The Dilemma of Jewish Privilege
First published in The New Republic
I am visibly Jewish. I wear a yarmulke; I have a beard. My tzitzit—ritual fringes—occasionally sneak out from under my shirt. I speak Hebrew-inflected English with my wife and children, all of whom have non-English names. I am an easy mark for anti-Semites. As a descendant of those who fled the Russian Pale of Settlement in the 1890s, I am also visibly Caucasian. With a cap, I look like many bearded white hipster dads in the San Francisco Bay area.
All of this is to say that I appear both white and “other” at the same time. I carry with me privilege constructed by the peculiarities of American history, the great possibilities provided for my people in 20th-century America, while also carrying the millennium-old consciousness of marginalization.
I could easily hide my Jewishness, but choose not to, as a result visibly presenting my Jewishness while also enjoying the benefits of white privilege.
When someone I do not know points out my identity, even simply by calling out, “Shalom,” I immediately tighten up. Will this be another encounter in which I am publicly harassed or screamed at? Last year, a car slowed down and a passenger yelled, “Fuck you, Jew!” Even when the person simply wants to extend an open hand, public attention toward my minority identity brings risk and baggage.
It’s this baggage that often complicates American Jews’ attempts to reflect on their relative privilege. In the current environment, many Ashkenazi Jews—i.e. those tracing their heritage through the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe—struggle to acknowledge their whiteness and role in broader systems of racism because anti-Semitism from the Left and Right distracts them, clouding their judgment, creating little space for them to exercise the vulnerability necessary for reflection.
Two recent examples illuminate the ways Jews are being squeezed by anti-Semitism from both sides of the political spectrum, complicating efforts at introspection. When Emily Bazelon wrote in The New York Times Magazine in June about the ways whites are finally noticing their whiteness and associated privilege, she was inundated with responses from right-wing Twitter trolls insisting that she was not white, but Jewish. The very same day, leftist activist Shaun King tweeted an article from the Israeli daily, Haaretz, about a Jewish group in Israel protesting an Arab family that had moved into a Jewish neighborhood. Rather than pointing out Jewish racism, he called the protesters “white supremacists” who only wanted “white Jews” in their neighborhood, ignoring the racial diversity within the accompanying picture as well as the Mizrahi (North African and the Middle Eastern Jewish) names of the Jewish organizers. In both of these cases, critics defined Jews for their own purposes.
It is possible to recognize the persecution and violence, in modern memory, of Jews while recognizing the racism that exists within Jewish communities.
Right-wing anti-Semites see Jews only as insidious ethnic people whose Ashkenazi members try to assimilate, muddling the purity of the white race. Paradoxically, some of the more moderate anti-Semites in this group have found friends on the anti-assimilationist and Zionist Jewish Right, who also believe Jews should be separate—Steve Bannon spoke at last year’s Zionists of America gala and, more recently, Richard Spencer tweeted his full support of Israel’s Jewish nation law. For some right-wing Americans, the existence of Israel is not just okay, but good, both because this is where the Jews “belong”—an anti-Semitic version of certain Zionist tropes—and also because Israel’s strident nationalism represents a type of ethnic purity white nationalists would like to see in Europe and the United States. Others are just straight-up Jew-haters who would be happy for Jews to go to the gas chambers.
Besides the obvious problem this brand of anti-Semitism presents for Jews, it also inspires a backlash of Jewish victimhood that undermines any attempt to reckon in a thoughtful and rigorous way with simultaneous Jewish privilege: Jews can’t be racist, the thinking goes, because they aren’t allowed to be white. Any time an Ashkenazi Jew begins to sort through their role in American white supremacy, the flurry of anti-Semitic noise in response causes many Jews to revert to victim mentality—a mentality which makes it very hard to think clearly about the full range of social justice. As the late Rabbi David Hartman wrote in his seminal 1982 essay, “ Auschwitz or Sinai ,” the person who sees the Holocaust in every anti-Semitic barb begins to think that “We need not take the moral criticism of the world seriously, because the uniqueness of our suffering places us above the moral judgment of an immoral world.”
Meanwhile, on the Left, Jews are seen as a religious minority within the superstructure of European Christian colonialism that has dominated the globe since Columbus. Yes, Jews have faced oppression, this narrative acknowledges, but they are ultimately a European byproduct: They are white people with a little flair—a belief system draped over the same racial material. When King tweeted about the “White Jews” who protested against the sale of a home in Afula (inside the Green line) to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, he was following in this tradition, and in so doing erasing Jewish peoplehood. This was not Jewish racism against Arabs, in his view: It was white colonialist racism.
Jewish history, in fact, profoundly complicates the idea that all conflicts can be boiled down to modern Western European “white” Christian imperialism. But this trend on the left is increasingly strong. The term supersessionism has traditionally referred to the primacy of the New Testament for Christians, its teachings taking precedence over the Old Covenant between God and the Jews featured in the Old Testament. Recently, Bryan Cheyette, an English professor specializing in textual representations of Jewish identity, suggested that the insistence on a specifically postcolonial lens for evaluating oppression is a new kind of supersessionism: Kicked off by venerable postcolonial studies founder Edward Said, who believed Palestinians were the new Jews, it is now carried forward by progressives such as King, or Women’s March foundersTamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, the latter of whom recently said Jews who feel unwelcome among today’s progressives “are going to have to come to terms with being uncomfortable,” because the Palestinian cause is too important—akin to South African apartheid. Implicitly, the story of the Palestinians and the story of African Americans are part of the same story of injustice, and the injustice against them has superseded Europe’s Holocaust. Cheyette instead suggested we move away from seeing these histories as exceptional: supersessionism “makes it impossible to find connections in the past and our most urgent present between different forms of dehumanization—Orientalism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia—and between shared forms of suffering (not least as refugees) alongside an often-violent agency.”
The 20th century demonstrated the tremendous capacity humans have to disregard and extinguish others’ lives, and the 21st century has yet to break that pattern. It is possible to recognize the persecution and violence, in modern memory, of Jews while recognizing the racism that exists within Jewish communities. It is also possible to recognize the deep and violent history of marginalization, oppression, and enslavement faced by African Americans and other people of color in America; and to see that both Israelis and Palestinians have been traumatized by wars, military occupation, and terrorist campaigns. The existence of each of these traumas does not delegitimize the others. In her intellectual history of intersectionality, gender studies professor Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro argued that in making an intersectional shift, one begins to take subaltern communities as seriously as the mainstream. But doing so also means recognizing that “one is neither purely an oppressor nor purely oppressed”—a lesson both Jews and their critics have yet to internalize.
Ultimately, we must correctly identify racism in order to tackle it—something an overreliance on the postcolonial lens does not allow. (Instead of taking King’s demand for justice seriously and hearing his prophetic call, American Jews can callously disregard his arguments: Why listen to someone who does not see you?) But tackling racism also requires that the group involved recognize their position of relative power—nearly impossible in the face of continued and widespread anti-Semitism.
On both sides of the aisle, notions of Jewishness get constructed for political gain—a symptom of a broader political environment in which blame and trauma are too often simplified into crude stereotypes. Jews can certainly be racist, yet some of us want to investigate our role in the structures of injustice that define our world. The question is whether non-Jews on the left and right will help or hinder that effort.