The privilege and discontents of Jewishness

Last semester, in the early morning of the third day of Hanukkah, a menorah was stolen from Sharples dining hall. The burglar—whom I will henceforth refer to as the Grinch, as in, “You’re a schmuck, Mr. Grinch”—also stole several empty gift boxes from beneath the Sharples Christmas tree. After a brief but intense uproar, our anonymous Grinch returned the purloined items to the dining hall the next day, along with thirty dollars, cash. The campus could once again breathe easy—the Grinch’s heart had grown eight sizes that day! (He was subsequently rushed to the hospital to be treated for cardiomegaly; he made a full recovery, kinahora.)

This incident, which I have described perhaps too whimsically here, would not be at all compelling but for the controversy it stirred. As it is wont to, Swarthmore social media served as the primary medium for the whole rigmarole: first, several Jewish students expressed their anger at the theft via Facebook statuses; then, that bastion of campus reaction and bad Haverford jokes, the anonymous platform Yik Yak, replied with several threads dismissing the Jewish students’ concerns as shrill and hyperbolic. In several of those threads, blatantly anti-Semitic comments were made, one comparing being a Jew to the shame of having a Confederate officer as an ancestor, another claiming that the Rothschild banking family had invented Jew-hatred in order to better oppress people of color. In response, a large number of Jewish students (myself included) began drafting an op-ed to express their frustration at the situation (the op-ed was never finished; to be clear, this article is not an attempt to write that op-ed). Finally, the administration and the Student Government Organization responded; the latter entity sent out an email addressing both the menorah theft and a separate incident in which the pictures of students of color on a French department poster  had been defaced. The email ended, underlined, with the following promise: “We will not tolerate acts of violence against students from underrepresented backgrounds.”

This incident is one of many over the years that have made me less than proud to be a Swarthmore student. But what stuck with me was not indignation or anger – I don’t have it in me to stay angry at the idiot who stole the Menorah, who was probably animated more by asinine hooliganism than actual malice, and I was desensitized to anonymous Internet-based anti-Semitism a long time ago – but rather how much we lacked the language to properly articulate that indignation and anger.

Before I came to Swarthmore, I had what I took to be a proper handle on the part of my identity that is Jewish (or at least Ashkenazi; I speak here from a white Ashkenazi perspective, and don’t pretend to represent the experiences of other Jews). I did not speak Hebrew, I did not have a Jewish-sounding name, and I was not raised in the Judaic religion, but I knew this much: I was descended from a people with an enormously complex history. We had wandered; we had been hated and persecuted. In spite of it all, some of us had been raised above the status of the rest of our people, achieving in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries unprecedented prestige and influence in the courts of Europe. And then we had been butchered—machine gunned in a ravine outside Kiev, gassed in a camp in Poland, marched to our deaths in the closing days of World War II. This is not an abstraction for me; this was the fate of about half of my maternal ancestors, among whom my grandfather was one of the few survivors. We left Europe, and came to America, and in large part did very well for ourselves, quickly climbing the ranks of the professional and educated classes. We had an ambiguous relationship with Israel, a state whose many misdeeds we usually either ignored or justified. The living trauma of the Holocaust manifested itself in little, rarely questioned habits passed down from older generations: I had a friend in high school whose family kept their car packed with supplies, in case they needed to flee their home in a hurry. I recognized (and perhaps too quickly dismissed) the paranoia, which seemed to me at the time fairly hyperbolic: we were Americans, unto the third generation, and I trusted Americans. Anti-Semitism reared its head on occasion, certainly—I remember being told one summer at day camp that I should “burn in Hitler’s ovens,” and large portions of some of the Internet forums I frequented were lousy with Jew-haters—but anti-Semitism did not define my relationship with Jewishness. What defined it for me was rather a pride in intellectualism, a certain sense of humor, an awareness of mutual history, and a sense of Jewish community, a community with which I, as a half-Jew not raised in the faith, have always had an ambiguous relationship. In short, to me, Jews were complicated; our identity was neither wholly a boon nor wholly a curse. It was simply a way of being, a history, one with its own benefits and its own discontents.

What we were, and are not, is underrepresented. At Swarthmore and many other elite colleges, students of Jewish descent tend to be numerically overrepresented. I do not know precisely how many Jewish students attend our college, but I have no doubt that we represent far more than 2-3% (our portion of the national population) of the student body. The language of underrepresentation totally fails to capture the Jewish experience at Swarthmore. It is part of a web of language that fails at the same task: the language of the contemporary social justice movement.

Contemporary social justice activists have a primary intellectual tool at their disposal: intersectional privilege theory. Intersectional privilege theory insists on a dichotomy between oppressor/advantaged and oppressed/marginalized identities. An individual may experience both oppression and advantage simultaneously—for example, a Muslim man may be oppressed insofar as he is a victim of Islamophobia, but may be advantaged insofar as he is a beneficiary of patriarchal relations—but an identity exists firmly along the dichotomy. This is a dichotomy that fundamentally fails to account for identities that simultaneously confer both advantages and disadvantages.

This is not just a theoretical issue. Social justice activism has mostly failed to treat ambiguous identities, particularly the Jewish identity, with nuance. For the social justice activist, any difference in success between groups must be pathological, a sign that society has been rigged in that group’s favor. This is a valuable instinct; it can be used to expose concealed social and economic structures that privilege one group over another. The danger is when the instinct becomes law. The social justice activist, noting the disproportionate educational and professional success of Jews, may decide that there must be deep, underlying structures that are biasing society in their favor (then, of course, there are the blatant anti-Semites, who believe that this supposed societal bias is the product of an active conspiracy). For that sort of social justice activist, Jewish identity becomes a sort of hyper-whiteness. This meshes well with the tendency to frame Jewish presence in Israel as a purely settler-colonial project. On the other hand, a certain type of social justice activist may note the disadvantages faced by Jews—still extant anti-Semitic prejudice, stereotyping, tokenization of our religious practices, the threat of actual physical violence (more common in Europe than the United States, but not unknown here)—and decide that Jewishness is best understood as simply marginalized, in the same way that they understand African American, Muslim, or trans identities to be marginalized. Neither of these approaches yield an authentic account of Jewishness.

I have spent four years trying to fit my Jewishness—an identity I’ve never fully fit within and never fully fit without—into the popular social justice paradigm that dominates Swarthmore’s intellectual life. Perhaps I’m simply not up to the task. But perhaps this failure to fit into one half or another of a dichotomy is not just a failure of my imagination. Perhaps the world cannot be split so easily in two.

4 thoughts on “The privilege and discontents of Jewishness

  • February 11, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Wow, way to incredibly over-simplify social justice. If you think people can’t grasp (or the tools of social justice are not conceived of to allow) complex identities, you are deeply misinformed.

    • February 12, 2016 at 2:54 pm

      First off, I want to be clear, I am not anti-SJ. I am pretty pro-SJ most of the time, but I think the ideas behind the movement are at times wrong and deserving of critique.

      I mean this in good faith – do you have examples of people successfully using the tools of social justice to understand the Jewish identity (or similarly complex identities) successfully (i.e., in a way that does not understand it strictly as marginalized or strictly as advantaged)? If you do, do you think these kinds of nuanced approaches represent the norm for social justice discourse?

      I don’t doubt that there exist SJ-influenced works that deal with Jewishness and similar identities with nuance. I suspect that graduate level socio-anth classes probably address it very sophisticatedly, insofar as they address it. My point more has to do with how SJ works on the ground – workshops, direct actions, social media postings, articles, protests, advocacy, political organizing, etc. I think, *as applied in real life,* it generally struggles with nuance. (Part of my occasional annoyance at real life SJ activism is that very interesting ideas are often vulgarized, admittedly by necessity.) Again, there are clearly exceptions to this rule, but the lack of nuance predominates.

      I don’t purport to be an *expert* in SJ, though I think I’m pretty plugged into it; I probably read content related to SJ activism more than anything else I read on the Internet. Obviously, my discontent with SJ is not universal among Jews – you clearly attest to that. But that discontent is definitely not uncommon; I know many Jews in real life who feel the same way about it, and I have seen related anxieties within SJ run spaces.

  • February 11, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    Great article, Bill. Wow.

  • February 16, 2016 at 9:25 am

    It is glaringly obvious that different religions promote different people. Buddhism promotes a certain type of person as do the Amish too. This is not to suggest that all Buddhists are similar, but only to observe that a large percentage of Buddhist develop certain characteristics.

    The same is, of course, true of Muslims as another example. We do not read about many Muslim Nobel Prize winners in physics or chemistry, whereas Jews dominate these fields both in proportion to their population and in terms of the number of awards one even without considering demographics.

    What is also glaringly obvious is that different religions focus on different values. Muslims, as an example, promote memorization of the Qur’an and any questioning of its merit is punished. This fosters a lack of curiosity and group think. In sharp contrast to this Judaism promotes intellectual curiosity, and a thirst for education/learning.

    It always amazes me that people are anti-Semitic instead of trying to understand what makes Jews so uniquely accomplished and trying to emulate the reasons for their success. But then I remember that people are petty and envious animals and Jews success is also their undoing.

    You should be proud of being Jewish and part of a religion whose values are a gift for all mankind, if only we had the intelligence and maturity to appreciate it.


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