Running Downwind: My Jewish Waking Up to White Privilege

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778/2017

I love to sail. I love the sound and motion, the way the boat heels over in response to a gust of wind, and, gathering speed, slices through the water. I love the sounds of splashing waves, sails stretching tight in a freshening breeze, and the rhythmic, metallic ping of the stays straining to hold the mast aloft.

On a sailboat, everything depends on the direction of the wind and the position of the boat. As a matter of physics, it’s impossible to sail directly into the wind. Most sailboats require at least a thirty-five degree angle off the wind to fill the sails and move forward. Sailing this close to the wind is called an upwind tack and if there’s a breeze, it’s an exciting ride; you feel the wind in your face, and the cold spray of water thrown up by the bow.

Sailing downwind, with the wind directly behind, is, in contrast, quiet and peaceful, the boat level and gliding fast. You’re now traveling with the wind, it feels like the wind isn’t blowing at all, yet you are propelled even faster without the waves and splashing mist.

Sailing is, for me, a metaphorical reminder that I generally get to sail through life “with the wind at my back.” In so many ways, I started out my life with advantages, with resources, with undeniable privileges.

Yet, others, lacking these advantages, resources and privileges are, as it were, always sailing upwind, into the waves and spray — no matter which direction they travel.

In my life:

  • I can go shopping by myself and not be followed or harassed.
  • When I read a school book on our national heritage or about “civilization,” the central actors all have my skin color.
  • When writing a check or using a debt or credit card, I can count on my skin color not to create doubts about my financial reliability.
  • If I take an executive position as a man I can be reasonably assured that I will get paid more than a woman doing the same job.
  • I can choose to buy Bandaids in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.
  • I can navigate public transportation and buildings without worrying if they are handicapped accessible.
  • If a police officer pulls me over, I probably haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers suspect that I got it because of race.

I can do all these things because, practically since birth, I’ve enjoyed a number of privileges.

  • Some of my privilege comes from being male in a still sexist society.
  • Some of my privilege comes from being heterosexual in a society still biased against those who are LGBTQ.
  • Some of my privilege comes from being middle class in a socioeconomically stratified society.
  • Some of my privilege comes from being able-bodied in a world where the disabled face many obstacles.
  • And much of my privilege comes from being white in a society in which racism still runs rampant.

Tonight, given the general mood of our country since last Rosh haShanah, and in particular in the wake of the events in Charlottesville, I want to focus on the topic of white privilege, a subject that for Jews is both interesting and complicated.

But first, a caveat about about white privilege. It’s rooted deep in our society. The election of black president doesn’t mean we’ve eradicated racism, any more than Jessie Owen’s win in the 1936 Berlin Olympics means that racism disappeared in Germany and the US.

Second, someone who is white is not necessarily racist, but there is an issue of racial bias that are nearly universal. Recently, I took an online test designed to measure unconscious racial bias. I was unhappy to learn that, despite trying to be even handed, I showed a moderate degree of bias, not a great degree, but not a slight degree, either. Believing we are without bias turns out to be a privilege, in and of itself.

Third, white privilege never takes a holiday. It means that a white person with a criminal record is more likely to be called back for an entry level job in Milwaukee than an equally qualified black person with no criminal record. It means that a white homebuyer who inquires about recently listed homes is shown more available homes than an equally qualified black homebuyer.

For Jews, the issue of white privilege is a particularly complicated, because depending on when and who you ask, we have been either white or Jewish or both, at the same time. Or, as Queen Victoria said to Benjamin Disraeli, “You’d be my favorite Prime Minister, except you aren’t white.”

While I intend to talk about how Jews became white through history, that doesn’t mean that Jews were ever uniform; from the time we left Egypt, we’ve been a mixed multitude, of different backgrounds, colors, and cultures. Even so, in the US, Jews are thought by others to be white, despite evidence to the contrary.

Our journey toward whiteness began at the end of the French revolution, when Napoleon offered French Jews citizenship, provided they would be Frenchmen in the street and Jews at home, thus introducing the bifurcation between national identity and religious identity.

When our forebears arrived to America in the 19th and 20th centuries, the established class were white Anglo Saxon protestants who had begun calling themselves white to distinguish themselves from Carribean and native Americans.  Poles, Italians, and Irish were considered non-white, as were Jews and Catholics, owing to both ethnic and religious differences.

Fast forwarding to the ninety sixties, identity politics took hold as Americans of color connected with their black, native American, Asian and Hispanic/Latino heritage. Jews were no exception, particularly after the 1967 six-day war, which precipitated an outpouring of Jewish pride and engagement.

We made common cause with other minorities in the Civil Rights Movement, playing major leadership roles in the NAACP and in organizing the 1963 March on Washington; between a third to a half of all Freedom Riders were Jewish; and much of the civil rights legislation of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965 was drafted in the conference room of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington.

Yet, even as some Jews embraced their distinctive identity, the wider American world began to consider Jews to be white. A good thing? Yes, insofar as barriers to academia, certain professions, social clubs and neighborhoods began to fall. However, as American Jews became white, the partnership between the black and Jewish communities disintegrated. As Jews joined the white flight to the suburbs, the Civil Rights coalition broke down. Many Jews felt growing anti-semitism among blacks and many blacks felt Jews had now become an integral element of the white power structure underlying their oppression.

This shift was captured in James Baldwin’s 1967 essay entitled entitled “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They Are Anti-White.” He wrote:

“In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man. The Jew profits from his status in America, and he must expect Negroes to distrust him for it. The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro’s understanding. It increases the Negro’s rage.

For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.”[1]

Baldwin puts it starkly: while American Jews carry formative memories of our people’s oppression, we ourselves are hardly oppressed. And he challenges us to ask: What do our people’s memories mean today? Do they, will they, matter?

For the hour is now and it’s time for action. American racism is resurgent in the rhetoric of the alt.right and has emerged in the White House itself. Right now:

  • racism no longer comes with hooded men and burning crosses. Now they don’t bother wearing hoods.
  • and the “suppression” of tens of thousands of minority voters in over a dozen states through redistricting and spurious witchhunts for non-existent voter fraud seems to be the direction we’re heading, an unholy, but not unprecedented, wedding of racism and politics.
  • Now, when the incarceration rate of Black men nationally is six times higher than it is for White men. Now in Milwaukee, where more than half the black male population has served time in prison.

So here are somethings we can do now. We can rethink the stories we tell. In Sunday school I was taught the names of Jewish heroes ranging from Sandy Koufax to Jonah Salk to countless Nobel Prize winners who, in spite of the anti-Semitism they faced, found strength in their Jewish identity .

And yet, such heartwarming stories of Jewish success carry a maligning message: to say, in effect, we Jews had it bad, but we overcame, is to assert that others should be able to follow our example and do the same. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of our famlies’ success stories, but we shouldn’t discount the advantages that made ‘our successes’ possible. Such self aggrandizement can lead us to think we hit a home run when in fact we may have been born on first base.

Another story we tell ourselves:  My college age children tell me that they are color blind and their multihued coterie of friends would seem to bear that out. Yet, thinking we are color blind means avoiding that we live in a society that treats people of different races differently. More fundamentally, the problem with the “color-blind” approach is that it suggests we can connect with others only through what we share in common. It makes us truly blind to the differences that are key to building genuine relationships.

In addition to examining our own stories, we need to listen to the stories of others. We ought to get to know how our black neighbors feel about white privilege. Like the one who wrote: “I am sure I see ‘white privilege’ much differently than my white brothers and sisters. I’ll be fifty years old in October. I own a modestly successful business and am a college graduate. There is not and has not been one day … that I don’t walk out of my house KNOWING that I might not come back. This feeling is as real and present and constant as the blood coursing through my veins. So…there is that.”[2]

I have no idea what that feels like. And in preparing for these Holy Days, I asked myself, many times, who am I to talk about white privilege? I repeatedly came back to the same conclusion: The everpresent role of racism and how white privilege inevitably implicates us, is a fact we need to address. Again, James Baldwin:  “White people are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”[3]

And for some, white privilege is superceded by another concern. In his book Uprooting Racism, Jewish activist Paul Kivel tells this story:

A colleague and I were doing a workshop on racism and we wanted to divide the group into a caucus of people of color and a caucus of white people, so that each group could have more in-depth discussion. Immediately some of the white people said, “But I’m not white.” I was somewhat taken aback because although these people looked white they were clearly distressed about being labeled white. A white, Christian woman stood up and said, “I’m not really white because I’m not part of the white male power structure that perpetuates racism.” Next a white gay man stood up and said, “You have to be straight to have the privileges of being white.” A white, straight, working class man from a poor family then said, “I’ve got it just as hard as any person of color.” Finally a straight, white middle class man said, “I’m not white, I’m Italian.” My African-American co- worker turned to me and asked, “Where are all the white people who were here just a minute ago?” Of course I replied, “Don’t ask me, I’m not white, I’m Jewish!”[4]

Nice try, Paul, but in America we Jews are both/and. Being Jewish requires of us a choice. It means remembering that being Jewish means we refuse to be part of a system of power or oppression. As Rabbi Gil Steinlauf put it: “We are simply Ivri’im, people from “somewhere else,” who struggle with God and justice, and insist the rest of the world does, too, and see every human life as sacred because we are all created in God’s image.” In America, Jews are very much white, but we are also Jewish, which is to say – we can and should embrace both identities.

Being both Jewish and white puts us in the perfect place be make a positive difference, by being allies with those who experience discrimination.  What do allies do?

  • They listen… and don’t explain away or dismiss the ideas or experience of others.
  • They educated themselves, reading articles and listening to speakers like the one our social Justice committee is arranging to speak later this year about white privilege.
  • And importantly, allies advocate, and use their white privilege to speak up for justice. You might have seen the youtube video in which a biracial woman describes being hassled in a grocery store line about writing a check. Her sister-in-law, who is also biracial but looks white, used her white privilege to speak up about how the other woman was being treated. Instead of it being a case of “angry black woman,” or an us vs. them scenario, using her white privilege to be an ally provided a compelling example to those in authority and other bystanders who, God willing, will become motivated to raise their voices to seek justice, too.

For raising our voices is the road to peace. As Human Rights activist Rabbi Milton Konvitz wrote, “The ideal of Judaism is not peace alone. It is peace and truth and justice. Without peace, there is little hope or room for truth or justice to be effective. Without truth and justice, peace can only be attained through oppression and suppression. This is why, in our sacred texts, truth, justice, and peace are often mentioned together—because they are inseparable.”[5]

In conclusion, a hopeful true story about what good can happen when our American Jewish Identities and our white privilege work together for change:

The week after Charlottesville, in Austin, TX, a group of volunteers from Reform congregation Beth Shalom’s Social Justice committee held a dinner at a Greek restaurant. Through extensive volunteer efforts and hours and love, the volunteers had just helped to resettle a family from Afghanistan, and they were holding this dinner to help celebrate the culmination of the family’s settling in process. There were 18 volunteers at the dinner, plus the five members of the Afghani family. When it came time to leave, the committee of eighteen plus the five members of the Afghani family discovered that a stranger in the restaurant, who by then had left, had paid for the entire dinner: knowing what they were celebrating – knowing, in fact, that they were a synagogue celebrating its resettling of Muslim Afghani immigrants. And then the proprietor of the restaurant informed the humbled group that the stranger who had left without leaving a name or a note was a Palestinian immigrant to Austin.

On the eve of the year 5778:

  • May we never forget our people’s journey from the degradation of Egyptian slavery to revelation and glory at Mt. Sinai;
  • May we never take for granted the blessings of American’s democratic freedoms;
  • And, aware and grateful for the privileges we enjoy, may we use those privileges to seek truth, justice and peace for every one of God’s children.

Amen. Amen.


Rabbi David B. Cohen
Congregation Sinai
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

©2017 Rabbi David B. Cohen


[1] James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 p. 430.
[2] Rachel Laser, “Covering my White Privilege on Yom Kippur”, September 29, 2017,
[3] Dr. Larry Cuban,
[5] Konvitz, Milton R., ed. Judaism and Human Rights, 2nd edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001. P. 277.