The Whitening of European Jews and the Misuse of Holocaust Memory

In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the formation of Israel, Jews's position in the Global North transformed from racialized minority into fully white members of "Judeo-Christian" society. As Gilbert Achcar shows in this essay, however, this assimilation into "super whiteness" relies on Jews placidly accepting their equation with Zionism and thus Israel's racist discrimination and violence against Arab Muslims.

 

* It is nowadays difficult to think of the European Jews as non-white. The mantra according to which the very white “Western civilization” is “Judeo-Christian” has become so ubiquitous that it has acquired the status of a common misconception, worthy of Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. This same mantra has been strongly buttressed lately by the way in which Western governments, starting with Joe Biden’s US administration, have unconditionally supported Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Israeli government in its retaliatory massacre of a huge number of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, including a staggering proportion of children, along with the devastation of most of the territory and the displacement of the vast majority of those who might yet manage to survive – all this while hypocritically paying lip service to the need to spare civilians. This unconditional support stemmed from a Western identification with the Israelis in the face of the 7 October 2023 attack very similar to the “narcissistic compassion” of the Europeans with the Americans in the face of the 11 September 2001 attacks. I described the latter 22 years ago as “a form of compassion evoked much more by calamities striking ‘people like us,’ much less by calamities affecting people unlike us”.1

Jews as Non-Whites

And yet, the perception of the European Jews as white is quite recent by historical standards. For most of their history, Jews have been perceived in Europe as “non-white”, by which is primarily meant here non-Europeans – migrants from West Asia, a perception that European languages bear witness to in the now-obsolete designation of the Jews as Israelites in English and French or their continuing designation as Hebrews in Greek, Italian, Russian and other East-European languages. Europe’s Jews themselves long adhered to a self-identification as a migrant people – not one component of countless migrations that formed the modern European nations, but a specifically uprooted population that preserved its singularity through the ages in conformity with the biblical narrative.

Western and Central Europe’s modernization and democratization in the nineteenth century made possible a gradual emancipation and assimilation of the Jews. This process was dangerously reversed when the Jews of the Russian Empire became increasingly scapegoated in the latter part of the century and migrated westwards in large numbers fleeing persecution, in the context of the first major crisis of the global capitalist economy – the Long Depression of 1873-1896. The combination of migration and economic crisis produced the rise of xenophobia and racism in the countries of destination – a pattern that has been recurrent ever since. The Jews were the targets of the rising far-right in late-nineteenth century Europe, continuing and reaching a peak in the crisis-ridden interwar years of the following century.2 Europe’s secularization and the rise of scientism in the nineteenth century translated into the secularization of this renewed hatred of the Jews: old Christian prejudices gave way to pseudo-scientific “antisemitism”.

Western European Jews were at best favourably contrasted with the Eastern European migrants and at worst lumped with them as members of a racially inferior and maligned category.3 Thus, the assimilation of Western European Jews was in large part reversed between the late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth, except that the Jews were no longer primarily seen by their haters as “Christ killers” but as members of a Semitic or Western Asian / Near Eastern race loathed by Aryan or white Europeans. The reference to an Indo-European Aryan continuum is an ideological device embraced by Nazism seeking a scientific ground in linguistics for its racist worldview. It was more acceptable to Southern Europeans such as Italy’s fascists than the other racial theory of “white supremacism” known as Nordicism, which was closer to the spontaneous belief of ordinary racism in Germany and other Nordic countries.

Hitler himself was highly impressed by the views of Nordicist linguist-anthropologist Hans Friedrich Karl Günther, who explicitly refuted the racial characterization of the Jews as Semites or even as members of a “Jewish race”.4 Günther summarized his views about the Jews in contrast with other European peoples in his 1924 book, Rassenkunde Europas (Racial Studies of Europe). It is useful to quote extensively from those ramblings as only specialized historians are aware of them nowadays:

There is a range of misconceptions about Jews. They are said to belong to a “Semitic race”. But there is no such thing; there are only peoples of Semitic language who show different racial compositions … The Jews themselves are said to be a race: “the Jewish race”. This is also wrong; even a superficial look reveals that there are very different looking people among the Jews. The Jews are supposed to be a religious community. This is the most superficial error, because there are Jews of all European creeds, and particularly among the Jews with the strongest Jewish-ethnic [jüdisch-völkisch] views, the Zionists, there are many who do not belong to the Mosaic creed. …

The Jews are a people [Volk] and, like other peoples, can be divided into several creeds and, like other peoples too, they are composed of different races. The two races, which constitute the foundation of the Jewish people, are … the West Asian [vorderasiatische, also translated as Near Eastern] and the Oriental. There are also lighter influences of the Hamitic, Nordic, Inner Asian and Negro races, and stronger influences of the Western and, above all, East Baltic race.

Two parts of the Jewish people are distinguished: the southern Jews (Sephardim) and the eastern Jews (Ashkenazim); the former make up 1 tenth, the latter 9 tenths of the total population of around 15 million. The former mainly make up the Jewry of Africa, the Balkan Peninsula, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and part of the Jewry of France, Holland and England. These southern Jews represent an Oriental-West-Asian-West-Hamitic-Nordic-Negro mixture with the predominance of the Oriental race. The Eastern Jews make up the Jewry of Russia, Poland, Galicia, Hungary, Austria and Germany, probably the largest part of North American Jewry and part of the Western European. They represent a West Asian-Oriental-East Baltic-Inner Asian-Nordic-Hamitic-Negro mixture with a certain predominance of the West Asian race.

In both branches of Judaism, however, similar selection processes have apparently occurred, which have, as it were, narrowed the circle of cross-breeding combinations possible in such a racial mixture, so that physical and mental traits appear again and again in the Jewish people as a whole, which are so similar among a large proportion of Jews of all countries that the impression of a “Jewish race” can easily arise. 5

Günther supported the Zionist “solution” to the Jewish question:

A worthy and clear solution to the Jewish question lies in the separation of Jews from non-Jews desired by Zionism, in the parting of Jews from non-Jewish peoples. Within the European peoples, whose racial makeup is completely different from that of Judaism, the latter acts, in the words of the Jewish writer Buber, as “a wedge that Asia drove into Europe’s structure, a cause of ferment and disturbance”.6

The Buber whom Günther quoted is none other than the famous Austrian philosopher Martin Buber, who was then prominent as an ardent supporter of Zionism and admirer of Theodor Herzl. Günther borrowed from the following conclusion of an article titled “The Land of the Jews” (1910) republished in Buber’s 1916 collection, Die Jüdische Bewegung (The Jewish Movement):

Here we are a wedge that Asia drove into Europe’s structure, a cause of ferment and disturbance. Let us return to the womb of Asia, to the great cradle of nations, which was and is also the cradle of the gods, and thus return to the meaning of our existence: to serve the divine, to experience the divine, to be in the divine.7

Across the Atlantic, Günther-like racist ranting was widespread in the same interwar period. A prominent writer in this respect was Kenneth L. Roberts, a journalist and member of the WASP elite (he was a graduate of Cornell University) whose rant was void of the pseudo-scholarly ramblings of Günther and is hence somewhat closer to the anti-migrant racism of our time. Roberts disseminated his views in newspapers and magazines and published a collection of his papers in 1922 under the title Why Europe Leaves Home. Here is some of his prose excerpted from that book:

Even the most liberal-minded authorities on immigration state that the Jews of Poland are human parasites, living on one another and on their neighbors of other races by means which too often are underhanded, that they continue to exist in the same way after coming to America, and that they are therefore highly undesirable as immigrants.8

Races can not be cross-bred without mongrelization, any more than breeds of dogs can be cross-bred without mongrelization. The American nation was founded and developed by the Nordic race, but if a few more million members of the Alpine, Mediterranean and Semitic races are poured among us, the result must inevitably be a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and Southeastern Europe.9

America is confronted by a perpetual emergency as long as her laws permit millions of non-Nordic aliens to pour through her sea-gates. When this inpouring ceases to be an emergency, America will have become thoroughly mongrelized….10

It must not be forgotten, moreover, that the Jews from Russia, Poland and nearly all of Southeastern Europe are not Europeans: they are Asiatics and in part, at least, Mongoloids. … There will be, of course, many well-intentioned persons to deny that the Russian and Polish Jews have Mongoloid blood in them. This fact, however, may readily be confirmed in that section of the Jewish Encyclopedia dealing with the Chazars. The Jewish Encyclopedia states that the Chazars were “people of Turkish origin whose life and history are interwoven with the very beginnings of the history of the Jews of Russia”.11

Whitening of the Western Jews

By one of history’s paradoxes, the worst episode ever to befall European Jews in their centuries-long ordeal – that is, of course, the Nazi genocide of the Jews, commonly designated in English as the Holocaust – was the major catalyst of their recognition in postwar decades as a legitimate component of Western civilization on a par with the Europeans of Christian ancestry. It is foremost in the United States that this process and the redefinition of the Western civilization as “Judeo-Christian” were taken forward. As Peter Novick observed in 1999:

Before World War II, it was common to hear America described as a Christian country – statistically, a most defensible designation. After the war, the leaders of a no-less-overwhelmingly Christian society had accommodated Jews by coming to speak of our “Judeo-Christian traditions”; they elevated the 3 percent of American society that was Jewish to symbolic parity with vastly larger groups by speaking of “Protestant-Catholic-Jew”.12

Mark Silk described how the “Judeo-Christian” idea emerged in the ideological fight against fascism and how it was mainstreamed after World War Two as a distinctive ideological pedigree contrasted with both variants of totalitarianism: the Fascist and the Communist. It thus became a major staple of Cold War ideology:

… “Judeo-Christian” and its companion terms were unstoppable. After the revelations of the Nazi death camps, a phrase like “our Christian civilization” seemed ominously exclusive; greater comprehensiveness was needed for proclaiming the spirituality of the American Way. “When our own spiritual leaders look for the moral foundations for our democratic ideals,” observed Cornell’s Arthur E. Murphy at the 1949 Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, “it is in ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage,’ the culture of ‘the West,’ or ‘the American tradition,’ that they tend to find them.” For his part, Murphy was contrasting America’s spiritual leaders with the leaders of the Soviet Union, who proclaimed high-flying moral ideals of their own. … “Judeo-Christian” served the same purpose, highlighting, in a way that included Americans of all faiths, the godliness of the United States against the godlessness of the USSR.13

In her 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America, Karen Brodkin described the correlated transformation of American Jews into mainstream partakers in the American way of life:

American anti-Semitism was part of a broader pattern of late-nineteenth-century racism against all southern and eastern European immigrants, as well as against Asian immigrants, not to mention African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexicans. These views justified all sorts of discriminatory treatment, including closing the doors, between 1882 and 1927, to immigration from Europe and Asia. This picture changed radically after World War II. Suddenly, the same folks who had promoted nativism and xenophobia were eager to believe that the Euro-origin people whom they had deported, reviled as members of inferior races, and prevented from immigrating only a few years earlier, were now model middle-class white suburban citizens.14

Hollywood and the “cultural industry” were, naturally, powerful contributors to this ideological shift, especially in their depiction of World War Two and the Holocaust. The Jews represented in movies and television programs over the years have essentially been assimilated Jews – with hardly any traditionalist Eastern European Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, such as Haredi or Hasidic Jews, although they were proportionally the most affected by the Holocaust. A revealing anecdote in this regard is what Barbra Streisand faced when she tried to get Hollywood’s backing for her project of making a film based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”. She was reportedly told by the Jewish production head of 20th Century Fox: “The story’s too ethnic, too esoteric”.15 The 1978 TV miniseries Holocaust – “without doubt the most important moment in the entry of the Holocaust into general American consciousness”, in the words of Peter Novick16 – represented a fictional family of very middle-class assimilated German Jews, of course.

The whitening of the American Jews went along with a shift in the mainstream political use of the Holocaust. Instead of being an extreme case of what racism of all sorts can lead to, and therefore a reference invoked in the fight against all kinds of racism, it was turned into a climax of the specific hatred of Jews alone. “Never again” was downsized from a warning against all types of racist persecution potentially leading to genocide, to a warning against anti-Jewish racism conceived as singular. As Peter Novick noted in 1999: “In recent decades, the leading Jewish organizations have invoked the Holocaust to argue that anti-Semitism is a distinctively virulent and murderous form of hatred.” This contrasted with the emphasis that was put on “the common psychological roots of all forms of prejudice” in the first postwar decades, when the same leading Jewish organizations “reasoned that they could serve the cause of Jewish self-defense as well by attacking prejudice and discrimination against blacks as by tackling anti-Semitism directly”.17

The Martinican poet Aimé Césaire’s famous protest in 1950 at the Western double standard in the reaction to the fate of European Jews compared to that of non-white people was thus retrospectively validated. It was famously expressed in Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, where he contended, referring to “the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century”, that

what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “coolies” of India, and the “niggers” of Africa.18

Césaire’s claim was only partially right in 1950. For, as we have seen, the European Jews had not been regarded as white people by a large proportion of the white “bourgeois of the twentieth century” prior to the Holocaust. It is only later that the Holocaust acquired in the common representation the character of a crime against white people. What remains true, however, is that the degrading and eventually genocidal treatment inflicted by the Nazis upon Jews and a few other human categories took place in the heart of Europe, not somewhere in the heart of darkness far from the Europeans’ sight, where it would have certainly aroused much less condemnation in the Global North.

Antisemitism into Philo-Zionism

Singling out the Holocaust as irreducible to an instance of generic racism and genocide allowed another operation to take place: the identification of the state of Israel with the Jewish condition, even though it is the very antithesis of that historical condition – a Jewish-majority state based on racist discrimination against non-Jews, heavily militarized and engaged in the persecution of another people, the Palestinians, and the occupation of their land, with periodic murderous onslaughts against them up to the massacre of genocidal proportion that is being perpetrated in Gaza at the moment of writing.

This perversion of the historical record was made possible by equating two very different sets of attitudes: on the one hand, the racism of white Europeans, or their offshoot in other continents, against historically persecuted Jewish minorities in their midst; on the other hand, the reaction of the Palestinians and other peoples in the Global South, or originating from it, to the brutal colonial behaviour of a state that insists upon its self-definition as “Jewish”, thus excluding a sizeable section of its own population. This equation was achieved by designating a “new antisemitism” defined as involving criticism of the Israeli state.19 Thus, the equation of Jews with Zionism, which had hitherto been the hallmark of Arab antisemites against progressive Arab currents insisting on the need to make a clear distinction between the two categories, has become a hallmark, not only of Zionism, for which this equation has been constitutive of its original pretence of speaking for the global “Jewish nation”, but also of a Western “philosemitism” that morphed into unconditional support for the Zionist state, even if shyly critical at times.

Unsurprisingly, albeit paradoxically, this process reached its peak in Germany, the birthland of Nazism and of the perpetrators of the Jewish genocide. It was studied early on by Frank Stern in his 1992 book The Whitewashing of the Yellow Badge: Antisemitism and Philosemitism in Postwar Germany, originally a PhD thesis defended at the University of Tel Aviv.20 Stern’s study was updated and complemented by Daniel Marwecki in his 2020 book, Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding.21 Naturally, the identification with Israel against the Palestinians and other Arabs easily turns into a vector of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, upon which the dominant ideology in Israel itself is based. Hence, the easiness with which traditionally antisemitic far-right currents in Europe have resorted to philo-Zionism in order to “whitewash” themselves by dissolving the Jews in a generic whiteness while continuing to regard Israel as the Jews’ own and only country.

In the face of the recent sequence of events in Gaza, the German philosemitic pro-Israel stance has fallen into the grotesque, as vividly described by Susan Neiman:

German denunciations of Hamas, and statements of unyielding solidarity with Israel, have become so automatic that one appeared in the cash machine of my local bank: “We are horrified by the brutal attack on Israel. Our sympathies are with the people of Israel, the victims, their families and friends.” The notice displayed once when I tapped the screen, once again when I chose a language, a third time when I typed in my PIN, and finally when the money popped out of the slot. Whether from a machine or a politician, such statements do not make me feel safer. On the contrary, the repetition of vapid formulas increases my growing fears of backlash. Germany’s reflexive defenses of Israel while refraining from criticism of its government or its occupation of Palestine can only lead to resentment. Most politicians will acknowledge the problem in private but feel compelled to repeat empty phrases in public – even if they know that right-wing parties are using the massacre in Israel to stir anti-immigration sentiment in Germany.22

Eleonore Sterling, née Oppenheimer, whose parents died in the Holocaust, put it very aptly in Die Zeit in 1965: “Antisemitism and the more recent idolization of the Jews have a good deal in common”.23Both, she commented, “derive from a mental incapacity truly to respect the ‘other.’ Jews remain foreigners for antisemites and philosemites alike.” The whitening of the Jews has thus drifted towards a highly reprehensible admiration for an Israel perceived as super-white, an outpost of white supremacism in the Middle East – the cradle of Islam, the foremost object of hatred by present-day racism in the Global North. When this outpost engages in a fury of killing and destruction against Gaza that the Washington Post described as being conducted “at a pace and level of devastation that likely exceeds any recent conflict”,24 the inevitable backlash is a resurgence of antisemitism centred around the Israeli state – thus, alas, turning the “new antisemitism” mantra into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

27 December 2023

* This essay is based on the talk that I delivered on 11 June 2022 under the same title at the Berlin conference on “Hijacking Memory: The Holocaust and the New Right” organised by the Einstein Forum and the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technische Universität Berlin. I am grateful to Brian Klug and Stephen Shalom who read and commented on an earlier draft of this essay, which will be published in German in a collective work based on the 2022 conference.


Footnotes

  1. That was in a book that I wrote in the wake of 9/11: Gilbert Achcar, The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder [2002], 2nd ed., London: Saqi Books and Routledge, 2006, p. 34. I continued: “Only this narcissistic compassion – going beyond legitimate compassion for any human being victimized by a barbaric act – makes it possible to understand the formidable, absolutely exceptional intensity of the emotions and passions that seized hold of ‘public opinion,’ beginning with opinion makers, in Western countries and the metropolises of the globalized economy in the wake of the September 11 attacks.” ↩︎
  2. The first analysis of the rise of antisemitism in Europe in these terms was the one formulated by the young Abraham Léon (born Abram Wajnsztok) – a Belgian Trotskyist of Polish-Jewish descent – before his death at Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 26. This was in a book written in French (La conception matérialiste de la question juive) and translated in English under the title The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation, New York: Pathfinder Press, several editions. ↩︎
  3. Modern political Zionism originally exploited the desire of Central and Western assimilated European Jews to stop the harmful effect that the tide of migration of their poor Eastern European coreligionists had on their own condition. This is transparent in Theodor Herzl’s Zionist manifesto, Der Judenstaat (translated in English as The Jewish State), as I argued in Gilbert Achcar, “The Zionist Project’s Duality: Escaping Racist Oppression and Reproducing It in Colonial Context”, Jadaliyya (website), 3 November 2017. ↩︎
  4. On Hans F. K. Günther, see Alan E. Steinweis, Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006, pp. 25-41. ↩︎
  5. Hans F. K. Günther, Rassenkunde Europas, 3rd ed., Munich: J. F. Lehmanns Verlag, 1929, pp 100-104. There exists a rather approximate English translation based on the 2nd edition (1925): The Racial Elements of European History, translated by G. C. Wheeler, London: Methuen & Co., 1927. The above quotations have been directly translated from the German original for better accuracy. ↩︎
  6. Ibid., p. 105. The concordance between the antisemitic desire to make Germany Judenrein and the Zionist desire to move all Jews to Palestine translated in the Nazi authorities’ collaboration with German Zionists in organising the “transfer” of German Jews to Palestine (Haavara Agreement, signed on 25 August 1933). This collaboration lasted until 1941, that is, until the Nazi’s shift towards the “Final Solution”. The best and most reliable source on this issue is Francis R. Nicosia, Zionism and Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. ↩︎
  7. Martin Buber, Die Jüdische Bewegung: Gesammelte Aufsätze und Ansprachen 1900-1915, Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1916, p. 195. ↩︎
  8. Kenneth L. Roberts, Why Europe Leaves Home, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1922, p. 15. ↩︎
  9. Ibid., p. 22. ↩︎
  10. Ibid., p. 97. ↩︎
  11. Ibid., pp. 117-18. ↩︎
  12. Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, p. 225. ↩︎
  13. Mark Silk, “Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America”, American Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring 1984, pp. 69-70. Silk went on to describe the theological consequences of this shift in perspective within American Judaism as well as among Catholicism and Protestantism, and the difference between the two Christian branches in that regard. ↩︎
  14. Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998, p. 26. ↩︎
  15. Neal Gabler, Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016, p. 190. ↩︎
  16. Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, p. 209. ↩︎
  17. Ibid., p. 116. ↩︎
  18. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, translated by Joan Pinkham, with an Introduction by Robin D.G. Kelley, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000, p. 36. ↩︎
  19. See Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, London: Saqi Books and New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010. ↩︎
  20. Frank Stern, The Whitewashing of the Yellow Badge: Antisemitism and Philosemitism in Postwar Germany, Oxford: Pergamon, 1992. ↩︎
  21. Daniel Marwecki, Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding, London: C. Hurst & Co., 2020. ↩︎
  22. Susan Neiman, “Germany on Edge”, New York Review of Books, 3 November 2023. ↩︎
  23. Eleonore Sterling, “Judenfreunde–Judenfeinde: Fragwürdiger Philosemitismus in der Bundesrepublik”, Die Zeit, 10 December 1965. ↩︎
  24. Evan Hill, Imogen Piper, Meg Kelly and Jarrett Ley, “Israel has waged one of this century’s most destructive wars in Gaza”, Washington Post, 23 December 2023.
    ↩︎
  25. ↩︎

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Gilbert Achcar’s newest book is The New Cold War: The United States, Russia and Ukraine, from Kosovo to Ukraine (2023).

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