who are Ashkenazi Jews?
WHO ARE ASHKENAZI JEWS?
To understand who Ashkenazi (or the plural “Ashkenazim”) Jews are, we first must understand who Jews are. Jews are an ethnoreligious group and tribe Indigenous to Israel-Palestine, with a history dating back nearly 5000 years. Throughout history, Jews were violently expelled from our homeland by a serious of colonizing empires, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, and Arabs. In fact, the word “diaspora” — meaning the dispersion of a people from their original homeland — is a word first applied in reference to Jews. The word tribe in English also first referred to the ancestors of the Jewish People.
As a result of said displacements, the Jewish ethnic group splintered into various sub-ethnicities. Ashkenazim are the descendants of Jews who were displaced from Judea, likely during the Roman period (63 BCE - 390), settled in modern-day Italy, and eventually migrated north to Central Europe. Between the Middle Ages and the 16th century, pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) prompted the Ashkenazi Jewish community to flee toward Eastern Europe. By the 20th century, Poland had the largest Ashkenazi community in the world. 90 percent of this community was murdered in the Holocaust.
THE WORD “ASHKENAZI”
In the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), Ashkenaz is one of the descendants of Noah. In rabbinic literature, the Kingdom of Ashkenaz was first used to refer to an area in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. By the 11th century, however, the Kingdom of Ashkenaz came to be associated with what is now Western Germany. The reason for the association is unknown.
In the Middle Ages, the Jews residing in Germany and France came to be known as “Ashkenazim.”
Today, Ashkenazi Jews form about 80 percent of the world Jewish population.
Sometimes, the word “Ashkenazi” is used interchangeably with “European Jews.” However, the latter term is a misnomer. Firstly, despite their displacement in Europe, Ashkenazim were not given European citizenship until after the French Revolution. Culturally, Ashkenazi Jews are Middle Eastern (more on that later). Ashkenazi Jews are not ethnic Europeans. Historically, those in Europe very much recognized that Jews were foreign to the continent.
DISPLACEMENT AND MIGRATION
Ashkenazim did not “immigrate to Europe,” therefore theoretically “forfeiting their rights” to their ancestral homeland. Like other Indigenous Peoples around the globe, Ashkenazim were brutally expelled from their land (does this mean that Ashkenazim — or Jews, more broadly — have exclusive rights to Israel-Palestine? No. But to call Ashkenazim European invaders is not only ahistorical, but completely anti-Indigenous).
The first written records of Jews in Europe (Greece, specifically) date around 2300 years ago, referring to the “son of Moschion the Jew,” who was likely a slave. However, it wasn’t until the aftermath of the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 CE that the Romans massacred over half a million Jews (a million if the subsequent famine is taken into account) in an act of genocide and enslaved hundreds of thousands, dispersing them to nearly every corner of the Roman Empire. In other words: Jews were brought to Europe as slaves. Eventually, they were able to buy their freedom.
By the Dark Ages, Jews lived as far north as Cologne, Germany. Between the Middle Ages and the 16th century, severe persecution, massacres, expulsions (read: ethnic cleansing), and other violent discrimination prompted Ashkenazi Jews to flee toward Eastern Europe, with the largest community forming in Poland.
Quick note: some Jews arrived to Europe as merchants and traders. However, the most significant early Jewish "migrations" to the Roman Empire were in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
Ashkenazi Jewish genetics are among the most studied in the world. Because Ashkenazim historically practiced endogamy (marrying within the group) and because of the severe isolation of Ashkenazi Jews from the rest of the European population, Ashkenazi DNA is shockingly homogenous, even after 2000 years of living in the diaspora.
The study of Ashkenazi DNA is important because: (1) it allows us to trace their origins and historical migration, and (2) due to this genetic homogeneity, various diseases, many of them fatal, such as Tay-Sachs, are prevalent in the community. The study of genetics is not “eugenics” nor is it “race science.” I have a post that addresses the topic in depth (FINE, LET’S TALK JEWISH DNA).
Studies overwhelmingly show that Ashkenazi paternal lineages can be conclusively traced back to the region of Israel-Palestine. Meanwhile, most studies indicate that maternal lineages can be traced back to Mediterranean European communities, suggesting that males coming from Israel-Palestine married local converts to Judaism.
Ashkenazim are most closely related to other Jews — such as Sephardi Jews — and other non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations (such as Syrians, Druze, Lebanese, and Palestinians) than to their host populations. For example, an Ashkenazi Jewish family that lived in Poland for hundreds of years is more closely related to a Palestinian than to ethnic Poles.
Like Ashkenazi genetics, Ashkenazi culture remained remarkably tethered to Israel-Palestine despite 2000 years of displacement. Like other Jews, Ashkenazim follow the Hebrew calendar, which celebrates the agricultural cycle of Israel. Like other Jews, Ashkenazim observe holidays celebrating the harvest of the Land of Israel. Like other Jews, Ashkenazim pray facing Jerusalem. Like other Jews, Ashkenazim wear Tefillin and Talitot, sacred Indigenous garments originating in the Land of Israel over 3000 years ago. Even garments that are exclusively associated with Ashkenazi Jews, such as the shtreimel (fur hat) evolved from the Sudra, an ancient Israelite scarf used to cover the head (see my post THE SUDRA). Yiddish, the Ashkenazi language, which is a mixture of Middle High German and Hebrew, the ancestral Jewish language, is written using the Hebrew alphabet. The list goes on and on.
That said, in some ways, Ashkenazi culture does reflect the region of their displacement. For example, Ashkenazi food is not “Middle Eastern” food. Of course Ashkenazim didn’t eat hummus; chickpeas were not cultivated in Eastern Europe. Ashkenazim also had to adapt their dress to the local climate. Ashkenazi music, such as klezmer, borrows from Slavic, German, and Ottoman — as well as Middle Eastern, specifically Jewish — folk dances.
Another thing to remember is that Ashkenazi culture itself is not homogenous. By the eve of World War II, the culture of the highly urban Jewish community in Germany, for example, was in many ways drastically different from the culture of Litvak (Lithuanian) Jews.
Unfortunately, much of the rich Ashkenazi culture — such as literature, theater, political movements ranging from Zionism to Bundism, and perhaps most importantly, language — was lost during the Holocaust.
Ashkenormativity is a word used to describe the assumption that Jewish life and culture is limited to the experience of Ashkenazi Jews. The word was first used in 2016 by sociologist Analucía Lopezrevoredo and political scientist David Schraub.
Ashkenormativity does NOT mean, for example, that Ashkenazi Jews are “European colonizers” or “white supremacists.” It simply describes that, culturally, Ashkenazi Jewish customs, history, and experiences are perceived to be the only Jewish customs, history, and experiences, to the exclusion of Mizrahi, Sephardi, and other Jews. For instance, we rarely hear about the persecution of North African Jews during the Holocaust, and it wasn’t until recently that Israel formally recognized North African Jewish Holocaust survivors.
Ashkenormativity also assumes that Ashkenazi Jewish customs, history, and experiences are a monolith, which they are not. A critique of the term Ashkenormativity is that much of Ashkenazi culture, particularly in Israel, was rejected in favor of a homogenous, Mizrahi-influenced Israeli culture.
That said, historically, non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel faced systemic discrimination, despite forming the majority of the Israeli population. Today, the Israeli population is much more integrated.
ARE ASHKENAZIM WHITE?
Ashkenazi Jews are an ethnic group, not a race. An ethnic group is “a community or population made up of people who share a common cultural background and descent.”
A race, on the other hand, is “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry.”
Ultimately, both race and ethnicity are social constructs. Race, however, is based on phenotype, while ethnicity is based on ancestry and culture. And while it’s true that antisemitism is often racialized (e.g. stereotypes about Jewish noses), there are Jews of all races. Many Ashkenazim, for example, are mixed race (say, if someone has one Ashkenazi and one Black parent).
Jews — including Ashkenazi Jews — who present as “white” can be considered “conditionally white.” While you might live your day to day as a white person and as such experience certain privileges, it’s important to remember that antisemitism is a building block of white supremacy. White supremacists have never considered Jews “white,” but if you “look white,” most people will perceive you as white, and that’s important to acknowledge. It’s a complicated discussion, and, as always, it’s important to recognize the privileges that you do have.