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When did Jews become white?

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Scott’s post on Richard Cohen’s almost parodic performance of a certain type of white male privilege reminds me of something I’ve been wondering about ever since Trump happened:  How “white” are Jews in America today?

Two scenes from the Great American Novel:

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”

“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we ——”

“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

“You ought to live in California —” began Miss Baker, but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.

“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and ——” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. “— And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization — oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”

________

“Mr. Carraway, this is my friend Mr. Wolfsheim.”

A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half-darkness. . .

“The old Metropole,” brooded Mr. Wolfsheim gloomily. “Filled with faces dead and gone. Filled with friends gone now forever. I can’t forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there. It was six of us at the table, and Rosy had eat and drunk a lot all evening. When it was almost morning the waiter came up to him with a funny look and says somebody wants to speak to him outside. ‘All right,’ says Rosy, and begins to get up, and I pulled him down in his chair.

“‘Let the bastards come in here if they want you, Rosy, but don’t you, so help me, move outside this room.’

“It was four o’clock in the morning then, and if we’d of raised the blinds we’d of seen daylight.”

“Did he go?” I asked innocently.

“Sure he went.” Mr. Wolfsheim’s nose flashed at me indignantly. “He turned around in the door and says: ‘Don’t let that waiter take away my coffee!’ Then he went out on the sidewalk, and they shot him three times in his full belly and drove away.”

“Four of them were electrocuted,” I said, remembering.

“Five, with Becker.” His nostrils turned to me in an interested way. “I understand you’re looking for a business gonnegtion.”

The juxtaposition of these two remarks was startling. Gatsby answered for me:

“Oh, no,” he exclaimed, “this isn’t the man.”

“No?” Mr. Wolfsheim seemed disappointed.

“This is just a friend. I told you we’d talk about that some other time.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. Wolfsheim, “I had a wrong man.”

A succulent hash arrived, and Mr. Wolfsheim, forgetting the more sentimental atmosphere of the old Metropole, began to eat with ferocious delicacy. His eyes, meanwhile, roved very slowly all around the room — he completed the arc by turning to inspect the people directly behind. I think that, except for my presence, he would have taken one short glance beneath our own table.

Wolfsheim, a literary stand-in for Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish gangster who was a central figure in fixing the 1919 World Series, isn’t very white at all, even in the cosmopolitan world of 1920s New York.  Certainly Tom Buchanan would have considered the idea that Wolfsheim was white to be transparently ridiculous, and Tom Buchanan and his ilk were in fact the ultimate arbiters of such things at that time.

This post takes it as a given that “whiteness” is nothing but a social construction, which is to say that people are or become white in America when the society recognizes them as such, and that the concept has no non-sociological content.  Therefore lots of Americans are or have been incompletely or imperfectly or liminally white, with Jewish Americans being prime examples of that problematic state, both historically speaking and at present  (I’m going to do a post one of these days about the problematic whiteness and non-whiteness of Hispanic Americans).  And it follows that those who become white can also cease to be white, which is something Richard Cohen has apparently forgotten.

On a tangential note, see the debate over whether Josh Rosen’s purportedly declining draft stock could be in part a product of anti-Semitic stereotypes.

 

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