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What we talk about when we talk about white Jewish privilege

How celebrating her PhD provoked an investigation into her identity as a mother and as a Jew

After eight years of graduate school — two years in a masters program and six years in a doctoral program — my time as a student finally came to an end yesterday, when I attended my doctoral commencement at Brandeis. I thought the day would be anti-climactic. I defended my dissertation back in July 2015 and earned a doctorate degree the following month, so I figured that attending the actual commencement would be a lot of ceremony and little sentimentality. I would show up, walk on stage, wink at my kids, shake some hands, and feel closure. But the day took me by surprise. As the two-hour ceremony progressed, I became overwhelmed with gratitude that I was able to attend such a great school, and study in a department whose faculty welcomed me with open arms from the day that I started my training.

One aspect of commencement especially struck a chord. A graduating student who was elected to speak at the Humanities commencement ceremony as a representative of masters students made some comments that I found to be inappropriate. This young woman spoke on the topic of the importance of diversity at Brandeis. She began by saying that the world is finally realizing that it has been governed by the decisions of “old white guys,” and that it is these men who have ruled the halls of academia. The tide is turning, she said, and it was the job of those graduates sitting before her to continue to lend their voices — the voices of women, gay people, minorities, the disabled — to help fight for social justice. She ended by apologetically quoting an “old Jewish white guy, Heinrich Heine.”

I was so taken aback by the reference to Heine as an old white guy and a Jew, that I do not remember what the quote was. I sat baffled, with my brain on pause, trying to process this description, when this woman’s brief speech ended. It was followed by massive applause from most of the room, and I could see why. On the surface, her points comprised a great argument. Give everyone a voice. Let everyone have a say. Fight wrongs. Encourage social justice. But I couldn’t wrap my head around the bashing of “old white men” who had had their time in the sun, and now needed to be put out to pasture. Beyond the blatant racism of generalizing about old white men, I was shocked by the association of being Jewish and white. Identifying Jews as privileged and white is a rising phenomenon that few have taken notice of. It erases centuries of the “othering” of Jews that has led to their social isolation and oppression. Much of this oppression was fueled by claims that Jews were really insiders controlling the government and the media, and diverting Gentile funds towards Jewish causes.

Quoting Heinrich Heine in particular seemed especially egregious to me because Heine died as a Christian. In order to practice law in Göttingen, he had to convert to the Protestant religion. A simple search online will bring you to JewishEncyclopedia, which cites a letter in which Heine wrote that “I am hated alike by Jew and Christian. I regret very much that I had myself baptized.” And in another letter, “I hold it as a disgrace and a stain upon my honor that in order to obtain an office in Prussia — in beloved Prussia — I should allow myself to be baptized.” These words do not sound representative of an old privileged white guy to me.

The masters graduate ended her speech by saying that Brandeis has to do more: encourage more diversity, and challenge more, and never accept the status quo. By this I believe she meant, never accept the authority of the privileged white male, and/or/including the Jew. The levels of irony here — the racism towards white men, the lack of self-awareness that she was using skin color to make a generalization, the criticism of an institution that welcomed her and trained her and gave her the very education that taught her to critique the suits who allegedly didn’t want to give her a voice — seemed to fall away as the audience gave her the biggest ovation of the morning.

After this woman’s speech, and after we received our diplomas, I had a more personal interaction with someone else that made an impact on me as well. A woman, whose name I don’t know, whose son was graduating from Brandeis that day with a BA, said something personal to me. She had been sitting behind my family with her husband and daughter. When I approached my husband and kids to greet them after the speeches were over and I had received my diploma, she turned and looked at me and said, “It was a great thing, what you did.” I absorbed in one second everything that this woman meant. She knew about my late nights, my studying, my laundry, my dishes, my cooking, my chauffeuring kids to and from school, and, yes, I am a feminist, and, yes, my husband is incredibly helpful and endlessly supportive, but these tasks were mine, because I had done them, and I had done them every day alone, with no one seeing, by myself, laundry every day next to an open textbook of Intermediate Greek on the counter so I could memorize conjugations. At this moment, only this woman standing with her two grown children could understand me.

While sitting in the front row of the commencement audience, I had felt like a privileged Jew. Now I felt like someone who had completed a grueling program not as a Jew, but as a woman, as a mother.

As I left Brandeis, I reflected briefly on how these two aspects of my identity make me seem, to some, a peripheralized minority, and to others, although I had never really known it, a privileged white majority.

I am leaving my time at Brandeis with enormous gratitude towards a community that includes colleagues and faculty who are inspirational, not only in terms of their ability, but in terms of their modesty and kindness. I especially look up to the faculty in my department as mentors of academia and mentors of fine character. But I also leave my time at Brandeis conflicted. I seek the validation of other women because sometimes I feel so isolated that it seems that only other women, especially mothers, can understand what I have gone through to get this degree. On the other hand, I hesitate to pigeonhole myself into a minority niche that ends up Othering the majority in a way that robs them of their integrity.

I have no interest in generalizing about old white men or any group of people based on their skin color. And I am especially concerned by the tendency to ignorantly shove all Jewish men, and by extension, all Jewish people, under a racial rubric.

At the end of the day, my dual identities as a woman and as a Jew is not an irreconcilable tension that I will lose sleep over. I will always be a Jew first and a woman second.

About the Author
Dr. Malka Z. Simkovich is the author of Discovering Second Judaism: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism, and The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria. Her research focuses on universalist Jewish literature that emerged from Egypt under the Roman empire.