Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism, Edited by David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel

By Dinnerstein, Leonard | Shofar, October 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism, Edited by David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel


Dinnerstein, Leonard, Shofar


Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism, edited by David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel

No matter how you slice it, the Jews are always asking, "Is it good for the Jews? Is it bad for the Jews?" Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism is another collection of essays asking these perennial questions. All of the contributions to this volume focus on how Jews should, could, would, might, etc. "cope" both with the reality and the ideology of multiculturalism. Since the end of World War II Jewish mobility in the United States has, for the most part, been swift and has safely ensconced most Jews who have not yet retired in the upper middle class. Nonetheless, Jewish history in Christian lands has conditioned many of them to worry about their security in American society. As a result, therefore, they are skeptical about a multiculturalism which neither reflects their concerns nor recognizes their status (as many Jews prefer to see it) as "outsiders."

Intelligent and knowledgeable Jews can be found on both sides of the spectrum of multiculturalism. However, a number of the most articulate are upset by it because some of the promoters and beneficiaries of multiculturalism also associate with some of the most outspoken antisemites in the United States. Anxious Jews, recalling the history of Jews and their vulnerable positions in times of societal crises, worry about the future and the influence of those who are attacking them. While objective outside observers might regard Jews in America as quintessential insiders, for most Jews this is too recent a phenomenon for them to wear comfortably. Vocal attacks from the have-nots in society still upset them.

Realistically, many Jews are frightened by a multiculturalism which sees them as part of the problem, that wants special assistance only to those groups who perceive themselves to have been victimized, that do not include any white men, and that seek redress of a kind that most other Americans do not see as being compatible with this nation's traditions. To be sure, all groups -- social, economic, religious, occupational, and even ordinary and unaffiliated citizens -- need governmental assistance, and their spokespersons are often articulate in their demands. But the ideology of multiculturalism threatens those Jews who, like Mitchell Cohen, know that it "is often identified nowadays with a segment of the left that has, to put it bluntly, a Jewish problem. Sometimes this problem is manifested in an obtuse anti-Zionism, other times in insensitivity to Jewish interests and fears, and sometimes in an inability to rebuke anti-Semites without qualification" (p. 45).

What Cohen desires, however, may not be possible in this, or any other, society: "I want to live in an America of democratic citizenship, of social and economic democracy, of liberal tolerance, in a secular state that allows diverse cultures and religions to make of themselves what they will" (p. 52). In other words, Cohen wants to imprint in the United States a civilization where Jews can be comfortable; it does not occur to him, though, that Jewish values are not universal and that there are other valid perspectives and different ways to satisfy millions of others who also live here. Some people, for example, would be more comfortable living in a society where their own traditional values are less threatened, where there is more agreement on what is right and what is wrong, and where discordant expressions and behavior are not tolerated. …

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