Won­der Bread Woman

Forward Magazine - - News -

What Jews of color hear in the Gal Gadot de­bate.

DC’s lat­est sum­mer su­per­hero block­buster, “Won­der Woman,” has been widely hailed as a fem­i­nist vic­tory, gar­ner­ing crit­i­cal ac­claim and al­ready rak­ing in over $550 mil­lion glob­ally. But along­side its suc­cess as a woman-di­rected fea­ture with a fo­cus on women’s em­pow­er­ment, the film has sparked con­tro­versy af­ter be­ing banned in Le­banon be­cause of lead­ing ac­tress Gal Gadot’s past ser­vice in the Is­rael De­fense Forces dur­ing Is­rael’s 2006 in­va­sion of Le­banon, and her public sup­port of Is­rael’s 2014 in­va­sion of Gaza.

The film has also gen­er­ated crit­i­cism from black on­line com­men­ta­tors for its lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of black and brown women in ma­jor roles, and for the film’s re­liance on Mammy tropes in its few de­pic­tions of black Ama­zo­ni­ans in Won­der Woman’s fic­tional home­land, The­myscira. Many have ar­gued that while Gadot’s Diana Prince is a strong fe­male char­ac­ter, the film flat­tens wom­an­hood to white

wom­an­hood, mostly show­ing a white woman mov­ing through a white world, and re­mind­ing women of color that vic­to­ries for white women’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of­ten don’t make room for mean­ing­ful in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity.

This cri­tique, largely put forth by black women, has been dis­missed whole­sale with claims that Gadot, an Is­raeli Jew of Ashke­nazi her­itage, is in fact a woman of color. In a Comic­book. com post, Matthew Mueller shamed tweet­ers who were fool­ish enough to com­plain about the lack of women of color in the film when a “quick Google search” would show that Gadot “is not ac­tu­ally Cau­casian, but is in fact Is­raeli.” Mueller’s ar­ti­cle was right­fully met with out­rage from ad­vo­cates for di­verse rep­re­sen­ta­tion who saw the ar­gu­ment for what it was: an at­tempt to de­rail a con­ver­sa­tion about black women’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

How­ever, in the Jewish com­mu­nity, the con­tro­versy over Mueller’s ar­ti­cle reignited a con­ver­sa­tion about Jewish racial­iza­tion and white­ness. As Jewish peo­ple of color work­ing for racial jus­tice and lib­er­a­tion in the United States, Is­rael and Pales­tine, watch­ing this con­ver­sa­tion tip­toe around ques­tions of white supremacy while cen­ter­ing on the per­spec­tives of white Ashke­nazi Jews has moved us to in­ter­vene with our own per­spec­tives.

The dis­course has been sus­pect, of­ten con­flat­ing race, eth­nic­ity,

na­tion­al­ity and ge­net­ics. Be­sides Mueller’s non­sen­si­cal claim that Is­raeli is a race rather than a na­tion­al­ity (which ob­scures the op­pres­sion of racial mi­nori­ties in Is­rael), his un­crit­i­cal use of the term “Cau­casian,” a pseudo-sci­en­tific term pop­u­lar­ized by 18th-cen­tury race sci­en­tists, sets us up for a con­ver­sa­tion de­pen­dent on the log­ics of dis­proved race sci­ence rather than con­tem­po­rary re­al­i­ties of pol­i­tics, power and priv­i­lege.

Re­ac­tionary pieces in The Times of Is­rael were not much bet­ter. Dani Ishai Beha and Sarah Tut­tle-Singer al­luded to par­tic­u­lar Jewish ge­net­ics that prove Jews are a peo­ple of color, with Tut­tle-Singer writ­ing that “we are not white... sci­ence and ge­net­ics back this up.” The irony that, in an at­tempt to brand the “an­tiracist left” as anti- Semitic, Be­han and Tut­tleSinger are par­rot­ing the same racial pseu­do­science that Nazi Ger­many used to dif­fer­en­ti­ate Jews from “Aryans” ap­pears to be lost. The myth that race has a ge­netic or bi­o­log­i­cal ba­sis was roundly re­futed in a nec­es­sary Haaretz piece in which Ruth Schuster re­minded com­men­ta­tors that “there is no gene for ‘race.’”

Claims of a ge­netic ba­sis for race are es­pe­cially harm­ful in the con­text of Is­rael’s deeply en­trenched Ashke­nazisupremacist racial hi­er­ar­chy. Re­cent rev­e­la­tions sur­round­ing the kid­nap­ping of Ye­menite Jewish chil­dren in the 1950s, a tragedy that has haunted Is­rael’s Mizrahi com­mu­nity for decades, have brought new fo­cus to the coun­try’s painful his­tory of eu­gen­ics. This week, Is­rael HaYom pub­lished images and tes­ti­mony con­firm­ing long- stand­ing claims that Ye­menite chil­dren il­le­gally re­moved from their fam­i­lies were in some cases ex­per­i­mented on. In one in­stance, Is­raeli doc­tors set out to prove that Jewish im­mi­grants from Ye­men had “African blood,” a base­less claim rooted in a legacy of Euro­pean- su­prem­a­cist eu­gen­ics that still im­pacts Is­raeli state racism today.

Beyond a re­liance on dis­proved claims about race and ge­net­ics, the Gadot con­tro­versy has quite sim­ply lost sight of the fact that race is pri­mar­ily a func­tion of place — the so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and le­gal in­sti­tu­tions of the na­tion-state. In fo­cus­ing on the sin­gu­lar, on­go­ing his­tory of anti-Semitism in Europe, Tut­tle-Singer and Be­han ob­scure the ways that race and power in North Amer­ica re­volve around the in­sti­tu­tions of slav­ery and set­tler colo­nial­ism. To im­ply that the pri­macy of a gen­tile/ Jew bi­nary in me­dieval and modern Europe su­per­sedes the com­plic­ity of Euro­pean Jews in North Amer­ica as white set­tlers within th­ese struc­tures is just ahis­tor­i­cal.

Oddly, com­men­ta­tors pon­tif­i­cat­ing about Gadot’s white­ness, de­spite the fact that she is an Is­raeli ac­tress and “Won­der Woman” is an Amer­i­can film, have largely ig­nored the po­lit­i­cal con­texts within the United States and Is­rael. Even S. I. Rosen­baum’s more crit­i­cal and widely cir­cu­lated Twit­ter thread con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing Ashke­nazi eth­nic­ity and racial­iza­tion jumps cu­ri­ously to World War II from 1492. De­spite that mas­sive gap in his­tory, which saw, among other things, the ex­plo­sion of the transat­lantic slave trade and the es­tab­lish­ment of Western set­tler colo­nial states across North Amer­ica, Rosen­baum writes as­suredly, “Up til (sic) WW2 Ashke­nazim were viewed by whites as a racial cat­e­gory dis­tinct from ‘white’ and ‘col­ored,’” go­ing fur­ther to de­scribe the on­go­ing sta­tus of white Ashke­nazi Jews in the United States as “white-pass­ing.” In stat­ing that race is “not all about melanin... it’s about where your an­ces­tors were when those race cat­e­gories got handed down by the In­qui­si­tion in 1492,” Rosen­baum im­plies that racial cat­e­gories are static, tran­scend­ing the po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions of a par­tic­u­lar time and place. Mean­while, plac­ing sin­gu­lar fo­cus on the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion — when the Span­ish crown forced Jews and Mus­lims on the penin­sula to con­vert, flee or die — be­lies the way that North Amer­i­can pro­cesses of race mak­ing cen­tered on chat­tel slav­ery and the ap­pro­pri­a­tion of Na­tive land have wel­comed Euro­pean Jewish im­mi­grants as ben­e­fi­cia­ries of white supremacy.

De­spite ar­gu­ments to the con­trary, race is not a meta­phys­i­cal phe­nom­e­non, nor is it a bi­o­log­i­cal re­al­ity. If Mueller, Be­han, Tut­tle- Singer and Rosen­baum were to fo­cus their sights on the spe­cific po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions of the United States and Is­rael that pro­duce race, they might re­con­sider their con­clu­sion that white Ashke­nazi Jews are a “peo­ple of color” or “white- pass­ing.” Were Euro­pean Jews not white when they joined their fel­low white- skinned Amer­i­cans as will­ing par­tic­i­pants in chat­tel slav­ery — own­ing slaves in the Amer­i­can Jewish hub of Charleston, South Carolina, at the same rates as their Chris­tian neigh­bors? Were they not able to nat­u­ral­ize as “free white per­sons” when Asian im­mi­grants were cat­e­gor­i­cally deemed “aliens in­el­i­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship”? Were they not re­cip­i­ents of white priv­i­lege and power when the reaped the fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits of the GI Bill that sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­cluded black veter­ans? Cer­tainly, there has al­ways been anti-Semitism in the United States — from anti-Jewish im­mi­gra­tion quo­tas to ex­clu­sive hous­ing covenants. But to deny that Euro­pean Jews have by and large ben­e­fited from the con­struc­tion of white su­prem­a­cist set­tler states in North Amer­ica is an in­sult to the com­mu­ni­ties on whose backs the Amer­i­can dream has been built.

Claims of uni­ver­sal Jewish non­white­ness are also will­fully ig­no­rant to the con­struc­tion of racial hi­er­ar­chies in Is­rael, and func­tion to si­lence crit­i­cism of Is­raeli state vi­o­lence to­ward Pales­tini­ans and mi­nori­tized Jews. Be­han claims that the sin­gu­lar­ity of Jewish eth­nic­ity means that “very few peo­ple in Is­rael can even tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween Ashke­nazim, Mizrahim or Arabs, ex­cept by their names or re­li­gious head­gear.” Be­han’s out­ra­geous as­ser­tion erases decades of Is­raeli racial vi­o­lence against Pales­tini­ans based on skin color alone, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously down­play­ing the on­go­ing his­tory of anti- Mizrahi op­pres­sion in Is­rael. Th­ese his­to­ries are also di­rectly con­nected, as many an­tiMizrahi state poli­cies were meant to “de-Ara­bize them,” and Mizrahi Jews have been the vic­tims of racist vig­i­lante at­tacks be­cause of their Mid­dle East­ern ap­pear­ance and their sim­i­lar­i­ties to Pales­tini­ans. In one 2015 in­ci­dent, dur­ing a pe­riod of height­ened con­flict- re­lated vi­o­lence, a Mizrahi su­per­mar­ket worker was stabbed by a man scream­ing: “You de­serve it, you de­serve it. You are bas­tard Arabs.”

What is the po­lit­i­cal im­pulse be­hind white Jews re­fus­ing to be named as white? Clearly, as the de­rail­ment of the orig­i­nal con­ver­sa­tion about rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women of color in film shows, it is not out of po­lit­i­cal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with peo­ple of color. And while Be­han be­moans the “trou­bled” re­la­tion­ship be­tween the “‘anti-racist’ left” (scare quotes his) and the Jewish com­mu­nity, brand­ing those who ques­tion Jewish com­plic­ity with white supremacy as anti-Semitic makes clear he is not in­ter­ested in en­gag­ing racial jus­tice move­ments in good faith. As with the Amer­i­can Jewish in­sti­tu­tions that cut ties with the Move­ment for Black Lives over the lat­ter’s in­clu­sion of Pales­tine lib­er­a­tion in its pol­icy plat­form, the de­rail­ment of the con­ver­sa­tion about “Won­der Woman” and peo­ple of color rep­re­sen­ta­tion by white Jews re­minds us that the an­tiracist left does not have an anti-Semitism prob­lem so much as many in the Jewish com­mu­nity have an anti-racism prob­lem.

Last, as black and Asian Amer­i­can Jews liv­ing and or­ga­niz­ing in the United States, we are struck by the ut­ter ex­clu­sion of the per­spec­tives of Jewish peo­ple of color in the con­ver­sa­tion. De­spite our ac­tive en­gage­ment and prior writ­ings on the topic, the dis­course sur­round­ing Gadot has been pri­mar­ily white Ashke­nazi Jews talk­ing to one another. As Jewish peo­ple of color who nec­es­sar­ily un­der­stand the in­ter­sec­tions of anti-Semitism and white supremacy based on lived ex­pe­ri­ence, we ques­tion the cen­ter­ing of white Jews as ex­perts on is­sues of Jews and race. Mean­while, the vit­ri­olic re­sponse we have re­ceived when we have shared our voices — in­clud­ing be­ing likened to Holo­caust de­niers — re­flects the re­al­i­ties of racism within the Jewish com­mu­nity. If white Jews are peo­ple of color, what does that make us? The com­bined ex­clu­sion and vit­riol di­rected to­ward our voices and per­spec­tives re­minds us that, iron­i­cally, there is no room for Jewish peo­ple of color within a white Jewish racial frame that casts it­self as non­white.

Jews who en­joy all the priv­i­leges of white­ness yet want to claim peo­ple of color sta­tus would do well to re­mem­ber the ori­gins of the term. As re­pro­duc­tive jus­tice leader Loretta Ross ex­plains, “women of color” is not a bi­o­log­i­cal destiny, it is a po­lit­i­cal coali­tion cre­ated by black women who joined with other racial mi­nor­ity women at the 1977 Na­tional Women’s Con­fer­ence. Yet the ori­gins of this con­ver­sa­tion, in an at­tempt to de­rail black women’s de­mands for greater rep­re­sen­ta­tion, make clear that many Jewish com­men­ta­tors are less in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing stronger coali­tions with com­mu­ni­ties of color than they are in cen­ter­ing their own white Jewish guilt. The his­tory of Jewish suf­fer­ing does not erase the po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties of white­ness or Zion­ism. But it can, and — with hon­esty and crit­i­cal re­flec­tion — could, be an en­gine for Jewish ac­count­abil­ity to com­mu­ni­ties of color, within and beyond the Jewish world.

‘Women of color’ is not a bi­o­log­i­cal destiny, it’s a po­lit­i­cal coali­tion.

Re­becca Pierce is an African- Amer­i­can Jewish filmmaker, ac­tivist and jour­nal­ist. She is editor-in-chief of the racial jus­tice blog Un­ruly.

Mark Tseng-Putterman is a mem­ber of the Jews of Color and Sephardi/Mizrahi ( JOCSM) Cau­cus or­ga­nized in part­ner­ship with Jewish Voice for Peace, and the JVP Net­work Against Is­lam­o­pho­bia. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @tsen­g­put­ter­man

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