The world remembered and honored the victims of the Holocaust on Jan. 27: Jews who were victimized based on their status as Jews. The perpetrator of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler, said that “the Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”
The Jewish community was targeted and attacked based on what Hitler considered to be an inferior race to his own Aryan descent. Yet on a recent episode of ABC talk show “The View,” co-host Whoopi Goldberg claimed that the Holocaust had nothing to do with race. Rather, it was an incident of “white people killing white people.” The questions then arises as to whether race is defined solely by color, and whether “race” and “ethnicity” mean the same thing?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
I was always educated to believe that racism is a blanket term describing the discrimination of a distinct group of people by another group or other groups who believe that they are superior. Over the last few decades, there have been two parallel and concerning trends regarding the definition of racism.
The first is that racism is solely about color. The second is that every ethnicity is now defined as relating to skin color—except, of course, when it comes to the Jewish people. The net result of these two growing trends is that anti-Semitism is not considered racism, and therefore is a more tolerable form of discrimination.
The word “anti-Semitism” itself is the discrimination of Semitic people who spoke Semitic languages, namely Jews and Arabs. However, Arabs in this day and age in America are considered people of color, while Jews are not. Islamophobia is widely accepted as a form of racism against Muslims who, strictly speaking, could be any color, because Islam is a religion and not a race. This same distinction is not made for Jews, however, leading to anti-Semitism being disregarded as a type of racism.
I am a Jewish woman of Spanish Moroccan descent. Yet in the United States, I am not considered a person of color. In comparison, a person from Latin America would be afforded the label of a “person of color,” and discrimination against him/her would be considered a form of racism.
More than half the Jews in Israel are Sephardi, coming from Arab countries, whose skin tones range from European white to extremely dark. Despite their originating from areas in the Middle East and North Africa, they are not considered “people of color” in the United States.
The people of Israel became a people around 4,000 years ago in the Middle East, in biblical Israel. We later traversed the entire region and scattered between Spain, the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe. But at what point did we become so white that the likes of Whoopi Goldberg don’t believe the Holocaust was about race?
History, basic education and common sense should help us conclude that racism is not necessarily about color. In the era of “My Heritage” and “21 And Me,” DNA tests have discovered specific Jewish genes. Researchers even note differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi genes, and a gene specific to Cohanim (the priestly tribe of Israel). The Jewish people are therefore their own genetic group, regardless of whether they have white or extremely dark skin.
The Holocaust was in every respect a racist event. Racism is not just about the color of one’s skin. It is, rather, about viewing negatively a group of people who share a set of traits, such as genes, geography, history, culture and more.
Furthermore, racism is the belief that one’s own race is superior to that of another’s. When Hitler and the Nazis were brutally killing the Jews, it was done with the sole intention of ridding Germany and the world of the inferior Jewish race and creating Aryan domination. To overlook the Holocaust as a racist event is further emphasizing the fact that so many wrongly believe that anti-Semitism is not racist.
As the late and great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said when delivering the keynote address to the European Parliament on Sept. 27, 2016: “Anti-Semitism is a mutating virus.”
“It takes different forms in different ages,” he said. “In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th and early 20th century, they were hated because of their race. Today, they are hated because of their nation-state, the State of Israel. It takes different forms but it remains the same thing: the view that Jews have no right to exist as free and equal human beings.”
Fleur Hassan-Nahoum is the deputy mayor of Jerusalem.