In March, anti-Semitic posters were spread across the University of Illinois at Chicago attacking “white privilege” and going further by charging that white privilege is primarily “Jewish privilege.” Mockingly the posters ask: “Is the 1 [percent] straight white men” or “is the 1 [percent] Jewish?” The poster’s harangue has a dark, stated presumption: “Ending white privilege … starts with ending Jewish privilege.”
Seeing the poster frightened me. It’s not as if for all of my life I haven’t observed persistent displays of anti-Semitism. Why am I now less sanguine? To grasp fully the incident at the University of Illinois, I believe we must first understand the more general phenomenon of “privilege” accusations that are sweeping our country.
Until recently, the word privilege spanned the connotative continuum from positive to mildly negative. On the positive side, the word was equated with “appreciation,” such as, “I am privileged to meet you.” On the neutral side, the word suggested an optimal state, such as, “She is privileged to be a home owner.” And on the mildly negative end, an association with influence was marked by the adjective form, such as, “The group’s attitude was a result of their privileged status.”
But today, in the midst of our class and cultural wars, privilege has become a strongly negative ascription associated with abuse, prejudice, corruption and exploitation. The notion ties to perceived grievances against: a) those who have a certain income level (exactly how much is hard to tell); b) undue influence resulting from where one lives, goes to school, or does for a living; c) inherited position (a certain sin of the parents descending on the children) invalidating the legitimacy of one’s place in life as unearned and without merit; d) being male; and e) being white. How the first three play out if one is not white and/or male is not clear.
Someone privileged, it seems, does not experience life’s challenges, does not suffer in any way, does not endure pain or sadness, does not struggle and perhaps does not even bleed when pricked. Despite examples of great generosity and even personal sacrifice by established well-to-do families, someone privileged is automatically scorned as exploitative and made rich on the backs of those not privileged.
In this way, privilege is another form of dehumanization, and we witnessed its virulence played out after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and later in other areas of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe after World War II. Insert “Kulak” for “privilege” and recall the state-sponsored animosity against not just aristocrats, but also shopkeepers, physicians, lawyers and farmers, anyone branded as an enemy of the worker’s paradise — an amorphous category of sub-human “haves” that deserved persecution, leading to the deaths of hundreds of millions.
Thus, as demonstrated by the illusionary connections made by the Illinois posters, the current preoccupation with privilege establishes fertile ground for the replanting and spreading of millennial-old anti-Semitic canards that foster hatred and distrust of Jews. After all, as long as there are a vast number of Americans, along with media outlets, institutions of higher learning and exploitive politicians buying into the notion of privilege, then if Jews are predominantly white and successful (as history teaches us, anti-Semites do not make gender differentiations), if they are thought to be the core inhabitants of an “indecent” 1 percent, then certainly suspicion must fall on them with attendant hatred.
Whether the posters were the work of the right or the left doesn’t make any difference, since elements of both have current and historical commonality in accusations of privilege as tied to anti-Semitic canards. Let’s remember that German and Italian fascism sprung from the same wellspring of right/left venom that led to the Holocaust. One does not need to worry about the intermittent reemergence of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Our society, through the notion of privilege, is a breeding ground for anti-Semitic distortions. Let’s recall that non-Jewish Germans in the 1930s believed that privileged Jews constituted 40 percent of the population, whereas Jews were actually less than 1 percent.
Such awareness of the past may help us deal with the current frightening situation. We must push back! To begin, individuals, clergy, Jewish institutions large and small — we must all question the larger notion of privilege through civil discourse on its probity and implications for class warfare in our country. Equality in a society is based much more on a sense of shared goals and emotions across race, religion, gender, sexual preference and financial status than on rigid economic leveling. Today’s Cuba and Venezuela attest to errors of waging civil war against privilege, as opposed to seeking, as the Torah tells us, justice across all segments of society by “not favoring the poor nor favoring the mighty, but in righteousness judging your neighbor.”
We must react quickly and firmly to all noxious claims of Jewish privilege. While the university strongly denounced the posters, the overall media coverage was muted as compared to other instances of hate on campuses. Some leading Jewish organizations issued statements of condemnation, but the overall “Jewish” response was meek, with little or no calls for rallying behind Illinois students. Oddly, Jewish groups consistently react more determinedly when the hate is directed at other groups.
We must strongly support our Jewish young, who are confused, frightened and defensive of their supposed Jewish privilege, as they try to fend off these stereotyped accusations against their Jewishness along with their religion’s tie to Zionism and Israel. While a B’nai Mitzvah child conventionally discusses engaging in mitzvah projects that support the needy, twice in the last few months I have heard the child establish his or her privilege as the framework for the good deeds.
Rather, we must instruct our children that it is the goodness of one’s heart and soul, whether one is poor or well off — along with the nurturing influence of the Jewish tradition — that propel one towards admirable actions. And to buttress our resolve, we must acknowledge to ourselves how privileged we have been as Jews for thousands of years to be part of a tradition that has promoted endless contributions to the larger culture surrounding us.
We must state how privileged we are to honor the memories of Jews such as Goodman and Schwerner, who gave their lives to build a more just society. And with pride, we must celebrate the privilege of continually accepting our Jewishness based on justice, tzedakah, and tikkun olam.
Saul Golubcow lives in Potomac, Md.