Gal Gadot has been making headlines lately—and not just because she’s Wonder Woman. There’s been a virtual debate happening over whether Gadot, who is a Jewish Israeli, is considered white or a person of color. The conversation has spun out into a more general question of where Jews fall in the spectrum of race. And, like everything debated amongst Jews, there’s not just two opinions.
To say Judaism is complex, particularly when you place it in the context of history, is an understatement. As a people, we’ve been “othered” for most of our existence. There’s always been a king or führer or government who has seen to that: to remind us that we’re not like the majority, that we’re supposedly less than, different, and separate. This idea has essentially been imprinted into our DNA over the years.
Because others have defined us by our differences, it’s natural that we too—as a people—seek some definition of who exactly we are. This debate has been happening way before Gal Gadot, and I don’t think there’s an end to it in sight. Is Judaism a religion? An ethnicity? A race? All of the above? I understand why we grapple with these questions continuously because they hit at our identity: Who are we? What are we?
So are Jews white? The question in and of itself is super restrictive and exclusionary. We first need to look at the very real fact that Jews of color exist (despite the fact that Judaism in general has a problem with remembering that). Jews of color are people of color. They’ve got it going on double: Judaism and being a visible person of color.
But people like me? I’m white passing. When somebody looks at me—despite my frizzy curls and prominent nose—I’m read as a white woman. I experience and benefit from as much white privilege as the next white woman. This matters when it comes to me walking down the street, in retail situations, or interacting with the police. Sure, my obviously ethnic name might raise a prejudiced flag if I’m applying to a job or something else, and micro-aggressions are real. But in the majority of my day-to-day life living in America? I am white and experience all the benefits that come with it, regardless of my Judaism.
So… I’m white. But yes, I’ve experienced anti-Semitism (that time in high school when my boss called the cash register the “Jewish Piano” was fun). I’ve had the fear in my heart when Jewish Day schools were being targeted with bomb threats since my son attends one. And I won’t even get into the anti-Semitic dreck I’ve been assaulted with on social media. So yes, I can definitely understand the desire to be as far removed from “white” (aka the folks who perpetrate all of this) as possible.
However, I can experience all of that and still benefit from the infrastructure set up by years of white supremacy. White privilege and anti-Semitism can occur simultaneously. Yes, that’s incredibly frustrating, but that’s also reality. One does not negate the other.
Checking off “white” on a census or acknowledging how I benefit from white privilege doesn’t negate or erase the very real way Jews have been (and still are) treated. It does not cover up my ancestry—how my Bubbe survived the Holocaust along with her family while living in the woods of Poland in underground bunkers and in barns; how my grandfather survived a handful of concentration camps before being liberated from Dachau. How both of them witnessed and experienced unimaginable horrors simply for being Jewish. I’m a first generation American Jew that grew up bilingual. I get that for all intents and purposes I am an other, and that my privileges could be snatched away from me under certain set of circumstances.
My history is real. The history of our people is real. But my place—as a white passing woman—in current society is also real. It is up to me to balance the two,to use that privilege and benefits gained by white supremacy to change the current system where people of color are the ones being hurt by systematic racism and oppressive infrastructure. Because when it really comes down to how I identify, the Jew in me realizes that acknowledging my privilege today enables me to take care of those around me, using what I’ve got.