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“Jewish Privilege” Doesn't Exist—But Jews Can Benefit From Whiteness

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Earlier this week, The New Republic published an article I wrote about Jews and “privilege.” It was originally given the headline “The Holocaust Doesn't Discount Jewish White Privilege,” and later changed to more accurately reflect the balance in my argument to “Does the Holocaust Discount Jewish White Privilege?” In one reading, that's a succinct and accurate summary of what I was getting at: Jews descended from Holocaust victims can still benefit from whiteness in contemporary America. But it could also be read as a claim that there exists something called “Jewish White Privilege;” that is, a privilege specific to Jews. 

That second interpretation is the opposite of what I think, indeed the opposite of what I’d argued in that piece and elsewhere. And I suspect that interpretation is what fueled a Twitterstorm about the piece, even prompting a certain former sitcom star to weigh in:

Other people—including some I usually agree with—had more legitimate replies. In a piece titled “‘White Privilege’ and the New Rhetoric of Anti-Semitism” in the Jewish Journal, Harold Brackman offered a thoughtful but ultimately misleading description of my article, quoting the part where I say that the descendants of Holocaust victims or survivors can still be white in America today (more on that in a moment), and skipping over the sentence that follows, where I wrote that “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.”

Ignoring this, Brackman concludes:

My problem is not with an application of "the white privilege" argument to Black-Jewish relations, provided it is applied intelligently, with nuance, and with a recognition that, from the Civil War until after World War II, anti-Semitism was more than a literary phenomenon: it was a real force limiting Jewish life chances in the U.S. My real problem is the recent phenomenon of the heavy-handed use of the "white privilege" bludgeon as another way to shame into silence American Jewish defenders of Israel on implicit grounds that they are guilty of "privilege" here at home—and should therefore shut up when Israelis are at risk of another genocide.

It’s true that anti-Semitism these days consists of attacks on “Jewish privilege” and often hides under the cover of anti-Zionism. What I objected to in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s essay on the Israel subject was her implication that Jews secretly supported Israel’s actions in Gaza. (Specifically this passage: “There was no room for our sadness and fear to be public during the Gaza war. There was no room for us to say, ‘Hey, hold on a second, these terrorists are firing rockets at civilians!’ There was no room for us to say that it was not a national character flaw to defend one’s own citizens from attack.”) Some perhaps did, just as others perhaps secretly condemned them. Views on the Jewish state differ plenty among Jews, and there are some on all sides claiming that they’re being silenced. What I objected to wasn’t her sympathy with Israel (I consider myself a Zionist, although it sounds as if Brodesser-Akner and I may have had different ideas regarding how the state ought to have responded in Gaza), but her suggestion is that the Jews who aren’t speaking out in defense of Israel are privately more pro-Israel than they let on. This isn’t necessarily the case and risks conflating Jewishness with a particular stance regarding Israel.

In Commentary, Seth Mandel also skips over my conclusion, where I explain why the legacy of the Holocaust does indeed lessen the amount of whiteness-advantage a Jew even today might experience. He instead explains that Jews were discriminated against in the U.S. until quite recently. He’s absolutely right about this (as countless anecdotes from my own family history can attest), and perhaps I should have added something more specific about postwar U.S. anti-Semitism. But whether that sort of anti-Semitism much impacts American Jews today is an open question. My conclusion in the earlier piece, and my thinking still, is that it probably has a bigger impact on our psyches than on our day-to-day experiences with discrimination. 

To be clear: My position is that “Jewish privilege” doesn't exist and is indeed an anti-Semitic concept. This is something I’ve written about plenty, including in that article (such as the part where I mentioned that “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”), but if clarity demands copious repetition, so be it: I am well aware that not all Jews are white, and that violent anti-Semitism (along with racial anti-Semitism) exists to this day. 

Where I split with Brackman, Mandel, and Brodesser-Akner is in the relevance of past oppression to the current situation in the U.S. Mandel writes, “Bovy is making what seems like an obvious point: If you’re one of the many Jews who don’t wear identifying garments, you can make white America think you’re one of them.” Brackman offers, along similar lines: 

Maybe my own experience is atypical (and I admit there are some prominent exceptions), but Holocaust survivors I know arrived in the U.S. with nothing or nearly nothing and without the benefits of extended family networks (their extended families were extinct) or good American connections. Their children, too, grew up in families of modest means before their parents made it, to a lesser or greater degree. Today may be another matter, but their family chronicles are of the "rags to riches" variety rather than that of members of a "victimizing caste."

His aside that “[t]oday may be another matter” ought to have been front and center. That today is different from yesterday was, in effect, my point. When I read news about Walter Scott’s killing, or witness everyday anti-black racism (white people avoiding seats next to black men on NJ Transit, or an Indian-American friend telling me that she and her husband were called the n-word in the town where we live), I'm reminded that I don't face such problems. Or, in the “privilege” sense—and I have my own qualms about the term—I’m aware of my ability to seamlessly join white (non-Jewish) social settings. Whatever’s going on in my own mind about Jewish history and historical anti-Semitism, to people who don’t live in my head, I read as white. These are not advantages I have as a Jew, but as a white person. The difference in life experience of (white) American Jews and “African Americans [who are] still enmired in the underclass” is not, as Brackman claims, “a sociological truism that doesn’t get us very far.” It’s not some sort of afterthought. It’s a really big deal.

Fighting anti-Semitism means fighting the concept of “Jewish privilege.” But the way to do that is not by casting American Jews today as a severely marginalized caste. Countering “Jewish privilege” with claims of Jewish under-privilege only invites—and rightly so—accusations of obliviousness and of not seeing the bigger picture of what’s happening in this country. I am not trying to silence anyone through privilege-accusation, or, as Mandel puts it, offering “bumper-sticker slogans to be deployed as trump cards.” I just think that, strategically and morally, such obliviousness damages our cause. What American Jews have to deal with these days, in terms of anti-Semitism, isn’t racial or religious marginalization, so much as a continued ideology fixated on the idea that Jews control everything. 

This piece has been updated.