Let's Stop Using 'Privileged' as an Insult

My parents immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union and risked everything in order to become 'privileged'; using this term for gratuitous condemnation undermines the dialogue about the haves and have-nots.

An illustrative image of a white man in a suit lighting a cigar with a burning $100 bill.
Andreblais / Dreamstime

Dear readers, not long ago I had the audacity to write (in the Haaretz Hebrew edition) that my parents own an apartment, and that when the time comes they will bequeath it to their offspring. This didn’t strike me as some sort of dramatic revelation, because this is how things are done in our family, and in other families, too: Parents see to their children’s future, sometimes more than the children can do themselves.

But it turns out that I underestimated the gravity of the “confession.” Two days later, someone I don’t know claimed angrily on Facebook that I am “privileged.” She added, “There are people whose parents don’t have an apartment” and who need “to work in order to live.”

I have to admit that this is a sensitive point for me. It’s not that I have a problem with being called names. I am not overly delicate. But “privileged”?! That’s completely off the wall. Unreasonable. Not me.

The next thing that will happen will be that before we express an opinion, say, or write something personal about ourselves, we will have to show written authorization from an accountant or a land assessor as formal, bureaucratic proof of our economic situation.

In any event, I have white skin and wear glasses. That makes me what’s known as an “Ashkenazi.” I am guilty even before being put on trial. It has nothing to do with my parents’ bank account. Or with their, or my, real situation. We’re not talking about objective truth here. This is about a reading that reduces me, and those like me, to a poster image that has no connection with reality. Not that there is reality any more; there are only opinions about reality.

The reactions to the Facebook post got one thing right: Things can always be worse. There are people whose parents don’t own an apartment, and also those whose parents live in an aluminum shack or on pieces of cardboard on Allenby Road, and who themselves are straddling the poverty line or are panhandlers. Misery and sadness have no boundaries. Of course everything is relative. But this isn’t a contest.

Israel is a country in which difficulty and suffering are part of the place’s self-definition. People experience erotic pleasure when they hear about a multiple-victim terrorist attack. Catastrophe is expected. Joy, happiness and wealth are considered decadent pleasures.

I know people from wealthy families, inheritors of land and of millions of shekels, who complain that they don’t have the money to pay the rent or buy a falafel. Either they are pretending or they know you mustn’t flaunt your assets here. It’s bad for the image. Ask the Mizrahi singers: Israel is a capitalist country, but we have remained victims of the ethos of austerity and modesty. We’re stuck in a romanticism of wretchedness, because being wretched is more authentic.

But it’s also important to remember a simple principle: Poor people who made money with their own hands enjoy showing it off. Boasting about it. Buying cars and homes and jewelry. Because it didn’t come to them easily – whereas those who hide what they have and assume a modest demeanor are probably drowning in cash. Only the fabulously rich can afford to say they have nothing. The poor, for their part, are in no rush to show their poverty. It’s nothing to take pride in.

I called my father and told him that someone had called me “privileged.”

He laughed. “I don’t understand. What’s wrong with that? She gave you a compliment.”

“Dad,” I replied, “she meant to insult me.”

“Then she is a spoiled Israeli. She doesn’t understand what we went through.”

Apparently she really didn’t get it – not that that makes a difference. My father thinks that being called “privileged” is a terrific compliment. From the place he’s at, nothing could be more true. My father was not born on Facebook and will not die on Facebook.

My parents immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union and risked everything they had in order to become privileged. They were thrown into Sha’ar Ha’aliyah, one of the worst slums in south Haifa. My father worked for years in a health maintenance organization clinic and in the army in order to save up money and become privileged.

My mother, a food engineer by training, worked in a jam factory but left after a year because she couldn’t allow herself to work and at the same time raise her children. She sacrificed, and became a housewife so that her children would get a good education and grow up to become privileged.

One of my grandfathers worked as a security guard in a branch of the National Insurance Institute in order to help my parents become fully fledged privileged. My other grandfather marked electrical engineering accreditation exams so that, at the age of 83, he would be able to pay off the mortgage he took on a shabby two-room apartment in Mahaneh David in Haifa – an even worse neighborhood than ours. In today’s terms, he is a shameless old privileged man.

My parents did not take trips abroad and did not go to restaurants. They saved their money, shekel by shekel, so that, decades later, an internet commenter would curse their son and say he’s a white man. Well, that’s how it is: I am the son of a Russian family that doesn’t tan easily.

Thanks to a prolonged effort, involving struggles both with the difficulties of the language and the difficulties of the place itself, and because they have the mentality of Russian soldiers on the frozen Stalingrad front – my parents realized the Zionist dream: They made it. They have an apartment. They are able to help their children. Exactly what’s called for. Not overly much. There’s no shame in it and it doesn’t call for pity. On the contrary: People have a deep desire to be privileged.

Immigrants aspire to better their situation. Emigration is a radical move. You don’t leave your place of birth in order to leap from the frying pan into the fire. I always knew I was fortunate. I grew up in a neighborhood with Mizrahim and Ethiopians. I understood very well who has a better chance of succeeding in life. Whom Israeli society marks as worthy, and who as unworthy. But that was no great consolation. Nothing was self-evident for me. With bleeding fingernails, my parents climbed up the rocky slope called Israel.

The dialogue about privilege is crucially important. It seeks to uncover the structures of power. To undermine the historical hierarchies between those who have a great deal and those who have practically nothing; to expose unfair distribution of wealth, the unbelievable chaos of Zionism, within whose framework the land was stolen and the sources of power were stolen, leaving mere crumbs. To demand redistribution, to take what’s coming to us.

But there is a moment at which the dialogue erodes itself. The term “privileged” is overused, to the point where it slowly loses its meaning and the possibility of representing a real problem.

This is another trait of the spirit of the time: an irresponsible use of condemnation and denunciation, in order to feel morally superior. Those who single you out as privileged are never privileged themselves. Forget that. It’s always the other person who enjoys privileges. The person who is dumping on you will not dare admit to what he has. He prefers to tut-tut. That too is a significant privilege. The privilege to tell others that they are privileged.

You know what, they can all take a flying leap. I am privileged and my son will be privileged, as will my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the children of the great-grandchildren. My parents will be delighted to know that they founded a whole dynasty of the proudly privileged.

And to the glory of the State of Israel!