Jewish white privilege is no myth

Image of Anas Sarwar, a clean-shaven South Asian man wearing a dark blue jacket over a white shirt and silver and grey tie.
Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour leader

Jewish Privilege is a myth by Giles Fraser (from Unherd)

In this article Giles Fraser, a London vicar married to an Israeli, complains that Jews are commonly left out of definitions of ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, a British classification equivalent to terms like ‘BIPOC’ in the US). He refers to David Baddiel’s recent book, Jews Don’t Count, which gives an example of a book review which identifies an author, surname Rosenberg, as writing from a “white-male-cis-het perspective”, and then takes issue with the description of Sajid Javid as the “first BAME chancellor of the Exchequer” which he says glosses over the fact that Nigel Lawson, whose paternal grandfather changed the family name from Leibson in the 1920s after they had immigrated from eastern Europe, much as his own family had changed its name from Friedeberg in 1917, had held the position in the 1980s (this past week, there was a similar controversy when Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar claimed to be the “first political party leader from an ethnic minority”, overlooking Ed Miliband). “Jews are considered to be white or non-white depending on the political perspective of the viewer”: not white or a threat to the purity of the race for those on the Far Right, “archetypally white — powerful, privileged, wealthy” to those on the “progressive Left”. I hear complaints that Jews are omitted from definitions of ‘minority’ or ‘BAME’ fairly regularly; I came across a complaint on Twitter recently that an ethnic monitoring form gave the usual White, Black and Asian definitions but ‘Jewish’ had to be stated, if the respondent wished, in the “Other (please state)” box. I don’t regard Jews to be BAME and regard them as a religious but not an ethnic minority; they are a subset of the White majority. This is why.

All the complaints about Jews being “left out of BAME” demonstrate wilful blindness to the fact that times change and concepts of race change from time to time and place to place. They are heavy on explanations of how things were in the past and light on acceptance of how things are now. Quite frequently people cannot believe that the new racists are different from the old Nazis and will court Jews and Hindus (who have a violent fascist movement of their own) to play them off against Muslims, for example. Mediaeval and early modern Europe characterised itself as Christian; Jews were in most places tolerated and allowed to run their own affairs but not allowed to integrate or enjoy the full rights of citizens (such as they were) because they were not Christian and regarded their true home as the Middle East. In the 19th century, the idea emerged that there were different races of human beings that shared common descent and were identified by language and physical signs. This was a pseudoscience, but Jews were identified as a race and conversion to Christianity came to be seen as of lesser importance than one’s ancestry (to Nazis it was of no consequence at all, and practising Catholics, most famously Edith Stein, were murdered because of their Jewish origins).

In other modern societies, such as ours, ‘race’ is associated with physical appearance; the native population is mostly white, and darker skin is associated with foreignness, immigrant status and, in some cases, slavery. When people migrate from one European society to another, they are regarded as foreigners but their children often are not; Irish and Italian Americans, for example, come to be seen as ‘White’ even if they maintain aspects of their culture and it is often observed that White immigrant communities leapfrog African-Americans, who remain poor (often as a result of discriminatory policies, such as ‘red-lining’ in the housing market which prevented them from acquiring property).

Thus, a Jewish immigrant can change his or her surname and get elocution lessons and lose any traits that give them away as an immigrant and two or three generations later the fact that someone is Jewish is unimportant, to those who even know it, when he runs for Parliament or is appointed to a ministerial job. A Black person will always be seen as Black in a country where Blackness is associated with immigrant status, poverty and criminality. There is a joke that asks what you call a Black person with a BA, an MA or a PhD and the answer rhymes with ‘trigger’. I rarely hear of a Black person now who has changed their name to something “more English” because that would make them more integrated, although stories of people with foreign names often report that they do not get job interviews until they Anglicise their names (or submit an application with an English pseudonym). It has often happened that they change their names the other way, to shed a surname that dates back to slavery or reclaim their African roots; an English surname does not help when one’s colour and appearance automatically marks one out.

This is the essence of White privilege: it means you do not look out of place in a western society. You will not be assumed to be an illegal immigrant, you will not be assumed to be a criminal; if you are seen in an expensive car, it will not be assumed that it is either stolen or drug-financed. If you have an encounter with the police, it will likely be polite and you do not risk being physically harmed if you are not brandishing a weapon. It means you can travel without being selected for “enhanced screening” again and again, even after numerous negative screenings. It does not mean that there is no prejudice against your background or religion or that there is no derogatory term ever used about them, but even though they might be used by people who work with or go to school with you and you might hear language you find hurtful or offensive, you can still walk down the street unmolested. This is particularly important in the case of people who do not mark themselves out by their dress, which is the case with many Jews outside Orthodox congregations.

I wouldn’t be foolish enough to suggest that antisemitism does not exist in the UK. I saw it pretty much every day while at boarding school outside a provincial town: there were three or four Jewish boys at any one time and slurs about their origin were commonplace (and the word Jew was used as an insult towards others as well). However, prejudice is not all that makes a group oppressed; it also matters whether it is fostered or tolerated by the state and media. There are prejudices that pass the “dinner party test” and those that don’t and if mild expressions of one prejudice (or even statements that bear vague resemblance to them) are policed more stringently and are more costly than open expressions of hatred towards another minority or actual policies that contribute to innocent people being expelled from the country for no good reason, it should be clear that antisemitism is not politically acceptable while other prejudices are. The issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party was never out of the news for most of the time Jeremy Corbyn was leader; much of it was not new but was old material dug up from social media by people who must have been looking for dirt, much of it was about Israel rather than Jews per se (and given how Israel treats Palestinians, such condemnation is justified; there is no such restraint when atrocities by Muslim groups are being condemned) and much of it seemed to strain the definition of an “antisemitic trope” through the needle’s eye. The sheer volume and regularity of the stories gave the impression of a media campaign and led people to believe that the problem was extremely serious and certainly much more serious than it actually was. Why would the media give such prominence to the claims if they believed that the public would not care?

Compare this to the hostility being mounted against activists who seek to remove monuments to slave traders from the public space, or the use of ‘woke’ (a term of African-American origin meaning politically and racially conscious) as an insult, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that Jews are at least privileged among minorities. Jeremy Corbyn is ‘exposed’ for writing a foreword to a major work of socialist theory with a few disparaging words about Jews while Tories campaign and promise legislation to keep monuments to slave traders (as stated before: anyone involved in that trade would have been party to the murder of tens of thousands) in public spaces. I have seen on the British media people claiming that antisemitism is not like other forms of racism (not materially, but not morally equivalent) and someone stating that Islamophobia is merely a way Muslims seek to escape criticism, and this person has made numerous bigoted claims about Muslims in particular over many years (particularly since 2001) and is still regularly allowed to appear on the BBC and in mainstream newspapers, something that would not be allowed if antisemitism was this clearly expressed. I am sure this individual is not typical of Jewish attitudes, but this is hardly the point; she keeps appearing again and again.

As a White Muslim of English and Irish origin, I am considered to be in a privileged position despite the fact that White Muslims as well as Arabs, Asians and Somalis have suffered from discrimination and political oppression stemming from the “war on terror” policies. The fact that Muslims were massacred in Bosnia only 20 years ago and persecuted by various communist regimes around the world, including Europe, does not change the fact that White Muslims are to a certain extent privileged now. Similarly, the fact that Jews were victims of persecution and genocide at other times and in other places does not change the fact that in the UK, where Jews have never been actively persecuted, they are a fairly prosperous community, mostly associated with leafy north London suburbs, with ample media access and well-represented in Parliament, including at ministerial and Cabinet level on both sides of the House, and their tales of woe are indulged to the hilt again and again, becoming front-page and prime-time news while serious discrimination against other communities is ridiculed. The bottom line is that a white Jew in Britain today is no less white for being a Jew, which is why an Asian political leader means progress in a way a Jewish one does not.

Image source: Scottish Parliament, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution (BY) licence, version 3.0.

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