on jews and class privilege


So last night, at an event of the Jewish social justice variety, someone mentioned a project they’re involved in that mobilizes Jews to use their class privilege to do something political that was/is of great value. Needless to say, I freaked out.

Sometimes when I freak out it’s obvious to everyone (I am incapable of controlling my facial expressions, for example), and sometimes, I hold it in and feel it gnaw at my stomach like a giant, rabid hamster. This time, I let it gnaw for a few minutes, until I was making faces. I actually had a moment of, maybe I’m over reacting, which is annoying, because I know better. The impulse, especially among women, to deny what we know to be true based on our own experience is a result of the effectiveness of systems of oppression.

Back to the matter at hand, which is that not all Jews have class privilege. I told the group that I was happy to discuss this in more depth with them, and folks could use me as a resource(which, by the way, I’d do for any one reading this blog if they’re interested in a genuine dialogue). Someone did come up to me afterwards and ask me to tell him about “poor Jews,” since for him, growing up in New Jersey, he had never met any. Here’s what I told him:

1. I had no interest in “proving” that there are Jews of working class, etc, backgrounds to him via numbers, which I don’t have access to, although I could point to organizations that do have those numbers.

2. I talked about my own experience coming from a working class background with a single parent and being the first person in my immediate family to go to college, which, admittedly, puts me in a different social class than my mother and grandmother. I explained that when you make assertions about all Jews having class privilege, you invisibilize me and my experience, at the very least.

3. It’s likely that you does know Jews who struggle financially, but because of the ways that Jews have assimilated, some of us have access to cultural capital (scholarships to college, free trips to Israel, etc) which allows us to “pass” as upper middle class. This doesn’t mean we are people with money, it means we are people with access, and that doesn’t apply to all Jews, either. The implications of not having money are far reaching and laden with shame, and it’s hard to talk about, so some folks work hard at passing.

Here’s what I thought of today, spurred by a conversation with the great JF, which I wish I’d said last night:

In most of America, folks are living on far less than $40k/yr. When we exclude Jews from this reality, it’s because we believe that Jews in America have made it as a result of having gained and maintained a certain degree of privilege. If we keep believing and perpetuating this idea, we’re actually perpetuating a dangerous, anti Semitic idea-that Jews aren’t normal people, but rather, a mystical, dominating, alien breed, who, via sneakiness that is innate to us, manage to lie, steal, and cheat our way into success at the expense of everyone else (i.e. the working class). If you don’t believe me, check out a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Power and privilege are complicated concepts and experiences, and as Jews, it’s not only okay, but essential that we acknowledge that and work through the complexities, but it is not okay to claim realities for a whole, incredibly diverse community when those realities only appear to represent you. As people with analyses of power, privilege and oppression that we apply in our work with other populations, we know that this kind of generalizing and pigeonholing proves fatal in the pursuit of justice. We are in enormous trouble if we cannot apply it to ourselves.

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One thought on “on jews and class privilege

  1. Kyle says:

    The part about “passing” strikes a lot of chords with me. Most of my teachers and many of my friends couldn’t tell that I didn’t have a safe place to sleep or enough food to eat several times in college. I was clean and attending and doing well in college…couldn’t possibly be impoverished. Today, not just Jews or not excluding Jews, the poverty in America is stupidly invisible.

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