Checking Your Jewish Privilege

How Do We Reconcile a History of Both Persecution and Achievement?

Fortunate Son: Tal Fortgang is the descendant of Holocaust survivors, but also a day school graduate from a rich suburb.
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Fortunate Son: Tal Fortgang is the descendant of Holocaust survivors, but also a day school graduate from a rich suburb.

By Samuel G. Freedman

Published May 12, 2014.
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Forty-seven years ago this spring, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered United Nations peacekeepers out of Sinai. His decision set off the chain of events leading to Israel’s pre-emptive strike on Cairo’s air force and its lightning victory over Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War.

Back in those anxious weeks of 1967, however, the mood in Israel was anything but assured. The prevailing mindset, as the historian and diplomat Michael Oren has written, was one torn between faith in the nation’s military preparation and despair at the multitude of enemies. That duality took the form of an imaginary character, “Shimshon ha-nebbish,” Samson the nebbish, strongman and weakling all at once.

Shimshon ha-nebbish has come to mind recently for reasons having nothing explicitly to do with the 1967 war and everything to do with American Jewish identity. I thought of him as I followed the controversy begun by a Jewish student at Princeton who objected to being told by a classmate, during an argument about welfare benefits and the federal budget deficit, to “check your privilege.”

That student, Tal Fortgang, turned the accusation upside-down by writing an essay for a conservative student publication describing his family’s sufferings during the Shoah. Two of his grandparents, one who survived a death camp and another who fled to Siberia, reached America as impoverished refugees. As for his other relatives, he continued:

Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that’s my privilege.

With its elements of race, gender, and class, the campus flap soon became a national argument, spreading from a New York Times article through Fox News, The Atlantic, Salon and social media. Yet the commentary often overlooked the dispute’s specifically Jewish resonance.

What Fortgang raised in his defense was not solely the Holocaust and not only his family’s three-generation rise from displacement and penury into suburbia and the Ivy League. Those narratives fit into a larger one, the narrative mythically embodied in Shimshon ha-nebbish.

As a college freshman, Fortgang necessarily lacks the perspective to see that his family’s history, indeed Jewish history, is a saga of both persecution and achievement, of being both underdog and overdog. He clutches the memory of loss and struggle. He does not seem to accept the existence of inherited advantage.

Nearly a half-century ago, Milton Himmelfarb famously observed, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” Even more so now, we Jews resemble the WASP elite of yore. We are now the ones with trust funds, family foundations, legacy admission to elite universities. It is not that we don’t work hard, but we start work with a foundation of benefits earned not by ourselves but by our forebears.

So if you are able to grow up in New Rochelle, and if you are able to attend the S.A.R. day-school, both of which Fortgang did, and if just maybe you also had tutoring or test-prep classes, and at the least had the proximate example of college-educated parents, none of that means you did not toil. It just meant you started your toil with assets not available to the children of less prosperous, less educated families.

How, then, can we live as Jews in modern America with an honest admission that we are both Samson and the nebbish, the mighty and the vulnerable, the comfortable offspring of a hated, hunted people? The answer turned up in the Torah portion Behar, which was read last Shabbat.

In the text, the ancient Israelites are commanded to practice a sabbatical from farming every seventh year and a jubilee year with every seventh sabbatical. One major purpose of the shmita, as it’s known, is to permit the poor to harvest food from the untended fields. Another passage of the portion insists that any Jew who has been forced by poverty to mortgage his land not be expelled from it.

Admittedly, these admonitions fall under a category that we today would call “inreach” — Jews helping fellow Jews. Yet the Torah’s words in Behar also anticipate its teaching that we should welcome the stranger, having been strangers ourselves in Egypt.

Indeed, the Israelites receiving the mandates of Behar are newly liberated, still nomadic. It seems almost absurd for them to be hearing rules about land-ownership. It has been generations upon generations, well beyond living memory, that even a single Israelite owned land.

The injunction, however, could not be clearer, and it is all about checking your privilege. To check something is to assess it, to reckon its presence and value. The text does not tell us there is anything wrong with possessing privilege, in the ancient form of land and crops. Rather, it tells us that the purpose of such privilege: to share it in a spirit of generosity and humility.

Samuel G. Freedman, a frequent contributor the Forward, is the author of books including “Jew vs. Jew.” This essay is based on a d’var Torah he delivered at Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim.


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