A Call to My Beloved Jews: We Gotta Talk About Privilege

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on April 21st, 2015.
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Over the past year we’ve seen an increase in articles by Jews that seek to disprove the concept of privilege due to experiences of anti-Semitism. These writings upset me because they in no way represent my own beliefs as a white, female, Ashkenazi educator and activist. The articles do not acknowledge the complexity of identity that I believe is necessary for the Jewish community to embrace. Here is my response to a compilation of articles:

Dear Taffy, James, John, Seth & Tal

You have all joined the deluge of Jews venting frustration with the concept of “privilege.” I admit my temptation to pick apart your arguments line by line. The number of offensive statements makes my heart race.

But for the time being, what I’ll say is:

You’re right.

Anti-Semitism is real. It has and continues to negatively impact our Jewish people.

The leftist activist community doesn’t always do a good job acknowledging or understanding anti-Semitism.

And this is a problem.

It’s a problem because it means the left won’t have a full picture of society, which is necessary in order to build power and win. And it’s a problem because it perpetuates anti-Semitism itself.

And also: you’re wrong.

Experiencing anti-Semitism does not preclude other truths: white privilege (for Jews who are also white), class privilege (for Jews who also have wealth), male privilege, able-bodied privilege, straight and cis-gender privilege. None of these experiences of oppression trumps any other; all oppression is painful and unjust.

Sometimes it seems so simple: of course it’s possible for me as a white Jewish woman to experience sexism, white privilege and anti-Semitism all at the same time. It’s “simple” because I’ve lived it my whole life.

But sometimes breaking it down feels complex and painful. Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?

In my work with Ma’yan’s Research Training Internship, a big theme we teach isintersectionality: the concept that one person can experience both oppression and privilege simultaneously. It’s complex. But it’s important.

“Privilege” is a word that sometimes scares people. But it doesn’t have to. Privilege doesn’t mean I’m bad or that my people are bad. It also doesn’t mean I’m extra good. One definition we use at Ma’yan is that privilege is a system of unearned advantages that benefits one group at the expense of others. I have to remember this or else I fall into the trap of believing I have “earned” things because I am somehow “better than” others. But that’s a lie that only further isolates me, and leads me to remain complicit in oppression.

I don’t frame this conversation as “Jewish privilege” because Jewish identity is multi-faceted and complex. When working with white Jews, I talk about the white privilege that we experience as Jews. It’s a subtle but important difference. The experience of being Jewish includes oppression—past and present. And even still some Jews have certain privileges.

It’s particularly scary for Jews to think about the idea of holding privilege because of the history of anti-Semitic tropes that say that Jews control the world and therefore their takedown is justified. But I’m not saying Jews are the most privileged.  Actually, we know that the majority of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the U.S are white Christian men. But that doesn’t mean that white Jews don’t still experience privilege. I know I do. Even at the same time as anti-Semitism.

When as Jews we don’t understand intersectionality, it’s a problem for everyone. Not understanding intersectionality means white Jews are more likely to assume a uniform Jewish experience, which keeps us from appreciating the richness of our diversity and perpetuates racism not only to non-Jews but also to Jews of color within our community (not to mention classism, homophobia, ableism and more). Not understanding intersectionality also leads us to believe the myth of exceptionalism: seeing ourselves as the most oppressed, which only serves to further isolate us from the people and movements we could actually be working with. Anti-Semitism is not our fault and it is not our (sole) responsibility to end. But by staying in our narrative of victimhood, we essentially leave ourselves alone and stuck, and we damage other communities along with our own.(For a fuller list of why Jews MUST understand privilege and intersectionality, click here).

“When my Jewishness comes into conflict with my whiteness, I’m not effective in challenging racism,” said educator Randy Clancy in a recent workshop for a group of social justice educators that Ma’yan convenes. We have to embrace all parts of our identity to do the work.

Talking about privilege is just a start. The point isn’t just to recognize it, but to understand our place in fighting for racial justice and ending oppression for all people.

The left also has some responsibility. If lefties don’t understand that anti-Semitism is real, it leaves Jews feeling like they have to prove it over and over again, as we have seen in the articles I linked in the salutation. And wouldn’t it be nice if the right-wing didn’t have a monopoly on defining anti-Semitism for once?

So: Anti-Semitism is real. White privilege is real. Racism is real. These things are linked, but they are not all the same and cannot be compared. Sometimes it makes sense to focus on one while not abandoning the other, and at this moment in U.S history, I see way too many murders of black people to stand idly by. When I say Black Lives Matter, this in no way negates my commitment to ending anti-Semitism. It is not about oppression hierarchies, though we do need to examine the fact that this country was economically built on racism. Ultimately, I believe our liberation is connected. So let’s get to work.

With love,

Talia

P.S. There are lots of great resources put out by leftist people and communities. April Rosenblum wrote a great pamphlet about anti-Semitism and the left. Ngoc Loan TranAsam Ahmad, and others have written beautifully about ending in-fighting among the left.Paul Kivel has also written about being both white and Jewish and showing up in the fight for racial justice. There’s a lot of good thinking out there. Let’s stay in it together.

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan. Contact talia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music.

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I Never Dreamed of a White Christmas: On Gilmore Girls and Christian hegemony

Originally posted on the Ma’yan blog on December 16th, 2014
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On October 25th I heard my first Christmas song of the season. I’m not exaggerating. A week later, said song weaseled its way deeper into my brain, nested, and made only brief escapes out the hum on my lips. Damn.  Christmas.

Recently I’ve been bit by the Gilmore Girls bug. Yes, it’s true, I hopped straight on that Netflix binge-watching bandwagon of the TV show featuring the fast-sass-talking, big-eating, small-town-living ways of Lorelai and Rory. As a pop culture-loving feminist, I note things like the racist portrayal of Mrs. Kim and how the fat person is characterized as clumsy, and file them in my brain under “TV references of racism/sizeism I could use in a workshop one day.”

Here at Ma’yan we’ve been reading Penny Rosenwasser and Paul Kivel. We are learning about anti-Semitism and also Christian hegemony—the system that normalizes the Christian experience, and marginalizes all other religions. Just a few light topics that were on my mind as I watched the Gilmore Girls. The portrayal of Jews in the show is certainly cringe-worthy; there’s Brad (a minor character), the dorky, unlovable schoolmate, and then there’s Paris, the hypertensive, hyper-competitive, hyper-allergic, power-grabbing rival of Rory. Yikes. That’s some serious brain-file material. But for me, the real ick moment occurred in Season 3.

In Season 3 (episode 10), Paris’ boyfriend invites her to celebrate Christmas. When she returns, Rory asks about it. Paris gets this dreamy look as she relays the scene: wreaths everywhere, a 12 foot tree, the wafting smell of cinnamon, the eggnog, the cider, “It wasn’t just nice,” she says, “It was perfect.” She explains to Rory: “I never had a Christmas tree before. One year I asked my mom if we could get a Chanukah bush, and she made me watch Shoah the rest of the week.” She then continues: “I’m looking at this mound of gifts and I’m thinking, eight days of Chanukah? Who’s the skinflint that thought of that deal?” “Don’t the eight days symbolize something?” Rory asks. “Yes, they symbolize eight days of ripping off the little kids who can’t have a Chanukah bush,” Paris retorts. “You’re making me sad,” Rory says. The scene ends with Paris declaring her commitment to return for Easter.

Watching this dialogue unfold I felt queasy, and I realized: that’s it. That is exactly my fear: that Christmas celebrators everywhere walk around feeling sorry for Jews and all those who miss out on the quintessential American experience, and that if we are lucky enough to get to celebrate Christmas, we’ll feel whole, restored, and at last accepted.

Like Paris, I too have been welcomed into a Christmas celebration by someone I was dating. The meal was fun, and I enjoyed it like I do any holiday dinner with family. Adorning the tree was sweet, rather like decorating a Sukkah. The presents felt overwhelming. The fireplace was lovely. Stuffing stockings was awesome. I did not feel wistful or deprived for never having gotten this before. I have never secretly longed for tinsel and candy canes, for jingle bells and reindeers. Jews every year talk about how annoying it is that people say ‘Merry Christmas,’ or even ‘Happy Holidays’ (because we know what that actually means). But that’s not my real beef here. For me, the issue is that Christians think I want it. I have never felt short-changed in my dearth of Christmas celebrations. As a woman I don’t have penis-envy, and as a Jew I sure as hell (pun intended) don’t have cross-envy.

This is what Christian hegemony does—it normalizes the lives of Christians, and it makes it seem like the experience everyone has, or should have, or at the very least should want. And some do. But not all of us.

I should clarify: I am not the Semitic Lorax. I do not speak for the Jews. There are plenty of Jews who have longed for Christmas, who love Christmas songs and decorating ginger bread houses. There is truly nothing wrong with that. Not to mention the many multi-faith households that embrace multiple traditions as their own. I’m all for it. But multi-faith households that include Christians are not adding tradition where there was none before, but rather layering on to an already beautiful tapestry. For me, learning new traditions doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been missing out all along.

So here’s my message to Christians: just because this holiday is the federally recognized one, the one associated with the religion that fuels so many of the thoughts, opinions and attitudes in this country, does NOT make it the holiday we all inwardly wish we were celebrating. But I do wish you the very best, and I’ll gladly partake in a little eggnog and cookies (if you’re offering, that is).

A Visible Jew (segmented)

The following post is a segment from a longer piece I wrote. The full version can be found here.

The morning of Sukkot, the 8 day Jewish fall harvest festival, my co-worker at JYCA and I set up a sukkah—an open, temporary shelter—at Occupy Oakland. We figured we’d put it out of the way, in a corner of the plaza. Several hours later we returned with friends and community members to finish decorating and to share a Sukkot meal. The following is the dialogue that ensued between us, the sukkah decorators, and other occupiers. I’ll use conversational quotes for what was actually said, and italics for what I thought of saying, but refrained from.

Person from Child Care Committee: “Hey, so we just had a meeting and we felt like it would actually be safest if the child care tent is where your tent is located. So we’d like to ask you to move.” My co-sukkah-decorators start to tense up.

Me: “Of course, we’d be happy to move, can we just change places?” Yes! An opportunity to prove that Jews can share land! Great!

We un-stake our sukkah, pull out the carpets, and—like a wedding chuppah—pick it up and move it over. Re-stake, re –put in the carpets, re-hang disheveled decorations.

Person from Crisis Tent Committee: “Hey so we just had a meeting, and it seems that someone told us that we could have the spot you’re in.”

Me: “Okay” umm…Someone? England?!

Same Person from Crisis Tent Committee: “Yeah, so we’d like to ask you to move. It looks like you just moved here and we hate to ask you to move again, but I think we need that spot so we can be near first aid. I’m not sure where exactly you can go, but I’m sure there is somewhere.”

Me: “That makes sense.” Somewhere? Like….Uganda?!

Crisis Tent: “Yeah. So, I don’t really know where.”

Me: “Well could we go there?” I gesture close by.

Crisis Tent: “I’m not really sure if that will work, we’d like to keep our options open for where we can go and where other tents can set up. But you look pretty mobile, maybe you could go one place and just be willing to keep moving?”

Oy. We ain’t doing this for 40 years, I can tell you that much.

Co-Sukkah decorator: “Well, I mean, we’d sort of like to settle somewhere.”

Oy. “Settle.” We didn’t mean it like that!

Me (determined): “Well I’m sure we can work together on this and find a place for everyone.”

And in the end we do. We pick up, re-shuffle, move about and wind up with a spot ring-side to the general assembly. All I can do is laugh.

I wish I could say that was the end of it. Spending a lot of time sitting in a Sukkah makes me very visibly Jewish. Visible in a lefty movement that has stood actively against homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, sexism and more…. But has not yet claimed anti-semitism either consciously (for not wanting to go anywhere near the “I” word…Israel) or unconsciously (for not having Jews or the oppression of Jews on their radar).  I have spent a lot of time sitting in my Occupy Sukkah, being as inviting as I can possibly muster, to prove Jews belong in this movement. This has meant some of the following things to people at Occupy Oakland:

– that I must immediately want to talk about Israel/Palestine

– that I should be careful not to attract the “AIPAC-type-Jews”

– that I am the exception among Jews as a radical

– that I am hitting on them (the passerby) and want to sleep with them and they should therefore hit on me

– that I am risking taking away from the movement by bringing my Jewish Stuff

– that I am doing a really great thing by both bringing Jews together and creating a peaceful space in the Occupy movement for all to come rest (in the only open tent on site)

As the last one suggests, there has been a lot of beautiful moments. Many people have thanked me for creating the sukkah, for sleeping in it, for being so welcoming to all. I have made many new friends by inviting strangers into the Sukkah. And it’s been hard too. The combination of wanting so badly to help Jews be seen as good and important to the movement, while simultaneously needing to not seem too welcoming so that men get the wrong idea… is exhausting. And it’s a familiar combination of anti-semitism and sexism I have experienced in my life. It has become clear to me that this must be when you call on your allies for support. And fortunately, there are many allies in this movement. And though I think many Jews could site individual incidents of anti-semitism, as a whole, this movement has not gone in that direction. This is quite a victory given that oppressive forces get set up to blame the Jews when things get hard.