This comes toward the end of a summer that included the Chicago Dyke March ejecting participants with a Star of David on a gay pride flag on the misguided-at-best grounds that it went “against the march’s anti-racist core values” and heated debates about whether Gal Gadot, an Ashkenazi Israeli, is a person of color. Particularly in recent years, there has rightfully been increased talk about the ways in which many Ashkenazi Jews in America do have white privilege.
So are we oppressed? Or what? The reasons that question may feel complicated go back around a thousand years. Since the dawn of modern anti-Semitism, hatred toward Jews has been deeply intertwined with the idea of Jews having unique sorts of advantages.
In the Middle Ages, Jews were barred from many trades and professions, and it was sometimes illegal for Jews to own land. It was convenient for local authorities to permit Jews to work in trades that were repugnant to Christians — most notably moneylending, which was associated in the Christian world with depravity and sin.
From a Jewish perspective, moneylending was a useful line of work for two reasons. First, it was somewhat portable, and when times were lucky it enabled our ancestors to have liquid assets — both of which were practical during an era when expulsions of Jews from villages and even whole countries were not uncommon. It was also profitable. Most late medieval and early modern European polities taxed Jews at jaw-droppingly high rates, so loaning out money was essential for communities’ survival. A very small subset of Jews began handling money because it was a viable option and a practical necessity. And then they were resented for it — and identified with the work in a way that Christian bankers never were. Even as early as 1233, anti-Semitic drawings depicted the usurious Jew, using many of the same themes one might find in a quick Google search.
Most Jews throughout history lived a fairly precarious existence, economically and otherwise. Many times in history we have been tolerated, and even embraced, by the rulers and locals of our host country. But we have also been subject to expulsions, pogroms, Inquisitions and genocide many times over — often, indeed, fueled by the trope of the greedy, crooked Jew serving as the scapegoat for other stresses and complexities in society. Often, the shift from living in peace to the bottom dropping out happened very quickly.
So here’s the paradox: Anti-Semitism and Jewish privilege are, and have long been, two sides of the same coin. Even now, I feel it keenly.
On the one hand, Jews as a category are thus far shielded from the state violence that a lot of other groups are experiencing. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is not seeking us out as a group; we are not being barred from the military or being singled out in a travel ban. Although of course there are Jews of all levels of economic security in this country, American Jews as a collective do have a lot more social and cultural capital than many other groups, and we are not as vulnerable as other communities under attack. The reasons are various; a big one, though, is that many American Jews’ families have been established here for a century or more and, over that time, Ashkenazi Jews were able to assimilate into the broader culture and “become white.”
Yet at the same time, anti-Semitism is functioning as it has for centuries. Trump’s attacks on “Soros globalists,” White House adviser Stephen Miller’s claim that a reporter had “cosmopolitan bias” (a phrase that has longtime anti-Semitic connotations despite Miller’s own Jewish origins), the Star of David superimposed on money in the infamous Trump tweet last year, the dog whistles in the Trump’s final campaign ad — and the posters and chants in Charlottesville — all depend on a centuries-old, manufactured narrative of Jews as wealthy, powerful and in control. As this rhetoric gets louder, we’re seeing more targeted hate: Jewish graveyards have been vandalized at least five times this year, and the Holocaust Memorial in Boston was smashed for the second time this summer on Monday.
That shift from relative peace to something else can happen so quickly — in the blink of an eye. Some members of the Jewish community are feeling our centuries-deep intergenerational trauma keenly, experiencing this era as nothing short of terrifying, with memories of pogrom torches and swastika flags looming large.
But this isn’t the time to hunker down. It’s the time to stand up. I, for one, have advantages that my ancestors in Europe never dreamed of, and this includes the social capital to fight bigotry with full force and power. We as a community have an obligation to stand up for those who are more vulnerable to both institutional and random attacks, as well as to embody the full bad-assery of an elderly woman photographed on Sunday in New York holding a sign that said, “I escaped the Nazis once. You will not defeat me now.”
Our work right now is to fight every kind of bigotry and hate head on.