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Professor Eric L. Goldstein's 2006 book, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, is taking on new relevance in 2020. Amid widespread protests for racial justice, the American Jewish community is seeking to better understand the historical context framing conversations on race, whiteness, and privilege, especially as it applies to their group. Goldstein says, “There has been a tremendous upsurge of interest in this topic since the George Floyd protests, as American Jews  grapple with their place in the current moment and in the changing racial culture of the United States.”

When asked how conversations about race and Jewish identity in America have changed or stayed the same since the book’s publication in 2006, Goldstein says, “In some ways the issues have stayed the same: Jews are still struggling with the contradiction between their history as persecuted outsiders and their current status as insiders in white America.” However, he also adds that “the contradictions have grown more intense, because there has been an increase in antisemitism, which highlights Jews’ continued vulnerability, even as they continue to play ever more important roles in politics, government, business, popular culture, and so many other parts of the dominant society where a reckoning with white privilege is occurring. Their status in American racial politics is more of a conundrum than ever.”

In the last few months, Goldstein has been contacted by a host of groups and organizations from across the country—both from inside and outside the Jewish community— to help them sort through the complicated set of issues around American Jews and their place in current discussions about race and privilege. In a recent webinar with the Jewish Federations of North America, Goldstein explained that he first became interested in these issues during his graduate training at the University of Michigan, where he was the only student in his cohort studying U.S. history in combination with modern Jewish history. As it became clear to him how central issues of race and racial discrimination were to the shaping of American history, he was pushed to think about how the American Jewish experience was also decisively shaped by a national culture in which “black” and “white” were the most important categories of difference. He explored these questions in a doctoral thesis that would eventually become The Price of Whiteness.

Goldstein’s work traces the twists and turns of the impact of America’s racial culture on Jewish identity over the long sweep of U.S. history.  In his recent appearance on the Judaism Unbound podcast, he explained how Jews were largely considered an unproblematic part of the white population until the late nineteenth century. But with the onset of mass Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, and the common association of Jews in the public mind with problems related to industrialization and urbanization, native-born whites became less certain where Jews fit in the American racial order and how easily they could assimilate into the dominant white society.  This scrutiny, in turn, placed pressure on European-descent Jews to play down expressions of Jewish difference, which were sometimes voiced in the language of “race,” if they wanted to be accepted as white. As Goldstein explains, "Jewish identity had to be sacrificed to some extent in the service of both integration and the larger national culture that demanded that ‘black’ and ‘white’ be the supreme categories of American life."

Although European-descent Jews came to be seen as unambiguously white after World War II, racial politics and culture nonetheless continued to shape—and sometimes confound—the construction of Jewish identity in the postwar era. As their upward social and economic climb made them increasingly like other white Americans, second- and third-generation American Jews struggled with how to preserve their self-perception as a minority group, and how to square their success and growing influence with a history of exclusion and persecution. Even today, often torn between the material and cultural benefits of their “insider” status and the moral and emotional claims of their “outsider” identity, American Jews continue to grapple with the implications of their integration into white America.

So, what relevance does this history have for the current moment? Goldstein believes that awareness of this complicated story will not only be of help to American Jews who are pondering how to respond to recent events, but can also contribute important nuance to larger discussions about race, difference, and privilege in the United States. On the one hand, he argues, the history of Jews and whiteness makes clear that Jews have a role to play in addressing the problems of white privilege and systematic racism, given the extent to which these factors facilitated and encouraged the integration and upward mobility of Jews and other European immigrant groups. Although many Jews retain a minority consciousness that makes them feel like “outsiders” who bear no responsibility for the inequalities fostered by the dominant culture, the history and current reality of Jewish integration into that dominant culture make this contention hard to sustain in the 21st century.

Conversely, the fact that Jews often faced structural barriers of their own, and that they still remain vulnerable in certain ways—not only to pressure to “fit in” to white America, but also, with alarming frequency, to violent attacks by extremists—reveals that power and privilege are not always absolute, and that Jewishness remains a salient category of difference in American life.

Goldstein believes that the current fight for racial justice and the ultimate dismantling of structural racism and white privilege will not only reap positive benefits for African Americans and other people of color, but also for American Jews. Antisemitism in the United States today, he argues, often emerges from the politics of racial division, with Jews being portrayed as a liminal group that exerts a malign influence on the relationship between whites and people of color. Similarly, the continuing power of whiteness as a social category perpetuates the pressures on European-descent Jews to conform to a certain dominant cultural model and to downplay aspects of Jewishness in exchange for their acceptance in white society.

While the toppling of the structures of white privilege would remove some of the material advantages European-descent Jews have enjoyed, he argues, it would also open up much more space in American culture for Jews to claim a distinctive identity and to avoid the ways in which the American racial divide has sometimes exposed them to vulnerability. Goldstein believes that if European-descent Jews can successfully confront the many sides of these issues, then they will be in a particularly strong position to leverage their complex “insider/outsider” status to help advance the national reckoning with race and privilege. He also sees the increasing diversity of the American Jewish community—especially the growing number of Jews of Color—as a positive development that can begin to disentangle the links between Jewishness and whiteness.

Goldstein’s continued engagement with these issues helped inspire the Tam Institute’s choice of guest speaker for the upcoming 12th Annual Rothschild Lecture: civil rights expert and executive director of the Western States Center, Eric K. Ward.  Also a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and a senior advisor with Race Forward, Ward is a nationally-recognized expert on the relationship between authoritarian movements, hate violence, and preserving inclusive democracy. In a Zoom webinar that will take place on Thursday, October 29, at 7:30pm, he will address the topic, “Skin in the Game: American Jews, Whiteness, and the Contemporary Movement for Racial Justice.”

Rather than a traditional lecture, the Oct. 29 program will be organized as a conversation in which Goldstein will interview and engage with Mr. Ward about the historical contexts, current challenges, and future possibilities that together reflect Jews’ complex and often contradictory place in America’s racial terrain.  Ward and Goldstein will also discuss the connections between antisemitism and white nationalist ideology in the United States. More broadly, the program seeks to explore where American Jews stand in relation to the nation’s reckoning with the issues of race, white privilege, and inequality, and what stake they have in this process.

For more information about the Rothschild Lecture, and to register for the Zoom webinar, click here.

Published on October 6, 2020.