Jewish privilege, rhetoric versus reality

We are seeing increasing targeting of Jewish people for supposedly having “white privilege”. Yet Jewish people are not “white” – they are indigenous to the ancient near east.

Mizrachi, Sephardic, and Maghrebi Jews are not even white by appearance. And although Ashkenazi Jews are lighter skinned, they were never seen as “white.” In fact, for many centuries Ashkenazi Jews were persecuted, ethnically cleansed, and exterminated by white Christian Europeans.

Consider today’s increasing stabbings and shootings of Jewish people across America, France, Germany,  and elsewhere, one sees how ludicrous this claim of privilege is.

Consider this photo of “Jewish privilege” from October 2019. We see heavily armed New York City Police Officers surrounding synagogues to prevent antisemites from slaughtering Jews.

This is the reality of Jewish privilege. Antisemitism has been climbing among far-right, white supremacist, Leftist, and Islamist groups, to a level not seen since just before the Holocaust.

Many of the following contributions came from a collection curated by Keith Ellis McCarty: he shared experiences from Jewish people.  Over time I have added others.

NYPD Jewish Privilege in NYC High Holy Days Police dog

Jewish privilege is:

… being told that all Jews are “white” and part of an “oppressor” class

… being physically assaulted and sworn at by Palestinian activists, suffering taunts of “you dirty Jews are murderers of innocent children”, when one visibly appears Jewish, and walks by a demonstration in London (or on many college campuses in the USA) [A.R.]

… going to visit the Jewish History museum in New York – and knowing you’re in the right place before you can check the signs – because there are police permanently stationed outside

…getting worried whenever something happens in Israel, and being worried about how this will change attitudes towards Jews.

…considering whether you should give your actual name – or your middle name or a Christian name

…having to explain your holidays and festivals in terms of Christian festivals.

… barely learning anything about the Jewish faith at school – except in relation to the Nazis, and even then no one ever spoke about Jewish resistance. In religious studies we learned about Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism. We even learned about Islam.

…living in England and being terrified when anti-Semites are reported to be on the rise in France ,because you know there’s a very real chance it will spread to England.

…not telling people that you’re Jewish, and, in my case, preparing the defence that my mother’s from a Christian family (she converted, but they don’t need to know), and using that to let people assume you’re not Jewish.

…being worried whenever you have to do anything with money. If you spend too much and don’t worry about it – then you’re the “rich Jew,” if you spend very little then you’re a “miserly Jew.”

…learning first-hand what anti-semitism is in 4th grade, because two of your classmates suddenly hate you.

…calling people out on making a Holocaust joke, being told that you’re over-reacting, and then being treated to hearing about how they’ve all watched Schindler’s List.

…having your own ex-boyfriend describe people who he disliked as “k*kes” and to wonder, even after he apologized, how he learned to use that word so flippantly

…having your head checked for horns by a college student who’s just never met a real live Jew.

… casually having a friend tell you that her partner has “never met a Jewess!” before a party that you’re going to.

….European Anti-Semitism, and the new Exodus to Israel.

…. hearing public school students tell you “The Nazis should have won the war. They were the good guys” [RK]

…hearing students tell you “Jewish doctors use vaccines to give you AIDS” [RK]

… having co-workers tell a student “you’re a Jew. You must have money.” [RK]

… going to a Holocaust commemoration event disrupted by people surrounding the group and chanting “The Holocaust Never Happened, Free Palestine.” [RK]

… being afraid to worship in synagogue, in America, Europe, or Israel. Because we don’t know when the next gunman is going to burst through the door. And having the police tell us that they can’t do much to protect us unless we hire armed guards for every event, and install metal detectors.


We’re Jews. We’re Not White. We Define Ourselves

Check out the article We’re Jews, We’re Not White, We Define Ourselves, by Karen Lehrman Bloch, 3/27/2019, The Jewish Journal, Los Angeles.

…. With my own olive skin, black curly hair and some indescribable feeling of otherness, I never really felt white; but I dutifully checked the “White” box like every other Jew, and never really thought about it.

Until, that is, I started to study our indigenous connection to the land of Israel and realized that there was now a plethora of genetic research showing that, lo and behold, just like our Sephardic and Mizrahic brothers and sisters, the DNA of Ashkenazim shows an irrefutable connection to the Levant — meaning we’re not white.

This conversation probably would have continued in the backwaters of the web if it weren’t for the current practitioners of identity politics. In the past six months, Jews have been told:

  • We are inexorably white and thus responsible for colonialism, the slave trade and mass incarceration.
  • We are white supremacists, and thus responsible for all racism and oppression.
  • We are white and thus incapable of being persecuted — past and present. 
  • The Holocaust was a white-on-white crime and thus of little import. We should stop “centering” ourselves!
  • As part of the white European ruling caste, we are the primary beneficiaries of white privilege.
  • We are responsible for tragedies like New Zealand, especially if we dare to call out anti-Semitism (which doesn’t really exist because we are white).

We are once again being defined by others, and not just by any others, but by others who have an agenda that includes, at the very least, the destruction of Israel. 

So let’s put aside assimilation for the moment. Let’s talk about our identities — who we are and how we define ourselves.

Many Jews pass as white. Their skin, hair and eyes are light. Ok. So what? Did passing as white stop the Holocaust? The Spanish Inquisition? The pogroms? The caps at universities? The rejection at restaurants and country clubs in the 1950s and ’60s? The Pittsburgh tragedy and the inordinate rise of anti-Semitic attacks in recent years?

Jews are the most targeted religious group in the U.S., eclipsing Muslims by a 3-to-1 margin. How does passing as white figure in?

… As Seth Frantzman of The Jerusalem Post writes: “There are many more Muslims who pass as white than there are Jews.” But do you ever hear the term white Muslim? Of course not. In fact, actor Rami Malek, born in Los Angeles to Egyptian parents, was recently described as a “person of color.”

Gal Gadot looks as exotic and Middle Eastern as Malek. But she’s never been called a person of color because that would undermine the entire (false) leftist narrative that Israel is a colonial operation.

The humor and ironies abound. Today, you can self-identify as a gender-averse rock but not as a Levantine Jew.

“If [progressive] anti-Semites think Jews are white, why do they keep drawing us with exaggerated Middle Eastern features?” Behan writes. “What we have is akin to model minority status combined with occasional white-passing. This often gives people — including ourselves — the illusion of whiteness. But it is really just that: an illusion.”


Check Your Usage of “Check Your Privilege”

The phrase has become a weapon rather than a reminder

By Julia Fisher, May 6, 2014

… All this has prompted something of an anti-anti-privilege backlash. You’ll find no better example of that than [here] – the essay, which caught The New York Times’s attention last week, was Fortgang’s response to comments that he should check his privilege because he is a white man. “I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence, to empathize with those whose underdog stories I can’t possibly comprehend,” Fortgang writes.

He then recounts his grandparents’ persecution during the Holocaust and their hard work in America. People who tell him to check his privilege, he says, are to be blamed for “diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.”

… Take, for example, the biographies of the students who run the popular tumblr “Check Your Privilege at the Door.” If the blog weren’t so self-serious, I’d assume this was parody:

“I am mixed race (white and Korean) and a lesbian. I also identify as fat and as an atheist. My privileges include white-passing privilege, cisgender privilege, class privilege and able-bodied privilege. I am an extrovert with low social skills.”

Nothing about her personality, interests, or achievements—only where she stood in the Internet equivalent of my high school’s sorting exercise. Mixed race: one step back. Fat: one step back. Cisgender: two steps forward.

The real problem with the phrase “check your privilege”—aside from the fact that it reduces people to the sum of their characteristics—is that it has become a handicapping device. White male? Then what could you possibly know about racism or sexism? Calling out privilege often isn’t intended to make someone consider his advantages in life so much as to dismiss his perspective. But I want to be able to discuss sexism or feminism with men, and I think their opinions are no less worthy or relevant for the fact that they are male. Similarly, anyone should be able to participate in a conversation about racism without being discounted or silenced on account of race.

That’s why I find Fortgang’s reaction not wholly out of place. Told to check your privilege, it’s pretty easy to feel shut out of conversation; an advantage in life might be turned into a disadvantage in debate. “Check your privilege” can come across as an expectation that a person be repentant for sins he has not committed.

In its most generous usage, of course, “check your privilege” isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty—only to make them recognize their privileged position. But it has the effect of invoking guilt, in large part because the phrase is so often used ungenerously, as a weapon rather than a gentle reminder…

Check Your Usage of “Check Your Privilege”


Merrimack Valley Havurah Coffeehouse Logo


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s