Multiculturalism and the Jews

Article excerpt

Multiculturalism and the Jews

David A. Hollinger is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Science, Jews, and Secular Culture (Princeton, 1996).

Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism. Edited by David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel. University of California Press, 1998.

One of the most probing and convincing books yet written about multiculturalism focuses on a group systematically excluded from it: Jews. Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism uses the Jewish case to sharpen many of multiculturalism's soundest theoretical insights, to strengthen its most wholesome moral instincts, and to challenge some of its least defensible assumptions and practices. This book ironically "out-multiculturalizes" a multiculturalism persistently aloof from the Jewish Studies programs that are home to most of the twelve contributors.

Why are Jews not on the cultural map of the United States as drawn by multiculturalists? This question is addressed by several of this volume's contributors, all of whom recognize that American Jews, as an exceptionally wealthy subgroup of empowered whites experiencing a high rate of intermarriage with Anglo-Protestants, are different from the disadvantaged groups in whose interests multiculturalist initiatives have been the most energetically advanced. Some Jews have dealt with this recognition by trying to reinforce the image of the Jew as victim. Co-editor David Biale, in a compelling essay calling for the reconfiguration of Jewish identity within a milieu of voluntary and multiple identities, correctly points to an irony in "the success of the American Jewish community in building a Holocaust museum on the Mall." It was "as if by transferring the European genocide to America" that American Jews could sustain the old image as "the chosen minority," yet "only a group securely part of the majority," Biale observes, "could institutionalize its history in this way."

But the chief basis for leaving Jews out of multiculturalism is no different from the basis for leaving out Americans of Irish, Italian, or Polish cultural affiliations. Multiculturalism has been a means of advancing not cultural diversity as such, but several specific cultures popularly associated with groups who have suffered color-triggered discrimination in the United States long after blatant anti-Semitism went into decline. The terms "culture" and "diversity" are misleading. The goal of cultural diversity, if taken literally, would seem to imply that only prejudice could exclude Jews, Pentecostal Christians, Polish Catholics, Mormons, Promise Keepers, Druids, French Canadian immigrants, and any number of other religiously, linguistically, regionally, and ethnically defined cultural groups. Yet it is tacitly understood that only certain kinds of diversity have been sought, and only certain cultures have been promoted. The map-readers "legend" you need to decode a multiculturalist's map of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s is a five-color chart: black (African American), brown (Latino), red (Native American), white (European American), and yellow (Asian American). Multiculturalists had good reason to concentrate on cultures associated with groups who had been subject to white prejudice. But if they were more forthright about their implication that color was a predictor of culture, and to some extent a prescription for it, the irrelevance of Jews would never have been a mystery, nor an occasion for ideological shadow-boxing.

Now that the conflation of color with culture has come under sustained attack on the grounds that non-whites should not be obliged to perform cultural roles assigned by well-meaning whites, the time is right for a more honest and radical multiculturalism that confronts culture as it is, and as men and women should be free to make it. It is in the context of this welcome diversification of diversity, as called for by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. …