In my last article, I discussed how my journey in the fight for racial justice began during a racial forum at Clark University. I briefly mentioned that I still believe some of the emotions that night – though not all – may have been related to anti-Semitism. Indeed, it may have been an example of how anti-Semitism can sometimes find a way within Left-wing and progressive causes, but it took me a while to understand how. In this article, I will attempt to explain how I came to understand what may be described as “modern Left-wing anti-Semitism” and how I think we can overcome it.
For a long time, I struggled to understand why anyone on the Left would harbor feelings of anti-Semitism. Whenever someone associated with the Left said something controversial about Jews or Israel, I often gave them the benefit of the doubt that it was not because they had anything against Jews. (Of course, there are a variety of reasons why people on the Left are critical of Israel, from simply having a different opinion to perceiving Israel as a colonial state, but another reason may be what I believe to be a modern left-wing version of anti-Semitism).
I struggled to understand why some people on the Left would have negative attitudes towards Jews because I had a relatively narrow conception of what anti-Semitism is. For instance, whenever I thought of anti-Semitism, I would think of Neo-Nazism, White supremacy or religious fundamentalism. When I thought of people who upheld negative attitudes towards Jews, I assumed it was because they were either a supremacist or a religious extremist and hated Jews for their race or religion.
Yet, people on the Left uphold the values of religious pluralism and tolerance. People on the Left are the first ones to condemn White supremacy or religious extremism and thus would never have negative attitudes towards Jews, or any group of people, for those reasons. However, as I began to more deeply comprehend the concept of racism, I also began to understand how some people on the Left can uphold negative views of Jews as well.
Some people on the Left may harbor negative attitude towards Jews, not because they dislike their religion or because they believe Jews are lesser human beings, but because they may perceive Jews as unfairly privileged. The notion that Jews, or any group of people, are unfairly privileged may fit into the left-wing narrative of the privileged versus the oppressed, but it may also lead to feelings of hostility against them. Indeed, by perceiving Jews as unfairly privileged, some people on the Left may see Jewish people as more of adversaries than allies in the fight for social and racial justice, and other racial and religious minorities in America may uphold feelings of envy and jealousy towards American Jews for their unique minority status. That may be conceptualized as anti-Semitism, it is just a different kind of anti-Semitism than its more traditional forms and may manifest differently as well.
Indeed, rather than explicitly say they dislike Jews, anti-Semitism on the Left may be manifested through disproportionate criticism and delegitimization of Israel. Again, criticizing Israel is not in and of itself anti-Semitic. There are many reasons why people on the Left tend to be more critical of Israel, such as wanting to support the weaker side in given a conflict (in this case the Palestinians) or perceiving Israel as a product of Western colonialism.
Israel is also certainly subject to valid criticism. I myself, a pro-Israel advocate, acknowledged in another article that Israel would risk becoming an apartheid state like South Africa if it goes forward with annexation, and people on the Left are obviously going to be critical of that. However, another reason why some people within grassroots movements associated with the Left, such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, spend much of their time and energy criticizing Israel may be because it is their way of expressing their frustration that they see Jews as unfairly privileged.
Of course, as I mentioned in my last article, we American Jews are indeed a uniquely privileged community in the United States, and we should acknowledge that. We are disproportionately represented within Congress, the student bodies, and faculties on US campuses, have resources on campus to support us (i.e. Hillels), and have many philanthropies and federations that support us as well.
Moreover, most American Jews – though not all –have relatively light skin and are thus able to benefit from White privilege when it is well suited for them. We also live in a Judeo-Christian society, meaning, that we are not just able to practice our religion freely, but are also more culturally integrated within American society compared to other religious minorities. For instance, many non-Jewish Americans know what Shabbat and Passover are, but not too many Americans know what Ramadan or the Diwali are. Many non-Jewish Americans know what the phrases “Mazal tov” and “Shabbat Shalom” mean, but not too many Americans know what “Ramadan Kareem” or “Shubh Diwali” mean.
Of course, as I also emphasized in my last article, we worked hard for many of those privileges. We worked long and hard to create Jewish philanthropies and federations. We worked long and hard to shape America into a Judeo-Christian society. Indeed, our special status did not just develop overnight, and that is just one of the reasons why it may be more appropriate for us as American Jews to acknowledge our privilege rather than non-Jews.
Another reason why it may be more appropriate for us to acknowledge our privilege rather than non-Jews is because it may be how we can overcome this brand of anti-Semitism.
Indeed, the structure of the conversation and who says it can significantly influence how the message is conveyed and interpreted. For example, in the context of a racial forum, if an American Jewish student goes up to the microphone and acknowledges their privileges and says they want other religious and racial minorities to have the same accommodations that their community has, it may humble other American Jewish listeners and motivate them to join the fight for racial justice and allow non-Jewish listeners to see them as allies. In contrast, if a non-Jew goes up to the microphone and says something similar about American Jews’ privileges, it may come off differently. Regardless of how sincere they are, it may sound accusatory to many American Jews who may then become defensive, pointing out that they worked hard for those privileges, and it will then become harder for American Jews to be seen as potential allies.
We American Jews are absolutely a uniquely privileged community, but it is our responsibility to acknowledge it rather than others. I want other religious minorities like Muslim and Hindu students on US campuses to have the accommodations and support that we have. I want Black Americans and other people of color to get the “benefit of the doubt” that White Jews and other White people get. And it is because I want to empower these marginalized communities that I am joining the fight for social and racial justice, and I implore my fellow American Jews to do the same. But when talking about “Jewish privilege”, it is our responsibility to acknowledge our privileges and have humility, not the place of others to do.