Thursday, April 10, 2008

Color is in the eye of the beholder

Last year, The New York Times ran an article on the debate over Columbus's ethnic origins. It featured a chart (which doesn't appear in the Internet version of the article) listing pros and cons to each hypothesis. When it reached the hypothesis that Columbus was Jewish, it mentioned the following as a con: "Most Jews in Southern Europe at the time were Sephardic Jews of North African descent, but preliminary analysis of Columbus's DNA suggests he was Caucasian."

This ill-informed remark stopped me short. I don't know what's more ridiculous, the assumption that Sephardic Jews in medieval Spain were of "North African descent," or the implication that this made them non-Caucasian.

I'm not trying to pick on the article, which was just trying to be balanced. And I have no stake in the question of Columbus's origins. I mention this quote only because it raises some interesting points about how the public perceives Jewish ethnicity.

First, there's the confusion over the meaning of Sephardic, a term that comes from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sefarad. In the strictest sense it refers to medieval Spanish Jews and their descendants. Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, they went everywhere--as far west as Holland, as far east as India, even to the New World. But the bulk of them settled in the Middle East, and consequently, Sephardic has become a general term for Middle Eastern Jews.

Actually, the common convention is to apply the term to all non-Ashkenazic Jews, whatever their origin. That includes Dutch Jews, Italian Jews, Greek Jews, Turkish and Moroccan and Yemenite Jews. I grew up knowing only this binary way of classifying Jews, which still permeates the media. But careful writers use the term Mizrahi or "Oriental" to describe Middle Eastern Jews who don't have a family history in Spain.

How does race factor into the discussion? Mizrahi Jews even more than Sephardim tend to look relatively dark compared to the common Western image of the Jew. The convention of calling them Sephardi, coupled with the association of dark skin with Africa, is probably what led the article to think that medieval Spanish Jews were of "North African descent."

The fact is that many Jews physically resemble their non-Jewish countrymen. Russian Jews often look like ethnic Russians, and Iranian Jews often look like ethnic Iranians. This fact may seem surprising when you consider the religious and political barriers to mixing with the native population. Not only does Judaism discourage conversion and prohibit intermarriage, the countries themselves often enacted laws against those things, and in many places Jews lived separately from Gentiles for centuries.

But conversion and intermarriage did occur, occasionally on a large scale. Some scholars have maintained that modern-day Jews are more closely related to their non-Jewish neighbors than to Jews in other parts of the world. This hypothesis, which has been used to support as well as refute anti-Semitic beliefs, looks increasingly doubtful in light of genetic research over the past few decades. The research suggests a close kinship among Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim, despite their diversity in appearance. Only a few groups that don't fit any standard classification--the black Jews of Ethiopia, the Bene Israel of India, the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng--do seem racially distinct from the rest of world Jewry, and their origins remain a source of debate.

If Jews of different colors are fundamentally related, can they be called Caucasian? Well, it depends how you define the term. Its meaning has shifted over time, as has "white." Originally it encompassed not only Europeans but also the darker skinned inhabitants of Mediterranean lands. But in early twentieth century America, Jews, Arabs, and many European ethnicities were classed as non-white or non-Caucasian. Nowadays, Ashkenazic Jews are usually considered white or Caucasian, as are most indigenous Europeans, but the perception remains that Arabs and other Middle Eastern groups are people of color. This dichotomy has contributed to the curious notion that Ashkenazim belong to a different race than Sephardim.

But that just goes to show that the boundaries of whiteness are more political than biological. I saw a telling example in Nelson Mandela's criticism of U.S. intervention in Iraq: "Israel has weapons of mass destruction.... Why should there be one standard for [Iraq], especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white?"

The idea that Israel is a "white" country while Iraq is a "black" country is laughable. If you define Iraqi Arabs as black, then how can you call Israel, whose Jewish population is about half Sephardi/Mizrahi, a white country? Anyone who's lived in Israel can tell you that it is sometimes impossible to tell the Jewish and Arab residents apart. That's because Jews and Arabs are ethnically closely related. But for political reasons, one group is seen as white and the other as non-white.

And when it comes to political classification, it seems Jews can never win. They came to be regarded as part of the white majority around the same time that being a minority started being fashionable. (The term minority itself is far more likely to be applied to blacks and Asians than to Jews, even though in a worldwide sense Jews fit the definition far better, and even within the United States are far fewer in number than blacks.) It is in situations like this that Jews remind me of the kid who isn't accepted by either the in-crowd or the nerds.

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