February 2017 Spotlight On: Race Top Stories

The Decline of Jewish Whiteness in the Age of Trump

In the December 5, 2016 issue of The Atlantic, journalist Emma Green wondered “Are Jews White?” This is a question that seems to be quite simple – very few people in the United States in 2017 would consider Jews to be members of a minority group, at least not anymore.

by Eric Morgenson

In the December 5, 2016 issue of The Atlantic, journalist Emma Green wondered “Are Jews White?” This is a question that seems to be quite simple—very few people in the United States in 2017 would consider Jews to be members of a minority group, at least not anymore. However, it is a question that historians of race will likely be asking themselves in the upcoming decades. The story of Jews in the twentieth-century United States is one of an ethnic group striving for, and largely receiving, acceptance into mainstream American culture. Beginning in earnest in the immediate post-World War II period, American Jews moved from an immigrant group whose members spoke different languages and were associated in the American mind with leftist politics to a group that, while still collectively very liberal, largely shunned Yiddish for English, and left behind the world of socialist Bunds and trade unions for the American two-party political system.

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English/Yiddish US Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In essence, Jews became “white” in the modern American sense of the word. They had access to the levers of political power and no longer faced institutional discrimination like restrictions on housing.[1] The election of Donald Trump as President has caused American Jews to rethink their place in American society, and has thrown their story of ascent into the mainstream into chaos. With Trump’s Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and his appointment of Breitbart editor Steve Bannon, the President is sending ambiguous messages about his views towards Jews, and ultimately, the place of Jews in American society.

The literature on Jews and whiteness has thus far centered on how Jews became white across the postwar decades. Seminal works like anthropologist Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says About Race in America emphasize the changes that took place after the Second World War, as well as the movement of American Jews from the inner cities to the suburbs alongside other whites.

The election of Donald Trump as President has caused American Jews to rethink their place in American society, and has thrown their story of ascent into the mainstream into chaos. With Trump’s Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and his appointment of Breitbart editor Steve Bannon, the President is sending ambiguous messages about his views towards Jews, and ultimately, the place of Jews in American society.

To reference the title of a biography by a famed Jewish conservative Norman Podhoretz, American Jews were “making it” in the United States by assimilating into mainstream American society. In place of alliances with other minority groups, Jews found themselves unambiguously white and isolated from people of color.

The twentieth-century trend of high levels of assimilation continued to the point where, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, 58 percent of American Jews were marrying non-Jews.[2] Jews became so successful in America that the question “would American Jews be accepted?” became “will American Jews continue to exist?”[3] One of the many young Jews who married outside of the faith was Jared Kushner, scion to a prominent real estate empire. Kushner married Ivanka Trump, daughter of the famed Donald Trump. Unlike many spouses of American Jews, however, Ivanka chose to convert to the Orthodox Judaism of her husband, thus making her the first Orthodox Jewish first daughter.

While Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump embody modern American Jewish identity as a mixed-couple, the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency has also emboldened white supremacists and has correlated with a striking increase in antisemetic acts in the United States. While antisemitism has long had a presence on the American right, the post-World War II United States saw a delegitimization of antisemitism, both because of American involvement in the war, as well as through the concerted efforts of conservative thought leaders such as William F. Buckley to minimize, or at least cover up, antisemitism. By the late 1960s, the efforts were so successful some Jewish intellectuals heavily supported that neoconservatism.

The concern among American Jews is that Breitbart‘s support for a Jewish state comes not from any particular concern for the well being of world Jewry but from the Islamophobic focus of the white nationalist right, who view Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians and colonial settler mentality as being in line with their views on what they perceive to be the battle between radical Islam and Western culture.

This conservative movement came on the heels of the collapse of the Civil Rights Coalition and used the liberal language of universalism and plurality to combat multiculturalism and emphasize an aggressive US foreign policy. With the disastrous effects of the war in Iraq, neoconservatism lost ground to isolationism, and with the rise of right wing isolationism came a resurgence of antisemitism. The white supremacist political right (often referred to as the “alt-right”) has grown to become a major faction of the coalition that elected Donald Trump to the Presidency. The influence of individuals associated with these groups has even been credited with causing the President to omit the word “Jews” from his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement.[4] Instead, his statement offered condolence for “the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”[5]

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July 2016 Donald Trump retweet from anti-Semitic website. Courtesy of Mic.com.

In late 2016, members of various white nationalist groups released the addresses of and threatened to march against Jews in Whitefish, Montana, the hometown of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. In addition there has been a rash of bomb threats made against Jewish centers across the United States. Finally, Trump’s appointment of Breitbart editor Steve Bannon in a quickly expanding advisor role has caused American Jews continued consternation and worry, despite Breitbart’s repeated calls of support for Israel. The concern among American Jews is that the publication’s support for a Jewish state comes not from any particular concern for the well being of world Jewry but from the Islamophobic focus of the white nationalist right, who view Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians and colonial settler mentality as being in line with their views on what they perceive to be the battle between radical Islam and Western culture.[6]

Ultimately, the place of Jews in the United States is more ambiguous now than at any time in the post World War II period. Over the course of the late twentieth century, Jews achieved a level of acceptance into American society that will be hard to undo. While President Trump has the support of white nationalists and anti-Semites, he also has a Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who now has a cabinet level position in the White House. In addition, many American nationalists see a connection between themselves and Israel. While this connection is not rooted in any particular love of Jews, and instead is based on a fear of Islamist terrorism, this connection is used to disarm arguments about white nationalist antisemitism.

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Donald Trump speaking at a meeting of The American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Courtesy of Mondoweiss.net.

However, this comes at a time when young Jews are distancing themselves from Israel and working to create a distinctly American kind of Jewish identity. Both because of their increasingly liberal positions on Israel, and the influence of the alt-right on American politics, Jews may find themselves outside of the mainstream of American society once again. While it is impossible to say that American Jews are a minority community in the United States in the same way that African Americans or Latino Americans are, their status as members of the white mainstream is no longer assured. While it is impossible to speculate, historians in the future may one day be asking, “When did Jews lose their whiteness?”

morgenson-bio-picEric Morgenson is a PhD student at SUNY-Albany. He is writing a dissertation on the idea of antisemitism in the Black Nationalist Movement and American Jewish identity in the 1960s. He can be contacted here.

Notes

[1] There are many works that deal with Jews and the idea of whiteness. Two of the best include Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What that says About Race in America (New York: Rutgers University Press 1998) and Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (New York: Princeton University Press) 2008.

[2] “Intermarriage and Other Demographics” published 10/10/2013 Pew Research Center http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-2-intermarriage-and-other-demographics/

[3] See Allen Dershowitz, The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1997).

[4] Deborah Lipstadt “The Trump Administration’s Flirtation with Holocaust Denial” The Atlantic January 30, 2017.

[5] Statement by the President on International Holocaust Remembrance Day January 27, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/statement-president-international-holocaust-remembrance-day

[6] Breitbart has published highly Islamophobic articles such as Tom Tancredo’s “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture” on January 2, 2016 alongside articles vehemently defending Israel such as Joel Pollack’s “Stephen K. Bannon: Friend of the Jewish People, Defender of Israel” November 16, 2016.

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