Are Jewish People a Race?

Written by Jennifer; Originally published at Mixed Race America

The question in this blog’s title was one posed to me by one of my student’s after class recently. Actually, the question was more sophisticated. I had been lecturing, in class, about terms like “race,” “racism,” “anti-racism,” and “white privilege.” And I had talked about the racial pentagram–the way that we (meaning most people in the U.S.) talk about race as if there were 5 predominant categories: black, white, Asian American, Latino/Hispanic, and American Indian/Native American. I said that of course I wasn’t saying that this was a good thing or trying to reinforce that we should only acknowledge 5 and only 5 races–that in fact our understanding of racial groups and racial formation is an ongoing and flexible thing–and that we may be talking about a racial hexagram soon since increasingly Arab and Muslim Americans are being racialized into their own category in the U.S.

So my student, after class, asked what I thought about Jewish people being considered a separate race in the U.S. And I said that certainly not that long ago, Jewish people were, indeed, considered a separate race in the U.S. and certainly around the world. And that anti-semitism is still with us–there are people who continue to discriminate against Jewish people based simply, sadly, and solely on their Jewishness. But I also said that with respect to how we think about race currently in the U.S. it was complicated because similar to either mixed race individuals whose multiraciality may include whiteness or with Latino/Hispanics, Jewish people whose phenotype trends white have white skin privilege because their Jewishness, at least at first sight, is not going to be apparent. And I said that like with all types of identities, there are elements of intersectionally that informs times when we exercise more or less privilege and find ourselves in oppressed or minoritized positions versus in majority positions. As an Asian American woman, I am seemingly in a minoritized position by my race and gender, yet as a straight identified, able bodied person who holds a PhD and a position at a research university, I exercise privilege in very tangible ways.

So I thought about all of this when I watched the film Sarah’s Key yesterday. It is a film that I hope everyone watches, because it tells an incredibly moving story. And more importantly, it reminds us of an underdiscussed moment in history–the round-up and deportation of over 13,000 Jewish immigrants and refugees (and their French-born children and grandchildren) on July 16 and 17, 1942 in Vichy France–what is commonly referred to as the Vel d’Hiv (a shortening of Velodrome d’Hiver–which was the winter stadium in which these 13,000 people languished for days before being transported to transit camps in the countryside before being finally shipped off to Auschwitz). Click here for an article about the filmmaker’s motivations for making the film.

The film was incredibly moving and powerful — and an important scene in the film (and don’t worry, this isn’t going to spoil anything in terms of a plot point in the story) is when one character expresses disgust at the way that the average French citizens did nothing to stop this atrocity. And another character asks her what she would have done had she been there–how would she have protested or tried to stop this from happening? Would she have the courage, during the German occupation of France, to risk her life or the lives of her family to help a group of people being persecuted by the state?

This is the question I ask myself when I insert myself back in WWII in California when posters announcing the roundup of Japanese Americans were plastered all over the state. Or in the mid-1950s on segregated busses in the South. Or in the era of apartheid in South Africa. I think we all want to believe that we’d be brave–we’d stand up and speak truth to power–that we would risk our lives for our beliefs. But I don’t know.

And honestly, if we look at history, over and over again, people often don’t. They look after themselves rather than others. There are, of course, extraordinary exceptions–and these exceptions are important. At any rate, I think that films like Sarah’s Key and my student’s question are important reminders about the fact that it was not that long ago that Jewish people were racialized into an oppressed category in the U.S. — the Holocaust may feel like the past, but it was not that long ago that Hitler’s final solution was enacted all over Europe and 6 million people were murdered because enough people didn’t believe in their humanity. And that is the ultimate form of racism–believing that another race isn’t even human.

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