You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Kibbitznik: My Jewish Privilege

Alyssa Goldstein
June 9, 2011

by Alyssa Goldstein

Last year, Jon Stewart had Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti and Jewish-American left-wing activist Anna Baltzer as guests on The Daily Show. This show was tremendously controversial (for no other reason than the fact that Barghouti is Palestinian) and the interview became the most-watched Daily Show video on the internet, ever. I was lucky enough to be at the live taping of that show, since Barghouti’s daughter is a friend of mine. This was a pretty incredible experience for someone who had been a fan of The Daily Show since 2003. I’d been to tapings of the show before since I live in New York and it’s free, but this time was different, more tense. During the pre-show Q and A period, I asked Jon what he thought about the Israel-Palestine conflict. He dodged the question, instead talking about how he holds the phone away from his ear when people talk to him on the phone about it, same as he does when his grandmother calls. During the interview itself, a guy in the front row stood up and shouted “LIAR!” before he was escorted from the studio. And after the show, I got to go backstage and MEET JON STEWART. Though I have many political differences with Stewart now (he’s way too moderate for my taste) it was still pretty damned awesome.

It also happened that our group, Just Peace in Israel/Palestine, had scheduled Anna Baltzer to come speak at Bard a few weeks later. After she gave her presentation, there were some students in the audience who asked her about her appearance on The Daily Show. She had some very interesting inside info to tell us. Originally, only Mustafa Barghouti had been slated to appear on the show. But because of the controversy which erupted around this, they asked Anna to appear alongside him. However, whoever booked Anna on the show apparently had no idea who she was--they figured that because she was Jewish, she would supposedly counter Barghouti. They didn’t know when they booked her that she was an activist for Palestinian rights.
Because the interview had run long, it had aired on television in an edited version which made it seem as if Anna had said almost nothing. However, she said that it was better than airing a version where she, rather than Barghouti, had done all the talking--better than a version where she as a Jewish activist would appear to be telling Palestinians’ stories for them at the expense of Palestinian voices themselves.

This is a dilemma I’ve thought about quite a lot in the course of my activist involvement with this issue. As a Jewish American, I’m really damned privileged when it comes to Israel/Palestine. (Of course, this isn’t limited to Israel/Palestine. I’m a white person, and I’m damned privileged by that too). I’m free to go to Israel (which Palestinians are not, except those with Jerusalem IDs), I can travel about the country freely when I’m there, I run very little risk of being harassed at a checkpoint, arrested or arbitrarily imprisoned, or having my house demolished. I can easily access basic necessities including medical care. If I choose to go to a demonstration in the West Bank, the army will probably try to avoid shooting me. Some of these privileges are smaller but still important: I don’t have to worry about “flying while Arab,” or being the target of racist poster vandalism (yes, this happened at Bard!). Palestinians have a lot more to lose than I do because of the conflict, but when it comes to speaking out injustices against the Palestinians, I’m more likely to be taken seriously by other Americans.

I think some of that is due to the fact that people might be surprised to hear from a Jew with connections to Israel who’s anti-occupation and thinks that the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinians meets the legal requirements for apartheid. If a Palestinian professes the same beliefs, it’s easier for them to be dismissed as biased at best or hateful and anti-Semitic at worst. (For example, I was once talking with a faculty member about the state of Israel-Palestine discourse on campus, and they said to me, “maybe if your group brought some Jewish speakers people would feel more comfortable.” Which was a big surprise, because almost all of our speakers have been Jewish, but more importantly, that shouldn’t matter.)

So what role should Jewish activists take in the struggle for Palestinian rights (or for that matter, what role should members of a privileged group take in the struggle of an oppressed group?) One of the valuable lessons I’ve learned is that members of an oppressed group should not be required to educate privileged people about their situations. If they take that upon themselves, that’s one thing. But if you go up to an unsuspecting Palestinian (or a person of color, or a woman, or a GLBTQ person) who has had to deal with oppression every day of their lives, and ask them a question that basically boils down to “I am too lazy to google anything or educate myself, so please explain to me in detail why you should be treated like a human being,” don’t be surprised if they are less than obliging (or tell you to fuck off). But I don’t have to deal with the same kind of oppression that Palestinians do. Since I don’t have to, say, wait five hours at a checkpoint every day, I might have a bit of extra energy left over to handle something like that. (Admittedly, I am horrible at this. Having a Palestinian boyfriend, among other factors, makes me super impatient with people who ask those sorts of questions.)

Because of this, I really try to avoid saying anything that basically boils down to “I’m a Jew and I’m criticizing Israel, so what I’m saying is worth listening to!” Sometimes, when I encounter n00bs who attempt to regale me with their opinions on Israel/Palestine which have obviously been gleaned from watching a five-minute segment on Fox News, it’s pretty hard for me not to shoot back with “I’ve lived there, you’ve never been there, you have no attachment to this whatsoever, STFU.” But it’s deeper than that too. It’s not just about refraining from using my background to establish cred. Sometimes, it’s about knowing when it’s time to shut up and listen, time to let Palestinians make their own statements and tell their own stories. It’s about knowing that as an activist, making my support for Palestinian freedoms all about Israel, or all about the Jews, would be messed up. And it’s also about not expecting to be showered with cookies and praises because I’m The Special Jew Who Cares. Do I succeed at all this all the time? Hell no. Having privilege can make a person pretty oblivious. Overcoming that is a lifelong struggle.