DO YOU WANT NIPPLES TACOS?
Are Jews White?
A recent judicial ruling de ining Jewish as a protected race follows a
long and often ugly history.
By ATIYA HUSAIN
AUG 14, 2018 • 5 50 AM
Orthodox Jews in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Dec. 8.
Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Joshua Bonadona graduated from Louisiana College in 2013. Raised Jewish,
he converted to Christianity in college and was known to lead the “Christian
devotional” for his football team at the private Baptist school.
In May 2017, Bonadona applied for a job at his alma mater as a football
coach. The president of the university, Rick Brewer, and the head coach
interviewed him for the job. The head coach relayed to Bonadona afterward
that he had recommended him for hire but Brewer did not. Brewer allegedly
cited Bonadona’s “Jewish blood” as the reason for the hiring decision.
(Bonadona’s mother is Jewish, and his father is Catholic.)
After learning why he was denied employment, Bonadona sued the college.
And he won.
The judge ruled last month that Bonadona had been discriminated against
because of his Jewish lineage, deciding that he was part of a protected “race”
under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For some Jewish people, it did
not feel like a victory. The regional branch of the Anti-Defamation League
released a statement in February while the case was ongoing: “ADL is deeply
o ended by the perception of Jews as a race found in both allegations
against the College and the plainti ’s assertions in the lawsuit.” After the
decision, David Barkey of the ADL called it a “double-edged sword.”
Such racial classi ications recall a violent history for Jewish people. The
Holocaust was a product of the notion that Jews were a biologically
“di erent” race from Germans and, more precisely, the Nazi concept of the
Aryan race. This history is not a comfortably distant memory, either, with
similar arguments echoing through the alt-right today.
It’s important to remember, though: Race and religion have never been fully
separate in this country. They have always overlapped, and Bonadona’s case
is just the latest example of that fact. As noted, his religious conversion
didn’t seem to matter to Louisiana College since he was perceived by the
president as being Jewish no matter what he believed. His experience is
similar to some white and black Muslims in the United States. As part of my
sociological research on how Muslims are racially positioned in this country, I
interviewed 28 white and black Muslims. I was interested in their
experiences because they are not the typical image of a Muslim in the eyes
of most Americans. My study showed that their experiences re lect the
common perception that Muslims are foreign and that white and black
Americans are Christian or secular or, at the very least, not Muslim. Some
white Muslims, for example, said they were often assumed to be nonMuslim because they did not “look Muslim” in the eyes of many Americans
they encountered. In contrast, a lot of South Asians and Arabs are assumed
to “look Muslim” no matter what they believe.
It’s also important to note that courts ruling about racial classi ications is
not a new phenomenon, nor is it speci ic to Jewish people in this country. In
the early 20th century, when only “free white persons” could become U.S.
citizens, religion was a consideration in who counted as “white.” Syrians
successfully petitioned for citizenship. They argued that they were white
because they were Christian. This shows pretty plainly that whiteness
overlaps with Christian identity. Years later, a Yemeni Muslim man’s petition
for citizenship in the 1940s was denied due not only to his “dark skin”—which
presumably keeps him out of whiteness—but also because he was Muslim.
This overlap between race and religion is old. The notion that Jewish blood
was not the same as “European blood,” for example, has ancient roots in
Christianity, and that notion was adopted early on in the American colonies.
Early laws de ined whiteness as a state of freedom, with the violent
corollary being that black people were de ined as slaves. Before these laws
used the word white, though, they used the word Christian to de ine the
“free” population. The Jewish designation moved along the racial line,
between white and black.
In the 20th Century, universities adopted
legacy-based admissions to keep Jews out.
The response to the Jewish Holocaust, the
creation of Israel, and post-WWII housing
schemes helped to move European Jews in
the U.S. into the classi ication of “white”
people. And so some European Jews, but
not Jews of color, were able to experience
some of the safety and comforts of
whiteness like suburbia, class mobility, and
“freedom.” Some white people today still
react violently to the idea that they share
their whiteness with Jewish people—that that whiteness may be made
For his part, Bonadona stood among a long line of petitioners who have had
to dig into the speci ics of what race even means in order to seek legal
remedies. He argued that the college discriminated against him on the basis
of his race, which he claimed is “Caucasian Jewish.” Notably, the
term Caucasian comes from the word Caucasoid, which was a classi ication
in one of the original systems of racial “science” of the late 18th century.
Caucasian is now often used today as a seemingly polite, scienti ic-sounding
euphemism for white. The other half of Bonadona’s self-identity—Jewish—is
where things get complicated: Is it a race or a religion? Both, neither? Is
Bonadona multiracial—identifying with two racial groups, Jewishness and
whiteness? Or is this just a reference to two words that re lect his parents’
most salient identities?
The results of the case don’t really settle these questions, but instead
stumble through their messiness. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
The judge noted how race has been de ined di erently in various times and
legal cases and ultimately argued that Jewish people are a race because
they are sometimes “treated” like one that this law was “designed to
protect.” The ruling quickly became vague, though, in its discussion of what
makes a race … a race. And that vagueness is fertile ground for a wide range
of possible future precedents or misreadings.
Then there’s this question: If Jewish people are a protected race, which race
are they? What about Jews of color? Does the post-WWII notion that
European Jews are white, which is debated over but generally accepted, no
longer hold from the perspective of the law? The judge doesn’t say one way
or the other. He rules only that Jews are a racial group that is sometimes
discriminated against. But if they were—and remain—white, is this decision
a distortion of the Civil Rights Act, which was designed to protect people of
color from white supremacy? If so, this would be reminiscent of the 2009
Supreme Court opinion in Ricci v. DeStefano, which ruled that white
ire ighters had been subject to race-based discrimination because of how
promotional exam results were handled in New Haven, Connecticut.
Whatever the ultimate answer to these questions, it’s necessary to
recognize that most people view race and religion as connected, and they
believe and behave accordingly. Once we accept that, we can ask bigger
questions about how the race-religion connection is used, more often than
not to the detriment of people of color and to the bene it of white people, a
group that has sometimes included Jews and sometimes not. Bonadona’s
case points to an important feature of American life: Religion has never been
an afterthought in systemic racism, but a racial classi ier, weaponized to
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Democracy Dies in Darkness
Is Judaism an ethnicity? A race? A nationality? Trump
signs an order and provokes an identity crisis.
By Julie Zauzmer
Dec. 19, 2019 at 6:00 a.m. EST
“People keep coming into my office asking to talk about it,” Jewish educator Jordyn Barry said as she stood
in a Barnes & Noble at Tysons Corner Center wearing a menorah on her sweater and a light-up Hanukkah
They want to discuss a question that’s both new and as old as Abraham: What is Judaism anyway?
It’s a religion, yes — but then again, many who identify as Jews aren’t religious. It’s passed down from
parents to children and bears recognizable genetic characteristics — but then again, Jews come in all colors
and racial backgrounds.
Ethnicity? Nationality? Faith? Culture? Heritage? Even Jews don’t agree on just what Judaism is. And
President Trump has thrown that eternal question into sharp relief by signing an executive order meant to
strengthen protections against anti-Semitism on college campuses, where the debate over Israel and
Palestinian rights has grown increasingly toxic in recent years.
Trump’s order, which he signed at a White House Hanukkah party last week, says anti-Semitism is
punishable under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act — a clause that deals only with race, ethnicity and
nationality, not discrimination on the basis of religion. The order says Jews can be targeted on the basis of
their nationality or race as Jews.
Jewish Americans, who are presumably the beneficiaries, are deeply torn about what it all means.
Barry, director of innovation and teen engagement at the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern
Virginia, said that before last week, the only time anyone asked her whether Judaism is a nationality was
when she taught seventh-graders about the Holocaust. This week, adults walked into the JCC in Fairfax to
share their thoughts and seek hers.
“It’s definitely brought the conversation of Judaism as nationality to the forefront,” Barry said.
When hate crimes are on the rise, dark corners of the Internet are flooded with vitriol about Jews and both
the president and members of Congress have been accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes, the Trump
administration’s attempt at protection is viewed with both suspicion and, in some corners, relief.
“Throughout Jewish history, categorizing Jews into a separate group has led to othering and sometimes
violence. So we’re just cautious,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action
Center, the denomination’s government relations arm. “Any good-faith attempt to protect any minority,
including the Jewish minority, from anti-Semitism or violence is a good thing. … We’re just cautious about
government defining who we are and government defining who is part of us.”
Pesner was in Chicago at the denomination’s biennial convention, along with 5,000 other rabbis and
Reform Jews, when Trump announced the order. Immediately, discussions of how to accommodate
increasingly diverse American Jewish communities, and ensure synagogue security amid rising antiSemitism, expanded to include conversations about whether Trump’s order had defined Judaism properly.
“We have people here who are born Jewish and not. Black, brown, white, Asian. People with Muslim and
Christian members of their extended families,” Pesner said. “You have people who chose Judaism because
of its theology … and you have people who don’t understand Torah study and don’t believe in God.”
In Washington, some responded to the discussion with a Twitter hashtag, #MyJudaismIs, and filled in the
sentence with non-nationality-related responses such as “queer,” “fiercely feminist,” “loving the stranger”
and “debating whether or not gefilte fish is actually good.”
Early Americans commonly viewed Jews as a separate racial category, wrote Yale professor of African
American studies Matthew F. Jacobson, who cited a 1775 text that described “the nation of the Jews, who,
under every climate, remain the same as far as the fundamental configuration of face goes, remarkable for a
racial character almost universal, which can be distinguished at the first glance.”
That perception became far rarer after the Nazis’ racially motivated Holocaust. As the United States grew
more ethnically diverse, Jewish Americans increasingly were seen as white, a characterization that brought
its own awkwardness and ambivalence.
“There is such variation: Yes, I’m white in the sense that as I walk around publicly, I have all the privileges
allocated to white women,” said Karen Brodkin, a University of California at Los Angeles anthropologist
who has written extensively on the subject of how Jews came to be considered white. “But there’s a hell of a
vicious history of anti-Semitism.”
Anti-Semites and white nationalists clearly see Jews as “other.” Witness the demonstrators in
Charlottesville in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and hate-filled Twitter attacks on Jewish
members of Congress, including Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), which focus
not just on their leadership in the ongoing impeachment inquiry but also on their heritage.
Jews continue to see Judaism as a biological inheritance, not just a religious or cultural community,
researchers at Clark and Brown universities found — especially those who have only one Jewish parent and
those who do not belong to a synagogue. For them, Jewishness is inherent and immutable in their genes.
Attacks on Jews, which are on the rise, are sometimes based on Jewish religious practices or moral values.
The suspect in the gun attack that killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year had denounced
Jewish support of HIAS, the religious refugee resettlement organization.
Other attacks, including verbal and physical assaults on college campuses, have been based not on religion
but on perceived support of Israel.
And some anti-Semitism, including many of the online taunts, is based on perceived ethnic characteristics
shared by Jews.
“What we’re seeing now being directed against the Jewish community is something that is earth-shattering,
that we have not seen in this country for decades,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, 45, adding that members of
his Ohev Sholom congregation in Washington are more fearful about being visibly Jewish.
“People have told me that they’ve removed their mezuza scrolls from their doors so people will not know
they’re Jewish,” he said, bringing up last week’s fatal shooting in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City. “Not
one. More than half a dozen. And that’s people willing to tell the rabbi that. … It is heartbreaking.”
In the 1970s, according to General Social Survey data, 99 percent of U.S. Jews were categorized as white.
Most of them were Ashkenazi, a European ethnic lineage specific to Jews. In this decade, data shows that 11
percent of U.S. Jews are not white — and some say that is an undercount, since people of color are
sometimes overlooked by researchers trying to tally Jews. There are Jews of Ethiopian descent, Sephardic
Jews from countries such as Iran, Iraq and Egypt, converts from across the racial spectrum, children of
color adopted by Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews — and all of their children and grandchildren.
Calling Judaism a racial or ethnic identity inappropriately erases Jews of color, some say. And suggesting
that the federal government considers Judaism to be a nationality or ethnicity can add to confusion that
Jews already face in their schools and workplaces.
“I’m worried now that the incorrect belief will be that I’m Israeli or that I’ve even been to Israel,” said Zoe
Terner, 19, a leader in the Reform movement and a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “My
family’s from Russia, I’m pretty sure.” (She said she doesn’t see Russian as her nationality, either — nor
Austrian, another place from which her relatives fled, facing religious persecution — but just American,
based on the place where her family found safety.)
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai in Oakland, Calif., said even young children often debate
how to categorize Judaism. “When they’re asked what their race is or ‘what they are,’ they say that they’re
Jewish,” said Mates-Muchin, 45. “Often people tell them that’s not an ethnicity — that’s only a religion.”
Mates-Muchin, whose father is Ashkenazi and whose mother is a Chinese American Jewish convert, said
she believes she is the first Chinese American rabbi. But she, too, feels “a Jewish ethnic identity.”
“We’re Ashkenazi. My family left Austria in the ’30s. They were escaping the Holocaust,” she said. “That
story is really important to who we are.”
The increasing number of ethnicities represented in many Jewish communities doesn’t mean Judaism’s
ethnic component is irrelevant, just changing, Mates-Muchin said. “We are developing a very distinctive
Jewish American ethnicity and identity.”
Rabbi Aaron Alexander, co-senior rabbi at Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, said he taught
Hanukkah study sessions on two nights last week and both times participants spent the first 20 or 30
minutes asking questions about the executive order.
“Are we a nation?” they asked the rabbi.
Like many good Jewish questions, the answer was both no and yes.
No, Alexander said, Jews are not a nation-state: “To start to suggest that Jews could be considered a
separate nation — that has been and will continue to be dangerous for Jews, to be seen as having some
other nation that they are more loyal to than the one in which they live and pay taxes.”
And, yes, he added, Jews’ sacred texts tell them that they are connected to fellow Jews, as one people,
wherever they live. The Hebrew words for the nation of Israel, “am Yisrael,” he noted, appear throughout
Jewish liturgy — sung and recited in synagogues, schools and community centers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where Reform rabbis met for a biennial convention
last week. The meeting was in Chicago.
Julie Zauzmer is a religion reporter. She previously covered local news at The Washington Post and at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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