How Jews became white

Emily Tamkin (Courtesy of Tamkin)


“Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities”
by Emily Tamkin. New York: HarperCollins, 2022.
256 pages | $28.99.

In her introduction, author Emily Tamkin writes that she wasn’t sure she should write this book because of her shaky Jewish background — she didn’t go to Hebrew school, learn Hebrew or become bat mitzvah, and she is married to a non-Jew.

Yes, she may not have been an expert on Judaism and the American Jewish community — at least when she began this project. But she did her homework and her take on the material is often fresh, unique — reflecting her background in academia and journalism (Fulbright fellow, senior U.S. editor at the New Statesman, former staffer at Foreign Policy and BuzzFeed news).

And because she is a young, liberal student of public affairs, her perspective is invaluable to old conservatives like me. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the resultant movement for Black equality, Tamkin presents a look at 20th-century American Jews’ efforts to be seen as white usually not found in most Jewish histories written by professional historians who were less concerned with matters of race.

Nineteenth-century Jewish leaders wanted Jews to be considered “American citizens of Jewish faith” — and white, she notes. Whiteness gave them the right to immigrate to the U.S. and become citizens, the author explains.

“More established and acculturated Jews tried to convince the Jewish masses … that they needed to present themselves to the non-Jewish public as more white than ethnic, more all-American than other, dissuading them from forming ‘Hebrew’ political and workingman’s clubs.”

Some Jewish immigrants rejected racial definitions, Tamkin says. While race was all-important in America, in Eastern Europe Jews thought of themselves as a people or an ethnicity.

“Was the question of racial sameness or distinctiveness, some wondered, even relevant to them?”

Nonetheless, the idea of the importance of Jews being seen as white extended into the 20th century. American Jews understood persecution. They knew that assimilation endangered their language and traditions. Still, many Jews decided “to move closer to the white American mainstream. It was the white mainstream that promised stability and safety.”

She was less convincing when writing on “Zionist Jews.”

For some 20 years after Israel’s establishment, she writes, American Jews’ support for the Jewish state was “muted.” They backed Israel but didn’t look at it as a home. Home was America.

In 1967, everything changed when Israel seemed threatened by surrounding Arab armies. American Jews began to organize and raise money to help the Jewish state.

“The perceived heroism of Israel — particularly after the Six-Day War of 1967 — led some Jews to identify more openly as Jews. It also moved Israel to the center of their Jewishness.”

So far, so good.

But she says that American Jewish affection for Israeli Jews was not reciprocated. During a bar mitzvah trip in 1972, her father discerned that Israelis “hated” and “resented” American Jews for not being on the frontlines with them during their wars.

I made aliyah that same year and never heard any talk of resentment. On the contrary, most Israelis — especially those I encountered while serving in the IDF — questioned my good sense for leaving America and undertaking such a dangerous and unpleasant duty as being an Israeli soldier.

While I applaud her apparent “progressive” outlook in the sense it provides readers with a different viewpoint on Jews and Israel, at least once I was mystified by her reasoning.

Yitzhak Rabin, she writes, “was hardly a perfect progressive figure. As chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, it was he who led the IDF to victory in the 1967 war.”

Is winning a war somehow not “progressive?” Is she suggesting that he should have burnished his progressive credentials and increased her affection for him by losing the war?

I don’t get it.

Her chapter on Jewish unity — or lack thereof — and young people’s take on Judaism and Israel was disturbing even though it broke little new ground.

Especially horrific was the indifference shown by some Orthodox American and Israeli Jews to the murder of Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. They didn’t care because that synagogue and its congregants were not Orthodox.

I’m appalled.

Tamkin and I might not agree about what constitutes a “bad” or “good” Jew. But her book was interesting and useful in the sense that it provided me with a different perspective on matters I consider important.

The writer’s memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s (Chickadee Prince Books), is available online and at

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