ARE JEWS WHITE? (I): JELLE, or the Olympics of oppression

When reflecting on the position of Jews in identity politics, competition rather than solidarity seems to be a determining factor. It reveals itself through rhetoric like: ‘So you think you are oppressed? Well, put yourself in my shoes and see how much worse it is to be me!’. Rhetoric rooted in the fallacy that there is only a limited amount of acknowledged suffering in the world and that various minorities are in the running to claim their fair share. A race for recognition and attention transformed into ‘the Olympics of oppression’. 

Jelle – young, queer, Jew, activist – powerfully voices his concerns that the legitimacy of Jewish victimhood is constantly questioned around him. People seem to be tired of hearing about Jewish suffering, believing that society has dealt with it sufficiently and that we should focus on other suffering instead. The problematic notion in this sentence is captured in this one single word instead. Instead presupposes an either/or situation. But which either/or situation are we then talking about? Either Holocaust or slavery? Either antisemitism or homophobia? Either Black racism or islamophobia? I understand, says Jelle, that these feelings do exist. And then he asks poignantly: ‘To whom should this discrepancy be addressed?’ 

The Olympics of oppression get even more problematic (confusing, derailing) through the mechanism of turning around Jewish victimhood into Jewish perpetration. When Jews are (physically) attacked or otherwise victimized by antisemitic action, this violence is justified by listing various reasons why Jews might be deserving such mistreatment. These reasons (‘well, if only they hadn’t done what they do in Israel – or – if only they hadn’t pulled so many strings behind the scene’) are as problematic as the antisemitic violence, but seem to work in unison to make Jewish victimhood directly suspicious instead. The Gods on the Olympus could not have devised anything more twisted.

Am I then white, Jelle is asking out loud, if white is understood as a metaphor for privilege? Both fallacies of the Olympics of oppression – the competition between groups, the reversal of victim and perpetrator – show that for Jews (even for white passing Jews) privilege is by no means a given, and any privilege likely to be temporary. The notion of ‘Jewish privilege’ is in fact a deceptive and historically inconsistent construct because Jews know that ‘any privilege can be taken away from you at any time’. 

Jelle is among the first Jewish activists that have dared to speak up as a Jew in the intersectional antiracism movement, rooting for justice side by side with other minorities. Deliberately by overcoming his own fear and reluctance and by ‘dipping your toes in the water to be able to sense how warm or cold it actually is.’ 

The exhibition ‘Are Jews white?’, which I co-curated for the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, opens on June 8th. The exhibition centres around the exploration of where Jews find themselves in the identity politics spectrum of Black and White and how that impacts the way in which Jews move through the intersectional emancipation movements in the Netherlands. This blog is part of a triptych in which I reflect on the question of intersectionality, Jewish activism and in/exclusion through the contributions of Jelle Zijlstra, Gloria Wekker and Stephan Sanders to the main video installation in the exhibition.

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