On Jews and Whiteness

Image: Presentation of the film “BlacKkKlansman” at Cannes : Damaris Lewis, Jasper Pääkkönen, John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Spike Lee, Adam Driver, Corey Hawkins. Photo: Georges Biard, with permission.

I have a new favorite movie: BlacKkKlansman. I am not writing a review here, so I’ll spare you the long list of reasons I like it. I want to focus on one moment in the film, one stark question.

Warning: Spoilers follow.

It is the moment when Ron Stallworth, the black cop played by John David Washington, tells Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop played by Adam Driver, that the two of them are going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the scene:

from BlacKKKlansman (2018)

The moment that I want to focus on comes at the 32 second mark:

Ron asks, “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

Flip: “Lookit, that’s my f—–g business.”

Ron: “It’s our business. Now I’m going to get you your membership card.”

One of the subplots in the film is Flip’s gradual discovery that he does indeed have skin in the game. In an early scene he is asked by a co-worker if he’s Jewish, and he says, “I dunno – am I?” He is an assimilated secular Jew, and he is invested in that assimilation without being particularly conscious about it.

Because one of the Klansmen is suspicious that he might be a Jew, Flip spews a lot of anti-Semitic invective as cover, throwing around not only words like “kike” but a horrific speech on the “beauty” of the Holocaust and the need for “those leeches” to be exterminated. It is a heart-stopping moment, perfectly acted: we see the performance for the Klansman, and deep behind it, in Driver’s eyes, the terror of his own words. We see him recognize his skin in the game at the moment in which he is most desperate to save his skin from the Klan.

Spike Lee has a complicated history with American Jewish audiences, but he and the writers of the film (two of them Jewish, by the way) have articulated the question for American Jews at this moment. There has been a considerable squabble lately about Jews and whiteness, and considerable anxiety about the rise of white supremacy in our world. This movie slices through all the nonsense to the essential question:

“Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

The point is, my fellow liberal Jews of all complexions, we do have skin in this game. The question is, are we going to recognize it and drop the fantasy that if we act white enough – if we are cultured and educated and assimilated and meet standards of white beauty – that the white supremacist will somehow pass by our houses? Because that has been our strategy for the last century. It has been a successful strategy, up to a point: Jews are now seen by whites as such desirable mates that there’s talk of an “intermarriage problem,” to give but one example.

But here’s the thing: if we are so focused on those assimilated values of whiteness and homogeneity, we will never notice how that very assimilation causes us to behave to those in our midst with different complexions, the Jews of Color who cannot (and should not have to) pass. We will never notice because we are invested in whiteness.

I can imagine a reader saying now, “But rabbi, what you are saying is that Jews aren’t white!” That compels me to ask why do we keep acting so darn white? Why are we so fragile, waving frantically at photos of long-dead Jews marching with Martin Luther King, insisting that “not all” of us participate in racism? If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) then why do we keep acting like the bad guys?

Why are people of color made unwelcome in our communities, treated like outsiders? Why do we quiz them, or assume they are the janitor or a convert? Why, upon seeing them, do we feel we have to comment on their difference?

We will be white as long as we continue to deal in white privilege.

We will be white until a Jew of Color can walk into our service and simply be accepted without comment.

On that day we will become One: one People of the one God.

Thus it has been said: Adonai will become Sovereign of all the earth. On that day, Adonai will become One and God’s Name will be One.

Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the daily service

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

12 thoughts on “On Jews and Whiteness”

  1. “Skin in the Game” is the title of Eric Ward’s tremendous piece on anti-Semitism and white supremacy, in which he writes about going undercover—as a visibly Black man!—at a white supremacist conference. I can’t imagine that was an accidental use of the phrase in the film.

    If you haven’t read it, it’s here:


    Highly recommended for all Jews grappling with real, yet conditional Jewish whiteness.

  2. You write “If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) then why do we keep acting like the bad guys?”

    But that’s not true, and I am astonished at the antisemitic venom with which your entire diatribe here is written. You literally talk about Nazis, yet then publicly blame Jews – and claim that they act like the bad guys. Make no mistake about it: You are a leftist Reform antisemite, hurling *literally* Nazi-like hatespeech at the entire Jewish community, blaming the victims of 2000 years of genocidal oppression for not meeting your personal standards of leftist justice. I am astonished and repelled. You need to engage in some serious soul searching. How did a person who once loved Judaism stoop to engaging in justifying antisemitism? 🙁

    1. How is she blaming Jews for 2,000 years of genocidal oppression? Or justifying antisemitism in any way?

      What I took from this blog post is that we should not be imitating the prejudices of non-Jews (especially of white supremacists who are against us Jews as well as people of color due to an incorrect and damaging belief in racial hierarchy).

      She does criticize the mainstream Jewish community for excluding Jews of color, but that is not an antisemitic critique. It’s a call for all of us to do some soul searching and to spit out the seeds of racism as we chew on the fruits of assimilation.

      1. She spoke about Nazis and then called Jews the bad guys of today. And she is enabling racist attacks against Jews, calling then “white* and lying about Jews supposedly having “white privilege.” Sure – having Nazis march in America and Europe, chanting about killing Jews. And this is right after the Holocaust, when white Christians in Europe murdered six million Jews.
        She’s not just wrong. This is leftist anti-semitic hatespeech.

    2. I just thought of it as taking responsibility for the actions of our collective society, as we do during Yom Kippur.

    3. I have to say that NEB has a big and extremely inconvenient point here, and that these two statements from the blog illustrate the impossibility of navigating this whole minefield:

      This movie slices through all the nonsense to the essential question: “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?

      If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) …

      So what’s the almost-white American to do, then? Stop acting like we “ain’t got skin in the game?” Well no, because if we do that, we’re “insisting we aren’t really white” and thus are trying to duck out of “being the bad guys.”

      So it’s no-win, in other words.

      “Admit you have skin in the game!”

      “We DO have skin in the game.”

      “Stop trying to act like you aren’t the bad guys here!”

      I mean, this is CRAZY.

      So just to be absolutely clear, what EXACT magic words can an almost-white American use to address this that will allow us to observe the material reality of our lives — our “skin in the game” — and not trigger instant condemnation for pretending that we’re not “really white?”

      This is Scylla and Charybdis writ large in the political landscape, and NEB is pointing it out. It makes no sense at all to insist that people acknowledge when they “got skin in the game,” and then mock them for doing exactly that. This very catch-22 has driven this old-school not-quite-white liberal and aspiring Reform Jew out of my mind for the last two decades at least.

  3. This is such a complex topic, what it means to be not-quite-white in a land where one is either one OR the other, and no one but no one is permitted to state that there’s an unacknowledged crack between the twin cliffs of Race and Color.

    It’s worth noting though that there is very often no way to navigate this crack, and that no matter what one does, one will come under attack — and often from the same side. If any of the US’s almost-whites attempt to address this issue from either side, we’re crucified thusly:

    US Almost-whites: “We can’t relate to the suffering of other Americans of color, but we can and will offer support.”
    The Left-left: “You need to get over your privilege and unpack your knapsack and start to admit how much you have in common with people of color!”

    US Almost-whites: “We absolutely have skin in this game. Some of us were almost exterminated others discriminated against, and we stand with people of color in this country who have been targeted as well. We have a lot in common with people of color.”
    The Left-left: “You have no understanding of the suffering of people of color! Unpack your knapsack! Check your privilege!”

    I’ve seen people flip form one to the other literally in the same sentence, and not just once or twice. Every single time this topic is brought up. Every single time, without fail.

    There is simply no way to have this conversation as a not-quite-white American without being demonized. And then of course the right moves in and says, “Psst, you have a home here if you want one!” And then we wonder how people end up in the toxic waste site of Trumpland. 🙁

    We are taunted to admit our common ground with people of color, right up until we do, upon which point we’re demonized for trying to pretend we don’t have “white privilege.”

    And it’s not often people of color who make these damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t accusations. It’s Progressive White Saviors who always seem to sail in and derail any conversations where there is a whiff of a chance for not-quite-white Americans and Americans of color to find common ground. Whenever I’ve had a conversation about this with a person of color without a Progressive White Savior in the room, I can see understandable skepticism in their faces at first, but after we really start talking, real progress is invariably made and real common ground found as we both demonstrate that we’re on the same side. When the same conversations are attempted with White Saviors in the room, though? Not a chance. Almost immediately, the taunt/demonize trick comes out, and nothing is accomplished.

    It’s maddening. These conversations need to happen if this country isn’t to turn into a Russian-led trash-heap, and the left pretends that it wants them to happen, and then does everything in its power to squelch them whenever they risk actually taking place. And again, there are only so many rounds of the taunt-then-demonize game that people can take before they just flip all of liberalism off and rage-quit for Trumpland.

    And I say all of this as a classic old-school liberal who seeks to become a Reform Jew — the left has got its foot in its mouth up to its hip on this whole topic. I speak out about this because I want the left to succeed, and it drives me nuts to watch it shoot itself in the foot repeatedly.

  4. Well said, Rabbi Adar! And that scene when Adam Driver is spewing antisemitism to save his own life is really hard to watch!! 😢 I must say I worry what the future holds for my children… jen

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