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Jewish privilege

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Last Sunday I attended the Jewish Voice for Peace members’ meeting in the Perelman Quandrangle at the University of Pennsylvania. Right across the way was Claudia Cohen Hall. Two days later I spoke at Temple, at Klein Hall, and when I got on the subway back downtown I saw posters for an arts festival taking place at Kimmel Center. This is one of the most fraught issues I deal with at this site, the extent to which Jews have become the new American mandarins.

I was grateful at JVP that younger Jews seem to be acknowledging Jewish privilege as a factor in Middle East policy and removing some of the emotion from the conversation.

Liz Shulman gave a talk on Jewish privilege at the meeting. Rabbi Brant Rosen was also at JVP, and he has said directly, here, “I feel as a white male American Jew, I feel very powerful. I feel part of a very powerful and privileged minority in the world.” Beautiful. Another friend I saw at the JVP conference accepts the idea that Jews are the new WASPS; he sent me a note about how many of the American ambassadors to the big European countries are Jews. I count eight. That’s real influence. The next ambassador to Israel is Daniel Shapiro, the aide who announced Obama’s Security Council veto was James Steinberg, Dennis Ross who headed an institute for the “Jewish people” is the Middle East envoy, the New Yorker magazine’s Jewish editor invokes “Jewish values” to oppose the occupation with the secure knowledge that his privileged readers will resonate to the phrase, and when NBC reports on the Arab world, it’s usually Andrea Mitchell and Richard Engel, both Jews, and at CNN it’s Wolf Blitzer…

And you wonder why Obama is worried about Jewish money in the next presidential race. Or why his Defense Secretary gives a meeting to Rob’t Kagan and Bill Kristol on Libya and they then walk out and publicly trash him–they have connections to the rich conservative wing of Jewish life that is enmeshed in Democratic Party life too and is so significant in shaping the new Establishment.

“When do we get to talk about this– when the entire Supreme Court is Jewish?” my friend at JVP joked. Right now we have only three justices, all appointed by Democratic presidents.

When I spoke at Villanova on Monday, a Jewish professor at the school, Dveera Segal, rebuked me for talking about the number of Jews in elite journalism. She said the same kind of talk was a theme of anti-semites. I said, Sorry, but this is my experience, I have to talk about the facts.

These facts are too prominent in our political life not to be discussed, we just haven’t figured out how yet. I’m trying. When Julian Assange had a conversation about how many editors at a top English newspaper were Jewish, enemies accused him of believing a “conspiracy” theory, and meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg titled a column on the issue Jews Jews Jews Jews Jews, a perverse declaration of his own race-man pride in Jewish achievement.

Of course Assange denied he had spoken about such things, but people think about these things and they have a right to discuss them, if only for the effect they’ve had on our Middle East policy. The last social order was described by one prominent American Jewish writer as the “Episcopacy,” and a member of it, E. Digby Baltzell, helped to bring it down in the 1960s by exposing the anti-Semitism in that order and urging his kinsmen to open the boardrooms to Jewish talent. My generation clambered aboard, god bless us. We called ourselves a meritocracy; and still, I wonder how much of the Jewish presence in important jobs has to do with Jewish kinship networks, i.e., we discriminated in favor of other Jews. I reflect that my journalism career was propelled by many Jewish editor friends (and yes, a few non-Jewish ones too), and our religious identity was important to all of us. Just as Jewish identity was a central element to the neoconservatives, who Jacob Heilbrunn has written were propelled by their ethnic “resentment” against being excluded from prestige positions by the WASPs.

The thing I liked about the conversation at JVP was a sense that the next generation acknowledges these facts and will be able to talk about Jewish privilege in less scary ways. A few weeks back on his public radio show, The Sound of Young America, Jesse Thorn asked the producer Jerry Hurwitz (who has since died) why so many black artists were elevated by Jewish producers. Hurwitz was freaked out by the question, he said it hinted at Jews-run-Hollywood. So it was left to Thorn to supply a meaning: It seems that you acted as mediators between oppressed blacks and the mainstream. It’s a good theory; it touches on Jewish political identity forged in eastern Europe. And let us remember: almost all those producers did very well.

The Jewish establishment is starting to fade as we speak. Happily, I sense that the establishment is growing more diverse by the minute.

And when the old one’s gone, we’ll finally be allowed to talk about it.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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