cannot face persecution because of our history in Eastern Europe. While it may be true that my whiteness gives people like me a degree of privilege in the systemic racist hierarchy of the United States, my Jewishness is not what brings me such privilege.

Oftentimes, the false conflation of Jewish identity and whiteness is used to argue that Jewish people benefit from white supremacy — a historically revisionist fallacy which originates from antisemitic conspiracy theories purporting Jewish societal control, which have long since been debunked.

Recently, racialization of Jewish identity as white has been used to perpetuate a particularly unsavory case of historical revisionism. In an interview with The Sunday Times, actor and television personality Whoopi Goldberg made the claim that the Holocaust was not, in fact, based on race — rather, she believes that the Nazis and Ashkenazi Jews are “​​two white groups of people.”

The Nazis’ racialization of the Jewish people is the primary factor which led to our systematic persecution. By definition, the genocide of my people was about race —  diminishing our struggle is essentially a form of Holocaust denial. Jewish identity has never been racial; however, it was categorized as such in order to justify antisemitism. When people characterize the Holocaust as “white versus white,” they perpetuate historical revisionism by claiming that Jewishness is not stigmatized or persecuted.

Identity and privilege are intersectional, and we are far more complex than the racial binary of “white” versus “non-white.” Racialization — whether conscious or not — is intrinsic to white supremacy. If we force marginalized groups into the same social categories used to persecute them, then hatred against them will continue. While a proper understanding of racial identity and its historical context can prove useful in deconstructing systemic racism — contrary to racial “color-blindness,” which silences these essential discussions — enforcing racial labels upon ethnoreligious groups only perpetuates oppression.

Leave a Comment