The Jews of Privilege are the Jews of Amnesia

Jews who presume to preach righteousness to Israel need to check their privilege and recall the essential commandment: Remember.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the 2019 J Street National Conference in Washington. Source: J Street/Flickr.
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the 2019 J Street National Conference in Washington. Source: J Street/Flickr.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

Had it not been for a recent article on this site by Lenny Ben-David, I would not have known that Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the left-wing lobby J Street, has criticized the agenda of U.S. President Joe Biden’s current visit to Israel, and along with it the Abraham Accords and the move by many Arab states to normalize relations with the Jewish state. The J Street head essentially declared normalization meaningless and claimed “there will be no lasting peace” without a Palestinian state.

This, of course, is a talking point widely adopted by the anti-Israel left ever since the Abraham Accords were announced. Left-wing Palestinian nationalists like former Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth and many others declared the Abraham Accords at best irrelevant, denounced Arab normalization with Israel as enabling alleged Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and urged America to force Israel to surrender to Palestinian demands, rather than help the Jewish state and its new allies construct a regional coalition to counter the Iran regime.

One can take apart these talking points fairly easily: They ignore Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism, objectively take the side of a genocidally anti-Semitic regime in an existential conflict, seek to return to the manifestly failed paradigm of the Oslo Accords and actively oppose the Middle East peace those like Ben-Ami and Roth claim to advocate.

The more interesting question, however, is that of Ben-Ami himself. Why is a self-declared pro-Israel Jew so actively opposed to the interests of Israel, and indeed, the Jewish people as a whole? And why, in doing so, does he betray the cause of peace, of which he claims to be a partisan? The same question could be asked about Roth and many others.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay on what I called “The Jews of Privilege.” I dissected the person of Jewish Palestinian nationalist Peter Beinart, particularly his elite pedigree, Ivy League education and rarified career in the media establishment. I felt that Beinart was, in effect, an embodiment of privilege; a privilege most Jews have never known. I noted further that Beinart’s anti-Zionism was likely due to the fact that Zionism is and has always been a movement of the Jewish masses, the Jewish underclass, the unprivileged Jews. These Jews have never known a life of shelter and ease, and therefore understand the necessity of Jewish empowerment and solidarity. And they have often had to pursue those things in the face of virulent opposition from the privileged Jewish overclass, which is dedicated to universalism and assimilation.

Indeed, for more than 100 years, the Jews of Privilege in both Europe and America have bitterly opposed Zionism. In the United States, this perhaps reached its nadir when the late New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger—in keeping with a long family tradition—went so far as to blame Zionism for the Holocaust. Beinart and his ilk, I felt, were merely the latest heirs to this deplorable legacy.

Ben-Ami, needless to say, is a quintessential Jew of Privilege. He was born into a rarified life in Manhattan, attended the elite and very private Collegiate School, graduated from Princeton and New York Universities, and worked his way through numerous insider positions in government and the NGO world. According to the most recent information I was able to find, in 2019 Ben-Ami was paid—or rather paid himself—$299,265 in annual compensation, a sum most Israelis can only dream of.

Ben-Ami, in other words, has done very well for himself. He has assimilated deep into the American aristocracy, completely sheltered from any of the consequences his political advocacy might have on the rest of the Jewish people. It should not be surprising, then, that he feels himself entitled to preach righteousness to the rest of us; who are, of course, his natural inferiors.

But there is a deeper issue at work, because among members of the Jewish-American upper class, an interesting paradox exists: There are, in fact, a great many who have not adopted the traditional ideology of that class. They have had a rarified education and made their way through top positions in politics, culture, finance or social activism, but have nonetheless remained Zionist and concerned with the well-being of their people. Why have they retained their integrity while the likes of Ben-Ami and Roth have bent the knee?

The answer may go to the heart of what created and creates the class ideology of the Jews of Privilege. It can be summed up by one of the most essential commands in Judaism: zachor (“remember”). It appears numerous times in the Torah, perhaps most powerfully in Exodus 13:13: “And Moses said to the people, Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of slavery, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand.” The command, in effect, is to remember the struggle and never forget the liberation in which you and your people were forged.

Perhaps what creates the ideology of the Jews of Privilege is that they have forgotten. Willfully or otherwise, out of privilege and shelter or simple ignorance, they no longer remember liberation from the slavery of history. And in the 20th and 21st centuries, that liberation was the work of Zionism. Because they have forgotten, Zionism and Israel are at best meaningless to them.

The Jews of Privilege, in other words, are above all Jews of Amnesia. Amnesia is their right, of course, but it is dangerous to deny the past, because the past is, in some ways, all there is. The present is a fleeting moment and the future is unknowable. To remember, then, is to exist. Moses was, perhaps, trying to tell us this: I remember, therefore I am. The Jews of Privilege, the Jews of Amnesia, have chosen to forget. The rest of us have chosen to obey the commandment and remember. This, perhaps, is what has made all the difference.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates