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Does the Holocaust Discount Jewish White Privilege?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The top three most popular articles right now on the online Jewish magazine Tablet all deal, in one way or another, with the question of Jews and privilege. The most interesting of the three, as well as the most viral, is Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s personal essay, “I Probably Won’t Share This Essay on Twitter: Some thoughts on being Jewish in contemporary polite society,” which opens with recent tweet of hers:

Brodesser-Akner describes a sort of Jewish underground where, behind closed doors, Jews tell one another how they actually feel about Israel, anti-Semitism, and so on. She begins by mentioning an off-the-record conversation she had with an unnamed “famous screenwriter/director” who confessed to her that he was “really, really pro-Israel,” and adds further off-the-record evidence: “My DM boxes on Twitter and Facebook are filled with people like me—liberals, culture reporters, economics reporters—baffled and sad at the way the cause of Jews avoiding another attempt at our genocide has gone from a liberal one to a capital-c Conservative one.” 

Articles that make assertions about secret, unquotable conversations pose certain methodological challenges. How can we be sure we’re not just getting the author’s own musings on Jewish identity? This sort of argument is especially frustrating to Jews who are not speaking out in the way she advocates, not out of fear of saying publicly what they’d only admit privately, but because they actually think the opposite. Some who insist that Jewishness is a form of privilege are Jewish themselves, an observation I could further back up with my own semi-private social-media evidence; but let’s turn instead to some of the responses to the piece from members of the American-Jewish press:

When it comes to Israeli policy especially, it seems not just inaccurate but dangerous to suggest that the American Jews who aren’t, say, rah-rah for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in public are thus in private. It would play into stereotypes of Jews having dual loyalties, or all holding the same (far-right) views when it comes to Israel. But the largely positive response the essay is getting on Twitter suggests this dynamic is, if nothing else, one that a number of Jews can relate to.

I could kind of relate, too. There are times, offline, when I’ve held back aspects of my Jewish identity out of a fear that something would happen if I were more open. But it’s impossible for me to untangle whether this is more about anti-Jewish things people have said to me on occasion, or about the far more substantial amount of anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior I know about from family history and my own studies. Although my beef with “Jewish privilege” as a concept is less about a sense that Jews lack privilege, than that anti-Semites use the term as a way to claim that Jews control the world.

As the tweet that introduces the piece suggests, Brodesser-Akner anchors her skepticism about “Jewish privilege” to the Holocaust: 

It is my Jewish privilege to have very few blood relatives because the rest of them were murdered in the Holocaust. It’s my privilege to have to keep my mouth shut at casually racist remarks, because ‘you know what I mean, like a JAP, everyone says it.’ It is my privilege to have thought twice about accompanying a celebrity to Paris as I profiled him, then let the clock run down on the offer so that I could only interview in Los Angeles. It is my Jewish privilege that the word lampshade makes me cringe, that the word camp—camp!—makes me cringe. It is my privilege to always wonder what I should have been doing differently, how I am a disgrace to the martyrs of the Holocaust because my outrage and sadness is confined to my Direct Messages. 

We’ve seen this argument before, but last time it didn’t get such an enthusiastic reception. A year ago, Princeton undergraduate Tal Fortgang notoriously argued that because he was descended from Holocaust survivors (and at least one public college graduate), he couldn’t possibly have white privilege in the twenty-first century United States. In my response to the controversy over that essay, I didn’t address the Jewish angle because—as I noted on my blog at the time—Fortgang hadn’t engaged with it. His argument wasn’t that he suffered from anti-Jewish discrimination; he was merely pointing out—in a right-leaning student publication, not a Jewish one—that his ancestors had struggled. Immediately after describing his grandparents’ tales of horror, he turned to more recent, and not particularly tragic, family history: 

Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. 

Nothing in the piece suggested he saw his own ancestral trajectory as different from that of someone like Ann Romney, whose grandfather was, she had us know, a Welsh coal miner. Fortgang's critics painstakingly explained that it’s possible to have had relatives who were discriminated against on the basis of what was then defined as race and to benefit from whiteness. But those critics were addressing an argument Fortgang didn’t make. He wasn’t claiming that Jews couldn’t benefit from white privilege, but that virtually no white American could. 

Brodesser-Akner’s essay is in a sense the one Fortgang’s essay kept threatening to be, but never was. The difference is that she also addresses present-day anti-Semitism. If it were simply that she, a Jew with a fairly specific personal relationship to the Holocaust, happens to find “lampshade” and “camp” triggering, one might make all the usual points about how times change, and definitions of whiteness evolve. One probably should still make those points. But it’s not just past anti-Semitism she’s talking about.

It’s entirely possible for a Jew whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust to benefit from certain aspects of (for lack of a better term) white privilege. That the Nazis wouldn’t have considered you white doesn’t mean that store clerks, taxi drivers, prospective employers, and others in the contemporary United States won’t accord you the unearned advantages white people, Jewish and otherwise, enjoy. That your ancestors were victims of genocide in a different place and at a different time doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the victimizing caste in your own society, any more than having had impoverished forbears means that you can’t have been born into money. (Not, to be clear, that all Jews are!)

But if you have relatives who were killed for their “race,” killed because powers-that-be didn’t consider them white; if your family and culture were deeply shaped by this fact, and if you’d still be considered Other if you lived on the continent where all of that happened, then I think balking at white-privilege accusations is understandable. There’s an aspect of white privilege that’s about the ability to be sort of carefree about your identity. For your heritage to be a quirk, but not a thing. Through some mix of real and imagined (but understandable, given the historic context) concerns, that version of white privilege isn’t one all Jews see as available to them.