Was Anne Frank white? Last year, social media erupted following an angry tweet by a Black American who was furious that the American school system doesn’t teach about any genocides except the Holocaust.
Many people responded with equal fury, not just because he used a middle finger emoji next to Frank’s name, but because he called her a “Becky,” a derogatory term commonly used by Black Americans to refer to a politically disconnected white woman unaware of her own privilege. Yet his tweet went viral.
But how did it happen that more and more people today see Anne Frank – one of the best-known symbols of suffering and victimhood, who suffered racist persecution by the Nazis during the Holocaust – as a privileged white person?
Querido van Frank argued that Jews in the West are in an untenable position: Violent antisemitic incidents are on the increase, but minority solidarity organizations are excluding Jews
Whatever the case, it’s not easy being Jewish in Amsterdam these days. As if the stormy demonstrations during the Hamas-Israel fighting in May and the uproar over antisemitic messages shared by members of a far-right party weren’t enough, the city is currently full of posters putting Jews on the public agenda.
Printed in stark black and white, these signs can be seen on every street corner. And they bear a provocative message – “Are Jews white?”
In a country with a history of bloody racism, one with a patently white, secular majority in which only a tiny Jewish minority remains, these signs raise questions for the passers-by who pedal swiftly past them. Are they a wink at white nationalist groups? Are Jews once again going to be racially judged here?
Gideon Querido van Frank, 42, a self-described “gay, cisgender Jew,” one of the curators of a new collective exhibit called “Zijn Joden Wit?” (“Are Jews White?”) in the Jewish Historical Museum, in the middle of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, wasn’t surprised by the reactions.
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“People were a bit shocked, but we know that these posters are deliberately blunt and designed to provoke a response,” said Querido van Frank, who works as the Van Gogh Museum’s senior press officer as his day job, in an interview from his home. “We’re not used to seeing the word ‘Jew’ flying proudly in the public square except in contexts like Jewish literature or Jewish culture.
“This question provokes discomfort,” he added. “On the other hand, I haven’t encountered any extremist responses. The only thing I noticed was that someone spray-painted ‘Save Gaza’ in pink on top of one of the posters. That was interesting, because it’s connected to issues that the exhibit addresses.”
In the short time since it opened, this small exhibit has managed to make waves in the media and among local politicians. It’s clear why. Querido van Frank and his Dutch partners – Lievnath Faber, a Jewish scholar and social entrepreneur (whose parents are Tunisian Israelis), and Anousha Nzume, a Jewish author and actress (whose father came from Africa and whose mother came from Russia) – used it to raise explosive social issues that aren’t commonly discussed in the Netherlands.
Among other things, two kippas perch in a glass case at the heart of the exhibit – one printed with “Trump, Keep America Great” and the other, “Black Lives Matter.” On the wall beside them are texts describing the historical involvement of Jewish groups and leaders in liberation movements, an advertisement placed in the New York Times by Jewish organizations in support of the BLM movement, antisemitic cartoons that ran in the Dutch media, and a painting by an American artist that urges BLM to include Jews in its activism.
'In leftwing circles it’s hard today to differentiate between the Israeli and Jewish issue, and people aren’t interested in discussing the oppression of the Jewish minority as part of the wider discussion about minorities'
Opposite is a video installation of Dutch Jews from different countries of origin, genders and social classes answering interview questions. Their statements, set to dramatic music, include, “I definitely benefit from white privilege,” “What you see today is that Jews are the ultimate example of white privilege,” “If you look at history, Jews were often put in a separate category,” “I feel that I’m a minority,” “No, Jews aren’t white,” “Yes, I am indeed white, but are Jews whites?”
Querido van Frank and his partners have also held several events around Amsterdam that included discussions, interviews and calls for cooperation between minority groups. There was a special event on Keti Koti Day (the unofficial celebration marking the date when slavery was abolished in Suriname in 1863), at which Dutch Jews and nonwhite minorities prepared food together and discussed their pain.
The exhibition is rooted in an opinion piece Querido van Frank published two years ago in Vrij Nederland, a leftwing weekly. In it he argued that Jews in the West are in an untenable position: Violent antisemitic incidents are on the increase, but minority solidarity organizations are excluding Jews. Parts of the far right view Jews as “fake” whites who contaminate and threaten white society, and society at large became acquainted with the white nationalist slogan “Jews will not replace us” after the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville four years ago. But many on the progressive left see Jews as an inseparable part of the privileged and oppressive white establishment that rules over nonwhites – with the Israeli occupation playing a role in this.
Despite the exhibit’s modest size, it sharpens the discussions that have reemerged in the United States since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. That year, Emma Green published an essay in The Atlantic titled “Are Jews White?” In her essay, Green showed that the more vocally people were for or against Trump, the more American Jews felt attacked by both right and left. Based on the paradoxical perception of Jews from both camps, she raised the question of whether Jews can really be considered white. “White” is not a definition directly linked to skin color, but a category that represents power, she stated.
The discourse over black versus white is an essentially American one. If Jews have integrated into American society and “become white,” not just due to their skin color but because of their gain in social status, Trump and the events that took place during his term led many of them to fear that their Jewishness was again making them vulnerable. “‘Are Jews white?’” is another way of asking, ‘Are Jews safe in this unknown future that is to come?’” wrote Green.
When phrased in Hebrew, the question “Are Jews white?” can be infuriating. It certainly sounds disconnected and rude to Israelis, who are accustomed to the discussions about ethnicity and racial dynamics among Jewish citzens whose ancestors came from diverse parts of the world, many of which would not be considered white in the Western racial discourse, and who have a wide range of skin colors, from light to dark.
Querido van Frank, who was born in Tel Aviv to Dutch parents who made aliya from Holland, but was raised in the Netherlands by his mother (his father stayed in Israel and lives in Ramat Hasharon), says, “It’s clear that the answer is that Jews have a lot of origins and shades. But another way we could approach the question is politically. Are Jews white from a political perspective, or nonwhite from a political perspective? Do they have the power and privilege of whites, or are they still a minority group?”
Similar to the Jewish community’s concern in the United States, or the British Jewish community’s feeling of insecurity following the Labor Party’s reemerging flirtation with antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn, Querido van Frank says Jews’ future in the Netherlands is also in doubt. “We could say that most Jews in the Netherlands are financially established and are part of the mainstream,” he says. “But it’s similar now to how things were at the end of the 19th century, and we know where history took us. Can we trust the majority when it says, you are part of us? And how long will it stay that way, and under what conditions?”
Ashkenazi Jewish privilege expresses itself sometimes in the ability to “pass” as white. But is that really a privilege, to be transparent more than white?
“Exactly. Our privilege is expressed in our ability to hide. When I walk down the street, I can pretend I’m a standard white Dutchman or that I’m straight, and people will believe me. That’s indeed a type of privilege, but is it really good for me?” Querido van Frank says.
Since he wrote his opinion piece, the paradox that Jews in Europe find themselves in has only worsened, with the coronavirus pandemic and the conspiracy theories that sprung up around it, and the criticism of Israel following the destruction and death it caused in Gaza.
“In leftwing circles it’s hard today to differentiate between the Israeli and Jewish issue, and people aren’t interested in discussing the oppression of the Jewish minority as part of the wider discussion about minorities like Blacks, Muslims, women, LGBTQs and Palestinians,” Querido van Frank says. “The problem is that there are also people who relate to Jews in the terms of old antisemitism. Jews are inferior to us, but they’re also a minority with power. They control the media. They get rich at others’ expense. They look like they represent the strong and oppressive.”
You’ve chosen to compare the Jews’ situation to that of the LGBTQ community.
“LGBTQs, so long as they are successful, attractive, rich, fashionable and have good jobs, can be part of the mainstream. But what if you’re also an Arab? What if you’re also Black and poor? You don’t know what will happen, and when it won’t be like this anymore. The definition of who is white is changing. Will the descendants of North African migrants who integrate into society be considered white? And could you become nonwhite again?
“In addition, like gays who are coping with the trauma of the closet, the white Jew – even if he or she never experienced violence and even if they enjoy privileges similar to those of other whites – carries the collective trauma of the Holocaust.”
Another element in the perception of Jews as privileged whites is “Holocaust fatigue” in leftist circles nowadays.
“People on the left think Jews dominate the historical narrative of the victim,” he says. “People say they’re sick of hearing about it. They want to talk now about other peoples’ suffering – about slavery, persecution of LGBT people, other genocides. The claim the Jews get all the attention at their expense. That they enjoy a type of privilege of the oppressed. I very much hope that this exhibition will help launch a dialogue and cooperation and the acceptance of Jews by leftwing movements, also from an understanding of Jews’ role and contribution to these movements throughout history.”