New Depths in Jewish-Muslim Dialogue: Jewish Privilege

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June 27, 2014

No Camels

“If you have parents who went to college, take a step forward.”

“If when you walk into a store, the workers sometimes suspect you are going to steal something because of your race, take one step back.”

“If you see people who share your identity reflected on television and in movies in roles you don’t consider degrading, take a step forward.”

When we began the exercise, we were standing in a row, holding hands. Our facilitators took turns reading a series of statements: if this is true for you, step this way. If that is true for you, step that way. It wasn’t long before our chain of hands was broken.

Before this session, I would have said I was aware of my privilege as a white, affluent, college-educated, Jewish cis-gender woman. I’ve read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. But it turned out that I wasn’t nearly as aware of privilege as I had thought.

In Jewish Renewal we speak often in the paradigm of the “four worlds”, of assiyah (physicality), yetzirah (emotion), briyah (thought) and atzilut (spirit/essence). In briyah, the world of intellect, I think I did have a handle on my own privilege. But when I had the physical experience of having to let go of the hands of my friends, and of seeing at the end where each of us was positioned, the realities impacted me in the emotional and spiritual realms, and they hit me hard.

This exercise, often called “The Privilege Walk, was part of our session on “Challenges in Jewish-Muslim Engagement” at a wonderful retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders, held this month in Chester, Connecticut, and organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College’s department of multifaith initiatives.

I hated having to let go of the hands of people I had quickly come to regard as friends and sisters. I hated the truth that people I care about don’t have what I have. It was painful for me on a visceral level to recognize that by the end of the exercise the group’s Jews were toward the front of the line, the Muslims toward the back. That the people with the lightest skin were at the front of the line, while the people with the darkest skin were in back. I had known intellectually that this is how our world works, but when I saw it physically represented in this way everything in me rebelled against this truth.

I came away from the exercise with renewed awareness that we, as Jews, come to Jewish-Muslim encounters with tremendous privilege — whether it’s white privilege, class privilege, or the privilege of having grandparents who chose to immigrate to this country and found prosperity here instead of, e.g., ancestors who were brought here from Africa against their will and enslaved, or who came here more recently, illegally, or who have experienced prejudice because they are not white.

Others in my community have written about these same things, including Eli Plenk’s Dear Tal: An Open Letter About Jewish Privilege in Zeek, and Samuel G. Freedman’s Checking Your Jewish Privilege in the Forward.

I recognize that a few generations ago, it was my community experiencing systematic oppression. The country clubs that explicitly didn’t allow Jews, the jobs that didn’t welcome Jews, the subtler, more invisible discrimination based on religion and class. There’s the Shoah too, of course, in which 6 million of our people were slaughtered for the crime of being Jews. And many of our families have living memory of these things. But for most of us, it’s not our reality anymore. For most of our Muslim sisters, this kind of systematic oppression is part of everyday life — along with the realities of contemporary Islamophobia that have plagued our nation since 9/11.

I’m deeply invested in the transformative possibilities of Jewish-Muslim engagement. And I come away from this retreat feeling extra-committed to that work — and also newly aware that all of our Jewish-Muslim conversations in this country are impacted by the fact that, disproportionately, the Jews in these dialogues are coming from a place of privilege and the Muslims aren’t. Of course there are exceptions. There are Jews who lack privilege in all kinds of ways, and Muslims who have privilege in all kinds of ways. That doesn’t change the reality that in the big picture, by and large, Jews are coming from a place of greater privilege, and that means there’s a way in which Jews have the power in these conversations. Power sits uneasily with me. The reality of Jewish power and privilege relative to our Muslim sisters makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Our nation’s endemic racism isn’t the only reason Jews come to these conversations with power. At the retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders, some of the participants noted that the Jews at this retreat have institutional support. We come from rabbinic schools or yeshivas that offer us teaching, mentorship, and collegiality. There is no equivalent Muslim system for training clergy, which means many of the Muslims at this retreat attend as individuals, not necessarily linked to the kind of communities of support that the Jewish students by and large enjoy. It’s not a level playing field. And on the whole it’s the Jews who come to the conversations unaware of that fact, because that kind of blindness is one of the luxuries so often accompanying privilege.

On one axis, looking at race/class and privilege, Jews are in a position of privilege and Muslims aren’t. On another axis, looking at sheer numbers, Muslims are in a position of power. (And I suspect that this contributes to Jewish inability to see our own privilege and power.) There is a strong Jewish communal sense that we are tiny and they are vast. This is often coupled with anxiety about our community shrinking dangerously, thanks to assimilation and/or intermarriage – a conclusion I resist, which heightens the feeling of being fearfully outnumbered in the world. And we are surely outnumbered. Both Jews and Muslims are religious minorities in America, and we have a lot of experiences in common for that reason, but most Muslims probably don’t realize how few Jews there are.

Jews make up less than 0.2% of the world’s population. Look at that number closely — two-tenths of one percent. Muslims make up 23% of the world’s population. There are a lot more of “them” than there are of “us.” This in turn feeds into Jewish anxiety around Israel, a tiny state (the only Jewish one in the world) surrounded by frequently hostile Muslim nations. And Israel is indeed those things. In that sense, the Muslims involved in interfaith engagement come to our conversations with the power of numbers. But that in turn doesn’t change the reality that for many Muslims in this country, the injustices perpetrated by Jews against Arabs and Muslims make Israel feel like a powerful, dangerous oppressor.

I’ve written before about the need to strive to hold the both/and when it comes to Israel/Palestine. I still believe in the spiritual value of that work — and I acknowledge that it is not easy. Especially when we seek to open ourselves to the perspectives of people for whom the situation looks very different.

After doing the Privilege Walk, we moved into another exercise called a “Fishbowl,. The Jews sat in a tight circle of chairs, with the group’s Muslims seated in a bigger circle around us. With the prompting of a facilitator we processed, aloud, our experience of the walk and how it related to the conversations we had already begun about the difficult conversations between our communities. (Later we switched places, and the Muslim women entered the fishbowl.)

During the Privilege Walk I’d found myself wanting to crack jokes to defuse the tension of stepping forward again and again. During the fishbowl I was even more uncomfortable. I wanted to turn to my Muslim sisters and pour out a lengthy apology — which was inappropriate because our job in the fishbowl was to speak to each other as Jews, with awareness of Muslim witness, not to directly address the other community in the room. I wanted to apologize for the systemic injustices that have given my community advantages which their community often doesn’t have. And I wanted to apologize for my own (and my community’s) cluelessness about how our privilege serves us, and for the many things we have the luxury of taking for granted or not noticing at all.

When we switched sides, I found that listening to the other community process their experiences of the Privilege Walk was difficult, too. I wanted to respond to everything I heard. I wanted to offer words of comfort. I wanted to spring up from my chair and proffer earnest handclasps, embraces, boxes of tissues, anything I could do to lessen the obvious pain. But as in chaplaincy experiences where my task has been to bear loving witness and not to try to “put a Band-Aid” on suffering, I knew that my role here was to manifest the loving ear of God and to take in what I was hearing, not to try to paper over it or smooth it away.

My take-away is this: We — Jewish women and Muslim women — came to our engagement having been dealt far different hands of cards, through no merit or fault of our own. And until those of us with the privilege recognize the injustice and take steps to fix it, the disparity in our circumstances can get in the way of conversation, because we’re not speaking from places of equality. (It’s also not our Muslim sisters’ job to educate us about our privilege, nor to absolve us of responsibility for that privilege — we need to take responsibility for educating ourselves and for figuring out what we can do to ameliorate matters.)

I went into the “difficult conversations” session assuming that Israel/Palestine would be the difficult conversation in question. And I wasn’t entirely wrong about that; it did come up, and those conversations aren’t easy. But what I hadn’t realized was that before I can even begin to talk with my Muslim sisters about the Middle East, I need to recognize how my privilege shapes the inequities built into our conversation. And ideally I need to figure out something I can do to try to make that better, because if I don’t try to fix this situation, then I’m complicit in perpetuating it.

In the progressive Jewish world we take pride in being proponents of, and participants in, interfaith dialogue that seeks to build bridges and increase our understanding of one another. But it’s easy to engage in interfaith engagement on a pshat level, a surface level. This retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders offered an opportunity to go much deeper. The deeper work was a little bit like a deep-tissue massage: not necessarily comfortable while it was happening, but it opened something up in me which is still open, and which I want to keep open.

This experience was neither easy nor comfortable, but it was incredibly valuable. I aspire to continue to process what I felt and what I learned, and to try to work toward changing the system in which our situations are so unequal. As the sages of my tradition have written, in the collection of rabbinic wisdom called Pirkei Avot, “It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.”

Thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for making this retreat possible.

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