Jews and Identity Politics
Extract from The Jewish Stake in America's Changing Demography: Reconsidering a Misguided Immigration Policy By Stephen Steinlight October 2001. In 2013 Dr. Steinlight's observations are even more true today with raging immigration debate and two Muslim immigrants blowing up the Boston Marathon.
We Jews need to be especially sensitive to the multinational model this crowd (many of them Jewish) is promoting. Why? Because one person's "celebration" of his own diversity, foreign ties, and the maintenance of cultural and religious traditions that set him apart is another's balkanizing identity politics.
We are not immune from the reality of multiple identities or the charge of divided loyalties, a classic staple of anti-Semitism, and we must recognize that our own patterns are easily assailed, and we need to find ways of defending them more effectively as the debate goes on.
Much public opinion survey research undertaken in recent years continues to indicate that large numbers of Americans, particularly people of color, assert that Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States.
For Jews, it is at best hypocritical, and, worse, an example of an utter lack of self-awareness, not to recognize that we are up to our necks in this problem. This has been especially true once we were sufficiently accepted in the United States to feel confident enough to go public with our own identity politics.
But this newfound confidence carries its own costs; people are observing us closely, and what they see in our behavior is not always distinct from what we loudly decry in others. One has to be amused, even amazed, when colleagues in the organized Jewish world wring their hands about black nationalism, Afrocentrism, or with cultural separatism in general - without considering Jewish behavioral parallels. Where has our vaunted Jewish self-awareness flown?
I'll confess it, at least: like thousands of other typical Jewish kids of my generation, I was reared as a Jewish nationalist, even a quasi-separatist. Every summer for two months for 10 formative years during my childhood and adolescence I attended Jewish summer camp.
There, each morning, I saluted a foreign flag, dressed in a uniform reflecting its colors, sang a foreign national anthem, learned a foreign language, learned foreign folk songs and dances, and was taught that Israel was the true homeland.
Emigration to Israel was considered the highest virtue, and, like many other Jewish teens of my generation, I spent two summers working in Israel on a collective farm while I contemplated that possibility.
More tacitly and subconsciously, I was taught the superiority of my people to the gentiles who had oppressed us. We were taught to view non-Jews as untrustworthy outsiders, people from whom sudden gusts of hatred might be anticipated, people less sensitive, intelligent, and moral than ourselves. We were also taught that the lesson of our dark history is that we could rely on no one.
I am of course simplifying a complex process of ethnic and religious identity formation; there was also a powerful counterbalancing universalistic moral component that inculcated a belief in social justice for all people and a special identification with the struggle for Negro civil rights. And it is no exaggeration to add that in some respects, of course, a substantial subset of secular Jews were historically Europe's cosmopolitans par excellence, particularly during the high noon of bourgeois culture in Central Europe.
That sense of commitment to universalistic values and egalitarian ideals was and remains so strong that in reliable survey research conducted over the years, Jews regularly identify "belief in social justice" as the second most important factor in their Jewish identity; it is trumped only by a "sense of peoplehood." It also explains the long Jewish involvement in and flirtation with Marxism. But it is fair to say that Jewish universalistic tendencies and tribalism have always existed in an uneasy dialectic.
We are at once the most open of peoples and one second to none in intensity of national feeling. Having made this important distinction, it must be admitted that the essence of the process of my nationalist training was to inculcate the belief that the primary division in the world was between "us" and "them." Of course we also saluted the American and Canadian flags and sang those anthems, usually with real feeling, but it was clear where our primary loyalty was meant to reside.
I am also familiar with the classic, well-honed answer to this tension anytime this phenomenon is cited: Israel and America are both democracies; they share values; they have common strategic interests; loyalty to one cannot conceivably involve disloyalty to the other, etc., etc.
All of which begs huge questions, including an American strategic agenda that extends far beyond Israel, and while it may be true in practice most of the time, is by no means an absolute construct, devoid of all sort of potential exceptions.
I say all this merely to remind us that we cannot pretend we are only part of the solution when we are also part of the problem; we have no less difficult a balancing act between group loyalty and a wider sense of belonging to America.
That America has largely tolerated this dual loyalty - we get a free pass, I suspect, largely over Christian guilt about the Holocaust - makes it no less a reality.
At the very least, as the debate over multinational identity rises, I hope the Jewish community will have the good sense not to argue in favor of dual citizenship and other such arrangements.
I would also advocate that those who possess dual citizenship to relinquish it in order not to cloud the issue and to serve the best interests of the American Jewish community and of American national unity.
The recent case of the Israeli teenager who committed a murder in suburban Maryland (his victim was a young Latino) and fled to Israel, where he was permitted to remain despite attempts at extradition by U.S. prosecutors, with considerable congressional support, must never be repeated.
That incident inflicted serious damage on Israel's good name, and it shapes the public's perception of Jews as people in a special category with additional rights who have a safe haven where they can escape the reach of American justice.
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