“You have the face of an Arab. Who is your father?”
The Egyptian shopkeeper dramatically put his hands on either side of my head, giving me a look of hawk-like scrutiny. I tan up pretty well, with a nose beaten slightly aquiline from boxing. I never thought of myself as looking Arab, but the more time I spent in Cairo, especially as my Arabic improved, the more I got mistaken for one. One of my professors asked if I had any Jordanian background. After chatting a few minutes with a waiter at a local restaurant, I mentioned I was American. “Oh,” he said in surprise. “I thought you were Lebanese.” I had a hell of a time renewing my visa once because the old lady processing my application was sure that I was actually a Syrian refugee with a fake American passport.
I came to take a weird pride in being mistaken for Arab. Part of this was a feeling that studying Arabic was really paying off if I could pass, but another part was that it seemed to reaffirm a lifelong fascination with and sense of connection to the Middle East. My imagination has a tendency to treat time more like a wading pool than a stream. You can get in here in the 21st century, but slosh far enough in another direction and you could be in ancient Babylon, feudal Japan, the Aztec Empire. If I looked Arab, I could fit in Moorish Spain or caliphal Baghdad, which opened up all kinds of exciting alternate lives: Silk Road merchant, physician and alchemist, chainmail-garbed mamluk…Ethnicity is complex and hard to define, but a geek is a geek.
I have no Lebanese, Jordanian, or Syrian ancestry. My mother is a 50/50 blend of Norwegian and German and my father is not an Arab, but an Ashkenazi Jew–that is, a descendant of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Because many of us have a Mediterranean look, we had a family story that we were actually Sephardim (Spanish Jews), an idea I was also quite taken with until AncestryDNA dispelled it. If you even accept that I’m a Jew (which, by strict religious definitions, I’m not), I’m definitely a “white Jew.”
On June 22nd, which seems like years ago now, activist Shaun King tweeted that all depictions of Jesus as a white man should be torn down, arguing that such depictions were tools of white supremacy. I don’t know if Mr. King intended this sincerely or just as shitposting, but it was an idiotic and counterproductive thing to say. I’ll certainly agree that the image of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, Aryan Jesus has been used to push some heinous agendas, but the idea that we need to tear down the murals at the Hagia Sophia or burn, say, El Greco’s Christ Carrying the Cross because they depict fair-skinned, light-haired Christs strikes me as both a waste of time and resources in the urgent fight against structural racism and frankly a gross and censorious bonfire of the vanities, a destruction of art for not catering to our current social mores. If accuracy is the main concern, then Mr. King will surely support disposing of Chinese, Indian, and Sub-Saharan African-featured Christs as well, since they are no more likely to be accurate depictions of Jesus. Something tells me he would be as opposed to burning beautiful Ethiopian Orthodox depictions like the one below as I am.
Mr. King’s tweets were founded on the inaccurate belief that our current ideas of race have always existed. The idea that the Holy Family fled to Egypt (evidence of perfidy in all white depictions of Jesus) says very little about Christ’s appearance. There was a large and well-established community of Hellenized Jews living in Alexandria, which was already a melting-pot and crossroads between three continents long before the Romans arrived. If we’re honest—and even most Evangelicals I’ve met have been—then we must admit that whatever Jesus may have looked like, he probably would have gotten extra attention at airport security.
But what Jesus looked like doesn’t concern me much. So why am I bringing up a two-month old tweet which has already been digested by our provocation-outrage-amnesia media cycle? Because whether he intended to or not, Mr. King tapped into an ongoing discussion of how to parse Jewish identity which has deep implications about how we parse race as a whole.
“Who is an Arab?” is as fraught a question as “Who is a Jew?” and depending on who you ask is best determined by ancestry, language, religion, political identity, or some combination of the above. I work for Egyptian Muslims, but when I’ve referred to them as Arabs, they’ve always corrected me. “We’re not Arabs; we’re Egyptians. Arabs are people from the Gulf.” Many Lebanese Christians will tell you they’re Phoenician. Morocco sits, often uneasily, between an Arab and Berber identity. Many Mizrahi Jewish communities have been described both as “Jewish Arabs” and “Arabic-speaking Jews.” A divide has been drawn in our racial shouting match between “white Jews” (Ashkenazim) and “Jews of Colour.”
To be sure, there are pale-skinned Jews and very dark Jews. Nobody would deny that the Ethiopian Jew pictured above is black. Too, there are converts of color, like Michael Twitty, a fascinating scholar of food history who has the unenviable lot of being gay, black, and a convert to Modern Orthodox Judaism in Trump’s America. So where does the line get drawn?
As the pictures above demonstrate, there are black Arabs and blond Arabs and all shades in between. But I’d bet a night of beers if you went into the street and asked ten people if Arabs are white, at least nine would say no. A good chunk of that could be how ignorant most Americans are about the Middle East, but Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour herself said that if she didn’t wear a hijab, nobody would think she was anything but another white girl. I doubt many people seeing her fellow Palestinian rights activist Ahed Tamimi would call her a “person of color” on sight alone—not with those blond locks and green eyes. But I also doubt many people on the left would be comfortable with me calling Linda Sarsour or Ahed Tamimi “white,” and therein lies the crux of the issue.
“Are Jews white?” is a much-vexed question which reveals more about the pitfalls of our conception of race than the ethnic status of Jews. The “yes” camp will issue lengthy privilege confessionals. The “no” camp will compile charts of famous Ashkenazim who look swarthy and Mediterranean. The “yes” camp will (rightly) call attention to the problem of color-based racism in the Jewish community. The “no” camp will (rightly) point to multiple genetic studies linking Ashkenazim both to other Jewish groups and to other Levantine groups more broadly—including Lebanese and Palestinians.
There’s a tortured quality to the debate, as well as a Talmudic particularity. Both sides make good points, but both also overstate their cases. To the “yes” camp, anti-Semitism exists, but it’s background noise in the world of bigotry, really only dangerous when it’s coming from somebody like David Duke. Antisemitism from black voices, like Louis Farrakhan, gets an uncomfortable silence or justifications about tensions between black tenants and Jewish landlords. Tamika Mallory said some bigoted things, yes, but why are we white people trying to silence a strong black woman, even if she’s repeating blood libels about the enemies of Jesus?
To the “no” camp, Ashkenazim are POCs full-on, the equivalent of light-skinned black people, and questioning their POC status is de facto antisemitism. Somebody like Seth Rogan may be white-passing, but he’s really a Middle Eastern victim of colonialism, just like an Algerian under French rule, but without even the benefit of having Algeria beneath his feet. The same “Jewish” features that fueled an industry worth of nose jobs a generation ago are now advertised and pointed to as proof of the bloodline, a kosher version of “Black is Beautiful.”
It’s a ridiculously Jewish argument, but it’s also demonstrative of the ways in which we fail to understand the ultimate fiction of race on a broader level. Face of an Arab or no, I am not a person of color. The only time I’ve ever been profiled by a government official was that crabby Egyptian lady who didn’t want to renew my visa, and if I’m pulled over, I’d bet you my worldly holdings the cop will let me go without so much as raising his voice.
But I told people I was a Lebanese Catholic in Egypt because while on the whole Egyptians are tolerant, hospitable, and unfailingly kind people, you can also find Arabic copies of Protocols of the Elders of Zion being sold openly in mainstream bookstores (the FBI recently shared a link to it as well, to any Jews who truly think the Trump regime has your back). While many Egyptians readily distinguish between Jews as a people and the State of Israel, I heard enough casual Holocaust denial and Jewish world government conspiracy theories that discretion seemed the better part of valor. And on this side of the Atlantic, something tells me that if I was accosted by a gang of neo-Nazis, “It’s okay guys—I have white privilege!” wouldn’t get me far.
To downplay the complexities of prejudice is to miss its fundamental insidiousness. That’s one reason it’s so hard to convince your average person that while it’s great that they would never say the n-word, going out of your way to tell the random black guy you just met how much you liked Roots is still seeing him in terms of his race rather than his individuality. Critical race theory’s insistence that the world can be broken down into racist White oppressors and blameless (and often implicitly helpless) Black and Brown oppressed denies these complexities, and in so doing buys into the illogical fiction that is the foundation of our very idea of race to begin with. The case of “white Jews” is where that illogic stands in stark relief.
If Linda Sarsour and Ahed Tamimi are people of color, then why isn’t, say, Mila Kunis? If I can pass for Arab among Arabs, but I’m really half Ashkenazi and half Northern European, then can we categorically define Arabs as people of color (as Palestiniain-American comedian Amer Zahr suggests in his thought-provoking documentary, We’re Not White)? If the answer is that Sarsour and Tamimi come from a historically marginalized people, well, do I really need to make the obvious rebuttal? I ask these questions not to define myself or any other Ashkenazi Jew, but because a large part of meaningfully challenging structural racism is questioning the very definition of race it has bequeathed us.
Phenotype is a notoriously unreliable predictor of ancestry–just ask Iron Eyes Cody, the Cherokee/Cree actor from the famous “crying Indian” anti-littering commercial who managed the impressive trick of being born to Sicilian parents with no Native ancestry. Or Hessy Levinsons Taft, Jewish winner (picked by Goebbels himself) of a contest to find Nazi Germany’s most perfectly Aryan baby. Or Wehrmacht poster-soldier Werner Goldberg, who inconveniently happened to be the son of a Jewish father. One of my best friends from college is a Protestant-raised Scots-Irish guy whose black hair and glasses get him mistaken for Jewish pretty frequently. Shit, because he was short and dark-haired, people thought the same thing about my 100% Norwegian grandfather.
You may be wondering why you should give a fuck about any of this if you aren’t Jewish. To answer that, I refer you to the chart above. While color-based racism has existed from time immemorial, it wasn’t a big part of the medieval worldview, where prejudices were based along religious lines. To a medieval Catholic, the Kingdom of Prester John (based off medieval Ethiopia or the Nestorian Christians of Asia, depending on what source you consult) was a sort of Christian Atlantis. Arabs (or “Saracens”) weren’t bad by virtue of ethnicity, but because they were Muslims. Incidentally, while you were generally better off being a Christian or Jew under Islamic rulership than a Jew or a Muslim under Christians, fundamentalist Muslim rulers like the Almohads were perfectly willing to persecute Jews and Christians. It doesn’t take Western Christianity to be an asshole.
Color-coded racism really got its start when Europeans began to colonize the New World. Black African slaves were brought over specifically because they stood out from the local Indigenous populations by virtue of their skin color, making it harder to run away. They ran away anyway, of course, and in some places founded their own autonomous communities. Casta and other systems like it codified these purported racial differences to justify the colonial power structure.
A major problem with how we address the issue of race today is that we treat this color-coded system as though it has some validity or truth to it. In fact, “whiteness” has grown and shrunk over the centuries. Arabs were once considered comprehensively white–hence their inclusion under “Caucasian” in our census, while Irish people were not (“smoked Irishman” used to be a slur for blacks). There was a court case (apologies, I don’t have the reference at the moment) in which a Japanese-American argued that he should be classified as white, given his pale skin. “White” is a socioeconomic category tenuously tied to ethnicity, not a scientific category we should continue to enshrine–as the insistence that world can be grouped into colonizing whites and colonized BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/POC) populations holds. Discussing this recently with my mother, who has a PhD in colonial history, she mentioned that even Thomas Jefferson admitted that the problem with dividing people by skin color is that there’s usually somebody paler than the people doing the dividing.
What I argue for isn’t colorblindness (a denial of the fact that these categories existed or a refusal to recognize the immense harm they’ve done) but a recognition that they ultimately mean nothing and a subsequent dismantling of our entire societal understanding of race. A big job, but who said fighting racism wasn’t? The current, putatively anti-racist model, a culture of guilty white people infantilizing BIPOC, isn’t doing this–to say the least.
And given the unique position of Jews in this entire equation, I believe we should take the lead in this discussion. I can pass for Levantine because I am of partial Levantine descent descent, a genetic cousin of Lebanese and Syrians.* But so are Scarlett Johansson and Seth Rogen. So are we or aren’t we white?
Sorry, but you’re asking the wrong question.
*Jews and Arabs of various nationalities are often referred to as being “Semites,” but this is an incorrect usage of the term. “Semitic” is really a linguistic classification. Living Semitic languages include Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia), Tigrinya (spoken in Eritrea), and Maltese (which is so close to Arabic that I suspect it’s only considered its own language since Malta was long a Christian outpost against Islam). Extinct Semitic languages include Phoenician, Babylonian, Akkadian, and many others.