Tag Archives: Tal Fortgang

Checking Your Privilege: It’s a Mitzvah

gold-cardYears ago, one of my high school teachers gave us a hint to help us spell the word “privilege” correctly. She said that it was a privilege, to have two eyes and a leg and the word itself has two “I”s and the word “leg” contained within it. That’s a simple definition of the word, as well as a spelling reminder: not everyone has a whole and healthy body and therefore not everyone has the benefits associated with health. Privilege can seem basic, but it still shouldn’t be taken for granted.

This weekend, there was a lot of discussion about Tal Fortgang’s article, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in The Princeton Tory.

Tal, a freshman at Princeton University, shared his legacy—a legacy shared by many Jews—of anti-Semitism, persecution and survival.

His point: while he is privileged to have benefited from the support of his ancestors, he is not going to apologize for this privilege because it was the outcome of the sacrifices made by them and on the basis of their “formidable character.”

There is so much that is problematic in his article, which has been both praised and heavily criticized. Not all privilege can be earned simply on the basis of “formidable character.” Reflecting on the spelling lesson, for instance – having the privilege of health is not correlated with formidable character. Similarly, for those Jews who are White, the color of their skin is not a reflection of their hard work. Yet, it is undeniable that sadly, at this point in time, there are benefits that are associated with Whiteness that have nothing to do with character and at the same time, there are White people and people of all races who work very hard and have great character.

But it is the last line of his piece that is particularly striking. “I have checked my privilege. And, I apologize for nothing.”

My response: “Who asked you to apologize?”

Asking someone to check their privilege doesn’t necessitate that the person apologize for having privilege. Instead, it is asking one to be aware that not everyone shares that privilege and therefore it might be worthwhile to find ways in which people who don’t share that same privilege can experience some of the benefits associated with the privilege. In other words, recognize that you have something others do not have.

Why is that so much to ask? The consequences of reflecting upon your privilege only helps a person appreciate the challenges others face to achieve similar benefits and find opportunities to minimize some of the barriers that make these benefits less accessible to people who do not share some of the privileges we have.

I believe that Judaism, the legacy Tal and I share, teaches empathy. We can learn empathy from Jewish liturgy, from Jewish history and from present day Jewish experiences. The Jewish story teaches us what happens when people don’t “check their privilege.” For many of those who persecuted Jews, they were privileged in the sense that they were a part of a majority and the Jews were a less privileged minority. Would persecution have been impacted if these majorities “checked their privilege?” I don’t have the answer to that question. But, I would argue that it is critical to empathize with people who do not share the privileges we have. As people who have seen the consequences of a privileged majority and oppressed minorities, I will posit that part of our legacy is to constantly check our privilege, to ensure that we handle it responsibly.

Maybe it could even be thought of as a modern mitzvah. Not simply a good deed, but literally an obligation.

In conclusion, may I suggest an alternative ending to an opinion piece on this topic?

I am thankful for the many privileges I have, among them, good health and a legacy of empathy and survival. I wish that everyone could say the same and I hope that I continue to check my privilege. 

What do you think?

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Posted on May 5, 2014

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