The George Santos saga is a multilevel masterpiece of lies, singular in its excesses but for the recent entry of Florida Representative Anna Paulina Luna into the GOP Hall of Identity Hoaxer Fame. The two spun themselves into a Fox News fever dream to own the libs: Gay! Latino! Hispanic! A woman! With an added twist: Jewish!
It’s fascinating what this strategy reveals about perceptions of Jewish identity and its value within the party of white supremacy (compared with its near-total lack of value on the left).
On a practical level, claiming to be Jewish makes sense when you’re trying to appeal to Jewish voters and an affiliated donor base. Like any marginalized group, Jews tend to lean on a kind of survivalist, tribal kinship, the same way the LGBTQ Victory Fund, EMILY’s List, and others organize to get more members of their in-group elected to office. It’s why, in the recent New York primary between Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, Nadler highlighted that if he lost, it would mean that New York City would no longer have a Jewish member in the House. He won handily against a candidate with a similar record, in large part thanks to his heavily Jewish, Upper West Side electorate.
For non-Jewish Republican candidates who are running against actual Jews, as Santos and Luna did, pretending to be Jewish is a great way to divide a highly active and overwhelmingly Democratic voter base. There’s also the added benefit of laundering the right’s anti-Semitism. When asked by Jewish Insider to explain how she could accept the endorsement of Marjorie “Watch Out for Jewish Space Lasers” Taylor Greene, Luna had the ultimate comeback: “I was raised as a Messianic Jew by my father. If [Taylor Greene] were antisemitic, why did she endorse me?” Santos used his alleged Judaism to excuse his own trafficking in stereotypes about Jews and money: A former roommate reported that “he’d always say that it was okay for him to make those jokes because he was Jewish.” And he weaponized it to police anti-Semitism in others, tweeting remarks like “wow you pulled the Nazi card on the grandson of Holocaust refugees.” Notably, we don’t see any white, Christian candidates like Lauren Boebert—who also ran against a Jewish opponent—trying to claim membership in the tribe.
This is where the phenomenon that David Baddiel calls “Schrödinger’s whites” comes in: Jews are white or nonwhite depending on the politics of the observer. Baddiel is a British comedian and the author of Jews Don’t Count, an extended essay about all the ways in which—consciously or unconsciously—anti-Semitism is seen as a lesser racism on the left, which categorizes Jews as white and privileged, and therefore outside “the sacred circle” of protected peoples. For white supremacists, on the other hand, Jews are explicitly not white—though the ideology is also founded on a notion that Jews are privileged and that, in fact, there is a vast conspiracy of Jewish puppet masters manipulating other nonwhite peoples against the white race. In this scenario, commonly called the Great Replacement, people of color are pawns of the Jews, allowing any racism directed at Jews to be construed as a kind of punching up against power. But in the US context, Jewish descendants of European immigrants are generally racialized as white, further conflating them with a ruling class. Think of Whoopi Goldberg’s claim that the Holocaust wasn’t about race because it involved “two White groups of people.” Then consider that the Black comedian’s name used to be Caryn Johnson.
Here’s where the left’s concept of Jews syncs up with the right’s tendency to run candidates of color like Santos and Luna in Jewface: Inherent in their performance of Jewface is the assumption that Jews are de facto privileged, meaning that claiming Jewish identity is a pathway to whiteness.
The Harvard historian Noel Ignatiev described this “strategy” in his 1995 classic How the Irish Became White as a way “to ensure an advantage in a competitive society.” The Irish were eligible for whiteness in the United States, but it was not guaranteed, and they had to pursue it directly by making common cause with pro-slavery Southerners and expressing anti-Black sentiments. Eastern European Jews in America have also been eligible for whiteness. Ignatiev himself was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants who named him Noel! But Ignatiev was adamant that whiteness is a choice, and one he rejected throughout his life. According to The Washington Post’s exposé of Luna, she haphazardly claimed either a Jewish or a Hispanic identity before running for office. She’d mostly chosen whiteness, even though her mother is Mexican American. However, there’s no evidence that her father—descended from German immigrants—was a Messianic Jew, making her choice read like an awkward and ignorant attempt to balance out a new Brown identity. Mainstream Jews abhor the Jews for Jesus crowd, so there’s little currency in it (although clearly it got her far enough). Santos committed to a better pantomime, at least, padded with other plays for whiteness like his hedge-fund uniform of three-quarter zips and prep-school blazers.
So what are Jews supposed to do? Gatekeeping can be a dangerous game, and few of us want to be in the business of declaring someone “not Jewish.” That same reticence is apparent among other minority groups, allowing impostors like Jessica Krug, Rachel Dolezal, and Raquel Evita Saraswati to get away with their respective cons for decades, despite massive red flags. But some people just aren’t members of the groups they claim to be a part of; they’re simply seeking benefits through a cynical and racialized theater. For actual gatekeepers like AIPAC, which welcomed Santos after he touted himself as a “proud American Jew,” it’s entirely appropriate for them to up their screening game. Jewface is now a pattern on the right, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the Republican National Committee couldn’t care less. They’re happy to exploit anti-Semitism when it suits them while carrying on with white supremacists and fake Jews. The rest of us should be very skeptical.