Jewishness, Whiteness and Privilege

Complaint alleges Jewish students in Brooklyn College’s mental health counseling program were painted by professors and fellow students as “white and privileged” and complicit in the oppression of people of color.

February 7, 2022
Brooklyn College
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The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint alleging that Jewish students enrolled in Brooklyn College’s graduate mental health counseling program have been subjected to anti-Semitic harassment from professors and peers.

The complaint, filed on behalf of two Jewish students in the master’s program, alleges that professors in the program “have maligned Jews on the basis of race and ethnic identity by advancing the narrative that all Jews are white and privileged and therefore contribute to the systemic oppression of people of color.” It also alleges that Jewish students have “been bullied in class discussions and on social media by student peers who target Jewish students using the same ethnic stereotypes, antisemitic tropes and divisive concepts that faculty members promote in their courses.”

The complaint, which comes at a time of rising anti-Semitism on American college campuses, alleges that Jewish students who pushed back or expressed distress “were met with further harassment and intimidation from faculty and administrators, who told students to ‘get your whiteness in check’ and to ‘keep your head down’ rather than challenge the status quo.”

A spokesperson for Brooklyn College said in a written statement the institution “unequivocally denounces antisemitism in any form and does not tolerate it on its campus.”

“While the College cannot comment on ongoing investigations, it is committed to working cooperatively and fully with the U.S. Department of Education,” the statement said. “The College appreciates the important role Jewish Americans have played in the rich history of the country, the city, and the campus.”

The statement also cites the college’s “We Stand Against Hate” initiative, which offers various programs “to celebrate the voices that make up our diverse campus community. ‘We Stand Against Hate’ also serves as a platform to denounce antisemitism that touches our community.”

Brooklyn College, which is part of the City University of New York, has been repeatedly recognized by U.S. News & World Report as the most ethnically diverse college in its region.

The complaint was filed in February 2021 by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit legal organization that focuses on anti-Semitism on college campuses, on behalf of the two students identified only as Doe 1 and Doe 2. While Doe 1’s gender or race is not identified in the complaint, Doe 2 is identified as a Hispanic woman of color.

Doe 1, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of facing further harassment or discrimination, said being a Jew in the program “is dangerous and scary and upsetting. Being told to quiet down all the time, it’s exhausting.”

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“When someone would say for example, ‘I’m Jewish,’ professors would say, ‘No, you’re not, you’re white, and you don’t understand oppression and you need to sit down and you need to be quiet and you need to let the Black people in the program speak about their experiences’ and wouldn’t allow us to speak about ours,” the student said.

The complaint describes a number of alleged incidents during the fall 2020 semester centering around questions of Jewishness, whiteness and privilege. In one described incident in August 2020, Doe 2 attended a class where the professor allegedly stated, “In sum and substance, that Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to America have become part of the oppressors in this country.” (Names of professors have been redacted in the version of the complaint made public by the Brandeis Center.)

In another alleged incident in September 2020, a professor reportedly “instructed students to discuss and rank their identities.” Doe 1 shared with fellow students they felt a strong affinity with Jewish identity and did not feel an affinity with white identity, and therefore ranked Jewish identity first and white identity last. Fellow students responded by saying the complainants’ white identity “should have figured more prominently” in the ranking, and said that because Doe 1 “was white and part of the dominant culture” they “did not understand oppression” and were incorrect in ranking their identities.

In a similar alleged incident in November 2020, a professor gave students an assignment on “racial identity development” requiring them to choose and complete a worksheet “that most aligns with your own ethnic identity.” While worksheets were available for a variety of identities, there was no worksheet for Jewish identity, and the only reference to Jewishness was in the worksheet for “White Racial Identity Development.” The worksheet “implied that white identity and the privilege that flows from it overshadow other identities,” including Jewish identity. When Doe 1 expressed discomfort about identifying as having “white privilege” in the worksheet, other students responded by saying they were in denial.

The complaint also alleges that several students bullied Jewish students on a WhatsApp group chat. It alleges that during a September 2020 exchange—“during a disagreement between students about Martin Luther King Jr. and Sigmund Freud”—one student in the program expressed a desire to strangle a Jewish student with whom they disagreed. After Doe 1 expressed discomfort, the student who allegedly made the threat accused Doe 1 of being “part of the dominant culture” of white people who “continue to perpetuate power structures.”

Denise Katz-Prober, director of legal initiatives for the Brandeis Center, said that at Brooklyn College and elsewhere, “Jews are being relegated to this category of white privileged oppressors in a way that not only invokes dangerous age-old antisemitic stereotypes about power and control but denies Jewish history, the complexity of the Jewish experience, as well as erases Jewish identity.”

The case at Brooklyn College bears similarities to complaints filed last year by two members of Stanford University’s Counseling and Psychological Services staff alleging anti-Jewish bias in a diversity, equity and inclusion program. The complaints alleged that the DEI program for Stanford’s counselors, intended to help them better serve a diverse group of students, “engages in intentional racial segregation through race-based affinity groups” and “relies upon racial and ethnic stereotyping and scapegoating by describing all Jews as white or white-passing and therefore complicit in anti-Black racism.”

The complaints at Stanford, which were also submitted with legal assistance from the Brandeis Center, are still pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to Katz-Prober.

It also bears resemblance to the controversy that erupted last week after actor and television personality Whoopi Goldberg said the Holocaust was “not about race.” When a colleague challenged her assertion, saying the Holocaust was driven by white supremacy, Goldberg responded, “But these are two white groups of people.”

Goldberg later apologized for her comments.

Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, in Massachusetts, said both the Brooklyn College and Whoopi Goldberg controversies “are asking the question of what makes one a person of color, and what defines race and are Jews white folks.”

Sarna said anti-Semitism has “put the lie” to the argument that Jews are like other white folks.

“Anyone who reads either anti-Semitism on the extreme right or the extreme left knows perfectly well that they recognize these folks as a separate group. They are Jews,” Sarna said.

“I think increasingly we are seeing pushback by Jews against those who want to lump them with other white people—‘Oh you’re just white folks, people of privilege’—partly because that’s not historically true and partly I think in response to anti-Semitism. We are seeing Jews increasingly conscious of their separate identity, and they want to be known as Jews,” Sarna said.

Hasia Diner, the Paul and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History at New York University, said while students have the right to see themselves as they wish, under American law, Jews have historically been treated as white.

“Never did any state in the United States create separate institutions for Jews or put them in the same institutions with people defined as not white,” said Diner, who added that about a quarter of Southern Jews were slave owners.

That doesn’t mean Jews haven’t faced discrimination, Diner said. “But is the issue, did Jews enjoy a set of privileges that came from being white? They did.”

Pamela Nadell, the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History at American University in Washington, D.C., is at work on a history of anti-Semitism in America. She said the U.S. Census “has continued to insist that Jews are a religious group, when of course this is one of the great difficulties of defining the Jews. While yes, Jews are a religious group in one sense, in another sense they have also been categorized for a very long time as a member of a racial group, and when that fell out of favor after the Holocaust they’ve been seen as an ethnic group.”

Nadell said colleges should be tackling anti-Semitism head-on in their DEI programming.

“When you have these diversity, equity and inclusion programs, anti-Semitism is almost never part of the question of examining diversity and equity,” she said. “The position of the Jews falls outside of those programs.”

Benjamin S. Selznick, an assistant professor of postsecondary analysis and leadership at James Madison University in Virginia, who has studied campus climate issues as they pertain to Jewish students, echoed the importance of incorporating issues of religion and worldview into conversations about campus inclusivity. Selznick said the Brooklyn College complaint highlights how important it is for students to feel safe in expressing their worldviews. Recent polls have found that large numbers of Jewish students don’t feel safe on college campuses.

“It’s very hard to fully engage and fully learn and fully participate if you don’t feel safe in expressing your identity,” Selznick said. “That is important for Jews, especially given the state of the world.”

Doe 2, the complainant who identifies as both Jewish and Hispanic, decided to leave Brooklyn College’s master’s program in mental health counseling because of the climate.

“I just started to not want to be around these people, to feel scared, really just like I was walking on eggshells,” the student said. “It’s not a mentally healthy place for somebody to be, especially as a person of color. It’s not like I don’t know what discrimination is, and now to be told all of those experiences don’t matter and your skin color doesn’t matter because now you’re essentially white and privileged because Jews are white and privileged, which negates all of the history of the Jews, and on a personal level it completely erases my lived experience, and for it to be fortified by the students and the teachers—it’s crazy-making.”

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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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