Dear Tal: An Open Letter About American Jewish Privilege

May 7, 2014

Dear Tal,

I read your op-ed in The Princeton Tory, Checking my Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, making waves since Time reprinted it last week.

Like you, I am Jewish and my family came here fleeing anti-Semitic violence in Europe. They worked in the sweatshops of Lower Manhattan, and eventually built an upper-middle-class life for themselves. I am a living, breathing testament to the American dream, and it no coincidence that I am white and Jewish. This is not to say that all whites or Jews are well off, nor that all Jews are white or all whites Jewish. Rather I’m trying to point out that our families were able to move up in the world largely because American society gave them many of the literal and proverbial tools one needs to be upwardly mobile.

The dream my great-grandmother had of moving out of her tenement and into a suburban subdivision became a reality through her hard work and good planning, but also through policies that made it possible for Jews to live in the suburbs. At a time when banks were willing to give Jewish families loans to buy homes, many financial intuitions essentially refused to work with blacks. Many of the communities around New York that are now centers of Jewish life welcomed upwardly mobile Jews in the 1940s, and ‘50s while putting in place rules and regulations designed to keep out blacks and Latinos. As Jews moved to the suburbs en masse in the ‘60s they gained access to excellent schools and many other community resources that were not available to urban black populations. [Many of the Jews that stayed in New York City won admission to the city’s most prestigious schools] while some of the worst educational institutions in the country were allowed to languish in black neighborhoods.

Through the late ‘60s many of the city’s most prestigious public colleges welcomed an overwhelming number of Jewish students while setting up systems that excluded non-white faculty and staff as well as admissions requirements that made it difficult for black and Latino students to attend them. Today CUNY’s prestigious four-year colleges enroll a relatively small number of black and Latino students.

Finally, blacks have always been paid less than whites for the same jobs, so even those people of color who have found their way through college and into middle-class occupations do not have the same level of financial security as middle class white Jewish families. I could go on, but I think you get the idea: race doesn’t tell the whole story, but it does tell a good part of it.

I am guessing that when your peers ask you to check your privilege, they are asking you to acknowledge this history. This does not mean you’re unaccomplished or haven’t worked hard, it just means that you were given some societal help that was and is denied to most people of color. You don’t need to feel bad about the opportunities that were given to you, your parents, or your grandparents. However, it’s important that you understand that those opportunities were not given to everyone’s ancestors, and that this has had a lasting impact. As a so-called “model minority,” Jews in particular have a responsibility to bust the myth of our own success. We must vigorously refute notions of cultural and ethnic superiority by acknowledging that we’ve gotten something from this country as a result of our white skin.

The Holocaust is clearly a valid part of your genealogy, but so too is this American story of opportunity. A savage ethnic persecution halfway around the world does not nullify your status as a beneficiary of the ethnic discrimination that has happened in this country. Whether we like it or not, we, as Jews, are implicated in an American history of racial oppression. There are many instances of Jews standing up against racial inequity, but there are also a good number of moments when Jews helped reinforce racism, and we have to acknowledge those as well.

Your essay follows in the footsteps of many Jewish thinkers who have used the atrocities of World War II to worm their way out of conversations about white privilege in the United States. I’m asking you to avoid this ideological trap. I know it seems promising, but it leads to a graveyard of ideas that all come back to a racialist and obviously flawed understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

As a Jew whose family has felt the brutal sting of genocide you should know better than to perpetuate racist ideas about success and opportunity. When you deny your own privilege that’s what you’re doing, whether you know it or not. This is not only historiographically lazy, it’s wrong and it’s offensive. Maybe that’s something you’ll learn at Princeton over the next three years.


Eli Plenk

Eli Plenk is a New York-based writer, organizer and teacher who has spent a decade working at the intersection of racial justice and education. He came up in the Workmen’s Circle, spent much of the last five years building Boston Mobilization’s youth organizing school, and recently returned from Berlin where he was a Humanity in Action fellow. A graduate of Hampshire College, Eli wrote a good deal of his thesis on diaspora, whiteness, and postnational Jewish identity.

Editor’s Note: If you read this, you’ll likely want to read Adam Weinstein’s “Conservative Money Front Is Behind Princeton’s ‘White Privilege’ Guy” over at Gawker. Here’s a teaser:

Fortgang wrote his rant for the Princeton Tory, an independent campus publication that’s just one of about 80 bankrolled by the Collegiate Network and its parent group, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. According to its website, ISI was founded in the McCarthy era as a “fifty-year plan” to advance conservative political causes “by implanting the idea in the minds of the coming generations.”

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