"Behind the law are people’s stories," Barack Obama said today in nominating Solicitor General Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court opening. He bragged on her bringing diversity and being the grandchild of immigrants, but didn’t mention that she’s Jewish. Already today two reporters on National Public Radio, both Jewish (I think), did. Nina Totenberg and Ari Shapiro said there will be no Protestants on the Court when John Paul Stevens leaves. Assuming Kagan gets in, there will be three Jews (all appointed by liberal Democratic presidents), and several Catholics.
The Kagan appointment means that we have entered a period in which Jews are equal members, if not actually predominant members, of the American Establishment. Obama’s two closest political advisers are Jewish, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, and are said to be his foreign-policy braintrust. The economy is supervised to a large degree by Jewish appointees, Larry Summers and Fed Reserve Board chair Ben Bernanke (Time’s man of the year last year, a selection overseen by Rick Stengel, the Time magazine editor, who is also Jewish).
Recently a Jewish friend in the media said, "We’re the new WASPs," referring to the patrician class that used to represent the elite in American society.
How did this happen and what does it mean?
Elena Kagan’s parents’ generation experienced anti-Semitism in seeking position, but her generation experienced no such discrimination. We exploded on to the scene in the 1970s, in the age of the "meritocracy," when test scores increasingly determined precedence.
We had certain cultural advantages for the globalized meritocracy. Jewish culture favors scholarship, close families, and abstention from alcohol. The traditional basis of advancement, attachment to the land, meant little in the new age of American professionalism. Kagan’s parents were both bookish, her mother a teacher, her father a lawyer. She said today that her brothers are also public school teachers.
"Theirs was a religion oriented to continuous contact with texts: a culture of handling books, reding them, and reflecting on their messages.," Jerry Muller writes in Capitalism and the Jews. "Jews came from a culture that favored the nonviolent resolution of conflict, and that valued intellectual over physical prowess. All this was a recipe for what economists call ‘cultural capital.’"
Muller also says that as an afflicted minority, Jews learned to look out for one another.
This was once a recipe for disaster. In the late 19th century, Jewish prevalence among the professions and real-estate ownership in the big central European cities of Vienna, Berlin, Prague and Budapest led to an anti-semitic reaction. Muller notes that half of Hungarian doctors, lawyers and journalists were Jewish before World War I (including, originally, Theodor Herzl).
People don’t talk about Jewish achievement because they fear that doing so will breed anti-Semitic reaction. I grew up hearing that Jewish prevalence in the U.S. professions was just what it was in Europe before the Holocaust. But this is not actually true: Today in the U.S., Jewish prominence exceeds the Jewish presence in Europe, because today we are leaders in many fields, we are granted governing powers. Elena Kagan was the dean of Harvard Law School. She was succeeded by another Jewish woman.
This is a glorious Jewish and American moment. Never before in history have Jews been so included, so trusted, as we are in the U.S. People know this and accept it. Americans like Jews in powerful positions. How else do you explain the number of Jewish senators, from places like Wisconsin, Oregon, and Minnesota?
What are the consequences of this achievement? Well, for one thing, it will not last. We are now the models, and Jewish cultural gifts are transferrable. Others can cultivate habits of study. Jews are wealthy by and large–the wealthiest American group by religion, far outstripping Episcopalians--and wealth and gumption don’t mix.
This moment is sure to transform Jewish life, too. No longer can Jews tell themselves, as my parents told me, that we are outsiders. We’re principals in American society. We cannot claim the traditional privileges of a minority, to look out for one another. We have great responsibility for the whole society.
So this moment is going to change Jewish identity forever. It was always asserted by parochial Jews that Jews could not fully assimilate into western societies; we were not wanted. This is simply not the case any more.
The Kagan moment spells not just the end of anti-Semitism, but the end of Jewish responses to it, including the Israel lobby. Muller ends his book by suggesting that Jews should be Zionists, because Zionism was a natural nationalistic response to western nationalism that left no place for Jews. But Muller is a historian, and that is a historical judgment. That moment is over. Jews are fully empowered in the most powerful country in the world. It’s time to get our heads around that fact. We have reached our rendezvous with destiny, and this means coming to terms as equals with the people whom Jews in rising have most dispossessed, Palestinians.