Complicating Diversity Categories:
Jewish Identity in the Classroom
By Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, assistant
dean and director of intercultural affairs at Bryn Mawr
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
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
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.