Op-Ed: Jewish Privilege? Strengths and Weaknesses of The Term When Building Solidarity

By Robert Ascherman

Growing up Jewish in the suburbs of Birmingham led me to become a community and labor organizer in New Orleans. At the same time, it led to many of my reactionary hold backs.

Despite spending 18 years of my life in suburban Mountain Brook, few memories distinctly stand out to me from that time. However, a constant feeling of being ostracized, the vandalism of my sister’s car with a swastika, and a friend group that consisted of anyone who the KKK would have gone after are memories that do stand out.

Ironically, for a long time Mountain Brook was the only place that allowed Jews to settle, yet later on it was also the heart of the white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. The center of affluent white flight, Mountain Brook is 96 percent white. Nonetheless in Mountain Brook, the old concept of White Ethnics and P.I.G.S. — Polish, Irish, Greek, and Slavic people — was still heavily felt decades after its prime in the United States. Although to my knowledge there has never been an active Klan in Mountain Brook I can only describe the religious backdrop of Mountain Brook as a militant white Protestantism. This backdrop is certainly removed from White Christian Supremacy but not nearly enough: Diane McWhorter is explicit that the “Big Mules” — as Birmingham’s titans of industry referred to themselves in a play on words they based upon especially valuable black miners during Jim Crow — saw themselves as too refined for the brutal ways of the Klan and thus established the Citizens’ Council in the ‘60s.This rejection of the Klan in favor of the Citizens Council reminds me much of the militant evangelicalism I grew up around.

Like many organizers, I’m fueled by both a streak of oppositionalism and a deep yearning for justice. While Mountain Brook explains the former, my yearning for justice inherently comes from my Judaism. One of the other distinct memories I have comes from my religious father. Year after year he was invited to be a guest presenter at my elementary school to teach what Chanukah is, and what the Jewish people believe. I also distinctly remember one “Sunday school” where we were instructed to make a family budget on minimum wage and then walked over to a nearby grocery store to try and buy a week’s worth of groceries on that budget. None of us succeeded.

Given my friends, father, and the policing of whiteness in Mountain Brook, during the orientation week of college I was attracted an event by New York University’s Center for Multicultural Education and Programs. I was shocked to realize there was only one white person in the room, myself. NYU has a very large Jewish student body and back in Birmingham multicultural events always included the presence of many Jews. This was my first experience with how identify and privilege can be regionalized and religion contested. I understand many progressives’ alienation from organized religion but we cannot forfeit contestable terrain. Instead we should be inspired by the Liberation Theology Movement.

That same year I took one of my favorite college courses: “The Self and the Call of the Other.” Despite growing up in affluence I heard “the call of the other” strongly. Within Mountain Brook I grew near the border with Birmingham on the outskirts of the Cherokee Bend neighborhood, so named after the Cherokee tribe. Unlike Birmingham, Mountain Brook is not a part of the Jefferson County School System, which is significant because Mountain Brook is consistently ranked amongst the best public schools in the country, and refuses to bus students.

Irondale, on the other side of the border, was also the home of our local convenience store. Despite growing up in a sheltered bubble also referred to as the Tiny Kingdom, the store was considered part of the “safe part of town” and school children were regularly taken there for after-school treats. At least this was the case until the store changed to its third management and utilized the “broken windows” theory turning a former community staple into part of the “unsafe part of town.”

Combined with my Jewish upbringing these trips would lay the seeds for my class consciousness. Although the store was within walking distance, it was far enough away to require crossing a redline. Like the educational inequality, the housing injustice was palpable. Exposed to such inequality and identifying as a part of the “other” I lashed out but thought like an activist before becoming an organizer. I was always rabble-rousing about the need for change while lacking the knowledge I needed to be successful. Fortunately, I was able to learn from this. Even after I transited to the much more progressive Indian Springs School during my last two years in high school, I was still ineffective, emphasizing my need to have organizational discipline and meet people where they are, rather than writing them off.

To highlight how insular Mountain Brook was, Springs is significantly more diverse despite being a private school founded exclusively for WASP men two years before Brown v. Board of Education. This isn’t to let Springs off the hook, it still has a long way to go, nor to say Mountain Brook is all bad: both my sisters strived there much more than me even as I continued to struggle at Springs.

Not yet an organizer, I did not understand what really caused systematic injustice and my energy was siphoned off into two directions: constant volunteer work and party partisanship. Given how strongly I have internalized the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, and Judaism’s distinction between charity and justice, I am surprised that I spent so much time volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. As a member of one of the three or four families registered as Democrats I can see how I fell victim to the belief that the terrain of struggle was simply policy change.

Two incredibly important factors occurred for me in college. First, I joined what is now called called NYU Student Labor Action Movement and our Evict Chase: Housing Is a Human Right campaign during which I learned there are more vacant homes than homeless people. For my class consciousness this was the ideological equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off. I can trace back my decision to become an organizer and belief that only building power can lead to change, to that campaign.

Second, I connected to the Kairos Center, which along with Repairs of the Breach, is leading the New Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival by developing “many Martins.” Fortunately, this meant that many of my mentors would be direct veterans of and/or scholars of some of the most important contemporary social movements and organizations, like G.R.O.W., the Black Panther Party, National Union of the Homeless, and National Welfare Rights Organization. My mentors would teach me that the only way to become effective was through the “plight, fight, and insight” of “the poor and dispossessed” which would require rigorous study because “all social movements and all social change are products of the confluence of certain conditions and a certain consciousness of those conditions. In other words, social movements are not simply the results of well-sounding conversations.” This particular line means that even the very source it comes from, “Pedagogy of the Poor,” can only be viewed as an addendum. It also leads to my deep distrust of “movement incubators.” In particular, the downfall of the National Union of the Homeless stresses the flaw with incubators. The Union conducted two waves of national vacant unit takes overs, housed countless people, and forced cities to allocate millions toward ending homelessness. Yet these exact victories led to its outmaneuvering. The union activated countless leaders but they didn’t develop them deeply enough by ensuring they were theoretically clear, ideologically committed, politically competent, and organizationally connected: they won major battles that cost them the war.

Another way my mentors have passed on an organizing tradition that is diametrically opposed to the mainstream is by the way they have taught me to understand privilege. They view “privilege” to be a helpful concept only to the degree that it is an analytical tool and helps unite the poor and dispossessed across all lines of division: Two key mottos in SLAM were “you are out to win or you’re only messing around,” and “are we out to win or are we trying to feel good about ourselves.”

Formerly the executive director of Amnesty International, then grant allocation for the Ford Foundation and now the co-director of the Kairos Center, Larry Cox has witnessed the power and abuse of both the human rights and privilege frameworks. In “When the Pawns Revolt” Cox shares that he grew up in a poor, single parent, white family with a mother who constantly struggled to put food on the table for them. In June 2015 I joined him and many others in marching from Bell Heaven, N.C., to Washington, in an effort to save hundreds of rural hospitals that are closed down each year. Cox taught all of us who had joined in from around the country a lot about privilege. He told us that if you had told his mother that she needed to go down and support black people who were being beaten by the police because she was so privileged, she would have responded to get the hell out of her house.

Struggling to put food on the table made it hard for her to see herself as privileged, but that didn’t mean she was unaware that others had it worse, and in 1966 she announced that going down to Alabama to protest the shooting of James Meredith was exactly what she wanted to do. Cox contributes this in part to focusing on class consciousness and solidarity, not privilege and allyship. He says watching the beatings in Birmingham and Selma “we were told these were black people fighting for their rights, but what I saw, from the outset, were people fighting for all our rights. They were fighting, I remember telling my puzzled mother, the same system that kept us poor.” Like Cox’s mom, my positionality makes solidarity much more appealing than privilege. I can see my privilege when I look not out of guilt but solidarity. A Facebook post by Nijmie Dzurinko reads “speak to raise CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS, do not perpetuate the ally-industrial complex. Remember that the work of ‘allyship’ and the work of class struggle are oppositional ideologies.”

Allyship is fundamentally opposed to solidarity. The former postulates that only your experience matters and is legitimate. Allyship proposes the best thing I can do is recognize that I will never truly be able to understand your lived experience but that I should nonetheless strive to do this impossible act. Solidarity supposes that we can mutually recognize ourselves in one another and that we should use points of overlapping experiences to build the unity of the poor and dispossessed into a truly transformative social force. Solidarity proposes we pursue the art of the possible.

As a part of this, I fully agree with the analysis in “The Jewish People and the Fight for Negro Rights” that Jews should denounce our status as white. I know this to be true from the experience of Derek Black, which Eli Saslow describes in “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.” Black is clear: for white nationalist Jews are either not really white, or are the greatest race traitors, especially given the historic ties of solidarity, especially in the South between Jews of all pigmentation and people of color.

The other important part of being from Birmingham is that there was a failed bombing of Temple Beth-El, but it didn’t silence us. Our safety is inherently much more tied up in solidarity, understanding how supremacist views are tied up in the “wage of whiteness,” contesting the myth of scarcity, and utilizing the same methods the minorities brave enough to befriend Black used. He credits them with inspiring his defection.

Growing up in a militant White Christian space that strongly policed whiteness and made it clear that I was not a part of their white identity has made this position clear to me, but it also led to my holdbacks. The rationality of Jewish privilege led me to distinguish between a public identity (white) and private identity (Jewish). Before Unite the Right, a Jewish friend and mentor of color told me this distinction was nonsense, but after “Jew will not replace me” he said he agreed.

At the same time, recognizing who really represents the frontline is vital. Recognizing that poor people represent the frontline in relationship to my dispossession has been easy both because it is a subject of gradation and a recognizable future possibility. The National Union of the Homeless emphasized this. They were clear that anyone who has to work to live is in the same class because income strata is not class, and that income guilt like white guilt helps no one. Thus their motto was that poverty is one paycheck away.

Recognizing that dispossessed people of color inherently inhabit a deeper level of plight, and fight has been harder. Despite advocating that Jews reject “whiteness” as an identity, the same gradation and possible future is not present. My holdup has been in misapplying a quote from Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he called “Black Power” an unfortunate slogan that would be best replaced by “Power for Poor People.” King said this was the case because automation “made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike.” However, Black Lives Matter helps me see that their slogan and the ones King described are not analogous. In particular the graphic here has been particularly helpful: even if many of us are in metaphorically dilapidated buildings, not all of us are in aflamed buildings.

It also helped me with my second holdup. Although SLAM freed me from the myth of scarcity and “policy change” I’ve struggled to accept the notion of “making the road as we walk it.” Rather than just accepting the call to abolish the police, my position has been to transform it beyond recognition. To me there seems to be some worth in “walking the community beat” getting to know and be based in a neighborhood, and having designated first responders.

As a labor organizer, I’ve also struggled with the call that there should be no unions for police and that “acab,” albeit mostly because I think it leads to a dangerous precedent of deeming this or that group unworthy of unions. At one point I wanted to focus the capstone for my Master’s in Labor Studies on reforming the labor movement, including a consideration of the possibility of existing progressive unions seeking to represent historically reactionary workers. I was influenced by a panel hosted by CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies entitled “Confronting the Tragedy: Law Enforcement Unionism & Communities, the Police Strike of 1919,” which was a turning point in police unions becoming a force for the ruling class, and the NYPD 12, or 12 police officers of color who whistle-blew against NYPD’s racial profiling.

I was also conflicted by a memory I had of seeing a woman, officer of color wearing a plastic arm band with the words “live matter” clearly seeable from my vantage point and then realizing the first word was “blue” when I leaned over some. As a part of all this conflict I toyed back and forth with the idea of salting police unions. But then I was looking at the image of the house on fire and thinking how both fire fighters and EMTs are part of the fire department. I thought ‘if every cent that goes to the police department went to the fire department instead, and they were also able to have a unit of social workers, that would essentially be abolishing the police force’ and also that the police force is inherently bastardizing, regardless of the individual officer. Given my mentor’s position on the confluence of conditions and consciousness, I knew my new beliefs were due to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

All this is to say that all people, but especially Jewish people who take pride in our tradition of setting about to repair the world, must recognize that an attack on one is an attack against all. We must move forward in solidarity and make the world a better place. We must renounce guilt complexes because they serve nobody. Especially as COVID-19 runs rampant because of a racist, classist state, we must recognize that if we are only out at a protest because we feel bad for our siblings of color, we are just as bad as if we sit around at home and feel guilt that we are privileged and not going out to protest.

Robert Ascherman is a project staff organizer at the American Federation of Teachers in the New Orleans area.