When Jews Were a Race

Some years ago, though I lived out of town, I still attended a very liberal synagogue in Chicago. One day I went there for services, and the subject at hand was race. We were given a presentation as well as some information on paper. After that, we were split up into groups to have our own discussion on the topic. I was in a group with four or five other people, all of whom presented as white and potentially of Ashkenazi descent. Most of them were in their early fifties or older.

When it was time for me to speak, I attempted to convey that the Nazis had an ideology in which Jewish people were not discriminated against merely because they had a different religion. The Nazis believed that Jews were a separate race apart from the pure “Aryan” German race. Jews were then viewed as a dangerous and treacherous racial element the Nazis needed root out of Aryan society.

I was met with mostly blank stares and non-understanding. That is, all except for one man, who nodded with both understanding and encouragement. Then—and perhaps here is where it completely went off the rails—I told the group that in the United States, our (caste) system is also based on race. Here, race has been constructed based on things like how much melanin one has in one’s skin, one’s hair type, nose and lip shape, and of course the percentage of non-white “blood” one possesses. And that America’s racialized categories, just like those of the Nazi regime, were socially invented and do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Still, only one person understood what I was saying and agreed.

The essence of what I received back from the rest of the group is that they simply do not consider European Jews in a racial way. They had obviously been socialized into the United States’ racial viewpoints. For them, the American racial system is true and makes sense.

Apparently, in two or three short generations’ time, they seemed quite unable to perceive their own ancestors—and in turn, themselves—as being racialized. Therefore they didn’t fully understand that what was perpetrated against the European Jewish population by the Nazis was based on Jews’ racialization as the vile other.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that race in the United States is most certainly real. But just because something is constructed to be a social reality does not mean it is based on facts and science.

From the Lilith Blog, February 2022. Read the full article here.