Our text study this month is pulled from the article “Our White Supremacy Problem” by Devin Naar , originally published on Jewish Currents.
We’re reading sections III and IV, copied below. The entire article is worth the read
A nuanced exploration of our history reveals that we do not have an Ashkenormativity problem in the American Jewish community — or not only; like the country as a whole, we have a white supremacy problem. Grappling with the origin and depth of these roots can help us move beyond the insufficient concept of Ashkenormativity towards a broader understanding of the ways that we have been coerced into internalizing the primacy of whiteness, Europeanness, and Christianity to harm our own and others.
III. THE LIMITS OF THE AMERICAN MELTING POT
For those familiar with the history of Zionism and the experiences of Mizrahim in the state of Israel, this kind of rhetoric and the policies that derived from it—such as the Israeli state’s segregation of Mizrahi Jews into poorly served “refugee absorption camps,” and the kidnapping of Yemenite and other Mizrahi and Sephardi children to give to childless Holocaust survivors—will not be surprising. What may be more surprising is how similar racist rhetoric along the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide played out in the United States.
Jews often imagine the United States as an exceptional country, one which did away with old-world animosities and where Jews have thrived like nowhere else (besides, perhaps, medieval Spain or pre-war Germany). Indeed, George Washington’s famous letter to the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, characterized the government of the United States as one that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” where “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be no one to make him afraid.”
The inclusion of European Jews in Washington’s imagined world of American tolerance only extended to different faith groups among whites and was contingent upon Jews’ complicity in perpetuating anti-black (and anti-indigenous) racism.
But Washington owned slaves, as did the founder of the Touro synagogue, Aaron Lopez. The inclusion of European Jews in Washington’s imagined world of American tolerance only extended to different faith groups among whites and was contingent upon Jews’ complicity in perpetuating anti-black (and anti-indigenous) racism. The same year that Washington expressed his “toleration” for Newport’s Jews, Congress made its first declaration concerning the eligibility of a foreigner to become a naturalized US citizen. The only requirement was for the petitioner to be a “white person.” Mixed-race, Native American, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and a wide variety of other peoples were thus excluded from US citizenship from 1790 until racial prerequisites were abolished in 1952 (those of “African descent” became eligible after the Civil War); Jews were never denied petitions for naturalization based on race, even if they experienced antisemitism in many other contexts.
As the era of racial pseudoscience emerged in the 19th century, Jews posed a quandary for American intellectuals and politicians. As a way to safeguard their inclusion in the favored caste, Jewish leaders advocated for the expansion of the boundaries of whiteness to include not only those from Western European Protestant countries, but rather from all of Europe. In his famous play The Melting Pot (1908), Israel Zangwill articulated his vision of America, where “all the races of Europe [emphasis: mine] are melting and reforming . . . Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians — into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.” Notably, Zangwill omitted all non-Europeans: Asians, Africans, Latinxs, indigenous peoples. In short, whites only, inclusive of European Jews.
When the privileges that European Jews had attained in the United States appeared to be threatened, their leaders mobilized in defense. When the case of a (Christian) Syrian who sought to be naturalized came before a US court in 1909, Jewish leaders panicked: if Syrians were deemed “Asiatic” or “Mongoloid” and thus ineligible for naturalization, perhaps white-looking Jews — perceived at the time to be racially “Semitic” and classified by US immigration authorities as “Hebrews” by race into the 1940s — would lose their right to citizenship. The judge in the case indicated that while he would permit European Jews to be naturalized because he viewed them as “racially, physiologically, and psychologically” European, by the same logic, Syrian Jews should be classified differently: “Asiatics” ineligible for naturalization.
As the racial status of Syrians continued to be debated — the courts ultimately deemed them, and all Middle Easterners, “white” — Sephardic Jews began arriving in the United States from the Ottoman Empire, and American Jewish leaders opined over their new “problem” of “Oriental immigration.” At a meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Charities in 1913, documented in its published proceedings, Maurice Hexter, who later became vice president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in New York, mimicked the rhetoric of the judge in the Syrian naturalization case, arguing that Oriental Jews ought to be treated in a manner completely differently from “our” Jews — the already established “European” Jews. So great was “the psychic and psychological difference,” Hexter emphasized, between the “Levantine Jew” and his European coreligionists that “there seems to be little in common.” Another commentator disparagingly insisted: “The Levantine Jew is as human, or almost as human, as any other.”
America was no stranger to intra-Jewish tensions — the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, established in the Americas since colonial times, drew upon the Sephardic mystique to fashion themselves as the “grandees,” American Jewish nobility, while the uptown German Jews in New York looked down on the downtown Eastern European Yiddish speakers with disdain. But this was the first time that American Jews denied other Jews’ claim to Jewishness, as German and especially Yiddish-speaking Jews did in distancing themselves from the newcomers from the Ottoman Empire.
As recounted by historian Aviva Ben-Ur in her book, Sephardic Jews in America, Ottoman Jews went to great lengths to prove themselves to other Jews, revealing their talletoth and tefillin, the Hebrew-lettering of their Ladino newspapers, and in some instances, their circumcisions, often only to be rejected as impostors — Muslims or Turks, Italians or Puerto Ricans, but certainly not Jews. Under the leadership of Judah Magnes — the Reform rabbi who later advocated for a bi-national Jewish-Arab state in Palestine — the Kehillah, New York’s main Jewish communal organization at the time, rejected requests from Levantine Jews for assistance for their own communal organization and Ladino newspaper. The Hebrew Immigrant and Aid Society (HIAS), which helped thousands of Jews navigate immigration regulations, only reluctantly took on the cases of Levantine Jews in the early decades of the 20th century; the organization’s director thought the newcomers ought to instead settle in Cuba, where he believed they would be more likely to succeed in the slow-paced society and warmer climate. The Immigrant Removal Office, which helped resettle Jews across the country, refused to publish its guidebook in Judeo-Spanish despite requests and despite publishing editions in other languages. The exclusion of Levantine Jews from American Jewish institutions was nearly complete.
An equivocal act of inclusion, the first “academic” study of Sephardic Jews in the United States provocatively began by claiming that Ottoman-born Jews were “nearly as alien to their [Ashkenazi] kinsmen as are the negroes to the average white Southerner.”
IV. STUDYING THE “BACKWARD” LEVANTINE JEW
Seeking to determine the social welfare needs of Jews in New York, in 1926 the Bureau of Jewish Social Research commissioned a well-known economic historian, Louis Hacker, who later served as a dean at Columbia University, to study the conditions impacting the city’s Oriental Jews. An equivocal act of inclusion, the first “academic” study of Sephardic Jews in the United States provocatively began by claiming that Ottoman-born Jews were “nearly as alien to their [Ashkenazi] kinsmen as are the negroes to the average white Southerner.”
Echoing the anti-black and orientalist rhetoric that Kant and Chamberlain harnessed in the service of antisemitism, Hacker now projected similar characteristics onto the Levantine Jews. He attributed the challenges they faced to their racial inferiority, which he viewed as stemming from the “backward,” “Mohammedan” atmosphere of their birth; he feared they would not be able to “slough off” such racial differences. By likening them to the “Negro” within; the invading “Oriental” from without; and the menacing “Mohammedan” from afar, Hacker relegated Levantine Jews to the furthest margins of American Jewish life and to the bottom of the racial hierarchy.
The only hope for salvation that Hacker saw for the backwards Ottoman Jews was if they spent more time with “our” Jews, the Ashkenazim, who could teach the newcomers how to be white, civilized, Euro-Americans. Appealing to eugenics, Hacker hoped the Levantine Jews would “interbreed” with the Ashkenazim so that the stain of their “Negro”- and Muslim-like status would eventually, over a few generations, be either unlearnt or bred out of them. But even here, Hacker equivocated, fearing that the Levantine Jews’ “Oriental temperament” encouraged “localism” and “clannishness,” which impeded their ability to integrate into the Jewish community. Due to the Levantine Jews’ “inherent characteristics,” Hacker concluded that the Jewish establishment could not do much to help the newcomers.
Just as Graetz and Ruppin refracted and deflected the pervasive anti-Jewish rhetoric in the European context, so, too, did Hacker in the United States. As he was preparing his study, New York tabloids were running sensational articles about the inferior racial stock of the Jews, their desire for power, and the threat they posed to American society, while touting Congress’ decision to limit Jewish immigration through the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. These anti-Jewish screeds, including “The Pedigree of Judah” (1926) by infamous eugenicist and Klansman Lothrop Stoddard, echoed Chamberlain’s claim that Eastern European Jews were not “real” Jews, but rather descendants of Tatars and Asiatic tribes: “like gispies [sic] in everything but in name.” North Carolina’s first Poet Laureate, scholar and theologian Arthur Abernethy’s bestselling 1910 book, The Jew A Negro gained further traction when serialized in the 1920s:
The Jew of today is essentially Negro in habit, physical peculiarities and tendencies . . . Like the Negroes the Jews have no country; like the Negroes, their whole history shows they were never capable of self-government without direct assistance from God; like the Negroes they have foisted race riots on countries where they have lived . . . The overshadowing predominance of the Negro question has alone kept the American people at peace with the Hebrew. When — and the day is closer at hand than we imagine — the Negro is eliminated from the citizenship of the United States . . . the American government will turn its attention to the alien Hebrew.
The Jewish Daily Forward, the most prominent Yiddish newspaper at the time, rebutted these defaming articles. That encounter with antisemitic rhetoric provides the backdrop for understanding how The Forward treated Hacker’s report on the status of “Turkish Jews” in New York. Reflecting the orientalist perspectives and racist thinking of the day, Nathaniel Zalowitz, the editor of the English section of The Forward, decreed:
In the ‘old country’ they [Turkish Jews] had no cultural life of their own worth speaking of. They had no common body of customs and traditions, no common literature, no knowledge of or curiosity about their past. They had not been revived by a great spiritual movement such as Chasidism which rescued the Jews of Eastern Europe from stagnancy. They had been a backward people in a backward country, and how could they hope to progress in this country?
As antisemites had denigrated Jews for lacking the ability to create culture — the German composer Richard Wagner (Chamberlain’s father-in-law) did so most infamously in his 1850 essay, “Jewishness and Music” — so the premier newspaper of Eastern European Jews in New York denied the same human capacity to Levantine Jews. Replicating the language of antisemites like Stoddard the Klansman, in another essay in The Forward, Zalowitz lamented that the Sephardic Jews had become nothing but a “horde of gypsies.” Appeals to this kind of rhetoric enabled one segment of Jews to self-whiten by rhetorically blackening another segment.
Appeals to this kind of rhetoric enabled one segment of Jews to self-whiten by rhetorically blackening another segment.
Levantine Jewish leaders in New York expressed outrage over Hacker’s report and The Forward’s reportage, as revealed in a cache of previously unstudied documents at the American Sephardi Federation in New York. An intellectual from Salonica, Henry Besso, wrote lengthy letters to Hacker and The Forward refuting each exposé and requesting that a Sephardic view of their own situation be published. Hacker responded by insisting that his study was “impartial in every sense” and that The Forward sensationalized it. But a review of Hacker’s longer, unpublished manuscript reveals that he clung to his presuppositions despite empirical evidence that proved otherwise. For example, Hacker argued that while the Levantine Jew can speak many languages, “he cannot, as a rule, read them.” His data, however, showed that the vast majority of Levantine Jews — 83% of those he interviewed — read Jewish periodicals on a weekly basis (not to mention other non-Jewish publications). He never published this particular finding, instead burying the statistic in an unpublished appendix.
Zalowitz, too, passed the buck: “My motive was an honorable one. I had no intention to write a sensational article. I was merely interested in familiarizing our Ashkenazic Jews with the Sephardim. Hence, your quarrel is not with me, but with Mr. Hacker.” Zalowitz indicated that a “pro-Sephardic” article might be appropriate for his newspaper at some point, but said that Besso’s letter could not be published because of its “European English.” No article by a Sephardic Jew expressing their “side” of the story appeared in the newspaper. In addition to being denigrated, they were effectively silenced.
Questions for Reflection
1. A common stereotype, held by non-Jews and Jews alike, is that Jews are “tribal” or “clannish.” The adoption of white supremacist values has clearly shaped which other Jews “count” as part of our “tribe.” How do grapple with that history? How do we act to undo it?
2. The longer article begins with a discussion of Sander Gilman’s classic 1986 study, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Gilman’s work is concerned with exploring “how Jews see the dominant society seeing them and how they project their anxiety about this manner of being seen onto other Jews as a means of externalizing their own status anxiety.” How do we confront this impulse to label “good vs bad” and “real vs fake” Jews? What strategies can we invent to confront anti-Jewish hatred and white supremacy at the same time?
3. Devin Naar ends this article with the following paragraph – what are our first steps for taking up this challenge?
That unjust system has not gone away. It continues to thrive on horizontal oppression perpetrated by vulnerable communities pitted one against the other. It is easier to step on your relatively powerless brother or sister than to dismantle systems of racism and exclusion. And yet, there is no other way, for as long as these prejudices exist, Jews will be implicated in them. Confronting the deep-seated and disturbing history of intra-Jewish prejudice is a prerequisite for the empowerment of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews—and Jews of color—in Jewish spaces, and for a reckoning with the place of most Jews as targets of, and willing and unwilling accomplices to, the structures of white supremacy. Only a Jewish commitment to dismantling white supremacy will do justice to our own histories, keep our own communities safe, and fashion new foundations upon which to rebuild American—and American Jewish—society.