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January 21, 2015 11:21 am

Stop Telling Jews to ‘Check Their Privilege’

avatar by Seth Frantzman


Ethiopian children waiting to make aliyah to Israel. Photo: Judith Friedman Rosen.

“On Martin Luther King Day, Jews must acknowledge their privilege,” wrote Maital Friedman on January 14 at the JTA.

Jews have become the latest group targeted in the “check your privilege” crusade aimed at encouraging “white” people to admit that their existence is a form of racialized privilege over African-Americans. “We have to be deeply aware of racial inequality and of the daily privileges we enjoy that others cannot,” Friedman writes. While understandably there is debate about racism and privilege in the U.S., that an author would ignorantly lump all Jewish people together is offensive and reveals ingrained stereotypes about “white Jews” that must be confronted.

Let’s start with the obvious. Why are black Jewish people harangued to “have a conversation about their privilege”? When people bash Jews for their “white privilege,” they make a racist assumption that all Jews are white. However, there are hundreds of thousands of black Jews and Jews of color in the U.S. and Israel.

When Martin Luther King was fighting for civil rights in the 1960s, Jews in Ethiopia were on the brink of starvation and suffering discrimination. In the 1980s, almost one third of the Ethiopian Jews who sought to get to Israel died along the way in refugee camps in Sudan. Let’s talk about their “privilege.”

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What about the many mixed black-Jewish families in the U.S. – some consisting of African-Americans who converted to Judaism or who married Jews. Why are they attacked and told to examine their “privilege”? They suffer racism alongside black people but are made to feel that being Jewish makes them “privileged”? Benjy Cannon, National Student Board President of J Street U, in a 2014 article in Haaretz claimed “Jews are among the most privileged groups in the United States.” Have the Cannons and Friedmans simply never met Jews of color?

Let’s acknowledge another type of “privilege” associated with being Jewish in the 20th century: the Holocaust. When a Jewish person sits down with an African-American to discuss race, why is it that the Auschwitz victim has to acknowledge “white privilege” but the African-American shouldn’t acknowledge his very own privilege of having not been targeted for extermination.

It’s also convenient to ignore the fact that from 1950 through today, Jews in Islamic countries have suffered untold horrors, including the total ethnic-cleansing of their people in dozens of countries. When we talk about privilege, let’s recall the Yemenite Jews, who died in the thousands on the way to Israel, who left everything behind. The Iraqi Jewish community, with a proud history of 2,000 years, was destroyed in a short decade; scattered to the winds, much of its treasures and property confiscated. There are many Iraqi Jews in the U.S. Let’s talk about privilege with them. Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria; Jews had to flee all these countries, and many Iraqi, Syrian, and Persian Jews immigrated to the U.S. to build new lives. Not only did they suffer anti-Semitism, but they had to start their lives over from nothing; not exactly the embodiment of “white privilege.”

There are networks of privilege and elites. Some of those are among Jews, just as some of them are also among African-Americans; but to say that all Jews “must” acknowledge privilege requires we first begin acknowledging other types of privilege as well, and show respect and concern for the Jewish suffering that has taken place even in recent memory. Lumping all Jews together as “the most privileged” is a racist insult to Jewish diversity and throws salt on the memory of what Jewish people went through in the 20th century.

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