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#JewishPrivilege is Reductive, Divisive and Dangerous

#JewishPrivilege is Reductive, Divisive and Dangerous

On the 12th of July, my friend messaged me saying, “Whatever you do, don’t check Twitter.” Confused, I texted back, asking, “Why shouldn’t I?”

“There’s this hashtag trending, #JewishPrivilege,” she replied. “I spent a little while scrolling through, and it was just absolutely vile. I’ve just been texting other Jewish folks to give them a heads up. Obviously, it’s your choice, but no one should have to see that. I wish I hadn’t.” 

Diving Into Twitter

I took her advice in staying far away from Twitter that day. I didn’t need to look at the content associated with #JewishPrivilege to know exactly what they were saying. I did, however, look into how many people needed to tweet for it to constitute the top 10 trending topics on the platform. I can’t pretend to fully understand the analytics of the different online blogs I skimmed, but I knew enough to surmise the answer to my question was ‘a lot’.

Long Needed Education

There is an urgent need for non-Jewish (and some Jewish) folks to be better educated on anti-Semitism. In the four years since Trump took office, we have observed events such as the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, the defacing of graves in Jewish cemetery in Massachusetts, and the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In a time where anti-Semitism and prejudice seem to be on the rise, to allow for the continuation of reductive notions such as #JewishPrivilege to continue is especially dangerous. What is needed is a better understanding of how all oppressions mutually reinforce each other, and what specific role anti-Semitism plays in this dynamic. Dismissing anti-Semitism as unimportant or nonexistent and continuing to let it fester makes all oppressed groups vulnerable.   

Understanding Anti-Semitism: An Offering to Our Movement, a resource written and compiled by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), notes that in part, confusion and dismissal of anti-Semitism occurs because we are taught to conceive oppression in binary terms or within a fixed hierarchy. With anti-Black racism, for example, White people exist at the top of the hierarchy, and Black people exist at the bottom. [12] 

It is important to note that anti-Semitism can, and does, exist in tandem with other binary oppressions. The Jewish community is racially diverse, between 11% and 20% of all Jews in America are People of Color. The false perception that all Jews are White is reductive and invalidating to Jews of Color who experience racism and White Supremacy as well as anti-Semitism. [8]

Anti-Semitism is complex and often misunderstood because it doesn’t fit this binary framework. It is often described as cyclical, where times of relative prosperity are followed by periods of intense persecution. This ‘cycle’ relies upon the stereotype that Jews are very rich and powerful, and are the ones who are secretly in control of the country’s, or even the world’s economy. In order for these stereotypes to hold weight, Jews had to have some amount of power, or at least be in proximity to it. So, instead of keeping Jews at the bottom of the hierarchy, anti-Semitism “is most intense when Jews are afforded a measure of success.” [12]

While anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution began thousands of years ago, the Holocaust is perhaps the most well-known, modern example of the cyclical nature of anti-Semitism. Before Hitler came to power, Jewish people had enjoyed relative prosperity and comfort during the 1890s in Germany. The country fell into a depression due to the economic hardships and reparations of World War I. This coincided with a large swell of Jewish migration to Germany. By the time the Great Depression hit in 1929, Germans were angry and needed a scapegoat. Adolf Hitler rose to power by directing that blame at the Jews. [16]

The anti-Semitic sentiments faced by the Jewish community in Europe during the 1930s are alive in America today. I don’t need to look through a Twitter hashtag to know this, because I’ve personally experienced it. I almost never reveal the fact that I am Jewish to people I’ve just met because I never know how people will react. I didn’t experience overt anti-Semitism growing up with living in New York City, at least for the first 20 years of my life. Since 2016, however, it has become a prominent fixture. I’ve been called a “filthy f-ing Jew” on the street and seen the windows in my synagogue replaced with bulletproof glass. High Holidays and large gatherings now include a strictly monitored guest list with security guards checking bags and identification at the door. 

It’s clear that anti-Semitism operates differently from the way in which we are used to defining oppression. Aside from the need for Jews and non-Jews alike to better understand the nature of anti-Semitism, it is crucial to understand the interconnected nature of all oppressions. Jewish folks’ proximity to power, whether real or perceived, allows us to provide the perfect scapegoat — a group of people to place the blame for all of society’s ills. This is particularly dangerous because “the scapegoating of one people lays the ground for clear, the scapegoating of one group lays the groundwork for the targeting of the next and the next.” The dismissal of anti-Semitism as not real or unimportant compared to other oppressions because of supposed ‘#JewishPrivilege’ “ultimately leaves every marginalized group vulnerable.” [17] 

The Holocaust began with Hitler publicly stoking the hatred of the Jewish people, but it also led to targeting a wider group of “outsiders” such as queer people, people with disabilities and Romanis. Aside from the genocide of 6 million Jewish people, ⅔ of the entire Jewish population, 1.8 million Polish people, 250,000-270,000 people with disabilities, 90-220,000 Romani, and 5000-15,000 queer people were also killed. [16]  

It is no accident that the public perception of Jewish “privilege” and “power” is at its peak at a time when the national conversation regarding police brutality against Black people and detaining of immigrants in detention camps is reaching fever pitch. In order to fight against the rising swell of bigotry in America, we have to realize these narratives for what they are — a misdirection and passing of blame that obscures those responsible and allows them to continue to act with impunity. With the country on the brink of an election, it is absolutely crucial that we direct our energy towards Donald Trump and others truly liable for the disgusting rise of racism, xenophobia, White Nationalism, and autocracy in this country. At this point, the stakes are too high to be fooled by such a distraction. 

All page numbers refer to Understanding Anti-Semitism: An Offering to Our Movement.