Dispersionism, Pluralism, and the Nebulous Contours of Post-Jewish Identity

By Kraut, Alan M. | American Jewish History, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Dispersionism, Pluralism, and the Nebulous Contours of Post-Jewish Identity


Kraut, Alan M., American Jewish History


David Hollinger's discussion of how we have written American Jewish history and how we might better write it with a mind to integrating it into the larger narrative of the American experience is thoughtful and refreshingly candid. There have been considerable changes in how we write about the Jewish past over the decades, but even more may be required of a new generation of historians as they begin to make their contribution to the corpus of Jewish historical writing. It is a propitious moment to consider where we have been and where we should be headed.

The dispersionist/communalist dichotomy is a useful one, although perhaps a bit dated. If these were ever truly competing postures, they are much less so today. There is room at the table for all. However, it is worth the risk of repetition to remind ourselves and to instruct our graduate students and younger colleagues about the obstacles in the academy that only a few decades ago confronted those inclined to explore Jewish history. Hollinger alludes to these barriers, but let me be more specific. I know this is an uncomfortable subject to revisit, unpleasant for many Jews to recall and appropriately embarrassing for many of our non-Jewish colleagues.

It is no secret that in the late 1950s and 1960s, when today's senior scholars were earning their Ph.D.s, academia, and especially the humanities, was still rife with antisemitism. Rarely was it as strident and public as it had been before World War II, an atmosphere best conveyed in recent biographies such those of Richard Hofstadter and Richard W. Leopold, who learned first-hand that no matter how distant they felt from their Jewish heritage, their colleagues would never allow them to escape their identities. (1) In the aftermath of the war, unabashed Jew-haters in the academy needed to keep more of a lid on their attitudes when speaking publicly. However, graduate students with professional aspirations still often hesitated in the postwar years to select a dissertation topic that identified them as Jewish. Those who did either faced an uphill battle in finding a job or chose to confine themselves to the small community of scholars crowded into a few, mostly Jewish educational institutions in cities such as New York and Philadelphia. Wise doctoral mentors took care to counsel against a topic that type-cast the young aspiring academic as "too Jewish."

Even those committed to writing history sans Jews had an uphill battle. "Jews specializing in American history had a particularly difficult time getting jobs," observes historian Edward Shapiro. "Historians were reluctant to entrust the teaching of the nation's sacred history to such outsiders." (2) Carl Bridenbaugh, president of the American Historical Association, made clear where he stood when he warned in his 1962. presidential address that

   many of the younger practitioners of our craft, and those who are
   still apprentices, are products of lower middle-class or foreign
   origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of
   historical reconstructions. They find themselves in a very real
   sense outsiders on our past and feel themselves shut out. This is
   certainly not their fault, but it is true. They have no experience
   to assist them, and the chasm between them and the remote past
   widens every hour.... What I fear is that the changes observant in
   the background ... of the present generation will make it
   impossible for them to communicate and reconstruct the past for
   future generations. (3)

Bridenbaugh's coldness may well have had a chilling effect on the children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants seeking an outlet for their scholarly aspirations in history. A British scholar who wrote about American immigration history, Philip Taylor, was even more direct. He seemed to feel that Jewish scholars were too self-serving and lacking in objectivity when they addressed themselves to the Jewish past. …

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