Space as Privilege

Living a privileged life is truly remarkable.  I don’t mean ‘remarkable’ as in ‘extremely great,’ but rather ‘remarkable’ as in ‘worth remarking upon.’  That is because privilege is so rarely remarked upon.  Living with the privilege that I am referring to, one lives with the benefits of some of the most sustained, portable, and empowering presents that the world, and the people in it, could offer.  What is truly remarkable, however, is that, since most people do not talk about these presents, privilege is also invisible, which allows the recipient to easily assume that these are not presents at all — after all, no ‘thank you’ is required in society for being born rich, white, male, heterosexual, tall, smart, etc. — but rather deserved rights.

I fit into this camp growing up.  But voice was given to what I was the beneficiary of in one of the more memorable articles I read during my undergraduate education: Privilege: Expanding on Marilyn Frye’s ‘Oppression’ by Alison Bailey.  In it, the inextricable link between oppression and privilege is laid out clearly.  Bailey writes:

“[A]ny understanding of oppression is incomplete without recognition of the role privilege plays in maintaining systems of domination.”

This is so obvious, but so rarely made explicit.  In order for privilege to mean anything, some people need to be systematically treated differently — better — than others (some might argue that this preferential treatment, to count as privilege, also must be unearned in some sense).  As a result, some people will be being treated worse, and that is oppression.  However, if all people were treated like rich white males (in the relevant senses), then privilege would cease to exist, and with it, oppression.

Bailey, quoting Ann Richards, puts the matter so succinctly, that any attempt at paraphrasing I would offer would be extraneous.  Richards says: “George Bush was born on third base, and to this day he believes he hit a triple.”  The difference in attitude between a privileged person who knows that they were born on third base due to the luck of their birth and a person who thinks that they earned a triple are extraordinary.

The reason why this article has stayed with me, in the sense of mulling it over regularly since I read it a couple of years ago, is the following metaphor offered for white privilege, the metaphor of the invisible knapsack (which Bailey quotes from Peggy McIntosh):

“White privilege…is an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, code books, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”

I want to look specifically at one aspect of privilege, that of freedom of movement.  As Bailey points out, privilege is usefully divided into negative and positive privilege, and both come into play when one talks about free access to space as a privilege.  Firstly, privileged people are granted access to almost all spaces without question (this is a “negative privilege” in that no spaces are set off-limits).  Nowhere is this more clear nowadays that at an airport security line, or, in Israel, security lines outside malls, bus terminals, etc.  Technically speaking, all those passing through such lines will be granted access to the space, but only a subset of that group will be consistently granted access without even the thought of being pulled aside and questioned.  But there is more.  Privileged people will be treated with respect, have their concerns listened to, and generally corrected for, in any such space.  I think the example of a bank highlights this.  Bailey points out that white people are generally seen, in Western society, as more financially trustworthy.  It is this aspect of privilege that allows white people to go into a bank, take out a loan, start an account, etc.  If I enter a bank and lodge a complaint — say, that I don’t think a cheque I cashed went through — I have no doubt that my complaint will be taken into account, and a resolution will be sought.  In a similar vein, if I dress well, I can walk into the wealthiest of areas in the world and look like I belong there — because of my skin colour, and because of the economic privilege that allowed me to purchase such clothes in the first place (an interesting side note: white privileged children in some ways go even further, in that they do not need to be dressed nicely, as it is assumed that they belong in wealthy spaces along with their parents/guardians without wearing expensive clothing).

Most recently, this was brought front-and-center for me during my trip on Encounter two weeks ago.  The issue of privilege — and the concomitant oppression — was lurking behind every facet of the Middle East conflict that was discussed.  The difference in what would constitute peace for citizens of Israel and Palestine is one example. Equal access to water, freedom from harassment and the demolition of their homes, and the ability to travel where they want to, would all constitute peace in some sense and a significant upgrade to Palestinian’s standard of living to date.  That is not to say that people living in Bethlehem, where we visited, are not able to live prosperously.  It is just that ‘prosperous’ in the West Bank pales in comparison to ‘prosperous’ in Israel or elsewhere — a stark example of privilege.

Of course, the most striking example of privilege with regard to space in the Middle East conflict is the simple ability to go to all of the country versus almost none of it.  This is daily reinforced by the separation wall being built roughly along the border between Israel and Palestine.  The insidiousness of the wall is highlighted when you are privileged, like we were, to be able to look at the wall from both sides — which Palestinians are not allowed to do without a permit (which is a bureaucratic nightmare to secure).  Seeing the wall from both sides is about as stark a reminder as possible that this is not a project that was undertaken with concern for those living on both sides of the wall, but rather just for one.  When you see the wall from the Palestinian side, it is drab, bleak grey, monolithic and menacing.  Switch to the Israeli side, though, and you will see stately, faux Jerusalem stone walls, fitting in with the architecture of the houses and pleasant to look at.  Don’t think for a second that this is not a serious difference.

My admittedly brief exposure to academic discussions of privilege greatly enhanced my appreciation for the oppression and suffering that are so rife in the Middle East conflict.  To be clear, this is not a case of one group oppressing one other group, as the conflict is so much more complex than that.  No one is a member of a single group, and the oppression and privilege that pass unnoticed interlace all the various groups that people associate with and make for themselves.  Settlers in the Occupied Territories feel oppressed by the Israeli media, which paints them as ideological extremists.  Palestinians feel oppressed by the Israeli government for policies that are hard to interpret any other way.  Israelis feel oppressed to be living on a sliver of land in the Middle East without real hope for peace, in a reality that has them sending their children to the army, too often resulting in injury or death.  Like the conflict in general, it is only by appreciating the ways in which privilege and oppression play into the everyday experiences of those less privileged than myself that I can hope to understand their grievances.

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4 thoughts on “Space as Privilege

  1. Shalom Benjamin,
    A number of years ago I felt especially privileged to live in this country when the Supreme Court overruled the Army by determining that portions of the security fence needed to be taken down and moved in order not to inconvenience Palestinians living in that area. The ruling stated, unequivocally, that the Army’s contention that it needed to provide 100 % security at the expense of Palestinian quality of life was illegal. However, the ruling went on to state that the Army/State had a right, in fact, an obligation to protect its citizens. As such, the security barrier was also unequivocally legal and necessary, but it needed to take into account Palestinian rights. But, just as the army could not erect the security barrier in its effort to ensure full security, the Palestinians’ demand for a full quality of life could not be accepted/respected due to security issues.
    Those security issues, as I’m sure you know, related to the Second Intifada, the spate of suicide bombers and other terrorist activities that left over a thousand Israelis dead and thousands more injured. So, yes, individual space is limited when political leaders resort to violence. We can argue about space and we can move the fence to and fro, but the discussion needs to be in the context of what transpired during the Second Intifada.
    Thus, your decision to focus on Palestinian space/suffering and relate to the security fence without even once mentioning terms such as terror, suicide bombers, Second Intifada and the suffering of Jewish citizens does not reflect the kind of intellectual honesty and integrity that you often take such pride in your writings. This is especially unfortunate because there could very well be an honest dialogue about mutual lack of space and mutual suffering. But clearly you are not interested in such dialogue, and worse, people less educated than you will simply use and abuse your one-sided narrative as just another opportunity to delegitimize the State of Israel.
    May I suggest that instead of just focusing on one “encounter”, go visit Camp Koby and “One Family,” and learn about the suffering of terrorist victims that was caused during the Second Intifada. It is a bit glib to talk about oppression and suffering, enabling the Palestinians to wallow in self-pity while they take no responsibility for their actions that led to the establishment of the security barrier after civilians were slaughtered by suicide bombers on buses, in restaurants and while simply walking down the street.
    That barrier protects my family, my friends and my fellow citizens and I consider it an incredible privilege that I live in a State that has an army that protects its citizens from terror. You set yourself up as champion of Palestinian space and privilege regarding water and walls, but the most basic value of all – the intrinsic value of life itself, in this case, of Jewish Israelis – you chose to ignore even though you are quite educated about the facts.
    In your previous writing, you shared a beautiful quote about the importance of listening to the other and acknowledging that there is often another side to the truth. You have done a great disservice to this idea, similar to Judge Goldstone, by sidestepping the context of the conflict and focusing exclusively on the suffering of only one side.
    Meir

  2. Such is the hazard of voicing my political opinions.

    It is a great tragedy that, as an Israeli, you cannot legally go on the tour of Bethlehem that I was privileged to, to hear from the speakers I did, and to really leave the Israeli narrative behind, if only for the space of a day or two. Faced with the challenge you present before I went on Encounter, I would have wanted to disagree – because I hold out a higher hope for human potential than constantly regressing into violence – but would have had to accept the ‘facts’ as they are stated in the mainstream Israeli narrative pertaining to the Wall and the Second Intifada. However, I have now been able to hear from people who encounter the Wall and what it represents in their lives more often than just whenever the media or court system feels like it is worthy of public attention. The Palestinians who spoke to our group have many more dealings with the Israeli government than I ever hope to have, and probably more than most Israelis have – and few if any of them are positive.

    The fact of the matter is that there are multiple irreconcilable narratives at play here, and while the picture painted by the dominant Israeli culture before, during and after the Second Intifada is extremely compelling, I am forced to believe that there are holes in it from what I have seen with my own eyes. Yes, the Wall was a difficult consequence of living under constant threat of attack, and I do not think that it was the first choice of most people living in this region. I also think that, given the complexities of the conflict, the Wall could be constructed in a (more) moral way that did it’s best to respect the dignity of human life on all sides. This is not happening, though. I think that the argument that showed me most clearly that this was the case was pointed out as we stood out an outlook on the outskirts of Bethlehem, looking back at Jerusalem (we could clearly see Malha Mall). The Wall does not cover the area between Bethlehem and Jerusalem here – actually, only 65% (approximately) of the Wall has been built. This is a point that is simply overlooked or not considered enough in the Israeli narrative. Only two-thirds of the Wall is built, and yet the Israeli government trumpets the Wall as the sole reason for the sharp decline in terrorism since it began to be constructed! How is this possible? It would be extremely easy for me, or anyone else with more malicious intentions, to simply walk down into the valley separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem and head to Jerusalem, not once encountering a checkpoint or any physical barrier. Does this not point to something else being at play in the decrease in violence?

    The answer given by multiple speakers that we heard from is that there was a roughly coinciding change of policy within Palestinian civil society towards non-violence. This did not strike me as the most convincing answer, as it seems too coincidental to be true. However, if you do not accept this – and frankly, I am not inclined to believe that multiple people were simply lying to me – then you are left to explain how a two-thirds completed wall has been able to accomplish all that it purportedly has.

    This is inextricably linked in my mind to the problem, within the dominant Israeli narrative, of demonizing the PA. I know that I will be simply preaching to the converted on this one – in that no one that is not already convinced will become convinced – but if you listened to the PA’s official position, it would become clear that they are against violence, and whether that change came about exactly when the Wall was being built or not, it has happened. They are trying to suppress the fringe segment of their population that seeks to solve the conflict via violence, just as Israel is trying to suppress those who engage in Price Tag attacks. The fact that the narrative drummed home here acts like all Palestinians are terrorists while distancing itself from the terrorist elements in its own society is simple propaganda and demonization. All groups of people contain extremists, and to act like their is such a disproportionate percentage of them in the group that one is in conflict with is simply a tactic to maintain the status quo of violence and conflict. I am frequently disgusted at the ability of a society to consider remembering historical events in which Jews were oppressed as central to their identity while being unable to see the parallels they are perpetrating. I AM NOT EQUATING JEWS WITH NAZIS. But if anything can be a silver lining to suffering it is a heightened sense of empathy for those who are currently suffering in a way similar to how you did in the past.

    I do not know how exactly to address the commonly-expressed fear that those people who engage in honest criticism of Israel and its policies are simply giving fodder to the real Anti-Semites in the world. The indisputable fact is that since well before the official creation of the State of Israel all involved parties have repeatedly violated the ethical norms that I would hope to see people living by. I don’t deny that there are people in the world that seem to be driven by an irrational hatred of Jews, but, like the assertion that some sizeable population of Palestinians are terrorists, the idea that there is some bloc of Anti-Semites just waiting for conscientious Jews to show support for Palestinians is as absurd as the Anti-Semitic claim that Jews control the banks.

    I hold Israel to an incredibly high standard. Partly because I hold myself to a high standard, and partly because that is how I was raised, Jewishly. Part of that standard compels me to say that in the current situation, where the power imbalance is so wildly in Israel’s favour, Israel has a moral obligation to be the first to the table, to clearly and unequivocally demonstrate a desire for peace. Others more attuned to the nuances of the conflict can debate what those actions would have to be, but as the stronger party in this conflict, Israel must make the first move. I am not intending to allow anyone to wallow in self-pity – both sides idolize the position of victim, and both will have to stop if peace is to be given a chance.

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