Maybe you’ve heard about this, but an angry piece defending privilege has gone viral. Tal Fortgang is a Princeton freshman who wrote a piece for a conservative school magazine that objects to the left’s scrutiny of privilege.
“Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.
Time and Gawker refer to the piece as a defense of “white privilege” — and it is — but I also see the Jewish angle. Fortgang several times refers to his Jewishness in often angry ways, citing his ancestors who fled the Nazis and wound up in Displaced Persons camps, and those who didn’t too:
Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that’s my privilege.
But Fortgang says his grandfather became an entrepreneur in the U.S. That’s code for, he made a lot of money. The family flourished, he says. He grew up in New Rochelle.
In other words, his ancestors were persecuted, but maybe Fortgang really is privileged?
You can see the same ancestral Jewish claim in the response to the Donald Sterling flap. Howard Megdal is the reporter who asked NBA commissioner Adam Silver at his press conference ten days ago if he was disciplining Sterling for his racism “as a Jew.”
Silver said he was doing it “as a human being,” but Megdal insists on linking Silver to those Jews who died in the civil rights movement.
It was, as I saw it, a very Jewish moment for Adam Silver. It was one man’s tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning “to repair the world”….Schwerner and Goodman died for what mattered. Two years later, Texas Western’s all-African-American starting lineup beat the racist Adolph Rupp and Kentucky. My grandfather marched on Washington to support civil rights. Bill Russell became the first African-American NBA coach.
But the civil rights movement was a long time ago. Schwerner and Goodman and Chaney, too — he was black– were martyred 50 years ago next month!
And Josh Nathan-Kazis writes at the Forward that the Megdal moment was “awkward” because it pointed up the large number of Jews in sports ownership, including Donald Sterling.
Yet nearly half the principal owners of NBA teams are Jewish, as are the league’s current commissioner and its immediate past commissioner.
I think Megdal and Fortgang are citing Jewish history because they’re uncomfortable with the fact that Jews are so privileged right now. They are in denial of the changing Jewish image in America. Increasingly, we are associated with the Establishment, with the people who “pull most of the strings in the world,” in Fortgang’s phrase. We’re the richest group by religion in this country, and Donald Sterling is not the only arrogant powerful prick in our number. Gawker says that Fortgang’s piece was promoted by a network that includes neocons John Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, Bill Kristol’s son-in-law Matt Continetti (of the Washington Free Beacon), and the neocon funders of the Shalem Center, the rightwing thinktank in Israel. Lovely people. And P.S., Donald Sterling defended his racism by citing Israeli racism.
The Jewish brand is changing before our eyes. Increasingly we’re associated with rich fools like Donald Sterling, and a militant rightwing state in the Middle East and its rightwing lobby here. Rabbi Michael Lerner says it’s all connected:
Israel today presents the Jews as one of the more arrogant nations on the planet….
In order to defend Israeli policies, Jews around the world insist on the need for the Jewish people to have power and dominate others, because that’s “the real world” in which we live. This is the logic of Roman imperialism, Christian colonialism, Hitler and Stalin and all those who have opposed Jews through history.
That’s one reason I’m proud of this site. You read progressive Jews here who oppose those attitudes and policies.
But I won’t tell you I’m not privileged. I’m looking out my window at the woods right now; I live in a beautiful part of the world. And dealing with privilege is difficult. It means sorting out one’s personal relationship to the powers that be, and sorting out one’s individual responsibility in the context of identity politics. For me that means confronting the Jewish and American relationship with the people Jews have dispossessed, Palestinians, and granting Palestinians a leadership role, and honoring their narrative. Because I lead a good life, it means struggling honestly with my own investments in the west, even as I work on justice questions as a liberal. I don’t know how Jewish that struggle is, and it certainly isn’t about Schwerner and Cheney and Goodman or the Nazis. But as Hillel said, If not now when?
Thanks to Annie Robbins.