The Jews Are “The New Jews”
This article explores the place of Jews and Jewishness in a broader American political and cultural discourse of race and racialization. Borrowing methods and analyses from across the field of Critical Race Studies, the article argues that Jewish Studies should shift attention toward Jewishness as a discursive formation in order to understand the significance of iterations of Jewishness that are not directly or wholly about Jews. Beginning with the phrase “the new Jews,” the article examines how Jewishness is a trope for the regulation of whiteness, and proceeds with an analysis of how Jews and Jewishness circulate in three recent works of black cultural production: Jay-Z’s song and video “The Story of O.J,” Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, and the finale of season 2 of Donald Glover’s series Atlanta. I conclude that all three employ Jewishness to signify the complexities of whiteness, including the regulation of capital, property, and national sovereignty. Analyzing Jewishness in otherwise non-Jewish contexts requires Jewish Studies to look beyond its disciplinary domains and to ally with other fields of Race Studies.
Jewish Studies, Critical Race Studies, the undercommons, the New Jews, racial capitalism
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This article reflects on Jews and Jewishness, not as a people or a culture, but as discursive formations that circulate ambiguously in contemporary culture, in non-Jewish contexts, advanced mostly by non-Jews who are not necessarily interested in actual Jews or Jewishness. Put more simply, this article considers the discursive political leverage afforded by Jewishness in the Trump era, and what Jewish Studies has to say about it.1 My hypothesis is that this discursive Jewishness makes visible how race and racism are sustained, both materially and symbolically. The idea of the Jew makes visible how whiteness is regulated, how whiteness masks its corporate identity, and how blackness is continually re-iterated as the underclass and object of racial capitalism’s justification of predatory extraction. The prompt for this reflection is the seeming paradox that has occupied so many people working in Jewish Studies recently: how to reconcile a significant surge of anti-Semitism that is aligned with and is perceived (at least by the anti-Semites) to be supported by the Trump administration with the prominence of so many Jews in and around that administration, from Sheldon Adelson, who helped fund Trump’s campaign, to Stephen Miller, who is an architect of some of the president’s most atavistic racial policies, to the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who are Orthodox Jews. My argument comes down to the claim that Jewish mobility in and out of whiteness exposes how whiteness works both as a proxy for the sovereign state—whiteness as metaphor of the nation and its regulation of who gets to live and how—and as mechanism for manipulating levers of institutional power. The legal category of whiteness has expanded over the last two hundred years, but its restrictive power to regulate access to the upper tiers of the economy remains intact.2 To me, this seems to be at least one rationale for the chant “Jews will not replace us,” bellowed out by the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017, as it said less about Jews—who, after all, are hardly in a demographic position to replace any group—than it did about the affirmation of white power, a point developed later in this article.
Different from other arguments that posit Jewishness at the center of American racial formation, I am not arguing that Jewishness is a keystone in the assembly of American racial groups, nor am I simply arguing that Jews should get more academic attention because of rising anti-Semitism. Rather, I argue that Jewish Studies needs to continue to develop methods of analysis that are more akin to those methods of Critical Race Studies, seeking not simply to understand the lives and cultures of Jews, but to understand how Jewishness is formed, performed, and reiterated in political and social contexts in the United States, independent of actual Jews. I begin with a discussion of Jewish Studies methodology, followed with an examination of phrase that gives this article its title, “the New Jews,” and finally with an analysis of three recent representations of Jews or Jewishness in works of popular culture that have little to do with Jews, but everything to do with race. [End Page 140]
In recent years, several scholars in Jewish Studies have argued for the salience of Jewishness in the examination of race and racialization in the United States, and those same scholars have lamented the fact that while Jewish Studies is ever more attentive to Ethnic Studies, Ethnic Studies scholars, and the general academic field of Ethnic Studies, seem disinterested in Jews.3 I admit to making that observation myself in books, essays, and on conference panels, but I must also confess that at the same time I made such appeals, a skeptical voice from the back of my consciousness wondered if Jewish Studies wasn’t looking through a two-way mirror, outward on to the world just enough to see it reflected back in its own image. Many of us seemed to be asking, “Why doesn’t Ethnic Studies see Jewish Studies as we see ourselves?” If Jewish Studies has been effective at analyzing how non-Jews figure in the formation of American Jewishness, the field nonetheless has yet to develop a methodology that observes what Jewishness might mean to artists and scholars whose primary interest is not in fact Jews.
A starting point for that methodology is the critique of historicism and continuity as a presumptive stance for various Jewish Studies projects. American Jewishness does not descend continuously through time as the linear product of European or Levantine heritage, but is formed relationally in the United States as part of a dynamic discourse and set of practices that include discourses of race and practices of racialization.4 However, it does not necessarily follow that just as Jewishness is formed differentially in relation to the wider field of American race so too are other groups in the United States similarly formed in relation to Jewishness. Jewishness does not play the same role in black cultural expression that black culture plays in Jewish American film and literature, for instance. Instead, in the wider racial imaginary, Jewishness seems to be something like a signifier of whiteness in motion, and the citation of Jewishness for various writers and artists is not so much one of anxious comparison (as may be said for Jewish citations of other ethnic and racial groups) as it is an examination of the distribution of whiteness. It is imperative for Jewish Studies to understand the signifying function of Jewishness at this particular moment, when anti-Semitism is increasingly entering mainstream political discourse, and as the political left is sorting through its priorities and alliances in response not only to anti-Semitism, but to the assault on civil rights for black and Latinx people as well.
With the recent turn among some in Black Studies away from cultural continuity and toward the material formation of race, the alignment of Ethnic Studies’ critique of settler-colonialism with critiques of the Israeli occupation, and the ongoing investigation of the relationship between race and capitalism, it is not obvious how and why Ethnic Studies scholars should think about Jews and Jewishness.5 Then again, neither is it obvious how Jewish Studies scholars should think about Jewishness. As a number of recent comparative projects and field commentaries have made clear, the self-evidence of Jews as the object of Jewish Studies [End Page 141] tracks the field away from knowledge production and critique and toward self-replication. Sarah Imhoff, Benjamin Schreier, and Lila Corwin Berman among others have argued not simply that we ought to withhold our presumptions about Jews when we do Jewish Studies, but that we cannot assume that “Jews” are or always should be the objects of our inquiry (Imhoff 2017; Schreier 2015; Berman 2018). Rather, as Berman has argued in a recent path-breaking essay, scholars in her field of American Jewish history presume far too much work being done by the singular identity “Jew,” allowing it such a weighty transposability and aggregate inherency as to sink the historian’s inquiry (2018). Berman gives two examples from her own work, one in which she presumed a subject of her study was Jewish, based on social location and last name, and another in which she presumed the Jewishness of one of her subjects was in fact salient to the historiography she was writing. On both accounts she admits that she was mistaken, and each stands as an object lesson for the sort of unacknowledged para-methodology that inhabits (and inhibits) Jewish Studies, namely the presumption that Jewish things are done by Jews, and that Jews do Jewish things. Berman concludes that American Jewish historians ought to turn away from Jews as the objects of study and toward the production of “Jews”: “Jewishness may help us interpret a person, a place, an idea, a text, an object, or a relationship without first having to meet any preexisting condition of being Jewish. Indeed, Jewishness might be approached as a formation, potentially just as vital in bodies or spaces identified as not Jewish as those identified as Jewish” (Berman 2018, 285). This might mean investigating how Jewishness becomes legible in particular contexts, or it might mean examining how the norms of Jewishness, codified institutionally and discursively, sequence with or otherwise affect (or form a network with) objects and phenomena not typically thought of as “Jewish.” Berman’s critique of Jewish American historiography augers well for Jewish Cultural Studies at large, giving it a mandate to explore how Jewishness circulates and signifies in American discourses of race and religion, and how Jews become recognizable as Jews, or how they slip into anonymous American identity in various communities and times.
If Berman’s attempt to reset the field of American Jewish historiography is to be part of a broader effort to align Jewish Studies with the sort of self-critical practices common across other academic fields, Jewish Studies at large might look toward recent work in Critical Race Studies for direction. A survey of relevant titles is truly beyond the scope of this article, but I hasten to mention Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason (2017), which examines how, since at least the eighteenth century, an idea of blackness as racial difference constitutes a raft of Western philosophy, political theory, capitalist economic ideology. Mbembe neither periodizes blackness nor simply traces cultural influences across the black Atlantic. Rather, he examines how blackness became thinkable as part and parcel of the disruptive technologies of reason and capital we associate with Enlightenment [End Page 142] and modernity. “Black reason” is the idea of blackness as it is concatenated and co-constituted with nationalism, capitalism, and pseudo-evolutionary racial theory. As Mbembe explains, “Black reason consists of a collection of voices, pronouncements, discourses, forms of knowledge, commentary, and nonsense, whose object is things or people ‘of African origin’”; and beyond discourse, “Black reason” is also comprised of “practices—the daily work that consisted in inventing, telling, repeating, and creating variations on the formulas, texts, and rituals whose goal was to produce the Black Man as a racial subject and site of savage exteriority” (27–28). Black reason, then, becomes the instrument and object of colonialism and capitalism, justifying both, while continually self-replicating its techniques of racialization, including the production of whiteness itself.
While not exactly analogous to the discursive formation of Jewishness, Mbembe’s analysis models how we might approach discourses of the Jew in the Age of Trump, when Jewishness is cited and circulated, promulgated, reinvented, centered, and exiled as part of a broader discourse about nationalism. How else to understand the prominence of Jews, Jewishness, and Zionism in and around the administration, on the one hand, and the still-resounding echoes of “Jews will not replace us,” the white-supremacist rallying cry at Charlottesville in 2017? What “Jewish reason” makes both “Jews” possible? As Neil Levi has put it, “[T]he Jew is a figure for the question the antisemite cannot bear to pose to himself,” arguing that anti-Semitism is a kind of projection, manifesting the particular anxieties of modernity (Levi 2014, 14). However, the analysis in this article is less about what Jews mean to anti-Semites and more about how discourse about Jews is a part of a more diffuse and forceful discourse about ethno-nationalism and racial capitalism. The signifiers of Jewishness are operative. They make things happen. They offer discursive leverage. In particular, Jewishness is inherently comparative, insofar as it signifies a form of whiteness that allows whiteness to become visible, and thus to make it more clear how whiteness works. Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel The Sellout illustrates Jewishness’s affordance of racial legibility in a comedic scene set on a public bus in South Central Los Angeles, a largely black and Latino area of Los Angeles. The narrator schemes to call attention to racial segregation in L.A. by installing signs on the bus directing black people to give up their seats to white people, but because white people almost never board the bus, he pays a white actress to come on board to make the point. Later, when the actress admits she’s paid to be white, she explains her professional desperation, noting that she struggles for acting jobs because she “looks too Jewish.” Later, the black characters will argue as to whether she really is Jewish, or whether she simply looks Jewish, a debate worthy of Berman’s discussion about identifying Jews, and though the argument is never resolved, it indicates how Jewishness denaturalizes whiteness, thereby revealing its codes. Whiteness, in this case, is an aesthetic that is policed and policing, excluding the actress who looks “too Jewish,” while normalizing white supremacy on [End Page 143] board the bus. For Beatty’s novel and perhaps for his characters, Jewishness doubly aligns with blackness, first by assisting the characters’ scheme to segregate the bus, and then by denaturalizing that segregation by having its too-Jewish-looking white actress step out of her role. Jewishness, in this way, can reside within and beyond whiteness, while being proper to neither whiteness nor even actual Jews.
Beatty brings us back to the beginning and the end of this opening section: if Jewish Cultural Studies has wished for reciprocal attention from Ethnic Studies, Beatty’s novel suggests how that attention might be organized, namely by paying attention to how Jewishness is presented as racial leverage, especially in contexts that are largely not Jewish. Before going further, I want to be clear and say that I do not deny that there are actual anti-Semites for whom Jews are real and a real target for violence. This is obviously true. But it seems equally true that anti-Semitic discourse does not depend on the objective presence of Jews as its object, and even more strangely, anti-Semitic discourse can occur in the presence of a certain kind of high regard for Jews. “Some of them were nice people,” said the father of a Jewish family, referring to the neo-Nazi march on Charlottesville.
In both of the following two sections of this article—the first on a seemingly benign discourse of Jewishness-without-Jews signaled by the phrase “the New Jews,” the second on the figure of the Jew in three recent instances of black cultural production—Jewishness exists less as an identity and more as a mode of identification, or a way of signaling how the state regulates capitalism’s formation of racial dominance and subordination.
the new jews
The phrase “the New Jews” is strikingly prolific, identifying the experience of some racial, ethnic, or religious minority that is socially situated like the Jews. It is either used to describe a group that finds itself suddenly under siege, or to describe a group emerging from a racial ghetto whose example affirms the liberal state. In both cases, the New Jews are on the borders of political acceptability, either on the verge of becoming homo sacer, cast out from political life and public sanction, or in the early stages of full incorporation into the body politic. In both instances, the New Jews are like the Jews once were, either as the persecuted and then eliminated victims of the Third Reich, or more felicitously, like the model minority Jews became in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.
Appearing in literature, op-eds, and public cries of aggrievement, all three terms in the phrase “the New Jews” do interesting work to tell us about Jewish identification. Leaving aside “Jews” for a moment, the newness of “New Jews” suggests that whatever substance “Jew” bears, it no longer inheres in or adheres to Jews, who have been replaced in status. Time for the “Jews” is linear, and when a [End Page 144] group is named “the New Jews,” it plots a racial continuum, with elimination at one end and full incorporation at the other, whose axis coordinates with axes of citizenship. In this way, the Jews of “the New Jews” are a typology, a figure of time itself consistent with how Jewishness has been elaborated before: time is up for the New Jews, or the time has come for proper liberalization.6
The fate of the New Jews depends not so much on actual Jews but on the political work being done on behalf of or through the phrase’s actual referent. In an op-ed for the Washington Times, a writer characterized Dylann Roof’s 2015 massacre of African American worshippers at the Mother Emmanuel Church in South Carolina as the hallmark of the genocidal persecution of Christians throughout the country, and he leveraged his point by claiming that “Christians are the New Jews” (Poland 2017). Here the phrase is doubly eliminationist, eclipsing African Americans, who were the central objects of Roof’s delusional fury, as well as actual Jews. Meanwhile, Muslims in Europe and Indians in Britain are characterized in op-ed writing as the inassimilable Jews, who will always be Jewish regardless of how much they conform to and affirm the cultural and political values of Western governance, not quite, not white, to repurpose Homi Bhabha’s phrase (Renton 2017; Singh 2007; Bhabha 1994, 92). In both uses, the Jewishness of the New Jews is tolerated, only barely, and both examples tell us something about the racial state’s thin accommodation of difference. In all cases, the Jew is a trope for the outer limits of state power, both a metaphor—“Jews” signaling the comparison to real Jews—and a metonymy—real Jews as the material example of genocidal exclusion. Of course, there is a long record of postwar citations of Jews as figures of the sorrows of modernity, from Lyotard to Agamben. Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin have ably critiqued theory’s penchant for relying on the Jew as “both signifier of unruly difference and symbols of universalism,” but “the New Jews” of Europe, while indeed poised between difference and universalism, are also signs of bio-political control, insofar as the form of identification ultimately refers to the identity of the State (Boyarin and Boyarin 1993).
The recent comparison of Americans of Asian descent with Jews tells the opposite story about Jews in relation to the State, while still confirming the State’s reliance on ethno-nationalist classification.7 Asian Americans are the group most consistently compared to Jews, for decades now, and the comparison seems like a ready-made trope in 2018 when the Justice Department supported an advocacy group in their suit against Harvard Admissions for racial discrimination. The charge is that Harvard’s affirmative action policies overly weight the racial backgrounds of some applicant groups while allegedly lowering the “personal score” of Asian descent applicants as a whole. Op-ed writers declaring Asians “the New Jews” refer to the earlier twentieth-century elite, patrician distaste for Jews who were thought to lack the cultural refinement necessary for entry into the upper reaches of the cultural establishment, including admission at elite schools. Gish [End Page 145] Jen cleverly telegraphs this sort of Jewishness in her celebrated 1997 novel Mona in the Promised Land, set in 1968 (of course) when “the Jews have become The Jews on account of the six-day war,” while Americans of Asian descent are “The New Jews,” enthralled by the sort of American pastoral that Philip Roth described and that Jen’s characters perhaps too readily and willingly inherit (Jen 1997, 1). In Jen’s novel, Americans of Asian descent are like everyone else, only more so, as used to be said about the Jews—trying a little too hard to fit in, perhaps, but modeling American virtues of individual responsibility and banking on liberal opportunity within a capitalist economy as the mechanism of social uplift.
What may be distinct in the present iteration is that when Asian Americans are described as “the New Jews,” they are felicitously compared to what American Jews once were, namely hard-working model minorities whose superficial difference persists, but who pose no threat to any American cultural or political norms. Contrary to the way the term is used in the examples mentioned above, this seemingly sunnier Jewishness is offered as a defense of the group in question. Different from the prior examples, which all but erase the salient Jewishness of Jews, in Jen’s novel, the article “the” applies to both Jews, who emerge as a distinct white ethnic group in 1968, and to Chinese Americans, whom she represents as occupying a nearly identical position as Jews, located on the axes of race and class as somewhere between black and white. And pointedly, in her novel, both Jews and New Jews exist as object lessons of the virtues of American liberal pluralism— hard work will get you to Harvard, and you neither need a boost up the ladder nor categorical protection from racial discrimination.
Of course, this sort of deployment of “the New Jews” is part of an effort to attack affirmative action and other programs that seek to acknowledge and remedy legacies of racial discrimination and ongoing racial subordination. Elizabeth Povinelli uses the term “late liberalism” to describe liberalism’s hostility to any racial group that cannot eke out surplus value from its own identity, and though she does not address the model minority, it would seem that its value is precisely in its flattering affirmation of all the mechanisms of liberal capitalism (Povinelli 2011, 25). The model minority is, after all, modeling to those other unassimilated races and ethnicities what industry and perseverance look like. Frantz Fanon memorably advised that insults to Jews in France and French colonies are a way of drawing a nationalist boundary, and blacks are as much outside that boundary as Jews (Fanon 2008, 92). In the case of the New Jews as model minority in the United States, the implied comparison is to other racial groups who are regarded as a pathological problem, an affront to Protestant civilization, or an atavistic enemy who would destroy our ways. When someone speaks of the New Jews, pay attention, they are talking about drawing the boundaries of the State and its exceptions.
In this way, liberal use of the phrase “the New Jews” is less a sign of identity than the identification of a group’s claim on cultural capital, somewhere amid the [End Page 146] stages of cultural capital’s acquisition and redeployment, as described by Pierre Bourdieu in his essay “The Forms of Capital” (1986). These groups are either perceived as being blocked—as in the extreme and absurd example of Christians as the New Jews—or they are striving for cultural belonging and in need of access, as in the Justice Department’s support of a lawsuit on behalf of Asian Americans seeking fair admissions standards at Harvard. Bourdieu tells us that cultural capital exists in three stages, and it’s the latter two, the objective and the institutionalized stage, which are in question in iterations of New Jews. The objective stage includes knowledge about and the acquisition of objects as cultural capital: a collection of paintings, architecture, rare books. Institutional capital is the conferral of recognition by academies of culture, and the establishment of a network of connections that ultimately give one access to State power. In Bourdieu’s overview, the stages of cultural capital acquisition are sequenced, but the figure of the Jew suggests some backsliding is possible. Consider the character Wolfsheim in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who brags to Nick about Gatsby’s “Oggsford” credentials, a claim of institutional capital instantly undermined by its vulgar citation by this caricature of a Jew (Fitzgerald 1995, 76). Gatsby himself acquires the objects of cultural capital—the books with their uncut pages, the luscious shirts—but key moments in the novel reveal what he can never acquire, namely the right kind of past, indicating that he never really gets past the first stage of cultural capital, as described by Bourdieu, namely, the “embodied state” inhering in the person who has it (Bourdieu 1986, 42). Gatsby’s contiguity with Wolfsheim is not about identity but about identification: not about who Gatsby is, but about how his past, his relations, and his tactics for mobility locate him amid a wider field of economic value and cultural prestige. Fitzgerald’s Wolfsheim helps expose how Gatsby achieves whiteness, through lying, cheating, and flourishing the credentials of class position, but his too proximate position to Wolfsheim—legible to Tom, who conducts his own investigation into what Wolfsheim calls Gatsby’s “gonnegtion[s]”—also explains why Gatsby never fully achieves the whiteness he seeks (Fitzgerald 1995, 75). Jewishness signals both the methodology of whiteness and the reason Gatsby fails to fully acquire it.
This double-sided Jewishness—either destined to be homo sacer or late liberalism’s object lesson—may help explain the perplexing pivot point between reemerging and ascendant anti-Semitic discourse and the admiration of Jewish cultural capital embodied in the persons of Jared Kushner, Sheldon Adelson, Steve Mnuchin, and even Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This easy rotation from one to the other, or perhaps simply the simultaneity of anti-Semitism and seeming philo-Semitism, is one of the hallmarks of the Trump era, with the prominence of Jewish campaign donors, cabinet members, and family seeming to culminate in a hard embrace of right-wing Zionism, on the one hand, and the expansion of neo-Nazi affiliation and the increased public circulation of [End Page 147] Nazi-sourced anti-Semitic discourse on the other hand. It may seem like an excess of Judaism: Jews, Jewish money, Jewish state power, Jew-hatred. However, I argue below that the opposite is true, that there need not be and frequently is not any Jew present in discourses of the Jew. Meanwhile, Jewishness shines a light on capitalism, the racial State, and the outer limits of citizenship.
the properties of jewishness
As with the case of “the New Jews,” the recent prominent appearances of Jewishness in three instances of black cultural production exist not as relational comparison (they are not instances of what Adam Newton sardonically called blackjewishrelations) but as citation of some facet of racial capitalism (Newton 1995, 5). I use the term as coined by Cedric J. Robinson and as elaborated by Robin D. G. Kelley among others, though I do not depend upon the disputed historicity of the idea; whether or not capitalism represents a break with feudalism, or whether capitalism is coeval and constitutional with feudalism’s system of group-based population domination is not the point here.8 Rather, I use the term for the way it indicates how capitalism in the present relies on various forms of domination to leverage economic expansion and extraction from particular places and from particular bodies. In this way, race is an invention of capitalism, but likewise, capitalism is organized and coordinated by and through racial assignment. This does not mean that race is not “real,” but that race’s material reality extends beyond the materiality of any given raced body. You do not need an actual threat of a migrant caravan charging the U.S.-Mexico border in order to mobilize troops and whip up fear—and secure high-value construction contracts to secure the border—any more than you need an actual threat of an aggressive black man to justify a police shooting. As Brian Massumi makes clear, threat, invented in the present to construct a frightening future, is enough to acquit a police officer in a deadly shooting, and the acquittal further materializes whiteness as state power aligned with the state of exception, and blackness as precarity and vulnerability (2010). Likewise with Jews: you do not need actual Jews, new or otherwise, to whip up anti-Semitism and harden the far right.9 Anti-Semitic citation of Jewish stereotypes is enough to put the threat in mind, and rather than an opposite type, the liberal New Jew is an affirmation of capitalism’s reliance on a black-white binary, and on mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that preserve white corporate identity precisely through its refusal to acknowledge public whiteness.
Joshua Clover and Nikhil Singh have recently explained “racial capitalism” in terms that will be helpful going forward:
Race is a necessary fiction for capitalism, just as is private property, just as is the idea that you can be free at the same time that you must sell yourself [End Page 148] to another if you wish to eat. Conversely, a conception of “class” (and class struggle) confined to a normative national, social history of wage labor, one that excludes social relations anchored in rightlessness, wagelessness, and extra-economic coercion, obscures the violence constituting capitalism’s capacity to reproduce itself. It is that violence that undergirds the well-known formulation by Stuart Hall and his comrades, “race is the modality in which class is lived,” capturing the fundamental social experience of the unity of race and class.(2018)
So what of Jewishness as a discourse of materiality within an economy of extraction and accumulation? If the phrase “the New Jews” signals the accumulation of cultural capital as theorized by Bourdieu, then perhaps talking about Jews is a way of talking about mobility within capitalism, and the distribution of value, or leveraging that capital to make claims on property, the foundation of the regime of liberal rights.
Musician and mogul Jay-Z provides a bluntly clarifying citation of Jews as model minority property-owners who exemplify how African Americans can establish self-possession and claims on political recognition in the United States in his rap song and video “The Story of O.J.” The simple but devastating rap features Jay-Z lugubriously ruminating on how, despite the variegation of black life across three hundred years, blackness in the United States is nothing other than a negative construction of whiteness. The song reflects on how black people can be rich or poor, power-insiders or outsiders, but will never be anything other than, as the refrain goes, “still nigga” (Jay-Z 2019). The video for the song is done in the style of prewar, obviously racist cartoons, with black figures drawn to look like early Warner Bros. equivalents, typically posed in historically caricatured labor roles, including sharecroppers, musicians, dancers, and domestic servants, with features that are exaggerated or muted to suggest animality or lack of intelligence.
This premise—though not the rap’s conclusion, as I’ll show in a moment— shares in what Black Studies scholars have called Afro-pessimism, or the impossibility of any positive construction of blackness in American life. In the rap, O.J. Simpson is the most obvious but still typical figure of a person who cannot rise beyond his blackness, according to the song. Black Studies scholar and theorist Fred Moten has troped on finance to explain the place of blackness, as one of perpetual and unforgiveable debt, where debt signals the absence not of Bourdieuian cultural capital, but of the capacity for credit, or the ontological possibility of a positive futurity. Moten suggests that “debt” is the condition of “the undercommons,” or the deep recesses of a white supremacist capitalist state, where capitalism’s contradictions lay bare its foundations, and from which one can examine and critique it (Harvey and Moten 2013, 58). I have more to say on this undercommons critique below, but here it’s clear that Jay-Z has a different idea [End Page 149] for balancing the books, more akin to the examples noted above, namely accruing cultural capital, with Jews once again modeling the method.
Perhaps expectedly, as answer to the perpetual trap of blackness, Jay-Z doubles down on the wagers of capitalism, lamenting that even as he made money, he wasted it on present-time displays of wealth, with no regard for his future, culminating in this eyebrow-raising line: “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit. You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This [is] how they did it.” The ADL protested that the lyric is anti-Semitic, though Jay-Z reasonably dismissed that criticism, noting that the song is composed of nothing but caricature and stereotype: “If even you, as the Jewish community, if you don’t have a problem with the exaggerations of the guy eating watermelon and all the things that was happening [in the “Story of O.J.” music video], if you don’t have a problem with that, and that’s the only line you pick out, then you are being a hypocrite” (Kim 2017). Whether or not he has a point, it’s imperative for academics to ask not what does the line say about Jews but what does Jay-Z’s caricature of Jewish finance prowess allow him to say about race in the United States? The song’s refrain posits blackness in two seemingly distinct positions: you can be O.J., but your uniqueness will always collapse into a trap of blackness: “still nigga.” Jay-Z’s citation of Jewish finance acknowledges debt (“still nigga”) while forecasting credit, or a credit-able, future-tense blackness that owns things and is not owned. Obviously the logic of finance capital provides no exit ramp from racial capitalism, and it’s not at all clear how being the subject of finance capital distinguishes Jay-Z from O.J. When Jay-Z refers to “Jewish people,” rather than “the Jewish people,” the absent article “the” likewise divides Jews: those Jews who buy all the property and those who don’t. My argument, then, is that Jay-Z’s account of black power, aligned with Jewish power, finally succumbs to late liberalism’s assignment of value not to culture but to culture’s capacity for capitalization.The problem with “Jewish people own all the property in America” is that the value the musician would seek, even while located in an ostensibly anti-Semitic stereotype, is sustained by the very logic of cultural capital in the first place. Expanding Moten’s thesis, we might think not only of debt, but of double-entry bookkeeping, where all transactions are recorded as both gains and losses, debt and credit, or more generally, simultaneous and opposite positions within a racial ontology. Though in accounting practice, double-ledger bookkeeping is the efficient method for monitoring the value of business transactions, a credit hinged to “black debt” would mean the establishment of a political economy of belonging-in-debt. In contrast, Jay-Z’s citation of Jewish finance simply aims to secure his status within the aboveground political economy, leaving all of its hierarchies intact.
Perhaps the most prominent instance of Jewish discourse in recent popular culture, and similarly committed to normative state power, appears in Spike Lee’s 2018 [End Page 150] film BlacKkKlansman, based loosely on the story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African American police officer who infiltrated the KKK in the early 1970s with the help of his white partner. In Lee’s film, that white partner is detective Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver), a Jewish police officer whose whiteness is secure enough for him to receive a membership card from the Klan, but not so durable as to escape suspicion from those Klan members who are obsessive about Jews in particular. Indeed, this is one of the film’s keenest insights, that the white-supremacist Klan, organized in the nineteenth century to restore white rule in the South following the rise of a growing black political and economic class, reformed across the twentieth century, incorporating the mythic and medieval facets of anti-Judaic racism to the point where a 2017 march in support of confederate memorials is tapped out to the beat of “Jews will not replace us,” documentary footage of which closes out Lee’s film.
Zimmerman’s Jewishness is muted beneath his working-class presentation, in contrast to Stallworth’s prominent afro haircut, mod clothing, and stylish gold chain. No one else on the squad dresses like Stallworth, as he acknowledges, and he readily volunteers to trim his hair and rein in his style in order to fit in. Of course, neither action would mitigate his blackness, and the film’s consistent irony is precisely that this black man has to remain unseen by his Klan interlocutors in order to maintain his surveillance. Stallworth infiltrates the Klan via telephone, and Zimmerman impersonates Stallworth in person. Zimmerman’s whiteness is thus twice removed: the white body that can show up in person to impersonate Stallworth’s impersonation of whiteness. Zimmerman’s ability to slide in and out of different kinds of whiteness is wonderfully ironized when Stallworth first pitches his infiltration plan to his chief, explaining that Stallworth on the phone and Zimmerman in person amount to a “combined Ron Stallworth,” the phrase emphasized by Stallworth swinging his outspread arms into a clasp. The gesture is slightly looney, and it’s one of several moments where Stallworth almost seems to be winking, fully aware that he is not simply proposing a technical surveillance plan but toying with the heretofore immutable facts of racial difference. Asked by his chief if he really thinks he can pull off the plan, Stallworth insists that “with the right white man, we can do anything,” with the vocal uplift on “anything,” as if whiteness connotes superpowers.
“The right white man” has all the currency of “the New Jew,” and indeed may be the other side of that coin, insofar as the phrase indicates both the slide of the Jew into whiteness and the particular currency of Jewish whiteness. Meanwhile, the substitutability of Stallworth and Zimmerman hints at Zimmerman’s protean identity, and Stallworth’s as well. Beyond infiltrating the Klan, Stallworth surveils members of a local black activist group by pretending to be an enthusiast of their politics, and even in his work on the police force, he occasionally gives the winking impression that he is playing a role, adopting the same “white voice” for his police chief as he does over the phone with David Duke. [End Page 151]
Stallworth’s allegiances are never entirely clear—to the police, to his black revolutionary love interest, to himself—and it is put to the film’s audience to consider whether Stallworth’s visible blackness ought to stake him to a political or ideological position beyond his police work. As his substitute, Zimmerman is challenged on the very same question, when Stallworth presses him to feel the personal stakes of the operation, insisting that Zimmerman has “skin in the game,” a phrase that can either refer to the recent history of the Holocaust, or to the more proximate experience of Jewish racialization in the United States. That is, “skin” is either a metaphor for Jewish historicity, or a metonymy for how Jewish legibility is determined by proximity, where being Jewish means aligning with Jewishly identified people, cultures, or causes. The question is about what sort of Jew Zimmerman is, one whose history and thus whose Jewishness is in the past—and so he can safely slip into whiteness while perhaps retaining the memory of vulnerability—or one who remains racially vulnerable to white supremacist violence. The metaphor of skin is a productive catachresis in this case, as Zimmerman’s commitment to anti-racism has him burrowing more deeply into whiteness, thereby calling attention to just how shallow a form of identification skin really is.
Zimmerman’s Jewish difference anchors the previously cited phrase “the right white man” in contrast to all the “wrong” or corrupt white people exposed and arrested, aligning black and Jew in common cause as defenders of justice and upholders of the law. In this way, Spike Lee has made a surprisingly normative film affirming police authority, including the police infiltration of a radical black organization.10 Even at the end of the film, when documentary footage of Charlottesville shows the police largely standing down in the face of Nazi violence, the film is arguably critical of institutional power failing at its aims. Given the plot that precedes the cut to the present, the end seems to suggest the need for more police and more state power. At the same time, there remains a peculiar residue of Jewish difference in the closing, if we consider that Zimmerman, by passing as non-Jewish, indeed “replaces” the erstwhile white supremacist he pretends to be. Even the threat of Zimmerman’s exposure, which arises when he is strapped by his Klan handler to a polygraph machine, occurs as a dramatization of the contradictions of whiteness. If Zimmerman’s evanescent Jewishness is so deeply buried as to be only detectable by a fine-tuned machine, this is bad news for whiteness.11 Zimmerman evades exposure by summoning his own snarling celebration of Hitler’s success—the currency of white pride—and in the process also summoning Stallworth, who hears the wired-up Zimmerman’s predicament and creates a distraction to rescue his partner. The scene’s tension and its resolution makes clear how whiteness is a lie, shored up by anti-Semitism.
I turn finally to Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta, about an aspiring rap musician and his erstwhile entourage, and though the series’ citation of Jewishness is limited to a single scene, it is nonetheless written in the racial source code [End Page 152] for the series at large. Different from Lee’s film and Jay-Z’s financial aspirations, both of which finally admire state power and capitalism’s formative binary of owners/owned, Atlanta regularly represents how its black characters view their social location and racialization by white people and white power, and is distinguished for its nuanced reflection on racial identity and a racializing political economy. At the end of its second complete season, with several personal and economic shifts about to take place for its characters, the final episode routes its characters’ itinerary quite literally through Jews and Jewishness. Like Jay-Z’s Jewish credit and Spike Lee’s “right white man,” Jews and Jewishness are not the subject of the final episode, but reveal processes of racialization and work as levers of political agency. However, different from the other examples, as Atlanta’s characters pivot toward a series of consequential decisions, Jews model not liberal conformity but a mode of liminal belonging that works within but is not wholly captive to the State. Different from Lee’s Zimmerman, whose Jewishness has no obvious materiality, Atlanta’s Jews are recognizably clothed and coiffed as Orthodox, and they neither disappear into whiteness, as Zimmerman does, nor “own all the property,” as Jay-Z would imagine. Not “New Jews,” they are likewise not the metaphorical fuel for liberalism’s assimilation machine. Rather, the Orthodox Jews who appear as agents and clients at a passport expediting agency are metonymic (if we are to think of them in figurative terms), existing both on and as the borderlines of the nation. Those in the agency waiting room are like the series’ regular black characters, Darius and Earn, seeking expeditious exit from the country, while the clerk and others running the business quite literally operate the levers of state sovereignty.
The premise of Atlanta is that Earnest, or Earn as he is called, played by Donald Glover, has returned home after his freshman year at Princeton for reasons that remain unexplained through season 2. Earn, whose name reads like an imperative he fails to fulfill, has no money, a child to support, and very few options. We learn enough to know that Earn is bookish and nerdy, and in this and other ways, out of step with the rest of his neighborhood. His cousin Al’s rap name is “Paper Boi,” and “paper” contrastingly signals Al’s financial aspirations (though he makes most of his “paper” by selling marijuana), as well as the grip the law has on him, as he and many of his peers have “paper,” or court documents like bail bonds and probation agreements. The through-line story of the series is Al’s aspiring music career and Earn’s flailing efforts as his manager.
The series telegraphs an undercommons insight about complex kin relations, gray-market economies, policing, and the politics of aesthetics. Al has a few rap hits, and a small degree of regional notoriety, and though he accepts Earn’s efforts to be his manager, there is a constant tension between Earn’s aspirational future as a would-be Princeton student and Al’s present as person wholly of his place. The series plays with a familiar paradox regarding cultural capital: its characters have [End Page 153] very little or no cultural capital insofar as they are distant from elite centers of knowledge, have mostly throw-away possessions (Earn lives in a storage facility, at least part-time), own no property, and subsist on side-hustle jobs, though it must be said it’s all side with no center lane. On the other hand, Al’s budding music career exists as a line of credit: a potentially bankable future that requires Earn to align his sub-economy with what will have to be his legitimate commodification.
In the final episode of the second season, the show’s characters Earn, Darius, and Al leave their small orbit of Atlanta to fly overseas for a music tour, and this global venture is made possible—of course—by Jews. On the day of their flight, Darius observes that his passport is expired, but stays typically chill because he knows of a private expediting service run by and apparently for Haredi Jews, several of whom are sitting in the waiting area for their names to be called. The Haredi clerk asks Earn and Darius, “Y’all, uh, going on tour? Y’all a rap entourage? You’re the manager?” and when Earn asks him how he knows, the clerk responds, “We kinda have a specific clientele here. And rappers are procrastinators. No offense.” Procrastination, of course, signals delay, putting off till tomorrow what you should do today, and is naturally the opposite of model-minority industry. But then again, Earn and Darius are joined in this delay by the waiting room full of Jews. The contiguity of blacks and Jews gives the scene some ironic friction, on the one hand, but also suggests something in common as both are visibly apposite to normative institutional belonging. The Haredi Jews are neither “The Jews”—the felicitous white-ethnic group named in Jen’s novel—nor even “the New Jews”—those transitioning across time from pre- to post-modern American producer/consumers. Rather, they seem to occupy the same time-space as Earn and Darius, as subjects of the undercommons, or dwelling in spaces of institutional power, while not succumbing to any exterior institution’s normalizing pressures.
If blacks and Jews occupy the same space in a liminal political economy in this episode of Atlanta, there are differences in how each group leverages kinship and connections. The clerk suggests to Earn that his cousin should be Al’s entertainment lawyer, assuring him that he’s “primo”—the best in the business, which prompts Earn to ask earnestly if the clerk believes there are any black lawyers as good as the best Jewish lawyers.
Let me ask you something, and, uhm, be honest. Do you think there’s a black lawyer who’s as good as your cousin?
[Long pause, all the Jews in the room look up]
There definitely is. But uh, part of being good at your job are your connections, and black people just don’t have the connections that my cousin has. For... systemic reasons. [End Page 154]
Fraught as this moment is, Earn’s question and the clerk’s answer are as clear an exposure of how racial capitalism works as any scene in the series. There are no salient racial differences between blacks and Jews, but systems of oppression including housing discrimination, prisons, and depressed wages, all of which feature prominently throughout the series, disrupt “connections” and stunt kin relations. The clerk’s syntax pivots from liberalism—“part of being good at your job”—to something more like the operations of a cartel—“your connections” (recalling Wolf-sheim’s “gonnections”)—and thereby exposes how racial capitalism masks its work.
Earn relays the clerk’s insights into his own manipulation of the boundaries of the State, securing his connections and kin relations with Al and Darius in an act of shocking subterfuge as the entourage passes through airport TSA screening. Just as Earn puts his backpack on the conveyor belt for screening, he realizes there is a gun tucked inside, but he deftly slips it into the bag of another musician’s manager, who is in line behind him. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Earn, and the scene suggests that he has learned the meaning of kinship connections, which are bonded beyond all other loyalties, and hardened in the presence of state power. The Haredi Jew running the passport expediting agency is Earn’s “right white man,” the minority who models manipulation of the levers of state power, and Earn distances himself from being the wrong black man through his own repeat performance. I won’t go so far as to say that the scene casts Earn’s act as Jewish, though the sequence of events, from Earn closely observing Jews working the outer-limits of state sovereignty to his own manipulation of the internal borders of the nation as represented by TSA, suggests that he, too, is a sort of “New Jew,” for the way he flips his precarity into possibility.
jewish studies matters
This article has not been about Jews or the Jewish religion, nor about Jewish film, literature, or art. There is no “Jewish content” to this article, and I offer no insight into how to think about Jews. Instead, this is about how to think about thinking about Jews, or the circulation of Jewishness in popular culture that otherwise has little to no Jewish content. In the United States, Jewishness is a form of whiteness that, when placed in the right contexts, reveals how whiteness works as a legal right, a cultural norm, and a lever of political and economic power. I do not mean that Jews themselves manipulate the levers of power, or that if they do, they do so as Jews (well, save for Sheldon Adelson), but that the exorbitant attention paid to Jews by anti-Semites and popular culture producers alike indicates that Jewishness signifies beyond whatever it means intrinsically to Jewish communities. This sort of Jewishness, a “New Jewishness” if you will, is of interest to our colleagues beyond Jewish Studies, who investigate the histories and localities of [End Page 155] racial formation, and it should be an object of Jewish Studies’ attention as the field confronts Trump-era anti-Semitism.
Another way of putting all this is that Jewish Studies ought to find topics other than “Jewish identity,” and following Berman’s critique, Jewish Studies ought to be wary of standing on identity’s nationalist and racialist substrate, either intentionally or unintentionally. Jewish identity does matter, though it’s precisely that materiality that is too often missing from Jewish Studies accounts of the circulation of Jewishness in American life; and in the Age of Trump, it is imperative that we consider how Jewishness defines, exposes, or undermines ethno-nationalist state power. When artists, politicians, op-ed writers, or run-of-the-mill anti- and philo-Semites refer to Jews in contexts having little to nothing to do with actual Jews—whether in metaphorical citations of “New Jews” or through metonymical proximity to Jewish liminality—they are patching into a discursive formation of Jewishness that speaks to state sovereignty and its regulation of racial life. This sort of Jewish discourse is part of the broad discursive power that articulates and regulates liberalism, racial capitalism, and the state of exception, though it may also afford critical insight into how these mechanisms of power work.
Across this article I offer three suggestions that I now relay into imperatives for Jewish Studies in the Age of Trump. The first, to paraphrase my paraphrase of Fanon, is to pay attention to how Jews are being cited within broader discourses of the racial state, and to examine what role that citation plays for the consolidation of power around a narrow set of norms. To borrow again from Povinelli, the “cunning of recognition” at work in references to “New Jews” embeds the figure of the Jew in whatever version of the conservative racial state is at hand (Povinelli 2002). Second, Jewish Studies is becoming increasingly fluent with a range of self-reflexive field critiques across critical and comparative race studies more generally. Especially with recent work in Black and Latinx Studies, which historicizes the discursive formation of their respective fields, we find models for how to analyze the cultural production of Jewishness without naturalizing a racial, cultural, or ethno-national Jewish subject as the desired outcome or object of Jewish Studies, to paraphrase Schreier. Jewish Studies should engage with these insights, and— third imperative—put them to use to analyze what work the figurations of Jews and Jewishness are doing in cultural production. For instance, it is obviously the case that for Jay-Z and Spike Lee, rapping about or representing Jews is a way of commenting on black life in the racial state, while Glover’s Atlanta uses Jewishness to explore the outer limits of that state. In all cases, the preceding analyses of figurative Jewishness link the study of Jews with the more broadly critical project of examining racial formation in the United States at large. The point is not to displace Jews from Jewish Studies. On the contrary, insofar as Jews are once again now models for a certain kind of racial exceptionalism among some, and increasingly targets of hate and violence among others, the stakes for those who think [End Page 156] and write about the representation of Jews couldn’t be higher. The Jews are “the New Jews,” and those working in Jewish Studies will best address our present moment by assessing the broadest implications of that phrase for race and nation.
dean franco is Professor of English and Director of the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest University. He is the author of three monographs, Ethnic American Literature: Comparing Chicano, Jewish, and African American Writing (Virginia UP, 2007), Race, Rights, and Recognition: Jewish American Literature Since 1969 (Cornell UP, 2012), and The Border and the Line: Race, Literature, and Los Angeles (Stanford UP, 2019). His essays on diaspora, trauma, race, religion, and theory appear in PMLA, NOVEL, Prooftexts, Cultural Critique, MFS, and Contemporary Literature, among other journals.
1. It’s hard to know what to call this period, or when it even began. The Trump era surely includes the campaign and presidency of Donald Trump, but it’s also evident that the radical right, including various neo-Nazi groups, were active and instigating for a Trump-like hero well before his election. For a detailed analysis of the discourse accompanying the resurgence of neo-Nazism, see Levi and Rothberg 2018.
4. This is my argument across Race, Rights, and Recognition: Jewish American Literature Since 1969 (2012).
6. See Sharon Oster’s No Place in Time: The Hebraic Myth in Late Nineteenth Century Literature (2018) for a more fully theorized account of Jewish temporality in American national discourse.
9. Apparently, you no longer need actual anti-Semites to disseminate the message either, as former football star Brett Farve discovered when he was duped into recording a covertly but clearly telegraphed anti-Semitic greeting (Cancian 2018).
11. It is notable that Lee in fact stages two potential means of exposure, for not only is Zimmerman hooked up to the polygraph, at one point his inquisitor asks to see his penis. The one interrogation solicits Zimmerman’s own perspective on his identity— if he lies and says he’s not a Jew, the polygraph will only register it as a lie if he in fact believes deeply in his Jewishness—while the other interrogates embodied Jewishness, or quasi-racial fact of Jewish identity. Zimmerman, perhaps cannily, evades the exposure of his genitals by hurling homophobic accusations at his handler.