North American society, hobbled by the COVID pandemic and enflamed by police violence and the belated recognition of other forms of systemic racism, has now veered determinedly into a discussion of privilege.
Discussion of white privilege is an effort to address systemic racism not only from the perspective of the disadvantages experienced by people of colour but, conversely, via the advantages experienced by the white majority in places like North America. It is, of course, a necessary and worthy undertaking. When considering anti-racism along with antisemitism, however, this approach can cloud more than it elucidates.
While some Jews, including most in North America, are considered white in today’s culture and society, the effort to dismiss the particularity of the Jewish experience is an erasure that can feel particularly galling when it emanates from people who pride themselves on respecting the cultural and historical experiences of different peoples.
It may be folly to seek rational explanations for unreasonable biases, but the presence of antisemitism in movements ostensibly advancing human equality can perhaps be explained by the fact that, among the many and morphing characteristics of antisemitism is a depiction of Jews as powerfully monolithic, grasping and collectively economically advantaged.
The application of generalized stereotypes onto all members of any group is the definition of prejudice. When it comes to stereotypes about Jews, it can naturally lead to what has been called “punching up.”
Attacking people perceived as weaker (or less advantaged) than oneself is “punching down” and is, obviously, despicable. Yet, if one subscribes to the idea of powerful, controlling Jews, the inevitable “punching up” can be perverted into an heroic act of advancing equality. Rather than raising up those who are, or are perceived to be, disadvantaged, this aberrant approach strives to drag down those perceived to be advantaged. That those “advantaged” or “privileged” people happen to belong to that oldest of scapegoated groups can hardly be a coincidence.
In recent years, but particularly in recent days, we have seen prominent Black figures in the world of entertainment and professional sports get themselves into hot water over comments that are explicitly antisemitic or perceived as such. Some, like football star DeShawn Jackson, have apologized; others have dug in their heels. In Jackson’s case, he recanted after sharing on social media assertions that Hitler was not racist and other posts that claimed a Jewish plan to “extort America” and achieve “world domination.”
Similarly, a social media hashtag, #JewishPrivilege, was perpetuated by white supremacists and others – but was then co-opted by Jews themselves. Israeli activist Hen Mazzig, who is said to have started the counter-trend, wrote: “#JewishPrivilege is when my grandparents were violently forced out of Iraq and Tunisia for being Jewish with only the clothes on their back. Along with 850,000 other MENA Jews they arrived to Israel with nothing, only spoke Arabic, and lived in a tent/tin shack for years.” So many Jews tweeted their experiences of antisemitism that the hashtag trended again, but with new meaning.
Fighting antisemitism and fighting racism against Black, Indigenous and other peoples of colour can sometimes put a person at a confusing and contradictory crossroad. However, the solution is not to walk away. We don’t have that privilege. It is our moral responsibility and it is in our self-interest to redouble our efforts against racism and antisemitism and to educate anyone and everyone who does not see the interconnectedness of these two causes and their complexities – including ourselves.