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Orthodox Jews Have White Privilege, Too

The issue of whether or not fair-skinned Jews are white has been fiercely debated at length in the American Jewish community. I don’t want to get into that.

However, I saw the issue reframed in an interesting way the other week. Assuming white Jews, in general, have white privilege, does that privilege still exist when one chooses to outwardly and openly present as Jewish? Do Orthodox Jews, those who don kippot and tzitzit and long skirts daily, enjoy any benefits from white privilege?

Speaking as a Jew who lives in that world and has no “English” name, just the obviously Jewish one of Mordechai, I believe that yes, we still do.

White privilege, for the unfamiliar, is the (sometimes controversial) concept that people with lighter skin have a series of automatic advantages that others do not. These “advantages” are not always positive and don’t overwhelm every other factor in one’s life, but they do provide white individuals with a leg up in the world, comparatively.

So how do I, as a pasty Orthodox Jew, benefit from white privilege?

When I’m shopping in a store, I don’t get followed by loss prevention. I have never had the cops called on me for walking down a nice suburban street. I haven’t been asked to leave a public park or neighborhood pool. I’m less likely to get pulled over in some parts of the country.

Simply put, I don’t have people question if I “belong” someplace as often as a person of color does. That’s a classic use case of white privilege.

Of course, privilege isn’t all or nothing. While white Orthodox Jews can benefit from white privilege, we are also very often the victims of white supremacy. In 2018 New York, Jews were the group most targeted by hate crimes.

I’ve been stopped by airport security in the South because of my kippah. People have spat at me. People have thrown pennies at me on Shabbat. Someone once yelled “Christ Killer” and then tried to run me over with his car. On a less personal note, while I haven’t been asked to leave a park, people have tried to prevent Jews from using one as part of a larger Eruv ban.

But in dealing with that supremacy, white Orthodox Jews can and do still wield white privilege. I have options that no Jew of color has. I can take off my kippah, skip prayer services, and start using a different name that starts with “M”. That’s the ultimate privilege — being able to blend in with the majority. I don’t do this, but I could. We all could. Long skirts are easily swapped out for pants. Sideburns can be shaved. Shtreimels and black hats come off.

We have a word for it: Assimilation. And many Jews have, sadly, taken advantage of this unique form of privilege throughout our history.

When I tweeted about this, I upset a few people who thought I was somehow pro-assimilation.

I’m not. It is the nightmare scenario for many traditional Jewish parents. I believe full assimilation is horrible, and considering the level of white supremacy we deal with, it is laudable and wonderful that so many of us do not and will not take advantage of it.

Also, as every descendant of immigrants knows, assimilation is not easy. It’s not like you can simply change your name, change how you dress and suddenly switch cultures. You don’t magically understand all of the cultural touchstones that are alien to you. A Jew attempting to assimilate will likely face a different set of white supremacy roadblocks. Their children, though, will likely fit right in.

That assimilation is a dead-end scenario does not change that it is technically a sort of privilege. Privilege doesn’t have to be positive or desired. Benefiting from it doesn’t have to be active. It can even be, in some cases of assimilation, coercive. But at the end of the day, we have a tool in our toolbox that a person of color does not.

So yes, pale Presenting-as-Jewish Jews, despite being targets of white supremacy, have white privilege. It’s something we need to be aware of, and in the case of assimilation, on guard against.

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