Are Jews white?, is the name of a new exposition in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. As an expert in diversity and inclusion, I went there almost immediately after the opening. Are Jews white? is an interesting and also a bit disappointing exposition. I explain you my mixed feelings in this blog.
When you enter the expo, there are a number of signs on walls and pillars, and a short introducton video. After that, you arrive in a former synagogue which is the religious part of the Jewish Historical Museum. I was surprised: was that all? Indeed it wasn’t. After the religious part, the exposition Are Jews White? continues. Video has a central place. The exposition makers have interviewed around ten persons with different background who reflect on the theme Are Jews White?. After some nice cutting and pasting, they produced a good series of interesting comments on the subject: many aspects of the theme are thus covered from different perspectives. A disadvantage however is that this production does not elevate the theme above the average ‘circus of opinions’. I could not discover where Are Jews White? rises above existing concepts. Are Jews White? rather shows how deeply we are imprisoned in boxes, unable to liberate ourselves from them.
To me, the concept of black and white is evidently not applicable to Jews (and many others). I remember how I visited a camp with Jews from Ethiopia in Tel Aviv who newly arrived, somewhere in the begin of this century. They had been health care workers in Ethiopia and were preparing for a similar job in Israel. They had a good selfconfidence of what they had to offer to Israeli Jews – for example, more respect for the elderly – but many of them felt underestimated and discriminated upon. Therefor I wondered how the exposition would work this out. Are Jews White? failed to do so, but shows clearly that the concept of black and white has strong limits and serves rather as a concept to divide people more than to unite them.
Professor Gloria Wekker is one of the persons interviewed in the video. Her concept of intersectionality has no answer to the Are Jews White? issue. Intersectionality (in my view) was an original concept encouraging us to leave a dualistic world and enter the multifaceted one. Especially when Gloria Wekker just started as a professor and called her concept ‘kruispuntdenken’ (crossroad thinking), it was much more open to the dynamics of diversity. Something went wrong during the years along the intersectional road. Not only did intersectionality create more boxes, these boxes are also more oppressive, there is no escape from them.
The result, and that is very clear in Are Jews White?, is that Jews would be called black or white for political reasons, or for the opinion people have about them, or that they have about themselves. The tragedy is that this limits Jews to be who they are. And indeed this may be true for all of us: the concept of black and white limits us all. Of course I understand that the concept of black and white serves to explain the construction of society but let’s be fair: watching the video in the exposition, it is clear that the concept of black and white is more than a methodology. It serves the need of many to be part of a group or to see others as such. It provides a safe world of boxes where skin color and other aspects are all well set and clear and can be explained in predictable terms. The exposition fails to explain this need at a deeper level: why do we need to put people into categories? Why do we get upset when Jews do not fit in?
Maybe the ambition to have more answers is too high. I remember my last visit to Israel when I discussed with a scientist in the Holocaust Museum: why is there antisemitism, and why does it seem to be always there? He admitted that as a scientist, he can prove it is there and describe it, but he can not explain it scientifically.
My guess is that the Jewish Historical Museum created Are Jews White? to open the discussion about (useless) boxes and to prevent that we lock ourselves in and that we try to lock Jews in. We have to live with a rather misty and multi-interpretable reality for ourselves and for others, even though that comes with uncertainties. All-in all, I recommend the exposition. For your notice, it is totally bilingual (English and Dutch).
And don’t forget to walk by the paintings I show on the picture here, that I adored above every object in the museum, especially the woman’s dress: Benjamin and Chaile (Kaatje) Cohen from the 18th century. There’s more info about them but you will find that when you visit…