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The Mesa Press

A beginner’s guide to Jewish people for the American academic

Vladi Repkin
A Jewish boy waves an Israeli flag at an Israel Independence Day celebration in San Diego.

In the early morning of Oct. 7, as the people of Israel woke from the last festivities of the week-long Sukkot holiday, militants of the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas crossed the Israeli border in their hundreds, weapons at the ready. By the end of the day, over a thousand people – almost all of them civilians – were dead, victims of the largest slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust. Rape, arson, and torture were the order of the day.

The days since have seen the eruption of a new war that has already claimed thousands more lives, and is bound to claim yet more before it ends. The responses to this conflict across the world have been numerous and widely varied, ranging from U.S. President Joe Biden’s wholesale condemnation of the attacks to the celebration by student groups and self-proclaimed civil rights activists of what they describe as a righteous strike against an “apartheid regime.” At the same time, anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence in Europe and North America has sharply risen in a manner unseen since the Second World War.

Amid this chaos, one thing has become abundantly clear: Americans have a remarkably poor understanding of Jews. In particular, some of the most educated people in this country have shown themselves to be among the most ignorant on this subject.

In the United States, different groups of people are primarily understood through the lens of race. The past few decades have seen “whiteness” become the main vector for understanding oppression, with white people being the oppressors and people of color being the oppressed. Race, of course, is a completely unscientific concept with no clearly defined boundaries setting apart supposed races, but it remains a powerful way of thinking on both the political left and right.

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At one time, “white” people were a fairly exclusive club — only those from England, Scotland, and certain parts of Ireland were allowed membership. Even Germans weren’t good enough for the likes of Benjamin Franklin, whom he described as “swarthy.” Over the decades, as new waves of immigration rolled across the country, the older immigrants slowly became assimilated and left the newcomers behind in a predictable pattern. Somewhere along the way, Jewish people, too, came to be understood as “white.” In contrast, Palestinians are thought of as being “brown.”

Except being Jewish has nothing to do with being white, just as being Palestinian has nothing to do with being brown. Over 95% of Jews in the United States are Ashkenazi, meaning they come from Central or Eastern Europe, but they are far from all the world’s Jews. When one visits Tel Aviv in Israel, they will find a thriving Jewish community composed not only of immigrants from the recently deceased Soviet Union, but also dark-skinned Ethiopian Jews, olive-complexioned Arab (Mizrahi) Jews, and Central Asian (Bukharan) Jews. Palestinians similarly span a wide array of skin tones.

Then there is the matter of Israel itself. Since its founding, Israel has fashioned itself as a “Jewish state,” and invited Jews from around the world to come live there. This has confused many people, particularly Americans who conflate nationality with ethnicity. Many believe that all Jews are Israelis, and all Israelis are Jews. Both notions are false. While Jews make up a sizable majority of the country’s population, over a quarter of Israelis are non-Jewish, with full rights and citizenship. In turn, not all Jews are Israeli. Less than half of the world’s Jews are citizens of Israel — most are still members of the international diaspora.

So, if not race and not national origin, then what is the elusive quality that defines Jewishness? 

There are a few viable answers, mostly to do with ethnicity and religion, but the truth is that no one clearly identifiable feature defines Jewish people. They are a part of a broad and storied culture held together by a few shared traditions and texts, who have spread across the globe over the past two millennia and adapted in numerous ways to their surroundings.

The modern academic understanding of race, nationality, and religion in America completely falls apart when faced with a people as diverse as Jews. They don’t neatly fit into any one box, like the invented groups of “black” or “white” or “Asian.” They stubbornly defy easy categorization within America’s framework of cultural understanding

The unpleasant truth is that the most accurate and consistent way of defining Jewish people is by the fact that there are those who want to kill them simply for being Jewish. Anti-Semitism is not strictly racism and not strictly religious hatred. It comes from white supremacists and black nationalists, Christians and Muslims, left and right. Even light-skinned Jews are only conditionally “white” — they most certainly weren’t thought of as such by the likes of Adolf Hitler or his Nazi Party.

The paradigm of intersectionality, as upheld in American academia, is utterly incapable of handling the complexity of Jewish people, and completely breaks down when made to face it. When race is used as the lens through which to understand power, oppression, and violence, as it is in modern academia, it’s all too easy for anti-Semitism to suddenly become progressive; and when American Jews are vilified for the actions of a government half the world away, then it’s only a matter of time before the next massacre.

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About the Contributor
Jacob Repkin, Editor-in-Chief
Jacob Repkin is the Editor-in-Chief at the Mesa Press, and is a second year student at San Diego Mesa College. He is bilingual in English and Russian. He plans to transfer to the California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo in the fall of 2024 to obtain his Bachelor's degree in Journalism. He is a San Diego native, and spent much of his childhood living in Clairemont. In his free time, Repkin likes to read, write, hike, and spend time with his friends and family.
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  • J

    Joy NorrisNov 16, 2023 at 1:20 pm

    Spot on! Hopefully, the truth will triumph. Well done.

  • G

    Glen BrodowskyNov 4, 2023 at 11:40 am