Here’s the paradox: Antisemitism and Jewish privilege are, and have long been, two sides of the same coin. Hatred toward Jews has been deeply intertwined with the notion that Jews have had unique sorts of advantages for around a thousand years.
In the Middle Ages, Jews were barred from many 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, associated in the Christian world with depravity and sin. Therefore, they were both resented for this work and identified with it. Even as early as 1233, antisemitic drawings depicted the usurious Jew, using many of the same themes one might find today in a Google search. Antisemitism drove a small number of Jews into moneylending, which then reinforced that antisemitism.
Ironically, despite this narrative of privilege, most Jews throughout history lived a fairly precarious existence, economically and otherwise. We have 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 unrelated and more general societal stresses and complexities. Often, the shift from living in peace — tolerated and even embraced by the rulers and locals of a host country — to antisemitism happened very quickly.
And now, too, we are living in a time marked by stories of privilege and vulnerability. It is a time when Jewish advantages — and/or perceptions of Jewish advantage — are both protecting us and marking us as targets.
Last summer, the Charlottesville white supremacist demonstrators chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil!,” a direct translation of the Nazi slogan “blut und boden,” which plays on the notion of Jews as powerful, dangerous interlopers. Two months before that, the Chicago Dyke March ejected participants who held Pride flags with Stars of David. And in March this year, Washington D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. inadvertently used (and later apologized for) a recurring antisemitic allegation that the Rothschild family, a wealthy European dynasty, manipulates world events for its own advantage.
In recent years, there has also been (rightfully, in my opinion) increasing acknowledgment that many Ashkenazi Jews in America benefit from white privilege. Jews are found at all economic levels in this country, and as a collective we have more social and cultural capital than many other minority groups in the United States. We are not as vulnerable as other communities under attack. As a religious group, Jews are, thus far, not targeted by the government in ways that other groups are. ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is not seeking Jews out as a group; we are not being barred from the military or being singled out in a travel ban. Over decades, many American Jewish families have assimilated into the broader culture and “become white” — which has influenced our opportunities for education, jobs, housing, affluence, and generally getting ahead.
Nevertheless, antisemitism functions as it has for centuries. President Donald Trump’s attacks on “Soros globalists,” White House adviser Stephen Miller’s claim that a reporter had “cosmopolitan bias” (a phrase with longtime antisemitic connotations despite Miller’s own Jewish origins), and candidate Trump’s tweet of the Star of David superimposed on currency (a Star he claimed was a symbol of law enforcement, and quickly altered after coming under under fire) startle. All depend on centuries old, manufactured narratives of Jews as wealthy and powerful.
Some members of the Jewish community are feeling our multi-generational trauma and are experiencing a terror during this time. Notably, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of white supremacist propaganda incidents on American campuses has tripled in the past decade.
But this is not the time to hunker down. I have advantages that my ancestors in Europe never dreamed of, including the social capital to fight bigotry with full force. We have an obligation to stand up for those who are more vulnerable to both institutional and random attack, as well as to embody the full tenacity and verve of an elderly woman photographed last summer, holding a sign that said, “I escaped the Nazis once. You will not defeat me now.”
We need to name antisemitism when we see it and call on our allies to do the same, while leveraging every advantage we have to help those who need us to show up for them. The nature of antisemitism may be paradoxical, but our obligations to fight every kind of bigotry and hate head on are, ultimately, very straightforward.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is is the author, most recently, of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting. She is Rabbi-in-Residence at Avodah and a member of the Sh’ma Now Advisory Board. She can be reached via danyaruttenberg.net.