In recent times, many Black Lives Matter activists and other radical leftists have been asserting that Jewish Americans benefit from something called Jewish privilege. This idea has gained so much traction in recent times that some Jews have even eternalized this way of thinking. For example, a rabbi in Portland, Oregon was asked by a journalist his thoughts on the George Floyd killing and its subsequent aftermath. His response? “No comment because I am a white male who benefits from Jewish privilege,” the respectable rabbi proclaimed. The question remains, is there such a thing as Jewish privilege in American history?
For starters, I would like to stress that not every member of the American Jewish community is Ashkenazi. 12-15 percent of American Jews are people of color. My grandfather, Sallee Salomon, was a Sephardic Jew from Ottoman Turkish-controlled Greece. He spoke Ladino, which is a dialect of Spanish, alongside his native Greek and Turkish. Since he was the father of my father, this makes me Sephardic under Jewish law. According to the US Supreme Court, this puts me in the same racial category as Hispanics, for my ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492 and spoke Ladino, a dialect of Spanish. They never became truly Greek nor Turkish. Instead, they preserved the culinary and linguistic traditions of medieval Spain.
A book titled “Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History” by Aviva Ben Ur claims that historically speaking, the Sephardic Jewish experience in America was very similar to that of Puerto Ricans. It claims that society related to us as “Orientals” and “not completely white,” implying that white privilege never really included Sephardic Jews. Although the US is classifying Hispanics as an ethnic group and not a race anymore, historically, Hispanics were never treated equally to Caucasians and faced much discrimination throughout American history. Sephardic Jews are no different.
For example, Alfred Bennon, a Sephardic Jewish professor at Rutgers University, claimed in the 1990’s that he was denied tenure due to his Sephardic characteristics and his argument was accepted by the US Supreme Court. When the US had quotas on the number of Jews that they would accept into the country prior to World War II, the US government was willing to accept a greater number of German Jews than Greek Jews. In 1939, despite Hitler’s genocidal ambitions against the Jewish people, only 27,000 people from Germany and Austria would be admitted into the US. For Greek Jews, the quota was only 351 in 1938. The quotas were designed in that fashion for Americans at that time considered Eastern and Southern Europeans to be racially inferior to people from Northern Europe. Thus, even though the quota system was horrific for all Jews, it was even worse for Greek Jews than it was for their Ashkenazi brethren.
However, even the Sephardim who were already accepted into America did not receive equal treatment to Ashkenazi Jews and most certainly not gentile Christian white Americans. When Harvard had a quota saying only 15% of their students could be Jewish, how many Sephardim were among those 15%? Although 12-15 percent of American Jews are people of color, how many of them are professors compared to Ashkenazis today? When a university opens a Jewish Studies Department, how many of these departments study Yiddish compared to Ladino? In Jewish Studies Departments in universities across America, how much time do the universities devote to studying the rich history of Sephardic Jewry? To their credit, the University of Washington and UCLA have a Sephardic Studies program, yet they are in the minority.
In my high school world history class, they did not mention Jews at all except for an “introduction to what Jews believe among all other faiths,” a Holocaust day and a one-day introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They did not mention Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews at all. At the University of Maryland, I took a course on the Holocaust and a course on the history of Zionism. In both courses, I did not learn about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews at all. It is as if their culture and history is invisible in America, even though the original Jewish settlers in America were Sephardic, not Ashkenazi. Indeed, although all Jews in America faced discrimination, the Sephardim had it even worse.
However, Sephardim are not the only marginalized Jewish community. Indeed, there are also black Jews in America and they claim that like the African American community, they also have faced systematic discrimination, including from the police. Given this, how can the Black Lives Matter Movement and other radical leftists classify all American Jews as “privileged whites?” Indeed, to classify all Jews as white is to deny the beautiful diversity that exists within American Judaism and to deny the reality that Jews come in all shapes, colors and forms. It is also to deny Jewish history more generally in America.
It is critical to note that anti-Semitic sentiment has a long history in America. In 1654, a group of Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Brazil wanted to settle in New Amsterdam, which would become New York. Governor Peter Stuvyvesant opposed the Jews landing at the port, proclaiming that they are “a deceitful race—such hateful enemies and blasphemers of Christ.” They were only permitted to settle in the end due to their connection to the East India Company.
In colonial America, Jews were barred settlement in all communities, with the sole exceptions being New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and South Carolina. The governor of Georgia also did not want the Jews to settle in the beginning and only changed his mind because a doctor was among the Jews seeking settlement there, and the colony desperately needed a doctor. In other words, if there was no doctor among the potential Jewish settlers, Jews likely would not have been able to settle in Georgia as well.
In the State of Maryland, Jews were considered “enemies of Christianity.” In 1658, Jacob Lumbrazo, a Jewish merchant, was indicted for “blasphemy against our blessed savior Jesus Christ.” He was only granted citizenship when he was compelled to convert to Christianity. Although George Washington spoke eloquently in favor of granting the Jewish people rights, Jews only were granted equality to Christians in the State of Maryland in 1826.
According to Robert Michael’s “A concise history of Anti-Semitism in America,” Jews were still considered “enemies of Christianity” and could “have their bores tongued through for denying the Trinity” in Maryland. Maryland was the last state to grant Jews equal rights. Nevertheless, across the nation, Jews were not granted equality before the law immediately after the American Revolutionary War like white Christian males were. They had to wait for that privilege.
Even after the Jews were granted equal rights under the law, the local Jewish community continued to be haunted by anti-Semitism. In the Jim Crow South, there were swimming pools with signs outside that read “no blacks, no dogs and no Jews.” Under Jim Crow, Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods. African Americans were not the only ones to suffer under Jim Crow. For this reason, Jews fought alongside African Americans in bringing an end to Jim Crow.
Even if a Jew has light skin like a European, in the eyes of the white Christian bigots, he is not equal. In 1910, the Dixing Publishing Company published a study titled The Jew a Negro, A Study of the Jewish Ancestry from an Impartial Standpoint. Written by Reverend Arthur Aburnuthy, it argued that the Jew “of today as well as his ancestors in other times is the kinsmen and descendent of the Negro.” As Leonard Lagoff argued in an article tilted “Is the Jew white,” “Whether racial theorists defined the Jews as Semites or Orientals, the Jews status as Europeans was questioned. The Jews color was described invariably as white, black or mixed.”
Indeed, the KKK attacked Jews as well. They did not just go after African Americans. Bari Weiss in “How to fight anti-Semitism” reported that in 1915, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta was lynched by anti-Semitic mobs, an action that caused more than half of the 3,000 Jews living in Georgia at that time to leave the state. In the 1950’s, “the KKK bombed and shot up Jewish synagogues in the South in a wave of anti-Semitic violence.” From the 1960’s through 2000, long before Donald Trump, white supremacists attacked Jews and Jewish houses of worship in America. It is just that before what happened to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad House in Coway, we Jews liked to pretend that we lived a privileged existence, even though bigotry was always a thorn in our side beneath the surface. The reality is that we were always a persecuted minority. The only difference between now and before is that after Pittsburgh, we have stopped being in denial. It goes without saying that if you ask any white supremacist today their thoughts on the issue, white privilege does not include Jews. They believe that the Jews should be killed also and not just African Americans.
Given this, how can anyone claim that there is such a thing as Jewish privilege in America? Why should I as a Jewish American bow down and apologize to the African American community for a history of slavery that my family had nothing to do with? While White Christian Americans do owe African Americans an apology, Jews do not. Indeed, while white Christian America was enslaving Africans, my ancestors were in Ottoman Greece and other areas of Europe. They were not in the US at all and thus played no part in that dark era of American history. In fact, my ancestors were facing anti-Semitic oppression, as the African Americans suffered from slavery. My story is that of countless other American Jews. Given that, how can anyone argue that there is such a thing as Jewish privilege? It just makes no sense. Anyone who claims that Jewish privilege exists is either ignorant of history or blinded by a radical leftist agenda to the point that they fail to see the stars surrounding the moon in the night sky.