The Revisionism of Andrew Sullivan

By Os Keyes

Andrew Sullivan has, in-between serving as an inspiring example to white mediocrities everywhere, found the time to pen a screed on race in America. It’s described as “not for the closed-minded” as if there’s something novel but really it’s just the standard garbage model minority shit white people do constantly to weaponise Jewish or Asian-American communities against African-Americans.

Sullivan mentions Jewish people as an ethnic group who have integrated nicely into White America, despite being a minority in a racist society, and groups us with Asian-Americans against African-Americans in doing so. He points to our nice integration and wealthiness as groups and then argues: hey, racism is dead!

I’m not going to comment on what it says about Asian-American or African-American people, because there are much smarter POC voices already doing that (check out Zoé Samudzi’s as-always excellent thread). But I am going to comment on the broad Jewish angle, because this is revisionist bullshit and up with it I will not put.

First-off, Jewish people, African-American people and Asian-American people are not non-overlapping groups - there are Jews of every background. Ask me to name some Native American Jewish people some time, I keep a list. To claim that they are non-overlapping sets is to gloss over Jewish POC and instead fall into the pattern of thinking that all Jews look like, well, me. That Sullivan does this is pretty revealing of why his thesis falls down - because when he says Jew he’s thinking white, Eastern European Jew.

Us white Jews are indeed thriving! And the reason for this, and the point at which Sullivan gets truly ahistorical as well as generally revisionist, is the Holocaust. We weren’t always accepted, see; the KKK was refounded on the lynching of a Jew in Georgia. In 1939 - in the aftermath of the widely-disseminated images and stories of Kristallnacht - a Roper poll showed that 53% of Americans believed “Jews are different and should be restricted”, while 10% believed every Jew should be deported entirely from the United States.

But then the Holocaust happened. And as the American public became more aware of the horrors that had been committed in Europe, they largely stopped expressing the views used to justify them - not due to some come-to-Jesus moment, in many cases, but simply because most people wish to be thought of as good. The Holocaust: bad. Nazis: bad. Sounding like a Nazi: bad. Not sounding like a Nazi: good.

So as partial repayment for the millions not saved, they toned down the anti-Semitism and offered Eastern European Jews membership in whiteness. Only associate membership, of course - lord knows this last year shows that it’s all-too conditional - but membership. The only cost was that we assimilate, and most of us very much did: we gave up our traditions to generalised consumption and just became white people with funny dances. That’s what our thriving is built on: not the abolition of oppression but our assimilation away from it.

Sullivan glosses over this entirely: he operates from the position that “Jews”, broadly-construed, are a minority who just magically turned up and do well. He ignores that the suspension of disbelief that white Jewish survival is based on was a literal blood price. He ignores that when we turned up, we did so with a largely-intact community, not as individuals violently wrenched from our communities and spaces as African-Americans were and are.

More importantly, his portrayal of Jewish people as a distinct set from POC ignores the overlap of both, and ignores that if you look at POC Jews, they’re not thriving in the least: they’re struggling with both the racism of whiteness as a whole and racist violence within Jewish communities. Statistics on the success of Jewish people only work because 70%+ of us are Eastern European. If you look at the remaining 30%, the picture is very different. Take a look at In Jewish Colour or JOCSM and tell me if that looks like racism is dead, to you.

So Sullivan’s essay is not only stunningly mediocre as a hot take, it’s self-falsifying. Attacked on its assumptions about what a Jew looks like, it ends up disproving itself entirely, because the survival and success of white Jews doesn’t demonstrate the death of racism at all. Instead, when constrasted with the experience of POC Jews, it strongly shows that racism is all too damn alive.