Jewish White Allyship: Part 1: Self-Reflection and Accepting Our Own Privilege

By Adam Magerman and Debra Brosan

As a social psychologist, consultant and coach, I have spent the last decade researching the interpersonal and structural conditions that lead to bias and inequity. During this time I have also tried to examine how I unwillingly perpetuate inequity, and how to use my privilege to support anti-racist policies and action. This is a developmental process that is ongoing and never complete. There is a need for Jewish individuals and organizations to have a process that starts with reflection first. The process for Jewish white allyship starts with 1) the acceptance of privilege, 2) developing and expressing empathy, and 3) harnessing our urge to move into action quickly.  

I will explain each part of this process in a series of articles, with reflective questions to explore along the way. 

Self-Reflection and Accepting Our Own Privilege

Oral Jewish traditions teach that “anyone who saves a life is considered to have saved an entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Implicit in this statement is that each person creates their own world, constructed by experience and their interaction with the environment. Just as we have been shaped by our own individual history and experience, so too have others. Understanding the nuance of individual experience can help us cultivate our empathy and create momentum for social change. Before we can understand the nuance of others’ experiences, we need to first develop a clear sense of self, investigate how we became who are, and identify where privilege has played a role in our lives.

Privilege can be difficult to identify. Societal norms imply that all people are individual agents who have the autonomy and free will to succeed or fail on their own. This is a strongly held belief that pushes us to avoid thinking about white privilege, as people do not want to admit that their success was influenced by the structural forces that guide some and block others. Therefore, in order to engage in meaningful allyship, we must first engage in the willful awareness of structural racism and how we have benefited from it.  

Think about the people who have played important roles in your life. Who was your 2nd grade teacher, your mentor, your doctor? What was their racial identity? What was their religious identity? More often than not the answer to these questions is “white and Jewish,” and even more often “white.” 

The next question is, “How has this influenced my life?” Did your 2nd grade teacher hold negative stereotypes about your academic ability? Did your mentor say they chose to advise you because you “remind them of themselves”?  Have you ever worried that you aren’t receiving proper medical attention because of your race? These are all areas where privilege manifests and can dictate who gets attention, opportunity and even quality of care.  

Incidences of privilege can be found in many seemingly (to some) benign aspects of life, and it is up to us to identify them in order to change them. What we typically see as normal or even “luck,” can and should be recategorized as privilege. Confronting this notion means confronting the idea that we are not autonomous individual agents completely responsible for our own success. Resistance to this awareness is incredibly strong, so we must engage in an explicit and active pursuit of understanding. Once we recognize the system of privilege we have benefited from, we can then engage in the work of changing it.

For white Jews, our inability to see our own privilege is often compounded by the additional urge to focus on our own suffering, instead of confronting the advantages afforded to us by our skin color. Of course, there are daily instances of anti-Semitism and the marginalization of Jews in America. However, that can and should be seen as independent of the suffering of other social groups or as a galvanizing force, not used as a basis of comparison.  

For example, there have been recent social media posts comparing the removal of statues honoring historically racist figures to the preservation of Auschwitz. The intention of these posts is to use one groups experience to discount the desires and experiences of another group. The false equivalence of one groups’ experience of oppression to another creates a binary narrative that minimizes the individual experiences of others and leads to defensiveness. The reality is that there is no monopoly on suffering, and comparing experiences holds us back from being fully empathetic and engaged allies.  

Our research and field work have shown that even egalitarian-minded people often become defensive when they are confronted with the reality of their own privilege. They then cling to their own suffering in order to deflect from the societal benefits that have been afforded to them. To be a Jewish white ally we must be willing and able to set our own experience as separate. Only then can we hold our own experiences and Jewish identity dear in order to foster empathy for others, further driving us toward understanding and meaningful action. I will discuss this further in the next article.

Adam Magerman, PhD, ACC, is DEI consultant for gestaltworks, LLC, a boutique organization development and coaching consulting firm. Adam earned his Ph.D. in Social Psychology and Neuroscience from the University of Delaware studying the effects gender and racial bias on individual performance and well-being.

Debra Brosan MCC, MA OD is the CEO of gestaltworks, LCC.  She specializes in coaching and consulting with Jewish organizations and the leaders who support them.