The conversation took place more than twenty years ago, but I still remember it. I was walking with another American through Oxford University, where we had both recently arrived as graduate students. In the middle of our conversation, she said something along the lines of: “You probably feel pretty comfortable here.”
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I struggled to explain how untrue that was. I found the culture of Oxford alien. The English students and faculty struck me as reserved and aloof. They were more likely to conceal their passions and ambitions than to flaunt them. They bonded over alcohol, not food. I stammered to explain my feeling of outsiderness but I was speaking in euphemisms. The real answer was: Of course I don’t feel comfortable here. I’ve never been in a less Jewish environment in my life.
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But to my colleague, who hailed from the rural West, the assumption made sense. I’d grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and graduated from Yale. My parents were born overseas. I was used to fancy universities and international crowds. I saw myself as a member of a precarious minority that hadn’t fared well on European soil. She saw me as a member of the American elite.
What I experienced then, American Jews are experiencing on a far broader scale today: a jarring dissonance between the way others perceive us and the way we perceive ourselves. On both the right and left, American politics is being reshaped by a bitter class divide. And many Jews – despite our own self-conception – are caught on one side.
Donald Trump’s base consists disproportionately of non-college educated, rural, white men who seethe at the coastal elites who, in their view, impose globalization, immigration, multiculturalism and “political correctness” on the nation. And they know that many of these elites are Jews. Some Trump supporters respond to this realization in classically anti-Semitic ways. As the ADL recently reported, the Trump campaign has sparked an upsurge in tweets that employ “tropes” like “Jews control the media, Jews control global finance.” Trump surrogate Ann Coulter is fond of asking why Israel gets to implement an immigration policy that preserves its ethno-religious character but America doesn’t. The clear implication is that American Jews care about Israel in a way they don’t care about the United States.
Most Trump supporters, however, aren’t hostile to Jews per se. They’re hostile to an economic and cultural elite that disproportionately includes Jews. But this itself makes many American Jews uncomfortable. It erases our self-definition. We see ourselves as a historically brutalized minority with a distinct story and perspective. For many Trumpkins, we’re merely part of the establishment that must be smashed.
There’s a parallel on the American left. Last week, I talked to some Jewish students at Stanford. They described their frustration at the campus debate over Israel. Palestinian activists had recruited many of the African-American, Latino and LGBT leaders on campus to their side. And when Jewish students argued against BDS, these people of color delegitimized their point of view. After all, the BDS supporters argued, Jews are privileged and white. Sometimes, this claim veered on bigotry, as when a member of Stanford University’s Student Senate argued this spring that it is “not anti-Semitism” to claim Jews control “the media, economy, government and other social institutions” because “questioning these potential power dynamics” is “a very valid discussion.”
But for the most part, the Jewish students I talked to didn’t perceive anti-Semitism. They perceived something else: the left’s refusal to let them define themselves. To many students of color, one Jewish student commented bleakly, Stanford’s Hillel building symbolized whiteness. The Jewish students didn’t see race and class as their core identities, especially when it came to Israel. But their anti-Zionist foes did.
Responding to this dynamic is tricky. American Jews are overwhelmingly white and disproportionately upper middle class. As such, we enjoy tremendous privilege. We shouldn’t be surprised or outraged that this shapes the way we’re seen. Instead of casting ourselves as history’s permanent victims, as American Jewish leaders sometimes do, we should ask how we can use our good fortune to help those Americans who aren’t doing as well.
On the other hand, Jews – even if white and privileged – still have the right to speak as Jews, advocate for Jews, think and act as Jews. We understand ourselves in ways others don’t because we know our history in ways they don’t. That’s what I wish I had told my fellow student all those years ago.