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Do Not Adjust Your Color

How did Jews become white all of a sudden?

by David Holzel

In "The Great Gatsby," that classic work of Jazz Age fiction, there lurks a single Jew -- Wolfsheim, business associate of the socialite Jay Gatsby and the man rumored to have fixed the 1919 World Series.

We first meet Wolfsheim in a dark 42nd Street restaurant this way: "A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril."

F. Scott Fitzgerald's slim novel of 1925 is preoccupied with Wolfsheim's nose. The vile protuberance is mentioned three times in a single page. It seems to have a life of its own. Taken as a whole, this Jew, with his repulsive features, odd accent and shady reputation, is barely human.

This is the dominant image Christian Europeans had of our grandparents, great-grandparents and their ancestors. The Jew, as countless books, essays and cartoons attested, was dark, dirty, Asiatic. His habits were lazy and cunning. Jewish women were dusky and alluring. Recognize the description? Jews were black.

The Jew

Cut to today. On every carefully balanced government panel or population survey there are white, black and Hispanic representatives. I always wonder why they forget the Jews.

The answer, I have to remind myself, is that nowadays Jews don't constitute a distinct group. Ask anybody, Jews are white. How did we manage to shoot across the racial spectrum in half a century? How could we be black for centuries and then, all of a sudden, white
unless there is no such thing as black or white.

That's the observation anthropologists are beginning to circulate. At a meeting in Atlanta a few years back, researchers argued that there is no scientific basis for categorizing people by race. Biologically speaking, nobody is black or white or yellow or anything.

The idea of race was the creation of the dead white men of P.C. hell. Venturing from Europe in the 19th century, they sought to classify the diverse peoples they met. Seizing on superficial physical characteristics, they divided humanity into three races, Caucasoid (white), Negroid (black) and Mongoloid (yellow). The names soon took on the inviolability of things scientific.

Trouble is, there are people living in far-flung places who share the same so-called racial characteristics, says anthropologist Leonard Lieberman.

Eye folds are associated with East Asians. But there is a people in Africa, called the !Kung San, whose eyes have a similar shape and whose skin color is similar to people in Japan and China, says Dr. Lieberman, who teaches at Central Michigan University. [Dr. Lieberman died in 2007.] "If you just took that criteria, you could say the !Kung San are Asian."

But they're not, of course. Such absurdities make our reliance on racial terms pointless. I think about this every time I'm filling in some form that asks me to check a racial category. Which pigeon hole do I prefer? White? Black? I often check Other. But when I write "Jew" in the blank space provided, the word sits there hesitantly, as if it has less right to be there than the scientific designations on the line above.

When Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, spoke in Atlanta, he described his ambivalence about being shoehorned into a racial mold. In a 1993 Village Voice article, he wrote: "Jews can only be deemed white if there is massive amnesia on the part of non-Jews about the monumental history of anti-Semitism..."


We were black
because we were the Demeaned Other.

We were black because we were the "demeaned other," in Lerner's words. In America, there already was another demeaned group African Americans. So an implicit bargain was struck: If Jews assimilated and did not make waves, we could become white.

In his new novel, "The Old Religion," David Mamet has the condemned Jew Leo Frank wrestle with the value of anti-Semitic literature:

The dispised Jew. The Kike.

The stories that they told about the Jew in prison, on the streets, and in the novels.

In each of his books there was the Jew, the moneylender, the Shylock, the figure of fun.

Was it worthwhile to throw the book away at that inevitable gibe, or could one not shrug and say, "For the sake of the ten I will spare the town"? And so, read on, and obtain the amusement or diversion one contracted for?

Me? White? No thanks.



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