Bet Chaverim Congregation in Ellicott City held a special online event Oct. 3 on the history of Jewish racial identity in the United States and the Jewish community’s participation both for and against the civil rights movement.
Titled “Jews, Whiteness, Power and Privilege,” the event consisted of a Zoom presentation by Marc Dollinger, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University.
“Jews, more than any other American ethno/religious group, maintain an ambivalent, if ever-changing relationship to whiteness,” Dollinger said at the event, defining whiteness less as a matter of biology and more as a term of sociology related to power. Dollinger said that Jews were not considered white in most of the first half of the 20th century, but essentially attained the status of white during the 1950s.
Dollinger came to the attention of Bet Chaverim when the chair of its Social Action/Green Committee, David Marker, was told about the presentation by Marker’s son. “My son called and said that he had heard Dr. Dollinger give a talk in San Rafael, [Calif.],” Marker said, “and thought it was really thought provoking and inspiring, and thought it would be a good one for us back here in Columbia to get to hear.”
Citing research of professors Eric L. Goldstein and Karen Brodkin, Dollinger said that during the Gilded Age, from 1877 to 1901, “Jews were not considered white,” but were commonly seen as studious, hardworking teetotalers who made for good husbands.
The situation deteriorated during the progressive era from 1901 to 1920, Dollinger said, in large part due to the emerging eugenics movement, and its belief that “Black people were inferior to white people, women were inferior to men, Jews were inferior to Christians.” This led to U.S. laws designed to restrict Jewish immigration, such as a 1917 literacy test which could be taken in Yiddish. Eugenicist policy makers, Dollinger said, believed Jewish immigrants would be too unintelligent to pass the test in their native language. The test was scrapped in the 1920s when the government realized that too many Jews were passing the test and replaced with a quota system that “ended immigration for Mediterranean and Semitic people,” Dollinger said.
This state of affairs dramatically changed between 1945 and 1960, with Dollinger stating that, aside from some cases of “sporadic anti-Semitism,” by “1960, for the most part, the anti-Semitic barriers had left,” with Jews moving from the cities to the white suburbs and into the mainstream. Dollinger gave substantial credit for this to the G.I. Bill, calling it “the vehicle that brought Jews into power and privilege and whiteness,” as it provided half a million Jewish veterans with the opportunity to go to college or get home loans and small business loans, and allowing Jews to “leapfrog ahead of Blacks and Latinx communities in the 1950s.”
This, however, led to Jews joining segregated white neighborhoods, as well as to some questionable actions. “For the most part, Jews kept the anti-Black restrictions in the housing covenants,” Dollinger said. While these were later struck down by the Supreme Court, when Blacks would move into Jewish areas, “oftentimes, Jews went up and left,” he said. In 1951, a study by the Anti-Defamation League found that half of the nation’s JCCs would only admit Jews, and of the other 50% that would admit non-Jews, half of them would not admit Black people.
While Dollinger stated that northern Jews largely supported the civil rights movement, he quoted Rabbi Moses Landau of Cleveland, Miss., as saying “The majority of the people of the city have been vehemently opposed to integration, including a great number in the Jewish community. The Jewish community could not exist if they in any way involved in the [civil rights] movement.” Dollinger also noted how Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the “leader of the American Zionist movement, probably the most important rabbi of his generation,” made deals with white southern U.S. senators to protect segregation in exchange for federal funding for white school children.
Regarding the present day, Dollinger argued that “in contemporary America, Jews are enjoying power and privilege. We are certainly considered white, at least those of us presenting as white.” He said that members of Black, Latinx and Asian American groups have confided in him that “when white Christians come in the room, at least they admit they’re white. When white Jews come in the room, they’re pretending they’re like us.”
When asked his views of Dollinger’s presentation, Marker called it “both challenging and inspiring at the same time. Challenging to a lot of our preconceived notions, and at the same time it was a kind of a call to action, which is what I think we need, whether we as Bet Chaverim or we as the Jewish community in general or we as whites who want to be allies in fighting racism, it was a good call to arms.”
“The Jewish people have gone from the ultimate powerlessness in 1945,” Dollinger said, “to the most powerful we can possibly be, a nation-state with a military, and the ability to blow up the Earth. … So much of our fight about whether Jews are white today is us just trying to process the trauma of going from Auschwitz to the modern state of Israel so quickly.”