Jewish Questions Podcast

Episode 4: Jewish Anti-Semitism? — Transcript

*Learn more about the hosts and the series on the Jewish Questions podcast page.*

Noam: Hi, I’m Noam Pianko, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Washington and a member of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Laurie: Hi, I’m Laurie Marhoefer, a historian at the University of Washington and the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

And this is Jewish Questions, the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies’ deep dive podcast on stuff that matters now in Jewish life, politics, history and culture from a scholarly perspective.

Noam: This season, we’re talking with scholars from the University of Washington about anti-Semitism: what it is, its long history and how we can push back against it today.

For most of the season, we’ve been talking about anti-Semitism in different times and places. We looked at ways that non-Jewish people attack Jews and build systems of ideas that denigrated Jews from the Middle Ages to America in the 1930s to Nazi Germany. Today, we want to take another kind of side of this. Did Jews themselves sometimes use anti-Semitic ideas and tropes to talk about other Jews?

Laurie: Yeah, so I have to say, I’m a little concerned about this. Like, is this a good idea even to bring this up? We’re talking about anti-Semitism. There’s a real resurgence of anti-Semitism. Is this really the time to talk about how Jews can be prejudiced against other Jews?

Noam: Yeah, obviously, it’s really important to keep our focus on what we normally look at, which is the way in which anti-Semitism can operate as a force that non-Jews perpetrate against Jews. But on the other hand, you might have a lot to learn about how Jews themselves can use some of these same ideas to talk about one another.

Laurie: Right. Okay. So, there have been important historical divisions that Jews have made among Jews. So we are super fortunate today that our guest is Professor Devin Naar, who’s an expert in a lot of this stuff.

Professor Naar wrote “Jewish Salonica,” which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2016. He’s the director of the Sephardic Studies Program here at the Stroum Center. He’s internationally renowned for his efforts to preserve Ladino language and culture. His new project is called “Another Race Problem: Sephardic Jews, Race and Migration in the American Empire.” He’s working on it as a fellow at the Simpson Center for the Humanities Society of Scholars in 2020-2021.

Welcome, Devin. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Devin: I’m very happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Noam: So, Devin, can Jews actually be anti-Semitic against other Jews? Are there historical examples of that?

Devin: Well, that’s a really difficult question, Noam. And I think the first way that I would orient us to try to understand it is to think about, first of all, anti-Semitism in a broader context. Like, I think if we understand anti-Semitism as really a fundamental intellectual pillar of modern European thought, the way in which European society has thought about a variety of its others.

So, like, think about anti-Semitism as one prong, thinking about Orientalism and Islamophobia as, kind of, another prong, and then thinking about, like, anti-Black racism as yet another prong, then certainly Jews who find themselves generally in a vulnerable position in Western societies will harness these kinds of ways of thinking or speaking to make some very sharp and denigrating distinctions.

Noam: So, Devin, let me just make sure I understand that. Are you arguing that as Jews have tried to become more Western, they’ve actually internalized many of the Western stereotypes that denigrate Jews or people from the Far East, people of color; is that kind of part of the acculturation process?

Devin: I would say it’s normally not how we think about it. But I would say that it’s really an essential ingredient to that process. And I think these kind of racist or prejudiced discourses are such at the heart of the modern European experience, I think personally.

Like, take a look at Kant, for example, a great philosopher of the Enlightenment, the German Enlightenment, right. And he speaks about essentially the ways in which human beings are able to express their full humanity. And he is one of our first really racial thinkers. And he says, you know, white Europeans are at the top. Black Africans are at the bottom. And he finds Jews as somewhere in between.

You know, he refers to them at one point as “Palestinians in our midst.” By which he means that these are people who are from the Middle East. They’re not really European, but they’re interlopers in our European society. They don’t necessarily really belong. And so a lot of Jewish history is trying to prove that claim wrong, that Jews actually belong in Western society.

Laurie: That just makes so much sense to me, what you said, Devin, because I’m finishing up a book right now by Magnus Hirschfeld, who’s this German Jewish scientist in the 1930s, and when I first started reading his stuff about race, what really struck me was how he was intentionally showing that Jews were white and really denigrating Black people wherever he met them.

So, he toured the United States in 1931, 1932. He met Langston Hughes. and he just writes these vitriolically anti-Black things in public and also in his private papers. And it just flummoxed me at first. I was like, well, how could this guy… He later has to flee Germany because of the Nazis. How could this person who had experienced racism himself be mobilizing it in this way?

And I think that that’s such a useful way to think of it, that there are these three prongs of this European project, and there’s a pressure to show that you’re European and you do that by working the prongs that exist rather than rejecting them.

Noam: So, Devin, you’re kind of raising this tough question that I think American Jews rarely like to speak about, which is the relationship between Jews and African Americans. And it sounds like what you’re saying is that there is something inherent in the very struggle to become Western, that in order to become most Western, you don’t necessary want to become the most universalist and the most liberal. You actually, in a sense, have to internalize and accept some of the ways in which Western thinkers denigrate certain outsiders.

Devin: Noam, I agree with what you’re saying, but I wouldn’t draw the distinction as sharply as you’ve just done. I think that conceptions of the universal actually draw on very particular ways of understanding that universalism.

Like, in the Enlightenment vision, who is the universal figure? It is the white Christian or post-Christian secular man. And I think that that’s really what renders the Jewish experience very problematic in this context, because in some ways fit, and in some ways they don’t. And Jews are trying to defend themselves and navigate a system that is not necessarily set up to provide them with all of the opportunities and access that might otherwise be available.

Laurie: So let me break in here. So, I can think of examples of historical… like Karl Marx, right, on the Jewish question, and I can think of anti-Semitic Jewish thinkers in the German Jewish world. But what about group divisions? Like, the group of Jews that I am part of is different from this other group of people. There are anti-Semitic Jewish thinkers, right. But then is there another layer to this about group politics?

Devin: Absolutely. And I think, like, let’s take the example of the United States. I think one of the main defining features of the Jewish experience in the United States has been the legal system. When we talk about what was required in order to become a citizen of the United States, from the very beginning, there was only one prerequisite that somebody born elsewhere had to meet in order to be eligible for naturalization, which is articulated in the 1790 Naturalization Act, and that is you have to be a free white person.

And with that Naturalization Act, there are some Jews who are living in the United States at that time. Some of them are Spanish and Portuguese Jews, there are some who are from other parts of Europe, what we might call Ashkenazi Jews, they are all accepted into the class of white persons and become citizens of the United States.

What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States, to be a free white person in 1790? And there’s been a lot written on this. And one of, I think, the most provocative and pithy explanations of what does it mean to be a citizen in 1790? That means that you are ready to participate in putting down slave rebellions and you are ready to participate in expelling indigenous peoples from the domain of European colonized sites. And Jews at that time are deeply embedded in those processes. So what it meant to be part of the colonial society, being accepted in colonial society, was that you were not Black and not Native American. And Jews fit in that category at the time.

Noam: At the same time, internally, because of Jews’ religious beliefs and history of anti-Semitism, they were also outsiders themselves. So they were kind of very much in between these two different places, right. They were accepted, but not fully accepted.

Devin: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I mean, I like to think about the Jewish experience in the United States, not as one that we should unequivocally celebrate, but really it moves between these dyads of privilege and peril. There are these two components of being part of that dominant society, that dominant class. Yet also, at any moment, the protections that come with whiteness and with citizenship can be revoked.

This is where we get into the internal divisions that you were asking about, Laurie, because what we see as different Jewish communities enter into the United States, we see the old guard constantly trying to re-inscribe themselves in the dominant class. And oftentimes we will find that they do that by flipping the lens and denigrating other Jews.

We can find this happening at many different instances in the 18th, 19th, 20th century, even today, where Jews will say, no, no, no, we are the white Jews, we are the civilized Jews. There may very well be Jews who are not white, or Jews who are not civilized, or Jews who are dangerous. They are not us. They are them.

Noam: And who are “they”? Can you talk a little bit about some examples over time?

Devin: So, I think that the basic hierarchy works in some ways as a European hierarchy works. If we move from West to East and if we move from longest established to most recent arrivals. So, Spanish and Portuguese Jews come earlier, they come, you know, 1654 already, although they have a rocky start in the beginning.

Laurie: Is that Jamestown, that date that you said?

Devin: So, it’s not Jamestown, but it has to do with New Amsterdam, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, they’re kicked out of Spain, then they flee the Portuguese Inquisition, and they wind up in the American colonies, especially Brazil and other places like Curaçao. And the first Jews who wind up as a group in what becomes the United States are Jews who wind up escaping the Portuguese Inquisition when Portugal conquers Brazil from the Dutch.

And they wind up fleeing to another Dutch colony, which is New Amsterdam, and they are initially not invited. Governor Stuyvesant doesn’t want them to enter. But due to the perception of their utility for developing colonial economic interests, they are given the opportunity to enter into North American colonial society.

And they will frame themselves as the grandees. You know, they are the great founders of the American Jewish experiment, and they will begin to look down on the German-speaking Jews that begin to come in the 19th century. And then those two groups together will look down on the masses of Yiddish-speaking Jews who come from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And those three groups will then look down on Jews who come even later and come from further to the east, which are the Jews from the Muslim world. Sometimes we call them Sephardic Jews. We call them Levantine Jews. At the time they were called Oriental Jews.

Laurie: So, by the 19th and 20th century, when there have been these three groups who have come and there are then Jews from the Muslim world, do the groups of people who were here in the U.S., the way that they denigrate the Ottoman Jews, is it racialized or is it a kind of anti-Semitism?

Devin: It’s intensely racialized. And I think the first thing to recognize is that European Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, white Jews, these are kind of cognates, they’re not perfect terms. But however you want to call European Jews, the already established Jews, are classified already by the U.S. government, at least for immigration purposes, as Hebrew by race.

Now, that exists through the 1940s, and some European Jewish leaders in the United States will be actively trying to remove that mark because they want to become integrated into the white majority. And so they recognize that their position is a little bit ambiguous.

But what I want to talk about right now is how actually some of these debates about whiteness will wind up providing an opportunity for some of these already established European Jews to use racialized or even anti-Jewish tropes to protect themselves and ensure themselves into the category of whiteness and will then create some distinctions by placing other Jews into categories outside of whiteness.

So, to give a specific example about this, this comes to the fore just before World War I, where there are some court cases that come up, and there are a bunch of people who are trying to go to court to prove that they are white and therefore eligible for citizenship in the United States. So they’re Chinese people, Japanese people, indigenous people; [they] all try to prove that they’re white so that they can become citizens of the United States.

Armenians do it. Syrians do it. And in the Syrian case, where actually the prospect of Syrians being designated not white and ineligible to become citizens of the United States compels

the American Jewish leadership into action. Because they are concerned… figures like Louis Marshall and Max Kohler and Cyrus Adler are so concerned about the ramifications if Syrians are deemed not white and ineligible for citizenship in the United States, would Jews, including Ashkenazi Jews, including European Jews, who were designated at the time, according to the race science language, the eugenics language that was so pervasive at the time, if they were also by virtue of them being Semites, like Arabs, if they were designated as not white, would Jews suddenly lose the opportunity to become a citizen of the United States?

And so, actually, what these American Jewish leaders do is they write amicus briefs to support the Syrian case, proving that they are white. So, nowhere do they say, you know what, the whole system where you can only become a citizen of the United States is if you’re white, that’s a bunch of bunk, and that’s racist. No, they don’t do that.

They say, okay, these are the rules. The rules are you have to be white in order to become a citizen. And eventually, if you’re Black, you can become a citizen. But nobody’s claiming to be Black to become a citizen of the United States, you know, because they know that that’s not going to be advantageous. So they try to claim that they are white. They try to demonstrate that Syrians are white. Jews are white. We are all white. We are all eligible for citizenship.

So the American Jews worked within this system of racial hierarchy that emerged with great strength during the early 20th century. And were willing to work within that system to demonstrate that Jews fit into the white category. And you can see it all across popular culture and political culture.

The infamous Leo Frank case, who’s accused of killing an Irish American young girl in the pencil factory where he’s the foreman. The defense is that it had to be the Black janitor because Blacks are dirty, filthy, Black, drunken and lying n-words.

Noam: Were these Jewish lawyers, who were basically trying to get this Jewish person off the hook?

Devin: Correct. They knew that they could use that way of speaking as a way to pin it on somebody else and as a way to exonerate this Jewish guy.

Or think about “The Jazz Singer.” The first talking motion picture in the United States is about an Ashkenazi Jewish American guy who puts on blackface, dresses up like a Black person, the sense being that by somehow possessing the Black body, mocking the Black body, he can demonstrate his status as part of the white dominant culture.

Noam: Right. And, of course, part of that is he starts as the son of an immigrant cantor, too, so that adds to the whole story.

Devin: But it speaks of vulnerabilities here. Right.

Noam: But it sounds like you’re making two contradictory points, which is quite possible. On the one hand, the anxiety that Jews face— Leo Frank, as a Jew who is being accused because he was Jewish— forced Jews to kind of circle the ranks around other Jews by saying how they’re not African Americans.

At the same time, Jews also wanted to become more American. And in order to do that, some Jews tried to say that certain types of Jews were more white than other Jews. So there seemed to be kind of these two conflicting forces.

Devin: Right. I don’t see them as contradictions. I think those are variations on the same theme. So, I think that where I would draw the line is that we have essentially European-origin Jews trying to consolidate their status as European, as white and as eligible for participation in American society.

And while we have that, sort of, cascading layers of denigration that I described, the Portuguese looking down on the Germans, looking down on the Eastern Europeans, not only do they look down on the Jews who come from the Muslim world, but they will go a step further and they will say they are not Jews.

Laurie: So what do they say? How can they argue that they’re not Jews?

Devin: On racial grounds. So here, for example, at the same time that the Leo Frank case is happening—this is right before World War I— the National Conference of Jewish Charities convenes its annual convention in 1913. And the topic of the convention is “the Oriental problem.”

And they want to talk about, what are we going to do with this influx of new people who are coming to this country with the name Jew attached to them, but they are so different from us? How are we going to manage their arrival, and how are we going to manage our own status in this American society if people come to associate us with them?

So they say, for example, “The psychic and psychological differences between the Levantine Jews and Oriental Jews are so vast there seems to be little in common.” Another commentator there says the Levantine Jew is as human, or “almost as human,” as any other, and then goes on to explain all of the ways in which Levantine Jews, because they come from the Muslim world, they are bordering the line between human and not human.

And so I think that comes in its most dramatic expression some years later, after World War I, after the U.S. has implemented its immigration restriction regime, which, in 1924, this quota system was implemented. One of the principal targets were Eastern Europeans, specifically Jews, as well as Southern Europeans, and many other people not from Western Europe.

Immigration restriction, by the way, was initiated at the federal level here in Washington state, by a Washington state Senator Johnson. And his name is one of the names that takes the name the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924.

And so it’s in that context of this renewed anti-Jewish animosity that animated the immigration restriction laws, that some of the established or mainstream Jewish institutions come again to the question of what are we going to do with these Oriental Jews? These Jews from the Muslim world who are among us?

And the first academic study of Jews from the Muslim world, or Sephardic Jews, as they would come to be known, is undertaken at that time by a scholar associated with Columbia University, who would soon be a dean there and become a buddy of Eisenhower. So he was a major figure, himself Jewish, a guy by the name of Louis Hacker, who’s an important thinker.

And he begins his study of the Sephardic Jews in New York by saying that “Sephardic Jews are as alien to their Ashkenazi kinsmen as are the Negroes to the average white Southerner.” That’s how he begins the statement. And to draw that analogy in the 1920s is to make a very, very strong claim. This is a world in which whites and Blacks do not mix, in which it is illegal in many parts of the country for whites and Blacks to become married or to produce offspring together.

He argues that the problem with Jews from the Muslim world is their proximity to the Muslims and the Arabs and to Africans. And it is their African and Arab nature that has set them up for failure in American society. Because they do not have culture. They do not have language. They do not have literature. They cannot read and write. He says all of these things.

But I read the footnotes of the unpublished original study that he did, and he shows in his own statement that 83 percent of the people that he interviewed read newspapers in English. But he states in the published thing that, as a rule, Sephardic Jews may be able to speak many languages, but they cannot read or write any. So he’s just making things up that are based on these kind of Orientalist tropes. They’re Orientalist tropes in the way that [Edward] Said meant them, insofar as seeing the Muslim world as a world of darkness and un-civilization.

He says, what is the solution to the fate of the Sephardic Jews in the United States? He says, perhaps if we bring them into our fold and we interbreed— This is his… you know, it’s the era of eugenics— if we interbreed with them enough over a few generations, the racial stain of their Arab-ness and their Negro-ness will be bred out of them so that they can become part of the American Jewish community, and they will become suitable for participation in American society. He concludes, however, saying that he doesn’t think that will happen.

Noam: Do you have a sense of… you know, at this time there were a lot of Eastern European immigrants who had flooded into the United States in the previous, you know, 40 years. Millions. Two million, I believe, since 1880.

And there were also actual laws being developed in Congress that specifically targeted Eastern European Jews. As far as I remember, it didn’t even touch on, you know, Jews from Arab countries or other parts of the world. Were there a large number of Jews from other countries coming in?

It just seems that at this moment, the focus would have been on denigrating the Eastern European Jews rather than a group of Jews who may not have at that point been the dominant percentage of immigrants actually coming to the United States.

Laurie: I was going to ask the same thing. So, there’s a wave of migration from the Muslim world to the U.S., and who are these Sephardic Jews who came and what were their lives like? And how did this affect them and what did they think of it?

Devin: So, like Noam said, there are about two million Jews who come from Eastern Europe during the last couple of decades of the 19th century until after World War I, until the 1924 Immigration Quota Act is established.

And, during that period, there are about 50,000, a very tiny, tiny number of Jews who come from the Ottoman and former Ottoman Empire as a result of coming for economic opportunities, and as a result of the violence that accompanies the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Christian-based nationalisms in the Balkans, and of pretty intense ethnic nationalism in Turkey.

Now, what’s interesting, even though they’re small in number, at that time, they were sort of, like, both hyper visible and almost invisible. In other words, like, immigration authorities are constantly commenting on this group of people. Like, they speak Spanish, they speak Ladino, because they are the descendants of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, but they look and act like Turks or Arabs, and yet they are Jews by religion or maybe by race… Like, where do we put them in our system?

Even some of the greatest racists of the era, like Madison Grant, who is one of the foremost eugenicists of the time, he has a thing about Spanish Jews, which is what he calls them, that they’re a hybrid race. They’re somewhere between Asiatics and Europeans. And it’s precisely for that same reason that they are very dangerous. Because they undermine what are supposed to be these pretty neat categories, like European and not European, white and not white. They’re kind of somewhere in between.

Think about “The Maltese Falcon.” I don’t know if you remember either the book or the movie from back in the day, but the protagonist is a queer Levantine Jew. And the idea is that these are categories that are unclassifiable, like there’s some ambiguity there, and that’s what makes them dangerous and disturbing.

Noam: I mean, how do you think this also relates to the Jews as a religious community in the United States and the effort to kind of argue that Jews are another white Protestant denomination? Which is how through the category of religion, Jews would integrate into American liberal society, and I guess the existence of Jews from Arab countries really challenged that, potentially.

Devin: I think that that’s right. I mean, you can look at the way that HIAS worked with Jews from the Ottoman Empire, the way that the Kehillah, which was the main Jewish community structure in New York around the time of World War I, actually did not bring in Jews from the Ottoman Empire, the way in which the early Zionist organizations excluded Jews from the Ottoman Empire, the way in which the Jewish fraternity at the University of Washington did not admit Sephardic members until after World War II.

I think what these all reveal is the fragility of the European Jewish position, or the Ashkenazi Jewish position, in American society, the desire to become, like, Jew, Protestant, Catholic; the idea to see Jews as white, differing by religion, but having a severe anxiety that this status of the racial difference or possible racial difference could be brought into the conversation at any moment and dethrone them from the precarious protections that that whiteness had provided them with.

Noam: So, Devin, to sum up a little bit, I think you’ve actually dispelled two of the, kind of, central myths of American-Jewish life in your comments today. The first is the idea that Jews are primarily victims of anti-Semitism in this country. And you’re kind of saying, well, yes, but also are themselves victimizers in some ways.

And the second, I think, myth of American Jewish life is that American Jews are unified, and in the end, you know, all Jews help one another. And you’re saying that actually there’s a lot of moments in American Jewish history when Jews were right out there making distinctions, even racialized distinctions, between Jew and non-Jew.

So I guess my question for you, Devin, is what’s the legacy of this historical research? How do we use this historical information to give us a better sense of some of the current debates about the relationship between Jews and people of color in the United States, and also how Jews think about themselves? What do we do with the legacy of what you’ve taught us today?

Devin: It’s a really great question, and I do think that there are some elements that we can pull out from the historical context that I was describing and think about its application for today.

I mean, I would say within the Jewish framework, I think the first thing to recognize is that there are many different kinds of Jews and that we generally hear one kind of dominant Jewish story and that that story, because of the vulnerability of those people telling that story, that there hasn’t been made room for other kinds of stories. Americanness and whiteness are historically synonymous in this country, and we haven’t quite come out of that.

The second sub-point there is to think about the way in which today we have many Jews who are not only not Ashkenazi or not European, but are also Black or are also Asian or also Latinx. And to think about the ways in which their stories have also been occluded and to think about ways in which we can bring those stories in.

And the second question of yours is, how does this relate to Jews and our current discussion about race in the United States. I think it relates in a very profound way, because I think if we could come to terms with the vulnerability even that white Jews have experienced in this country.

A lot of people are not interested in that because there’s so much invested in the narratives of American Jewish exceptionalism, in the narratives of the American dream, to say, well, maybe that dream was a myth, or maybe for some of us, that dream was a nightmare. The whole basis upon which the American-Jewish experience has been narrated begins to come unmoored.

And with that unmooring actually opens up opportunities for reaching out, to thinking about the relations between immigrants of all different kinds, to thinking about relationships between Black people, Indigenous people, other people of color. And that would also change the axes of Jewish experience. Because of Jewish vulnerability, Jews and Jewish leaders have always historically, maybe with some few exceptions, been oriented toward the top, currying protection from the state. If we recast that vertical alliance, as Yerushalmi called it, in horizontal terms, maybe we can find more protection there.

Noam: Devin, I just want to thank you for being here today and so honestly exploring a very complicated situation of ways in which Jews have been both oppressed and oppressor, victims and victimizers, and the ways in which Jews have internalized some of this anti-Semitism to think about other Jews, and how it’s really put Jews in a very challenging situation.

And it’s incredibly illuminating to think about how the questions we’re all thinking about today, in terms of systematic racism in this country, and the Jewish experience being really an integral part of that, and how Jews and Jewish history can help us understand some of those structural challenges, and how difficult it is to work through them. Thanks so much for talking with us today, Devin.

Devin: Thank you.

Laurie: This has been Jewish Questions, the podcast of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, part of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Noam: This season was supported by an Ignition Grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Laurie: Jewish Questions was produced, recorded and edited by Kara Schoonmaker.

Noam: Join us again in future episodes as we discuss more of the history of anti-Semitism with faculty experts from the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Find more episodes of the podcast, and learn more about the series, on the Jewish Questions series page.