Jewishness and Ethnic Studies

A conversation between WAESN Executive Director, Tracy Castro-Gill  and Educator/Librarian, Jeff Treistman

My former colleague and current friend and co-conspirator, Jeff Treistman, and I sat down to discuss the tension between ethnic studies and Jewishness. What we produced is a lengthy dialogue about some of the largest points of contention. This is the first installment of three. Each installment will end with some reflection questions for readers, especially educators.

This first installment centers around the identity of Jewish folks. Are Jews white?

Hello! I am Tracy Castro-Gill. My pronouns are they/them and I identify as Xicanx. I’m a mom, grandmother, and friend. I’m also a racial justice advocate, former middle school educator, and education scholar. I’m one of the co-founders of Washington Ethnic Studies Now and serve as the Executive Director.

Hi, I’m Jeff Treistman. My pronouns are he/him and I identify as a white Jew (or Ashkenazi). I live with my wife of 40 years, have an adult daughter and sustain many friendships. I’ve worked as a musician, a chef, a wine merchant, an educator and as a school librarian. I’m a long time member and in the leadership program with the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Tracy: So, for some context, this blog post is being written as a conversation between myself and Jeff in response to some criticism I’ve received from some Jewish folks recently over my insistence that most Jews are white, my view of Israel as a settler-colonial state, and my support of Palestinian Studies in ethnic studies programs. I’ve also raised concern over the Washington State’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (OSPI) actions in the development of the state’s ethnic studies framework that included granting white, Jewish organizations and individuals the authority to vet and veto the work of people of color.

As a non-Jewish person, I want to be sure I’m not missing anything, and that I’m listening to reasonable Jewish people with a deep understanding of Jewish history and contemporary concerns about the recent rise in antisemitism. I say, “reasonable,”because there is a trend of white Zionists shutting down and working against anti-racist scholars of color. Members of California’s Jewish legislative caucus penned a letter denouncing the work of ethnic studies scholars of color saying, “We cannot support a curriculum that erases the American Jewish experience, fails to discuss antisemitism, reinforces negative stereotypes about Jews, singles out Israel for criticism, and would institutionalize the teaching of antisemitic stereotypes in our public schools.”The thing is, ethnic studies, historically, has never been about Jewish Studies. The focus has always been on racially minoritized groups. Also historically, there are four races: European, Asian, American (including all of the Americas, not just the USA), and African. Oceanian was recently added as a fifth race. Ethnic studies has always been about Black, Latinx, American Indian, and Asian experiences. European Jews don’t fall into these categories. 

Emily Alhadeff, a Jewish blog author, asked to interview me about the work being done in Washington State on ethnic studies. I agreed, but recorded the interview because I was afraid she’d misrepresent my view – which she did. In her piece, she claims I bullied a Jewish member of the state workgroup on ethnic studies simply because she was white and Jewish. The fact is, the member in question, Linda Clifton, repeatedly admitted her ignorance of ethnic studies. Alhadeff says, “Clifton challenged the use of the term ‘Indigenous epistemologies,’”because Clifton admitted she doesn’t know what it means. Indigenous epistemologies are the foundation of all ethnic studies curriculum. Why was she on a committee to create a curriculum she knew nothing about? I was told it was to, “make sure we didn’t have another ‘California’.”

original recording of interview used in The Cholent by Emily Alhadeff

White Jewish people insisting on being included in a curriculum that has never been about them reeks of white privilege, and when I say that, Jewish folks come back with something along the lines of, “Well, Jewish identity is complicated.”Aren’t all identities? The fact that Linda Clifton and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle were given a kind of supervisory role over educators and scholars of color also smells bad. And still, as a person who considers themselves a critical learner, I want to learn more.

My first question to you, Jeff, is, “Are Jews white?”

Jeff: Yes, except for when they aren’t. If we are just talking about the United States, out of a population of approximately 6 million US Jews, 300,000 identify as Jews of Color. Most US Jews are Ashkenazic descendants of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. In Israel/Palestine Ashkenazi Jews make up about 45% of the Jewish population with Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews making up another 45%. Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) make up 3% and the last 7% are various mixes of the first three. (You can learn about differences and similarities here.)

Jews were accepted in the United States as white from the very beginning when the Constitution guaranteed the free exercise of religion and gave Jews rights they never had anywhere else before. Jews were full citizens, not ⅗ for Africans or barred outright like Asians. During the colonial period it was different. Jews were banned in most colonies except in the settlements of New York City, NY, Newport, RI, Savannah, GA, Charleston, SC and Philadelphia, PA. Even with legal acceptance Jews have always been “othered” and the privileges that come with whiteness were slow to materialize. Many non-WASP whites in the US see the post WWII period as when they “became” white, in other words, when they started to lose the stigmas that came with their ethnic backgrounds. In addition to Jews, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners and even the Irish can trace a history of discrimination that their families experienced.

Tracy: I love that you brought African and Asian experiences into this conversation, and I will add that Indigenous people in the Americas were victims of genocide, excluded from human rights, and considered sub-human. Race and power, of course, are all relative. I also appreciate the article you shared with me by David Schraub, “White Jews: An intersectional approach.” I often tell people that ethnic studies doesn’t exclude Jewish identity, but takes an intersectional approach to it. I appreciate how Schraub complicates Whiteness in Jewish identity and asks, “What does Whiteness do to Jewishness?” As I read it, though, it felt like he was talking to white readers. I understand his point about how Whiteness amplifies stereotypes of Jewish people, especially stereotypes of power hoarding, but it would be interesting to understand how people of color see Jewishness. His analysis lacks a deeper discussion of the positionality of white Jews in relationship to folks of color. Do folks of color see white Jews as white and Jewish, or just white? ← Rhetorical question. I personally can’t discern white folks from white Jewish folks unless there’s an obviously Jewish name. For example, I did not know Alhadeff is a Jewish name. I guessed Treistman was a Jewish name when we met because of the ‘man’ suffix. I didn’t know Linda Clifton was Jewish until she told me.

Schraub suggests that one thing Whiteness does to Jewishness is amplify the stereotype that Jews have some kind of superhuman power over all things and all people. How, then, do we critique the privileges Whiteness confers on white people  – a central topic of ethnic studies,  including white Jews, without getting caught up in antisimetic tropes?

Most Jews take a yearly reckoning of their actions during the high holidays and should be encouraged to include the costs of Whiteness in their personal reckoning.

Jeff Treistman

Jeff: Very carefully. Antisemitism is a mine field. Not even Jews are immune to accusations of self-hatred and antisemitism from other Jews. Witness the mainstream Jewish organizations that give Bernie Sanders grief over his assertion that Palestinians have rights. I’m sure I will get grief from some quarter just for discussing this openly with you. There is a brutal dialectic that exists between Jewishness and antisemitism. In his Man Booker award winning novel The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson posits the idea that Jews and antisemitism are co-dependent. Many Jews like to say that God, Torah, and Israel unite all Jews but the reality is that those three topics spur endless debates and rare unity among Jews. But antisemitism does bring unity to Jews.

Anyone critiquing Jews for any reason at all should demonstrate an awareness and understanding of Jewish history. That is why I think you are taking a much needed step. Most people are ignorant of Jewish history because it is not taught in public schools and that is why Jewish Studies is such an important topic on the university level. Many Jews try to give their children some Jewish education both in religious and secular schools and don’t rely on public school for that part of their education. Even so, many Jews have only limited knowledge of their own cultural history.

Most American Jews are unaffiliated and this is something that undermines much of the propaganda that comes from the Jewish mainstream. According to the most recent Pew research reports on religion in America, the trend toward secularism is only growing more significant, this in spite of the rise of Evangelical Christianity. Jews constitute the most secular religious group in America. Younger Jews of today are challenging many of the assumptions about Israel/Palestine and other topics that have been pumped out by the older, established Jewish organizations while at the same time forming new groups.

I have been teaching in a non-theistic, secular Jewish Sunday school for ten years, so I have experience with Jewish education. I do teach about antisemitism and the Holocaust but that is no where near all there is to learn about in Jewish Studies. I think we can start finding some answers to your questions within Jewish Studies.
First off, Jews are no strangers to Socialism, Communism and Anarchism. Those of us, like myself, who identify with leftist ideologies, criticize the conservative elements that come along with white privilege. So I think a class analysis is very appropriate. Secondly, most Jews subscribe to the value of Tikkun Olam, which is the idea that the world is not perfect, in many places it is broken and needs repair. If you are not using your privilege to try to accomplish repair, you are not fulfilling your obligations of Jewishness, so there is a moral core that can be activated. Thirdly, most Jews take a yearly reckoning of their actions during the high holidays and should be encouraged to include the costs of Whiteness in their personal reckoning. I would also suggest that the Talmudic debate between Hillel and Shammai is relevant because even though the more liberal Hillel is acknowledged as having the correct opinion, Shammai was not erased. It is said that Hillel was correct in the world we live in but Shammai would be correct in Paradise.


What does it mean to be white in the U.S. and how may centering Jewishness in ethnic studies detract from the stories of people and communities of color that created ethnic studies?

How would de-centering Whiteness in public education allow for a richer understanding of Jewishness?

In what ways can people be simultaneously the target of oppression and the perpetrator of oppression?

What is the importance of considering intersectionality, a tenet of Critical Race Theory, in discussions of identity?


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