Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Faculty Involvement
Diversity Digest Volume 10, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 10,
Number 2

Download our print issue (PDF)
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity and Learning: “A Defining Moment”
Institutional Diversity in a New Nation: Lessons Lived, Lessons Learned
The Pedagogy of Sentipensante: Recasting Institutional Core Agreements
Transforming Our Institutions for the Twenty-first Century: The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer
Creating Institutional Transformation Using the Equity Scorecard
Curricular Transformation
Service Learning, Multicultural Education, and the Core Curriculum:
A Model for Institutional Change
Drop It Like It’s Hot! Hip-Hop in the Twenty-First-Century Classroom
A Sustainable Campus-Wide Program for Diversity Curriculum Infusion
Campus-Community Involvement
El Camino Real: Where Culture and Academia Meet
Faculty Involvement
Advancing Diversity through a Framework of Intersectionality: Inclusion of LGBT Issues in Higher Education
Transitioning on Campus: Creating a Welcoming Climate for Transgender People
Complicating Diversity Categories: Jewish Identity in the Classroom
Student Experience
Dealing with Student Resistance: Sources and Strategies
Beyond Tourism: Race, Space, and National Identity in London
Graduate and Professional Degree Attainment for Students of Color
Affordability of Postsecondary Education for Students of Color
Diversity and Learning Resources

Complicating Diversity Categories: Jewish Identity in the Classroom

By Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, assistant dean and director of intercultural affairs at Bryn Mawr College

Because Jewish identity confounds established and understood notions of ethnic, racial, national, and religious identity in this country, many diversity educators find discussing Jewish identity and “place” in the United States challenging. Jews can be neatly categorized neither as a religious group nor as an ethnic/national group, and although Jews have been racially targeted in Europe, European Jews have “become” white in the United States. Researchers acknowledge that social group designations that reflect either/or categories of ethnicity, religion, or culture in the United States are not especially helpful in understanding the Jews as a diaspora people who have a history of racialized oppression. Jews are a religious community, a nation, and an ethnic group. Jewish identity, particularly in the United States, is multidimensional and defies simple social categories. Diversity educators must assist students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in understanding the dynamics of Jewish oppression, the nature of anti-Semitism, and the complex identity issues Jews face. In doing so, we combat oppression in all its forms.

Being Jewish is a salient identity for this generation of college students. The history of Jewish oppression continues to inform Jewish identity. Jewish college students in diversity education often articulate a complex understanding of the position of Jews in U.S.-based systems of ethnicity, religion, race, and class. Some claim that Jews are both insiders and outsiders in American society, targeted and privileged simultaneously in their ethno-religious and racial identities. In addition, these students often contend that Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews share similarities with both white Christians and non-Jewish people of color. Most importantly, students claim that anti-Semitism has affected them on campus, sometimes within the setting of multicultural programs. Jewish students engaged in diversity education often express internal conflict arising from the contradiction between their assigned identity and their self-image. Diversity educators are frequently uncertain of how to respond to white Jewish students who vigorously contest the ideas that are taught in U.S. classroom settings.

Diversity educators often hear from Jewish students when talking about race that they do not see themselves as “white,” but rather as “Jews.” In keeping with this self-identification, Jews should be understood as a distinctive identity group which is often described using racialized language. Adams (2001) contends that racialized groups are ones in which pan-ethnic lumping occurs (Ibos and Yoruba became black, Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans became Latinos/as, Chinese Americans and Cambodian Americans became Asian Americans); members of racialized groups are seen as phenotypically different. Given that ethnic designations of Ashkenazi, Sephardic (Iberian), and Mizrahi (Arab/Middle Eastern) are subsumed under the larger rubric of “Jewish” and that one often hears that a Jew with certain features “looks Jewish,” Jews can be figured as such a racialized group.

In fact, anti-Semitism cannot be truly understood without considering it within the historical system of racial constructions. Anti-Semitism can even be considered the prototype of racism (Tessman and Bar-On 2001). Although most Jews of Ashkenazi ancestry are now seen as white, Jews were explicitly regarded as non-Aryan in nineteenth-century Europe, and U.S. neo-Nazi and Christian Identity groups still maintain a fundamental division between Aryans/whites and all others. In the U.S., there is a connection between white racism and anti-Semitism (Langman 1999). Hence anti-Semitism must be understood within the context of racism.

Because of this link between anti-Semitism and broader racism, and because anti-Semitism still exists in the U.S., incorporating studies of Jewish oppression and anti-Semitism into multicultural education programs has widespread benefits. By examining the history of Jewish exile and oppression, students can begin to understand that Jews are not (as has been historically claimed) a hyper-privileged group that has become successful at the expense of other groups. Students can then begin to comprehend anti-Semitism as a system of oppression. While learning the complete history of anti-Semitism, students can explore the stereotypes and myths that they have learned about Jews. This process of interrogating myths about Jewish identity is especially important for Jewish students who may have internalized anti-Semitic beliefs or who might collude with their own oppression by downplaying the impact of these beliefs on the lives of Jews.

Because Ashkenazi Jews are both racially privileged whites and targeted ethno-religiously, they offer interesting and nuanced ways to conceptualize diversity education. Aware of being simultaneously categorized as not-quite-white in the U.S. and as an “other” in Europe, Ashkenazi Jews question the unnuanced designations used in most diversity programs. Their unique and competing historical narratives (oppressed versus oppressor) both affect their social position in this country and make their history particularly relevant to discussions of U.S. diversity. If we do not teach students about Jewish identity and history, we are doing a disservice to our students in the fight against all forms of oppression.


Adams, M. 2001. Core processes of racial identity development. In New perspectives on racial identity development: A theoretical and practical anthology, ed. C. L. Wijeyesinghe and B. W. Jackson, 209–42. New York: New York University Press.

Langman, P. F. 1999. Jewish issues in multiculturalism: A handbook for educators and clinicians. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

Tessman, L., and B. A. Bar-On. 2001. Jewish locations: Traversing racialized landscapes. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Questions, comments, and suggested resources should be directed to campbell@aacu.org.
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