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Reviewed by:
  • The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity
  • Michael Alexander (bio)
The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. By Eric L. Goldstein. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. xii + 307 pp.

Eric L. Goldstein's book should be among the very first stops for those wishing to approach the subject of Jews and race in America. Goldstein's careful unearthing of what Jews actually said and how they really behaved is an important contribution to the fields of American Jewish history and ethnic studies. It is broad, well researched, compellingly told, extraordinarily nuanced, and it comes as a kind of savior to an area of scholarship that has suffered from large gaps regarding basic historical fact. I have concerns about the historiographical lens he employs (that of "whiteness") and these misgivings will take up the bulk of my review, but I hope readers will recognize the fundamental value of this book.

The foundational research of his study describes the ways Jews employed the term "race" from 1875 to 1950. Goldstein understands the changing use of the term by positing an unchanging tendency of American Jewry to bear "competing impulses of inclusion and distinctiveness" in its relationship to larger America (239). To Goldstein, Jews have utilized racial rhetoric to negotiate the space between their drive to fit in and their drive to stand apart. In the nineteenth century, when Jews feared that a strictly religious demarcation of Jewry could not bear American pressures to assimilate, while at the same time the embrace of a Jewish national bond and rhetoric of peoplehood still seemed too complete and dangerous a distinction, Jews took a middle path by adopting a racial differentiation for themselves. In the twentieth century, with its hardening of racial lines, and, when the dangers of racial differences seemed to surpass national ones, Jews abandoned employing a racial rhetoric when describing themselves and gradually turned to Jewish peoplehood (though typically they employed the euphemism "ethnicity" to soften any lingering nationalist threat). In either case, the nomenclature appears to have been secondary. Jews concerned themselves primarily with marking themselves off as being different from the perceived mainstream, but not so different as to cause alarm. This is a pattern well known to readers of Jacob Katz, and it should not surprise scholars that the pattern continued among Jews in America who of course utilized symbolic discourse particular to the American scene.1 [End Page 96]

On top of this rhetorical analysis, Goldstein also describes the larger beliefs and behaviors related to race with which Jews negotiated their competing impulses of inclusion and distinctiveness. In this discussion Goldstein applies the theories of "whiteness" studies and understands America to have undergone a bifurcation between black and white, with American Blacks standing in for "a stable, monolithic 'other'" (239) against which whites defined themselves.2 Goldstein attenuates this position by claiming "the black-white dichotomy has functioned in American history less as an accurate description of social reality than as an ideology"; and he hopes the example of Jewish ambivalence and "negotiation" of racial location will make clear "that the history of race in America cannot be reduced to a story of black and white" (3). Indeed, he conjectures that many American groups "negotiated" their places somewhere between black and white (5).

Still, Goldstein agrees with the axiom of the whiteness argument: Jews and other immigrant groups quickly came to view America as being divided along a single color line—black and white—and just as quickly came to "pursue whiteness" as part of their assimilation strategy (6). Due to their impulse toward distinctiveness, Goldstein feels Jews may have felt somewhat conflicted about their inclusion into white society. Nevertheless, Goldstein agrees with the bulk of whiteness scholarship that Jews understood what it meant to be white and attempted to become so.

I am familiar with many of the materials that Goldstein uses in his book, as well as those used in other studies that use Jews as an example of a group pursuing whiteness, and I must admit, despite their arguments, that I still do not see a clear Jewish drive toward whiteness. I do see Jewish drives toward money, material...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3141
Print ISSN
0164-0178
Pages
pp. 96-99
Launched on MUSE
2007-07-10
Open Access
No
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