The Torah portion Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), which was read the week this column was written, outlines the terms of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and why the Jews are “chosen to be a people belonging exclusively to God, more than all the other peoples that are upon the earth.”
Think of it as the original statement of #JewishPrivilege.
That hashtag appeared on Twitter in early July, prompting postings of anti-Jewish sentiment and conspiracy theories: Jews control the media, banks, politicians, and are behind the plot to (fill in the blank). For a time, #JewishPrivilege was “trending,” which meant it was a hot topic.
Four years ago, alt-right adherents placed triple parentheses (known as an “echo”) around names on Twitter, primarily to harass journalists who are Jewish. The tables were turned by journalists and friends who added the symbol to their Twitter display names — (((daveschechter))) for @daveschechter.
This time around, the hashtag was co-opted by Jews to tell personal stories of discrimination and abuse, and to highlight the historic trials and tribulations of the Jewish people.
The turnabout was initiated by Israeli writer Hen Mazzig, who posted: “#JewishPrivilege is when my grandparents were violently forced out of Iraq and Tunisia for being Jewish with only the clothes to their back. Along with 850,000 other MENA [Middle East and North Africa] Jews they arrived to Israel with nothing, only spoke Arabic, and lived in a tent/tin shack for years. I want all my Jewish followers to share the ‘Jewish Privilege’ them and their families experienced.”
Many did, in what historian and author Gil Troy called “Jew-jitsu, turning the negative into the positive.”
Much of the current #JewishPrivilege debate centers on racial identity. Along those lines, I remain astonished that a column I wrote in December 2016 titled “Are Jews White? It’s complicated,” was the most viewed item on the Atlanta Jewish Times website in July. A Google search for “Are Jews White?” found that column listed on the first page of 25,600 results.
Of course, not all American Jews are white; whether the 12 to 15 percent estimated in a study published in May 2019 by researchers from Stanford University and the University of San Francisco, or the 6 percent cited in a 2013 Pew Research Center study.
One commentary on #JewishPrivilege asserted that “white Ashkenazi Jews have privilege because they are white,” while Jews “of color” (a term that engenders its own debate) report having their religious identity and even their presence in synagogues questioned because of the color of their skin.
So, is “Jewish privilege” a thing?
“The term ‘privilege’ in our current U.S. social context has many meanings,” said Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics at Emory University. “Jews do have privilege by being, by and large, white in a society that clearly shows white privilege. But is there a uniquely ‘Jewish privilege’ independent of white privilege? Only to the extent that any relatively wealthy, relatively close-knit community can be called privileged.”
Others may meet that standard but “The difference is that those communities do not have the history of centuries of persecution and prejudice against them that the Jews do. So, in that sense, it seems ironic and misguided to talk of Jewish privilege,” Wolpe said.
Educator and entrepreneur Tarece Johnson is believed to be both the second African American and the second Jew elected to the Gwinnett County school board.
“No. There is White privilege and some Jews who happen to be White or White-passing benefit from living in a racist and anti-Black society,” Johnson said in an email. “AntiSemitism is not a benefit and it is certainly not a privilege to experience hate because of your religion, ancestry, and/or culture. So, in my opinion, being Jewish is not a ‘privilege,’ in the racialized social meaning of the word, but being White may certainly afford opportunities that non-White people just are not privileged to experience.”
The latter includes “not worrying about your child’s lessons in school completely erasing and making invisible their history, experiences, and representation” and being “privileged to not experience Police brutality and injustices, not because they are Jewish, but because they are White,” she said.
Lois Frank, long active in the Jewish and wider Atlanta community, took a different tack. “It is not a public or social privilege. It is a personal gift, if one can accept it. By accident of birth, it offers a legacy of values, culture, community, tradition, discipline, laws and customs that are brilliant in their understanding of human nature. What we choose to accept and yoke ourselves with is one issue. What prejudice others bring to their perceptions of us is another,” Frank said.
So, are Jews privileged? It’s complicated.