Are Jews White?

A recent judicial ruling defining Jewish as a protected race follows a long and often ugly history.

Orthodox Jews in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
Orthodox Jews in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Dec. 8. Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Joshua Bonadona graduated from Louisiana College in 2013. Raised Jewish, he converted to Christianity in college and was known to lead the “Christian devotional” for his football team at the private Baptist school.

In May 2017, Bonadona applied for a job at his alma mater as a football coach. The president of the university, Rick Brewer, and the head coach interviewed him for the job. The head coach relayed to Bonadona afterward that he had recommended him for hire but Brewer did not. Brewer allegedly cited Bonadona’s “Jewish blood” as the reason for the hiring decision. (Bonadona’s mother is Jewish, and his father is Catholic.)

After learning why he was denied employment, Bonadona sued the college. And he won.

The judge ruled last month that Bonadona had been discriminated against because of his Jewish lineage, deciding that he was part of a protected “race under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For some Jewish people, it did not feel like a victory. The regional branch of the Anti-Defamation League released a statement in February while the case was ongoing: “ADL is deeply offended by the perception of Jews as a race found in both allegations against the College and the plaintiff’s assertions in the lawsuit.” After the decision, David Barkey of the ADL called it a “double-edged sword.”

Such racial classifications recall a violent history for Jewish people. The Holocaust was a product of the notion that Jews were a biologically “different” race from Germans and, more precisely, the Nazi concept of the Aryan race. This history is not a comfortably distant memory, either, with similar arguments echoing through the alt-right today.

It’s important to remember, though: Race and religion have never been fully separate in this country. They have always overlapped, and Bonadona’s case is just the latest example of that fact. As noted, his religious conversion didn’t seem to matter to Louisiana College since he was perceived by the president as being Jewish no matter what he believed. His experience is similar to some white and black Muslims in the United States. As part of my sociological research on how Muslims are racially positioned in this country, I interviewed 28 white and black Muslims. I was interested in their experiences because they are not the typical image of a Muslim in the eyes of most Americans. My study showed that their experiences reflect the common perception that Muslims are foreign and that white and black Americans are Christian or secular or, at the very least, not Muslim. Some white Muslims, for example, said they were often assumed to be non-Muslim because they did not “look Muslim” in the eyes of many Americans they encountered. In contrast, a lot of South Asians and Arabs are assumed to “look Muslim” no matter what they believe.

It’s also important to note that courts ruling about racial classifications is not a new phenomenon, nor is it specific to Jewish people in this country. In the early 20th century, when only “free white persons” could become U.S. citizens, religion was a consideration in who counted as “white.” Syrians successfully petitioned for citizenship. They argued that they were white because they were Christian. This shows pretty plainly that whiteness overlaps with Christian identity. Years later, a Yemeni Muslim man’s petition for citizenship in the 1940s was denied due not only to his “dark skin”—which presumably keeps him out of whiteness—but also because he was Muslim. This overlap between race and religion is old. The notion that Jewish blood was not the same as “European blood,” for example, has ancient roots in Christianity, and that notion was adopted early on in the American colonies. Early laws defined whiteness as a state of freedom, with the violent corollary being that black people were defined as slaves. Before these laws used the word white, though, they used the word Christian to define the “free” population. The Jewish designation moved along the racial line, between white and black.

In the 20th Century, universities adopted legacy-based admissions to keep Jews out. The response to the Jewish Holocaust, the creation of Israel, and post-WWII housing schemes helped to move European Jews in the U.S. into the classification of “white” people. And so some European Jews, but not Jews of color, were able to experience some of the safety and comforts of whiteness like suburbia, class mobility, and “freedom.” Some white people today still react violently to the idea that they share their whiteness with Jewish people—that that whiteness may be made impure.

For his part, Bonadona stood among a long line of petitioners who have had to dig into the specifics of what race even means in order to seek legal remedies. He argued that the college discriminated against him on the basis of his race, which he claimed is “Caucasian Jewish.” Notably, the term Caucasian comes from the word Caucasoid, which was a classification in one of the original systems of racial “science” of the late 18th century. Caucasian is now often used today as a seemingly polite, scientific-sounding euphemism for white. The other half of Bonadona’s self-identity—Jewish—is where things get complicated: Is it a race or a religion? Both, neither? Is Bonadona multiracial—identifying with two racial groups, Jewishness and whiteness? Or is this just a reference to two words that reflect his parents’ most salient identities?

The results of the case don’t really settle these questions, but instead stumble through their messiness. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The judge noted how race has been defined differently in various times and legal cases and ultimately argued that Jewish people are a race because they are sometimes “treated” like one that this law was “designed to protect.” The ruling quickly became vague, though, in its discussion of what makes a race … a race. And that vagueness is fertile ground for a wide range of possible future precedents or misreadings.

Then there’s this question: If Jewish people are a protected race, which race are they? What about Jews of color? Does the post-WWII notion that European Jews are white, which is debated over but generally accepted, no longer hold from the perspective of the law? The judge doesn’t say one way or the other. He rules only that Jews are a racial group that is sometimes discriminated against. But if they were—and remain—white, is this decision a distortion of the Civil Rights Act, which was designed to protect people of color from white supremacy? If so, this would be reminiscent of the 2009 Supreme Court opinion in Ricci v. DeStefano, which ruled that white firefighters had been subject to race-based discrimination because of how promotional exam results were handled in New Haven, Connecticut.

Whatever the ultimate answer to these questions, it’s necessary to recognize that most people view race and religion as connected, and they believe and behave accordingly. Once we accept that, we can ask bigger questions about how the race-religion connection is used, more often than not to the detriment of people of color and to the benefit of white people, a group that has sometimes included Jews and sometimes not. Bonadona’s case points to an important feature of American life: Religion has never been an afterthought in systemic racism, but a racial classifier, weaponized to maintain whiteness.