Exile and Alienation in America. (Point/Counterpoint)

By Alexander, Michael | American Jewish History, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Exile and Alienation in America. (Point/Counterpoint)


Alexander, Michael, American Jewish History


Of Marc Dollinger's many interesting insights into American Jewish political behavior, his most daring may be the following: when American Jews feel directly threatened, as during the Holocaust or when they resided in the segregated South, they do not show any particular political affinity with other groups that are even more oppressed. When in trouble, the famous "liberalism" of the Jews disappears. (1) My own work substantiates a complementary phenomenon that is less surprising but perhaps still puzzling. When American Jews are blessed with periods of success and inclusion, they tend to identify with those who remain marginalized, even acting politically to support them. When Jews are making it, they jeopardize their social position by pairing themselves with America's outcasts, not simply by helping them but by claiming they belong among them. I call this behavior outsider identification.

From the perspective of rational self-interest, the former behavior makes a great deal of sense. When under attack, Jews circle the wagons and worry about themselves. Dollinger's insight may be uncomfortable for those who prefer to explain contemporary Jewish behavior in the light of Isaiah's prophecy. However, most Jews realize that the prophetic ethical tradition is not uniquely theirs, but that helping the orphan and the widow is an ideal widely shared in both the ancient and modern worlds.

The latter behavior, however, does not seem very rational. In America, where Jews have been accepted by the host society to a greater degree than most places in the Diaspora, why do they appear to work against their own self-interest by associating themselves with those whom American society marginalizes? While some would claim Isaiah as the inspiration, many others propose a new view, one that is now so common that it is accepted as almost a truism. According to this interpretation, Jewish behavior for the sake of those who remain excluded is an attempt to assure the continued inclusion of Jews in the American mainstream. Although Jews have for the most part enjoyed acceptance in America, they protect their good position by working to include those in American society who have not yet been embraced by the majority. For adherents of this view, rational self-interest on the part of Jews is once again the key to their political behavior.

But if this behavior is in fact rational, American Jewry is strangely exceptional in abiding by this strategy. While enjoying success in America, what other group has adopted a policy of identifying with those who are less fortunate? This behavior is absent among the other immigrant groups that came to America at the same time as Eastern European Jewry, and it is absent among other groups that have immigrated since. It is even found only inconsistently among the Jews who came to America before the great tide that began in 1881, as the divided stand on slavery prior to and during the Civil War indicates. It is true that, as other groups have succeeded socially and economically, some of their members have leaned to the left, but substantial numbers have tilted to the right; some vote Democrat, others Republican. With success and acceptance, groups tend to split politically and socially, and many Christian denominations in America reflect this division. Put another way, when other groups enter the middle class their political affiliations tend to normalize and reflect the change.

In challenging this trend, American Jewry has been truly exceptional. A majority of the Jewish population has voted Democrat in every presidential election since Woodrow Wilson's, with the number voting that way usually reaching 80 percent. Jewish ballot choices and other political activities have gone against the tide of steady incorporation into the American mainstream. Why did this voting pattern begin at the moment when the majority of American Jews first left the factories, scaled the professions, relocated to the suburbs, joined the middle class, and generally became "at home in America"? …

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