If you know one thing about Jessica Krug, it is that she is a white woman who passed herself off as a person of color. If you know two things about her, it is that she is a Jewish woman who passed herself off as a person of color. The first detail is relevant because, as a white scholar trading on a fraudulent identity and personal connection to the history of slavery and European colonialism, Krug committed an act of cultural appropriation that replicated the racist violence her scholarship claimed to document. Not only did she stand in the way of actual people of color receiving the funding and support that that she accepted under false pretenses, but Krug’s scholarship is built on a lie.
The second detail – that she is Jewish – is not relevant at all. It might have been, had Krug claimed to speak for Catholics, or posed as a Yazidi refugee from the Syrian civil war, but she didn’t. Yet, virtually every media commentary on Krug’s exposure has made a point of describing her as a “white Jewish” woman.
Jewish is not a race. I don’t know who has to be reminded of this in 2020, but Judaism is a religion, a belief system – Mordecai Kaplan called it a civilization – that people of all races can share. The notion that white and Jewish are somehow interchangeable, and that a person of color cannot also be Jewish is patently false. Yet so much of the coverage of Krug insinuated that she was a Jewish woman posing as a person of color.
In Jezebel for example, Esther Wang noted that Krug, “ or ‘Jess La Bombalera’ as she at times styled herself, is a white Jewish George Washington University history professor specializing in Africa and the African diaspora.” Typically, TMZ breathlessly reported that Krug had been “living a lie” and “isn’t Black at all, just a white Jewish woman.” Even sober news outlets like The Guardian and BBC News, rarely given to TMZ’s style of sensationalism, noted that Krug is a “white Jewish woman from suburban Kansas City.”
To be fair, Krug made the point herself in her confessional post in Medium. “I have eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City under various assumed identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim,” she wrote self-pityingly. It is difficult to fully understand why Krug felt it necessary to point to her Jewishness, except perhaps to highlight the distance between Jessica the suburban kid and “Jess La Bombalera.” But that’s what she wrote, and it makes perfect sense for the phrase “white Jewish child” to appear every time she is quoted.
The problem is that it does not only appear in the quote. “White Jewish” is the description commentators have invariably appended to her name; notably not “white suburban,” “white middle-class,” or “white Missourian.” And it is worth noting that Rachel Dolezal, whose case resembles Krug’s in so many ways, was never described as a “white Christian civil rights activist who passed as Black.” Not once, even though Christianity is a central element of her devout Pentecostal family’s identity. (Dolezal’s parents were white Christian missionaries in Africa.)
The repeated reference to Krug as a “white Jewish woman,” suggests that there is some essential connection between her offense and her Jewishness. And if it seems as if we have all been here before, it’s because we have. It has long been fashionable to associate Jews’ conduct with their Jewishness. Our culture, both high and low, is replete with villains whose villainy is both explained and enhanced by the fact that they are Jews. Alec Guinness’s turn as Fagin in the 1948 film version of Oliver Twist made it absolutely clear who this “receiver of stolen goods” and corruptor of young boys was by evoking Charles Dicken’s constant references to “the Jew” in every sniveling syllable. Do a search for “Jewish billionaire” and you will find endless references in the right-wing media to George Soros, whose presumed perfidy is a factor of his cultural background and not his wealth.
It is rarely as explicit as that, of course; polite people don’t often say “Jew” these days, even when that’s what they actually mean. Instead, they speak in code, as Elyse Wien noted in Tablet last fall: often enough, they just whisper words like “finance.” So the New York Daily News, the San Jose Mercury News, The Daily Beast, and almost every other news outlet in the country, described Jeffrey Epstein as a “financier.” The media described virtually no one else as a “financier.” I wonder what they might have meant?
I don’t have to wonder. The only good thing about neo-Nazis is that they say the quiet parts out loud, and The National Vanguard, a neo-Nazi magazine founded by convicted child pornographer Kevin Strom, has the answer: Epstein was a “Jewish pervert.” After all, they observed in an article about Harvey Weinstein, “all of the slimeballs are Jews.” Jews are slimeballs, they insisted, because they are Jews. Seeing that argument deployed, even implicitly, in the mainstream media, and the liberal and progressive press in their reporting on Krug is frankly nauseating.
It doesn’t help that many Jews are happy to go along with it. One of my closest Jewish friends said that Krug is a shande (a disgrace) and that we have an obligation to “call out one of our own.” There is a lot of truth to this; Krug is, indeed, a shande, and it behooves us, as a community that celebrates the historical role many of us have played in social justice movements and speaking truth to power, to acknowledge our imperfections and when we fall short of the commandment to pursue justice. Indeed, Jewish media, from The Forward to the Jerusalem Post have reported extensively on the story. Michael Leitman, in The Times of Israel, opined that “there is a Jessica Krug in every Jew,” and that she is only “an eccentric expression” of a sadly common impulse to cultural self-erasure.
The image of the shifty, dishonest Jew is such a prevalent and painful antisemitic trope in Euro-American culture that we will do anything to distance ourselves from it. From Shakespeare’s Shylock to Dickens’s Fagin, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to Jay Gatsby, the image is so persistent and mocking that, even if we find the stereotypes deeply insulting and unfair, we will invariably go to extreme lengths to dissociate ourselves from them. “No, I’m not a Jew like that,” we so often protest, that the “Jew like that” assumes a kind of corollary reality. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a wire service providing bulletins to Jewish news organizations around the world for more than a century, has shown such alacrity in exposing scandalous news about Jews before anyone else does that there’s even a joke about it: “The only difference between JTA and Stormfront is the headlines.”
Proving that you’re not “one of those Jews” is a test so often demanded of us by Gentile friends, associates, and colleagues – who invariably have their own ideas about “those Jews” – that we do it reflexively. “I’m Jewish – but I’m not a Zionist!” we might say, or “I was raised Jewish but…” or some other formula of repudiation and denial.
We do this for many reasons (none of which have to do with the myth of Jewish self-hatred), but the main reason is to pass. We don’t even call out our Gentile friends’ antisemitism because that would expose us as Jews, and especially one of those Jews. It’s almost like we’re afraid to offend them, and that they won’t like us anymore. The truth is that we probably will, and they probably won’t.
Fitting-in is important and sometimes the best way to do that is to just keep the Jew thing on the down low and never bring in up. If you can get away with it, we tell ourselves, it’s best to pass. That’s why I spent so much of my adolescence insisting “no, Friedman is a German name.” That was not, technically, untrue; my Ashkenazi, central-European forbears spoke both German and Yiddish, a dialect of High German written in the Hebrew alef-bet, and Ashkenaz was the name medieval Jews used for the German-speaking world. So, often enough, I passed as a Gentile. I can console myself that my passing was mot a cultural appropriation, as was Krug’s; it was more of a cultural and personal elision, seeking to arrogate privilege rather than oppression.
But it sickens me to remember it, and it sickened me then. It was a self-erasure as thorough as cutting and suicide. It was a cheap deception perpetrated on myself and on the Gentile world that I inhabited. I was always at risk of exposure and humiliation, as when a Quebecoise date in college discovered I was a son of Israel. “T’es Juif?!” she asked, incredulous. I confessed and she was horrified. I learned the French work for “kike.”
I was a dirty, lying kike. Like Jay Gatsby, whose tragic offense was that his polished, WASP persona hid the dark secret, smelling of schmaltz herring and cholent, that he was really James Gatz, I was just another Yid putting one over on the Gentile world by passing. I passed so I would not be “one of those Jews,” but passing only settled the fact that I really was.
It’s a strange kind of double-bind; we are a tiny minority of historically suspect outsiders in Euro-American culture, but erasing ourselves to fit in only justifies that suspicion. That too many of our Gentile neighbors continue to harbor that suspicion was repeatedly confirmed and reconfirmed over the last ten days, every time a commentator repeated that Krug is Jewish, as if that detail explained her fraud as much as the fact that she is white. And every time, they missed the point.
So many of us have passed – or tried to – to protect ourselves in an often hostile world, but that is not what Krug did, and to equate it with her fraud is to deny the reality of antisemitism. Krug donned an identity that was not her own for personal gain without ever having had to experience the particular kinds of oppression that people of color face. That was a white cultural appropriation not a Jewish one. She is Rachel Dolezal, not Jay Gatsby.