An important lesson on privilege, courtesy of Peter Beinart

In a recent article comparing Jewish anti-occupation activists IfNotNow with Black Lives Matter, the prominent Jewish American columnist creates divisions precisely where alliances are needed.

By Tom Pessah

Jewish activists take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brookline, MA, December 16, 2014. (Tess Scheflan/
Jewish activists take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brookline, MA, December 16, 2014. (Tess Scheflan/

The word privilege gets thrown around a lot in activist circles. People tend to interpret its use as an accusation, which it sometimes is. But reflection about privilege can also be a crucial tool for building social justice movements across different groups that enjoy unequal resources.

Those of us carrying privilege around need not apologize for it, — you can’t blame yourself your social location. However, by taking responsibility for it and reflecting on one’s ingrained behavior, one can increase their chances of working with people from different backgrounds to rectify the inequality that created these privileges.

In other words, as Spiderman was famously told, with great power comes great responsibility.

In a well intentioned column in The Forward this week, titled “IfNotNow Is The Jewish Black Lives Matter,” Jewish American journalist Peter Beinart is creating divisions precisely where alliances are needed. Not principled divisions, but divisions resulting from a lack of sensitivity and awareness of his own privilege. (IfNotNow issued a response to the piece, and INN’s Philadelphia chapter put out a statement of their own.)

In the article, Beinart, who deserves credit for compellingly broadening the conversation about Israel within the Jewish American community, sets out to highlight activist groups pressuring the Jewish establishment to end its complacency with the occupation. While doing so, however, he also manages to offend a range of groups that could be potential allies for the politics he is promoting.

Here is a list of just some of those groups, in no particular order:

African-American Jews. Beinart’s first paragraph is “I spent last Shabbat with students from Harvard Hillel and was reminded, again, how important a generational movement IfNotNow is becoming. I don’t think most older American Jews grasp it yet. This is our Black Lives Matter. IfNotNow is the Jewish wing of a youth-powered activist awakening that the United States has not seen since the 1960s.”

Which group does the word “our” refer to, in the phrase “our Black Lives Matter”? Clearly, Beinart is referring to Jews, or more precisely, he is equating Jews with white Jews, as if there are no Jews who don’t already feel Black Lives Matter is their own movement. The binary between Jews and African Americans appears again and again throughout the article. This, of course, is reflective of a widespread tendency in the Jewish American community to make Jews of color, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews invisible.

African Americans in general. When the Movement for Black Lives platform came out, Beinart objected to its use of the word “genocide” to describe Israel’s policies towards Palestinians, tweeting: “@Blklivesmatter has every right to criticize Israel. But ‘genocide’? Bring solidarity. Don’t bring stupid.”  Here is one of the biggest grassroots movements of our lifetime, founded by young African-American women – and Beinart is speaking to them in the imperative (“bring solidarity”) and calling them “stupid.”

Fast-forward a year and Beinart is now using Black Lives Matter as a means of praising IfNotNow’s groundbreaking activism.

Later, IfNotNow is compared to the Black Panthers and J Street to nothing less than Martin Luther King. The complete lack of reflection on privilege is what makes this analogy so offensive. MLK was willing to die for his principles, and was indeed assassinated; many Black Panther leaders were murdered or forced into exile. Neither J Street nor IfNotNow are facing brutal state repression. This position of relative privilege should make clear why evoking the experiences of these movements is so inappropriate.

Arab Americans. IfNotNow is doing an incredibly valuable job of challenging the Jewish establishment and calling on it to end their support for the occupation. They deserve all the support they can get – this is literally about saving lives. But support doesn’t require ignorance of privilege.

On February 16, Jewish American activists from IfNotNow disrupted the confirmation hearing of David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel. They were joined by two Arab American activists, who called on Friedman to remember Palestinians. Only the two Arab Americans were criminally charged, and they now face jail and a $500 fine.

When Beinart presents IfNotNow’s actions as peak radicalism, he also makes this power differential invisible. This isn’t the fault of the IfNotNow activists, but it must be explicitly acknowledged if Jewish activists want to retain links with other groups.

Palestinians. Considering how often Beinart gets criticized by the Jewish American establishment, some of his Jewish readers may imagine he is seen as a champion by Palestinians. That is simply not the case.

While Beinart is an outspoken critic of the occupation, he has also written that he isn’t “asking [Israel] to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.”

The right of return is a personal one for most Palestinian Americans who lost their homes and land in 1948, does not necessarily mean displacing Israelis, and ignoring it means splitting Jews opposing the occupation from the Palestinians who are its primary victims. A Jewish-only movement to end the occupation alone will inevitably be weaker than a united movement could have been. Jews, after all, should not position themselves as the primary experts on the occupation and how to resolve it.

None of this is to mock Beinart, indulge in call-out culture, or even to take away from the important work he has done, and continues to do. Rather, it is crucial to challenge prominent voices in the hopes that they can do better. While pieces like his are shared and celebrated by well-meaning activists, they also offend, divide and weaken a movement that needs all the support it can get.

Beinart at least recognizes the potential value of forging ties with groups other than his own. For many others, this will require some self-reflection on privilege, which should lead people to adopt a new, more sensitive etiquette. We have no time to waste.

Tom Pessah is a sociologist and activist.