But if Jews are in some respects one of the most successful minority groups in the country, this triumphalist story—call it the myth of the privileged minority—fails to capture the extent to which Jews have also been a special target for hatred, intimidation, and even outright violence. The horrifying attack last fall on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which a white supremacist murdered 11 people, should have driven home the extent of the threat faced by the country’s Jews. According to the FBI, it was hardly an aberration. In 2018, a staggering 58 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes reported to the FBI targeted Jews.
In most important areas of American life, Jews now tend to face fewer disadvantages or forms of discrimination than members of many other ethnic or religious groups do. At the same time, they continue to attract the dedicated hatred of a small minority of the American population, and this does—especially if they can readily be identified as Jews—at times put them in serious physical danger.
This complexity defies how many powerful people—including a large number of left-leaning journalists and policy makers—perceive the world. For some, matters of racism or privilege are always and exclusively structural. A group either stands at the top or at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Since most American Jews are supposedly white (whatever that means), they are presumed to enjoy special privileges. As one of the founders of the Women’s March argued in a statement that, incredibly, was meant to address accusations of anti-Semitism in her movement, “White Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy.”
A popular online resource called Dismantling Racism Works goes even further in denying the possibility that groups that enjoy economic or political power can be the victims of racism. “Racism,” it argues, summarizing a growing consensus in the field of critical race studies, “is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination.” Rather than being an attribute of individuals, it needs to involve “one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.”
In this mental schema, the identity of the Jersey City victims is a bit inconvenient. The identity of the perpetrators is as well.
Read: American Jews are terrified
At its most extreme, the exclusively structural view of racism not only entails the idea that those who supposedly stand at the top of the social hierarchy, such as Jews, are incapable of becoming the victims of racism; it also suggests that those who supposedly stand at the bottom of the social hierarchy, such as people of color, are incapable of being perpetrators of racism. Vice’s Manisha Krishnan made the point succinctly: “It is literally impossible to be racist to a white person.”