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Power and privilege shields Jews—Until they don’t

Alfred Dreyfus was a well-placed, well-off (i.e., powerful and privileged) French Jew. How did that work out for him?

Linking Jews to power and privilege—somehow, always cast as illegitimate when they have it—is a long-standing antisemitic trope, and ought at least to be suspect on those grounds alone. Imagine if someone said, “I am pledging allegiance to the Confederate flag, but this is 2022, not 1860, so it’s different this time.” Would anyone buy it?

Yet today the trope of Jews as powerful and privileged is thriving, pervasive on both ends of the US political spectrum. History of course shows that from the earliest of time, even when achieved, power and privilege have done little more to protect countless Jews from the next wave of antisemitic violence than would a bull’s eyes on their back—or a star on their clothing.

The Pervasiveness of the Powerful, Privileged Jews Trope

The stereotype of the powerful and privileged Jew is back—and this time, at both ends of the political spectrum, and increasingly in the mainstream.

On the far right, of course, they’ve always known who really controls Washington, who really controls the media, who really controls the global economy, who’s really behind the lockdowns, and of course, who’s got the space lasers pointed at California. And now the far left has increasingly got into the business of stereotyping Jews as powerful and privileged, too.

On the far right, Jews are powerful and privileged because they are conniving, self-serving, money-hungry, fiendishly clever, clannish outsiders. On the far left, they are powerful and privileged because they are white—the ultimate insiders.

In one thread of a room dedicated to the discussion of “Jewish privilege” nearly 200 people were engaged in a discussion about how minorities were being used as pawns “for the Jews to destroy whites.”

In 2022, Jews are accused of “destroying whites” in bowels of the internet, and of “being white” in college classrooms and storied University “spaces”. Thus we now find such “teaching materials” by progressives as power and status charts. If you’re Jewish, you’re white. If you’re white, you’re in power, which means you’re guilty and you owe it to those in other quadrants to acknowledge, and then disavow, and then combat that power. No context, no logic. No need to account for the fact that 43 percent of welfare recipients in the US are white. Mind you, this simple minded and simplistic approach is not fringe—it is institutionalized in many college campus presentations, corporate diversity training sessions, equity and inclusion reading lists, and so on. Spaces where one might have hoped complexity and nuance would survive. Fliers protesting “Jewish privilege” have been reported at the University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Colorado at Denver, Kansas State University, Princeton University, and countless others. One claimed, “Ending white privilege starts with ending Jewish privilege.” In 2022 then, the collective narrative about “the Jews” is that they are whites on the one hand, the left hand, who are also actively working to annihilate whites on (with?) the other hand, the right.

The Perversity of the Powerful, Privileged Jews Trope

The great perversity of this noxious state of affairs is that whatever power and privilege some Jews have had has never kept Jews safe—individually, nor as a whole. Some of the most virulent attacks on Jews have been precisely against the Jewish communities that were the most secure, integrated, and affluent—Germany in the 1930s being only the most obvious example.

The Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris, created by the once extremely powerful and privileged French-Jewish Camondo family, is home to one of the world’s most exquisite collections of 18th-century art. The Camondos were Sephardic Jews who—in polite terms—were “evicted” from Spain during the Inquisition of 1492 who went on to build one of the largest fortunes within in the Ottoman Empire. A plaque explains that Moïse Camondo donated the family’s collection to the French nation to honor his son, Nissim, killed fighting for France in the First World War. Only in the 1960s was a second plaque added, informing visitors of how the family line ended. In 1944, only eight years after the family’s gift of this museum to the nation, Béatrice de Camondo—heir to the family fortune—and her family were deported to Auschwitz and slaughtered. Five generations of self-made financiers and philanthropists ended in ovens. So much for the shield of “power and privilege” for those powerful, privileged Jews.

Why would so many well-intentioned Americans—so many so-called justice warriors—be so . . . well, antisemitic? One problem is that modern critical social justice “research” and teachings are simply put ahistorical. They assume American slavery to be uniquely evil, without precedent or comparison. This is self-evidently wrong; the American colonists didn’t invent slavery, or even African slavery. They did evolve a horrid new variant. As for linking Jews with white privilege, antisemitism in Western civilization long predates European colonialism and even contact with Black Africa. But if the crimes of European colonialism are all you think you need to know of history, then your understanding of what Jews have done and have had done to them is going to be frankly weird. In much the same way, if you don’t approach antisemitism historically, and see it merely as a “feature” of a political “other”, and only a minor “bug” of one’s own political tribe, the fact that power and privilege, even if it were true, has never protected Jews from the next wave of antisemitic violence.

History isn’t the only thing missing. None of the trainings or workshops I’ve reviewed that talk about white and Jewish power and privilege unpack it with serious data—they cherry pick “factoids”. They define no criterion by which one group is deemed “powerful” and another “not”. Critical race theory even at it best (the real thing, not the children’s books everyone is so wound up about) offers no clear measure of power and privilege. Finally, they inaccurately conflate “Jews” with “Ashkenazi Jews”–the particular subset of diaspora of Jews who, after being expelled, settled in what it now western Germany and northern France. Without history, without data, without logic and without accuracy, what is left on too many parts of today’s left is unleashed emotion.

Rather than an honest reckoning with America’s racial past and present, we have reductionist narratives and slogans. And increasingly antisemitic ones.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. His most recent book is "Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy" (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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