Privileged and Victimized, the Duality of the American Jewish Condition

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz September 26th 2016

Two weeks ago Joseph Michael Schreiber, a Jewish man from Florida, was arrested for setting fire to the mosque that the Orlando nightclub gunman Omar Mateen attended. A local rabbi stated that Schreiber had gone to his synagogue last spring to study Torah for about a month, but there was nothing particularly remarkable about him.

The story made a brief appearance in the 24-hour news cycle, and the Jewish press picked it up, but that was it. There were no talking heads, no media stakeout of the synagogue, and no harassment of the family. The presidential candidates did not weigh in and no one paid much attention.

If Schreiber had been Muslim and his target a synagogue, we could be sure of an entire different reaction. The muted response to the case shows a privilege that the U.S. Jewish community holds that the U.S. Islamic community does not.

It is important to recognize and acknowledge that the American Jewish community has achieved a sense of integration, and in many cases assimilation, that provides it with the same protection as other white American groups.

It is incidents like the above that have led many progressive groups to claim that Jews in American are basically white. Our current circumstances are closer to the WASPs of America then to minority groups.

Coming from the U.K. but living in the U.S., it has been a strange experience to be described as white. For me, it was pretty clear from the start that Jews were a minority group within the U.K. like any other ethnic minority – I would always tick ‘other’ when identifying my ethnicity. It was a shock when I first was told that Jews were basically white in America.

Looking at the cesspool that is the “alt-right” that has emerged this election cycle and plagued us all with horrendous anti-Semitism, it should be abundantly clear that Jews are not as “white” as the term Caucasian presumes. American Jewish “otherness” sadly goes beyond the current tumult of this election season.

Looking at the FBI hate crime statistics for 2015, only 9.6% of all hate crimes in the U.S. were perpetrated against Jews. By way of comparison, 30% were against African Americans and 2.7% were against Muslim-Americans.

Even as American Jews enjoy political and economic power, there is a constant fear of a dark horizon that could come crashing down, and remove us from a place that we have worked so hard to get to. It is this tension, the fear that we might be once against subject to be discriminated against as an ‘other,’ that has motivated so many Jews to get involved in social justice issues in the first place. We know how quickly the tide can turn and a society that is truly inclusive for everyone will be a society that will always be inclusive for us as well.

Given our presumed privilege, Jews have found themselves of late outside the ‘intersectional tent’ that is suppose to link every sectors oppression with each other. Intersectionality is today’s progressive glue. Jews it seems are becoming unstuck as a group from within the progressive worldview. Evidence of this can be seen from the campus wars that claimed that the Holocaust was a ‘white on white’ crime to the reductions of the targeting of Jews in acts of terror as mere symbols of the state.

The duality of the American Jewish experience is complex and jarring for many. It is hard to grasp how a community that can get a public pass that the Islamic community could only dream of could also face such a staggering number of hate crimes.

It is precisely this duality however that makes the Jewish community the perfect ally to other ethnic and religious minorities. We know what it is to be accepted; we have seen the fruits of real integration while having an ability to understand what it is to be seen as different.

Despite the challenges, the discomfort and sometimes offense that has been caused of late, American Jews are a core constituency within the progressive movement and the struggle to reclaim our legitimate place within it matters not just for the success for the progressive movement, but for our own well being as well.

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