Opinion

In the 2020 Elections, American Jews Must Decide: Will We Become White, or Not?

Donald Trump has made crude, strident attempts to guilt-trip U.S. Jews into the white political camp. Does the long, proud tradition of American Jewish liberalism guarantee it will fail?

US President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing the White House in Washington, DC for Camp David in Maryland on August 30, 2019
AFP

In the title essay to his 1985 collection, "The Price of the Ticket," James Baldwin wrote of two versions of the Middle Passage. One, not surprisingly, was the journey in shackles of African captives bound for American slavery. The other referred to the Irish immigrants of the mid-1800s, fleeing both famine and English domination, who traveled across the Atlantic in steerage.

"The Irish middle passage, for but one example, was as foul as my own, and as dishonorable on the part of those responsible for it," wrote Baldwin, the most important black author-activist of his time.

"But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking...The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white…nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less."

With his characteristic prescience, Baldwin anticipated a form of scholarship that was initially called critical whiteness studies and now is more commonly known by the shorthand of white studies. Under either title, the field operated from the same essential premise.

It posited that being white in America was not the neutral baseline of identity against which racial minorities were juxtaposed. Whiteness was not predicated on pigment. Nor was it based on any scientific definition of race. Rather, white identity functioned as the source of power and privilege.

And for waves of immigrants, the pursuit of white status involved shedding or at least diminishing aspects of their difference in order to no longer be seen as a literally or metaphorically dark Other.

As an academic discipline, white studies is traced now to two seminal books from the early 1990s: "The Rise and Fall of the White Republic," by Alexander Saxton and "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Foundation," by the late Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. In subsequent years, influential volumes looked specifically at Irish-Americans ("How the Irish Became White," by Noel Ignatiev), Italian-Americans ("White on Arrival," by Thomas Guglielmo) and working-class ethnics ("The Wages of Whiteness," by David Roediger).             

As the body of white studies research showed, the overall trajectory of most immigrant groups from the 19th and early 20th centuries led in a fairly linear way toward more acceptance, more inclusion, more political conservatism.

The Irish went from being ridiculed as indolent and violent and Sicilians went from being lynched and Poles went from being the butt of "dumb Polack" jokes to all being venerated as the success stories of Americanization. Some of the very same groups that were considered a threat to the Aryan gene pool and the national character when Congress throttled immigration in 1924 were widely accepted as "real Americans" by the time Congress reopened the Golden Door in 1965.

White studies also provided insight about why such white ethnic groups also tended to fiercely oppose the Civil Rights Movement when it came to the urban North. Opposition to black progress was a way to reify their hard-earned white identity. And among the evangelical Protestants of the segregated South, white identity enabled even the poorest white trash to feel superior to the most refined, educated black. Such beliefs stymied organized labor’s efforts to build a Southern progressivism along lines of economic class.

American Jews, though, tended to complicate the formula.

As they grew more prosperous in and more embraced by gentile America, as they were accorded an equal stake in that World War II-era invention, the "Judeo-Christian Tradition," they remained anomalies.

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"Even though Jews have been accepted socially as part of the whiter world, they have struggled against that categorization," said Eric Goldstein, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, in a recent telephone interview with me.

The author of "The Price of Whiteness," the best book on American Jews through the prism of white studies, Goldstein continued: "When Jews weren’t accepted, they very much wanted to be included in the category of white. After 1945, when there is a more stable racial liberalism and they no longer had to worry about their own acceptance, about their status as white, they’re free to increasingly worry about assimilation."

Postwar Jews also avidly supported the African-American struggle for civil rights. In part, of course, both minority groups shared a common self-interest in battling against discrimination in housing and hiring. But even as American Jews grew disproportionately affluent, and could well have moved toward the right for tax-bracket reasons alone, they stayed more liberal than any other subset of white Americans. 

As the sociographer Milton Himmelfarb famously put it, "Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans."

Because of that seeming contradiction, conservative Republicans have been courting the Jewish vote for decades.

Though the overall skew of American Jews to liberal Democratic candidates has remained broadly intact, the results in any given election have varied. Ronald Reagan captured about 40 percent of the Jewish vote against Jimmy Carter in 1976, elevating false GOP hopes of a Jewish realignment. George H. W. Bush, an evangelical Christian with a frostily critical view of Israel, took only about 10 percent of the Jewish vote against Bill Clinton in 1992.

The important constant through such oscillations was that Jews did not vote for or against Republicans based on racial identification.

It is true that nearly every Republican nominee for president from Barry Goldwater in 1964 to Mitt Romney in 2012 – other than the admirable exceptions of Gerald Ford in 1976, George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and John McCain in 2008 – played on anti-black sentiments  through euphemisms like "state’s rights," stereotypes like the "welfare queen," and attack ads like the Willie Horton commercial

But it is also true that virtually all of those Republicans espoused favorable views of immigrants, and not just white ones.

In his 1984 reelection, Reagan took about one-third of votes from Hispanics and Asian-Americans. George W. Bush won a majority among Muslim Americans in 2000 and described Islam as a "religion of peace" after the September 11 attacks, a moment of presidential leadership that helped roll back the pace of bias crimes. John McCain defended Barack Obama in a town-hall event when a questioner, channeling the birther calumny, "accused" him of being a Muslim. 

Maybe all those pro-immigration Republicans were being idealistic, or maybe they were implicitly comparing striving, socially conservative immigrants to supposedly shiftless, ungrateful blacks, or maybe they were combining both in an ever-changing formula.

Regardless, modern American presidential elections did not devolve starkly into white and non-white factions.

That standard started to change when McCain made the Faustian bargain of setting aside his top choice as running mate, the moderate Democrat Joseph Lieberman, and instead naming Sarah Palin to add some blue-collar populism to the ticket.

Reuters

Growing even more strident in the aftermath of the 2008 campaign, Palin emerged as one of the most prominent exponents of the divisive lie that a Muslim organization in New York was going to build a "Ground Zero mosque." (It was going to be a community center several blocks from the former World Trade Center – which, by the way, had contained a Muslim prayer room.) That manufactured controversy inaugurated an ongoing, increasing wave of Islamophobia, including a spike in hate crimes.

Then, in 2012, Mitt Romney threw off his moderate track record to urge undocumented immigrants to "self-deport," making Hispanics in particular a wedge issue.

So Donald Trump has been both the architect and the beneficiary of the rebranding of the Republican Party and the conservative movement as vehicles for white power, white nationalism, and white identity.

He has also made crude, strident attempts to guilt-trip American Jews into the white political camp.

In his bromance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in his gifts to the Israeli center and right – moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of the Golan Heights, an end to public support for a two-state solution – Trump has made his case for American Jews to vote for him in gratitude.

Counter-protesters supporting President Trump at the march on the Upper West Side, New York City, January 19, 2019.
Danielle Ziri

As most sensate American Jews know by now, he recently declared that any Jew who does otherwise is disloyal - to Israel and, certainly more important to Trump, disloyal to "America," in the form of the presidential Godfather.

In the 2020 election, then, American Jews will face the binary choice they have avoided until now: whether to definitively, enduringly, become white or not.

The Democratic candidate, whoever he or she is, will certainly preside over a coalition of racial and religious minorities. As the Republican standard-bearer, Trump will lead a party that, as social scientists have repeatedly shown, is bound together by racial resentment more than any other variable.

It is abundantly clear already that Trump’s plan to link the entire Democratic Party to the four new, leftist members of Congress known as "the squad" is less about socialism or anti-Semitism or hating Israel, his stated reasons, than about differences of race and religion. It is replacement theory, a staple of white nationalism, turned into a political platform.

For that matter, even Trump’s waving of the Israeli flag fits into the larger strategy.

The Israel that he glorifies is the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu. It is the Israel of permanent occupation and looming annexation. It is the Israel of illiberal attacks on dissenters, civil society organizations, and the Arab minority at home and alliances abroad with illiberals of the Putin, Modi, and Orban sort. It is certainly not the Israel that is consistent with the liberal Zionist majority of American Jews and the Democratic Party mainstream.

"It’s important to realize that even though you have [the majority of U.S.] Jews allying with liberals on issues of immigration and race, at the same time you have Stephen Miller and Sheldon Adelson and the pro-Israel community very bound up with Trump," Eric Goldstein said of the political counterforces for American Jews, one side trying to preserve American Jews’ strongly Democratic voting habits and the other seeking to erode them.

White House senior advisor Stephen Miller arrives on board the USS Wasp before President Donald Trump delivers a speech to U.S. troops at JMSDF Yokosuka base, south of Tokyo, Japan May 28, 2019
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

"Jews have traditionally felt uncomfortable with the far right and the far left. Now the two sides seem to be courting and adopting Jews. How often on the news I see Trump evoking the barriers in the occupied territories as a model of what we should have on the southern border. And by the same token, you have people on the left speaking about the Holocaust as a parallel to what’s happening on the southern border."

As Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Haaretz: "The nationalists of our age are happy to temper their anti-Semitism with a dose of Judeophilia, whether because they really don’t hate all Jews, only those who disagree with them, or for tactical reasons. Left-wingers and Israel haters are also eager to have their own tame Jews."

Indeed, but not every polarity is an equivalency.

The presence in Congress of one first-term Democratic member (Rashida Tlaib) calling for a unitary state and another (Ilhan Omar) trotting out the bigoted canard about Jewish money dictating American policy in the Mideast, are simply not tantamount to the incumbent president of the Republican Party operating it as a movement oriented around white supremacy and amenable to neo-Nazis, Confederate sympathizers and anti-Semites.

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Tlaib and Omar – the latter of whom, by the way, is on the record supporting a two-state solution – neither run their party nor represent its consensus, even if they make a lot of news and drive a lot of social-media action. But Trump embodies and enforces his hateful incarnation of the Grand Old Party. Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Poway, to say nothing of El Paso, are on his resume. So is the prospect of a formal apartheid regime in Israel.

For those American Jews who decide to join the Stephen Millers and Steven Mnuchins and Jared and Ivankas under the Trump umbrella, there will be no going back into a big communal tent. Or at least there should not be.

People protesting against US President Donald Trump wait near the Tree of Life Congregation on October 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
AFP

In 2016, they could rationalize a vote for Trump as a vote against Hillary Clinton or a wager that Trump in office would shed the demagoguery of Trump on the campaign trail. Heading into 2020, there can be no illusions about what Trump stands for.

Amid all his lies and contradictions on a whole range of issues, one position on which he has been true to his word is the principle of white power. There is nothing remotely tolerant about offering Jews a piece of that sordid action.

James Baldwin saw it coming when he wrote "The Price of the Ticket" decades ago. With the kind of knowledge of white hate that only a black person could acquire, he chastised American Jews for thinking a Holocaust could never happen here.

While Baldwin’s precise image of a second Holocaust is an exaggeration, his awareness that Jew-hatred was only hiding somewhere in the sewer, waiting for an expedient moment and a nourishing climate to reemerge, was tragically prescient.

He likened the persistence of the deicide canard about Jews to the persistence of the racist caricature of black men as rapists of white women. And in two sentences that eerily anticipate the Trump era, Baldwin went on, "These ideas do not come from the mob. They come from the state, which creates and manipulates the mob."

The nature of that state is on the ballot in November 2020. And the overarching issue for American Jews - both for their own values and their political alliances - is whether or not to willingly pay the price of whiteness.

Samuel G. Freedman is the author of eight books, including "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry." Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman