If history would have taught us anything, this question would be ridiculous. It was only about 85 years ago when white people were trying to wipe out Jews specifically for not being white. Obviously, there are other groups of people who fall under this category – Italians and Irish, just to name two. But in today’s day and age, the question needs to be answered. And for the ease of argument, let’s say that we are talking about all Jews. Ashkenazi, Sefardi, chasidic, Litvish, Orthodox, Reform, unaffiliated – all Jews regardless of whether we keep Shabbos, eat rice on Pesach, or have really long curls of hair tucked behind our ears. Are we white?
This question has been building over the last year, but really came to a head last week when Eagles Wide Receiver DeSean Jackson posted a comment he believed was attributed to Adolf Hitler y”s, which was preceded by posts expressing admiration for Louis Farrakhan. The posts have now been deleted, but the fallout brings up the question that if a white player had posted similarly disgraceful comments regarding the black community, would the outcome have been the same? Luckily for us, there is a perfect story to which to compare this, and it involved another Eagles wide receiver. In 2013, Riley Cooper was filmed yelling at a black security guard. In his tirade, Cooper, who is white, used the “N-word.” Cooper had to apologize to his team (which included Jackson), and the public, and the NFL. It turns out that the punishment for both players was about the same. The league didn’t punish either player, the teams fined each one an undisclosed amount, and each player voluntarily pledged to give to organizations that help fight bigotry against the specific communities and promised to do more to educate themselves on these issues.
So, it would seem simple. Based on the incident that sparked the discussion, we should be able to deduce that Jews are not white. Both players were punished the exact same way. In fact, the Eagles owner, Jeffrey Lurie, is Jewish himself. He was there to oversee the handling of both players, and the fact that he treated both equally shows that he wasn’t trying to make the discrimination against his own people more important, nor was he downplaying the incident simply because he is Jewish. He made the same call regardless of who was the instigator and which community was the target.
However, the story doesn’t end with DeSean Jackson. Up to the time of writing this, only four NFL players have made a statement on this: Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots, Mitchell Schwartz of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Cam Heyward and Zach Banner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The last two are even more notable as they are not Jewish, but still invoked the story of the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. And while I am thankful for the support from Heyward and Banner, I want to focus on everyone else here. Firstly, Edelman and Schwartz both made statements about Jackson. In both statements, they stated something along the lines of “I don’t want to detract from the greater BLM movement going on, but…” Why is that a necessary caveat? Why can’t you come out against a racist statement without paying homage to another totally different issue? It’s as if it’s only okay to be against anti-Semitism if you first worship at the altar of BLM. Edelman went even further. He asked Jackson to come with him to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and he’ll go with Jackson to the Museum of African American History and Culture. I’m sorry. Did I miss something? Did Julian Edelman do something wrong? Did he use a racial slur or quote Robert E. Lee? Of course not, but like I said before, Edelman didn’t feel comfortable making the case against anti-Semitism without also volunteering to learn something about the history of hate against African Americans. Now don’t get me wrong: Edelman is allowed to and should be encouraged to learn as much as he can and wants to; but the fact that he had to acknowledge and apologize for detracting from the BLM movement speaks volumes as to where we are with the two communities.
Speaking of the volume at which we are speaking, where is the rest of the NFL? Because their silence is deafening. One month ago, players were clamoring to be the ones to admonish Drew Brees for the grave sin of saying that he wouldn’t kneel for the National Anthem. As a reminder, Brees did not attempt to quote Adolf Hitler. Well, where are those players now? I’ve heard four. FOUR. There are 1,696 players total, and as NFL broadcaster Ben Leber tweeted, “Is ‘silence is compliance’ still a thing?” Because if it is, over 99 percent of the league is compliant with DeSean Jackson’s comments. Or is it only a thing when it’s a specific type of bigotry?
Remember back in the end of 2019, when there was a string of high-profile anti-Semitic attacks? At that point, the public outcry against anti-Semitism was at the highest I could ever remember in this country. Do you think that if at that point, a public figure was caught saying something racist, the outcry would have included an apology to the Jewish people for detracting from their moment to have the national spotlight on racism? Absolutely not. It’s only when one form of bigotry is potentially detracting from BLM. Then and only then must the movement placate.
But the issue of whether or not Jews are white doesn’t stop with the NFL. It is pretty obvious that being racially disparaging towards white people is acceptable in today’s society. It’s why many news outlets capitalize “black” and not “white.” It’s why Webster’s has now changed its definition of racism to mean that those not in societal power cannot be racist. It’s why Netflix has removed the episode of Community that contains blackface, but not the one containing whiteface. However, when it comes to disparaging towards Jews, it depends on several factors. Firstly, who made the comments? You are more likely to lose points for being a white male conservative. You are more likely to get off the hook if you are a minority progressive female. It’s why Ilhan Omar can get away with making blatant anti-Semitic comments while passing them off as anti-Israel (despite not mentioning Israel at all). Rapper Ice Cube is male, so he’s not as untouchable as Omar, but he’s still relatively unscathed. Bill de Blasio is white and a male, so his Progressive stance only adds a little bit of coverage. All Donald Trump has to say is the word “Jew” and he’s labeled an anti-Semite.
The next factor is which Jew was the target. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Bloomberg are open targets because they are wealthy. If you’re going after a random Jew off the street, you’re likely going to have a harder time getting away with it. Finally, it depends on the religiosity of the Jewish person. If they fall into society nicely, i.e., they don’t flaunt their religion in front of you, you can’t touch them; but if they walk around with their tzitzis out, they are just asking to be punched.
In short, Jews today have become an area of convenience. If we are needed to make a political point, we are used. If discrimination against us flies in the face of a given political view, we are discarded. It comes down to the fact that we aren’t actually cared about. We are pawns. We are clubs to be used in a political debate. We are stuck being the ones everyone kicks around until it’s strategically convenient to point to and help. So here we are, world. Use us when convenient. But you don’t need my permission – you do it anyway.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.