The intellectual road to “Jewish Privilege”

“There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” – George Orwell

Before I  moved to Israel and began working for CiF Watch, I worked for the Anti-Defamation League – an organziation which fights anti-Semitism, but also promotes diversity education and multiculturalism – largely through a program called A World of Difference Institute (AWOD). Though I have a lot of respect for my former colleagues and naturally support AWODs stated goal of “recognizing bias and the harm it inflicts on individuals and society,” some of the rhetorical discourse, and ideological currents, which lay at the foundation of AWOD often caused me concern.  An especially egregious example was one of ADL’s recommended readings for AWOD educators: Peggy McIntosh’s “White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.” (The recommended reading list isn’t available on their website, but this ADL sponsored conference demonstrates the group’s endorsement of McIntosh’s views). McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley Center for Women, in the essay, says:

In my [white] class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.

Disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitudes. [But] a “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try and get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

To McIntosh, the term “white privilege” isn’t just a way to explain and to combat racism, it’s an ideological paradigm which mocks the notion of merit and democratic choice in America. For her, it’s not sufficient to merely change attitudes.  Rather, since racial inequalities were so entrenched, and so institutional, nothing short of a radical redesign of the entire American political system would do.

While McIntosh’s theories on racism in America are insidious in of themselves, my broader concern was the effect this construct could have on attitudes towards Jews. It isn’t difficult to understand where such an ideology can lead.  Jews are erroneously, but typically, viewed as “white” in Western society.  (The fact that that Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews consist of about half of all Israeli Jews, for instance, is typically unknown or ignored.)

It isn’t a long road from white privilege to Jewish privilege – especially in the context of the increasing acceptance, within certain progressive circles, that Jews (in the U.S., and the West) are too powerful and have a corrosive effect on the body politic.  Such anti-Semitic invectives are peddled by mainstream progressive bloggers with extremely large audiences such as Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan.  The recent CST Report on anti-Semitic discourse noted (as CiF Watch has been consistently exposing) that the Guardian, in particular, continues to portray American foreign policy and the media as being dominated by the Jewish lobby.

So, it is in this context that Jenny Peto’s Master’s thesis, at the University of Toronto, entitled, “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education needs to be seen. (Peto, it should be noted, is one of the “brave dissidents” who champions BDS against Israel – even going so far as defending the breathtakingly hypocritical group, “Queers against Israeli apartheid“)

Her abstract notes:

I argue that today, Jewish people of European descent enjoy white privilege and are among the most socio-economically advantaged groups in the West. Despite this privilege, the organized Jewish community makes claims about Jewish victimhood that are widely accepted within that community and within popular discourse in the West. I propose that these claims to victimhood are no longer based in a reality of oppression, but continue to be propagated because a victimized Jewish identity can produce certain effects that are beneficial to the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state. I focus on two related Holocaust education projects – the March of the Living and the March of Remembrance and Hope – to show how Jewish victimhood is instrumentalized in ways that obscure Jewish privilege, deny Jewish racism and promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, while commenting on anti-Semitism at the Guardian, that ideas don’t occur in a moral vacuum.

The post-colonial paradigm – peddled (consciously or unconsciously) by many among the Western left (which pre-assigns immutable labels of victim and oppressor upon certain groups, nations, or ethnicities) – has developed into an all-encompassing rhetorical bludgeon which can be wielded against even those who insist (by their words or actions) that they are indeed on the correct side of this political (or, in this case, racial) divide.

As this blog continues to analyze and combat anti-Semitism at the Guardian, we must be committed to the understanding that words and ideas matter. And, if history has taught us anything its that even those ideological dispositions which may seem marginal today can become the accepted wisdom of tomorrow.  ADL – a 97 year old organization with such a proud history of fighting anti-Semitic discourse – should understand this more than anyone.

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