A friend of mine was recently angry and anxious about a university human resources form. The form reflected how people self-identified. In other words, how diverse was this Canadian university’s workforce?
The form’s questions asked about race. On that form, it said that Jewish people should mark on their forms “white.”
The person who told me about this wrote on the form that this was racist and wrong. In fact, Jews come in every single colour and are from all over the world. Jews aren’t defined by only the (Ashkenazim) European “white” category. If we’re identified as an ethnicity, that doesn’t define our race.
Also, Judaism isn’t solely a religion. We’re still considered Jewish even if one converts to another religion, or isn’t practising or is a descendant of a Jewish person. In Canada, First Nations, Inuit and Métis are Indigenous. Historically, Jews are also considered indigenous – to Israel.
Non-Jews have racialized us as “other” for thousands of years. This othering isn’t a new thing. It’s a core component of antisemitism. In Hitler’s Germany, categorizing Jews as a different race and subhuman made it easier for genocide to take place.
This historic narrative around antisemitism parallels that of many other oppressed people. Yet, the antisemitic misinformation campaign is powerful. Even though there are only about 14 million Jews in the world, antisemites consider us to have an outsized influence and power that somehow overpowers and dominates others. As an example: even as hate crimes against Jews have increased, they are poorly covered by mainstream news. Yet, we are also allegedly controlling the media at the same time. Huh?
These tropes aren’t logical or rational. Prejudice, discrimination and hate are often fueled by emotion. Leaders then use these strong feelings to gain power, control and wealth and to scapegoat minorities like Jews.
What are ways to counter this in a 21st-century context? There are social media activists who speak out daily, raising awareness and fighting against this misinformation. Many Jewish families open their home and Shabbat tables up to enable non-Jews, one at a time, to learn about who we are. Others write books and conduct interviews on radio and TV. Yet not all of us are public figures, or want to be.
Even as “regular” people, we can be proud owners of our Jewish identities. We can continue to learn, think and reflect on who we are, what we believe and our place in the world. We can stand together, recognizing that, as Jews, we are all responsible for one another – kol Yisrael arevim zeh le zeh. We can attempt, through pride and knowledge, to control our own narrative.
I, too, was frustrated by that human resources form. Now, I’m puzzled whenever I see a form that asks me what my identity is. Since a bit after the Second World War, light-skinned Jews in North America have been encouraged to tick off the “white” box on these “self-identity” forms. The horrors of the Holocaust were put aside by governments and non-Jews, in an effort to help European, “white” Jews integrate into society, but simply checking “white” erases us. It erases Jewish ethnicity and it erases Jews of colour. Jews from the Middle East, India, Asia, Africa and South America – Jews from anywhere we’ve lived where skin colour might not have been deemed Caucasian, white or European.
This North American erasure is so deep that Jews of colour often describe the discrimination they face when attending synagogue – there are many instances in which a member of the Ashkenazi “white” majority questions if they are full-fledged congregants. They’re asked if they are converts, or guests. Imagine the alienation Jewish people with darker skin face when asked, “Are you really Jewish?” or “Where are you really from?” every time they walk into a service.
Israel’s Jewish population is much more diverse in terms of skin tone than what one finds in the United States or Canada but, historically, it’s been hard for Mizrahi Jews to gain leadership roles in Israel, too. So many Israeli Ashkenazi Jews have bought into this whiteness identity, too.
In the United States, when Jews “became” white, they no longer were excluded from country clubs, university quotas, etc. There was an advantage to accepting this new categorization, even as it still created terrible, completely unethical inequities among people, including Jews, based on skin colour.
As a result of this “becoming white” transition, some oppressed minorities and the political left now may see Jewish people as part of an oppressive white majority. In this view, white Jews have no legitimate complaints about how we are treated, because, suddenly, we’re just part of the privileged majority. So, in addition to hate from the political right, there’s also abuse from the left if Jewish people speak out about antisemitism.
Navigating this landscape is difficult. We all have bias. No one is completely free of it. We’re raised with it and must each work to do better. Yet, in a time when Canadians are watching hate crimes rise against Jewish and Muslim communities, it’s our obligation to do more. Confronting Canada’s residential school history, the deaths of Indigenous children, and Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people overall forces us to think further about what it means to uphold certain “historic” narratives – narratives that don’t reflect what really happened.
Manitoba now wants to collect data about race, ethnicity and indigeneity on its COVID vaccine consent forms. This would allow the province to learn more about vaccination rates and virus rates in various populations.
I’ve printed out the paperwork for my second jab and I’m looking forward to celebrating this chance to be fully vaccinated. Even so, I’m wondering what box to tick off. Choosing “Other” reinforces that antisemitic tradition of negative identity politics. I’d like to avoid that. I’m proud to be Jewish – but it’s not one of the options on the form.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.