Multiculturalism and the Jews
Hollinger, David A., Tikkun
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., Randall Kennedy, Walter Benn Michaels, Jorge Klor de Alva, Angela Davis, Todd Gitlin, and a host of other critics, that the place of Jews in a revised multiculturalism can be openly explored. Insider/Outsider shows how revitalizing this discussion might become.
Co-editor Susannah Heschel outlines the career of the great biblical scholar, Abraham Geiger, who challenged mid-nineteenth century non-Jewish interpretations of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was a Pharisee whose teachings were quite conventional for Jewish religious reformers of his time and place, Geiger insisted. Pagan influences on Jesus' followers later produced the Christian doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection, Geiger argued, with the implication, as Heschel puts it, "that those Christians who sought to follow" the true faith of Jesus, rather than its pagan corruptions, "would have to convert to Judaism." This perspective horrified Christian scholars whose careers were built upon a vivid contrast between a stagnated, dogmatic Judaism and the dynamic, passionate preaching of the Christ of Christianity. The Jewish Geiger thus destabilized the dominant metanarrative of his own time by rearranging the elements of that metanarrative on terms made possible by an understanding of the suppressed history of a group devalued by the hegemonic majority.
This use of subaltern subjectivity to undermine a hegemonic majority is of course characteristic of the multiculturalist movement of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. When long-suppressed aspects of the nation's history are presented, a prevailing Anglo-Protestant account of the American national community is destabilized and rewritten on new, multiculturalist terms. Writers sensitive to the place of black people and their intimate entanglement with whites declare that "the history of the United States has not been white and black, it has been mulatto," and writers conscious of the Spanish presence insist that Santa Fe in 1605 replace Jamestown in 1607 as the starting point of the narrative of the continuous experience of European peoples in the United States. Both perform versions of Geiger's act. Heschel's analysis of Geiger is emblematic of Insider/Outsider's appreciation for standard multiculturalist methods, and of this book's demonstration that Jews have often carried out, and have even prefigured, the discursive strategies of which an American multiculturalism oblivious to Jews has been conspicuously proud.
Another turn in Heschel's essay renders it representative of the book in a third sense: Insider/Outsider brings multicultural analysis to the study of Jews themselves. Pointing to the diversity of the Jewish people, and complaining especially of the traditional tendency to see female Jews in male terms, Heschel invokes "Jewish studies multiculturalism" as a basis for recognizing as "problematic" the retention of a "unified" construction of the concept of the "Jew." Heschel asks, "What of the Jewish expressions of politics, morality, or faith applies to me as a woman?" The contradictions of a unified notion of Jewish identity are also explored by a number of other contributors who employ analytic techniques associated with multiculturalism and postmodernism. Mitchell Cohen, in a brilliant essay on Shaatnez, develops a notion of Jewish identity similar to Kwame Anthony Appiah's integration of cosmopolitanism and particularism. Biale revises the classic Enlightenment formula, "being human on the street and Jewish at home," to the holding of several identities, both at home and on the street. Naomi Seidman provides a virtuoso lit-crit analysis of the role of Jewish identity in Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick's classic account of gay male sexuality, The Epistemology of the Closet. Seidman's ingenious, sometimes playful essay on Sedgwick--which also includes brief, provocative observations on the "ambivalent avowal of Jewishness" found in the work of feminists Judith Butler and Nancy Miller--has the additional virtue of proving the counter-intuitive hypothesis that even multiculturalism can be fun.
Although most of the contributors to Insider/Outsider explore a two-way street down which ideas from multiculturalism and from Jewish experience instruct one another amid a dynamic society of multiple and changing affiliations, Michael Walzer's essay is anomalously conservative. Displaying no interest in revised notions of Jewish identity and eschewing any engagement whatsoever with the novel cultural combinations said to be more characteristic of the United States than of European and Asian societies, Walzer defends the integrity of already-existing "cultural groups" and looks for ways in which they can achieve solidity and cohesion. He offers the Jewish community as a model for other groups, and hints that tax money should be assigned to African American and other groups who lack the power possessed by Jews. Yet Walzer makes no effort here to deal with the issues he, as so accomplished a philosopher, well knows have long since bedeviled this old, "pluralist" agenda. In a society of increasing intermarriage and cross-group reproduction, who decides, and on the basis of what principle, what organizations are valid representatives of a group to which federal aid should be given? Why should groups created under the pressure of racist understandings of color be privileged over groups that reflect the choices of their members? Why should the tax monies of a democratic nation state go toward the project of encouraging individual citizens to remain culturally in the color-coded enclosures into which they were born?
All the essays in this extremely valuable volume also invite close interrogation. One set of questions I hope the contributors will address in their future writings is prompted by Biale's speculation that American Jews, in order to rethink Jewish identity amid the multiple and voluntary affiliations of a genuinely cosmopolitan milieu, will "have to give up their sense of themselves as the paradigmatic minority, a sociological version of the older theology of the chosen people." What role, if any, should henceforth be played by the ancient myth of the chosen people? Can Jews retain a sense of Jewishness while frankly sharing the contingency of history with other varieties of humankind, accepting a place as a people among peoples? Can the comforting but necessarily invidious concept of "the chosen" be treasured as a part of Jewish history but abandoned as part of a Jewish future?…
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Publication information: Article title: Multiculturalism and the Jews. Contributors: Hollinger, David A. - Author. Magazine title: Tikkun. Volume: 13. Issue: 6 Publication date: November/December 1998. Page number: 68+. © 2002 Tikkun. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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