The other day in a post on atavistic Jewish feeling, I offended some readers by using the words “my people” to describe Jews. I did so because it’s a genuine statement of a persistent tribal allegiance that I feel, even in my mid-50s, in a largely gentile world.
But let me try and explain just where the feeling comes from, how many other Jews share it, and to what extent I regard it as defensible, which to some extent I do.
As I’ve written before, I grew up in a bookish household with a very strong sense of how Jews were different and superior. Let’s leave the superior out of it; that’s not really the point of this post. We had different values and we were keenly aware of who was Jewish and who was not. We were more comfortable with Jews. The inner circle were NY Ashkenazi Jews but it spread out to include all European Jews and then all Jews anywhere, we thought of them as kinspeople. My parents’ closest friends were other New York Jews with whom they could share points of reference, Yiddish, and general cultural understanding and values. My mother’s favorite story just about was of a Jewish friend, her closest friend, who later moved to Israel, telling her that before she got married to her scientist husband, the fiance’s mother took her aside and said, “Do you really love J? You really do? Well then if you really loved him you would not marry him and let him find someone rich.” My grandparents generation were often immigrants, usually poor, and knew that learning – in that story, J was a gifted student—was socially highly-valued. Thus the Jewish doctor of a generation back (replaced today by the Jewish investment banker of Chelsea Clinton’s adoration).
I remember being instilled to feel a kinship to black people in Baltimore. I had black friends, my mther made connections to the black community. We regarded them as similarly outside and powerless, and also beneficiaries of civil rights legislation.
Pogroms and Holocaust shaped our view of our people. They had almost wiped “us” out in Europe with the connivance of the American State Department. My mother had six children, she often said, because she wanted to repopulate the world with Jews. We were in danger of extinction. We never realy went to synagogue, my scientist father looked down on rabbis, but big deal: we sought out the company of Jews, because they were smart and funny and shared our understandings. I have heard similar tribal attitudes expressed by a Jewish friend who dated non Jews in college but married a Jew because it was easier, and from a Palestinian friend who says she dates Arab men because there isn’t as much to explain personally.
I remember a non Jewish friend coming to my parents’ house to visit on Thanksgiving and getting very nervous within a few minutes. Where’s the liquor? He came up to me and murmured. I had to look in some old cabinet, for dusty bottles.
My sense of a Jewish people, of a continuous culture and understanding, informs my actions to this day. While I married a non Jew and have many non Jewish friends, I have a certain sense of loyalty to Jews, as an embattled people. When I go to Israel I generally don’t recognize the Israelis, who are as Shlomo Sand has said, a people, but I do recognize Ashkenazi Jews, be they Israelis or European.
This affinity is true even of some of my leftwing non Zionist friends. We occasionally look at one another and say, We are here not just out of devotion to human rights, but because we don’t want our people, the Jews to be hurt. In fact, we see our representation here in the Palestinian solidarity community, as proud Jews, as guarding against the thing we have always been warned about, that They are going to wipe us all out.
The belief that They are going to Wipe Us All Out, which is supported by history, to some degree, I can tell you is shared by many powerful Jews. They’ve told me so. Shmuel repeatedly urges people to give up trauma as a form of self-definition, but I can tell you that many people don’t take his advice, they are embracing it. Lately a friend when I asked him why he’s a Zionist said, Because they are always going to rise up against us, at some time or place. I don’t share that feeling, but there it is.
My sense of my peopleness led me in college to seek out the company of other Jews at the Harvard Crimson newspaper, and to prefer the company of Jews in what struck me as an alien atmosphere. Yes, Ashkenazi Jews. Marty Peretz was a ringleader of the social studies Jews I knew, and there were haut German Jews, too, who were new to me, but still I had a sense of communality/caste identification. We saw each other as part of an elite with distinct values. When my mother asked me about my friends, I’d tell her about the Jews. My closest three friends were all Jews.
As I’ve said here often, I think that Jews hired other Jews. I know I’ve benefited from this full employment program on numerous occasins in my life. I think that Marty Peretz had me working at the New Republic when my work wasn’t that good in good part because I’m Jewish and was in the gang. I think that the editor who has given me more work than anyone, who will go nameless, loves me in part because we’re of the same tribe. When you look at hives of Jewish writers, say the New Yorker Magazine, or the professors at Columbia University schools, I believe there is a strong kinship network at work. I’ve mentioned Lawrence Summers and Elena Kagan and Michael Walzer and Judith Shklar, their faculty networks at Harvard, as indicative of the same tendency.
Hey it was no different when the WASPs were running the center ring. Just read Digby Baltzell. Again, though, if you think it’s just a coincidence that David axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, the two men closest to Barack Obama, are Jewish, when the Pritzkers and Crowns were so essential to Obama’s rise, with financial backing, I think you’re livin in dream land.
How bad or good is this? I think it just is. I don’t feel that bad about it. I think people are tribal. My wife has autochthonous WASP feelings and attachments she’ll never get over and I’ll never completely understand. Go figure. I like to think I’m fairly evolved – though yes I know people who are much more postracial than I am – still I have this tribal component. James North, who spurred this post, says he feels no allegiance to the Swedes, but to Americans. Good for him, I admire that, I’m a little different. Jeffrey Goldberg is different. I may not think about Is it good for the Jews? As the defining question, but I do think about it. When I was working in Minnesota a few years ago, a Norwegian-American guy was arrested for combing the marriage notices every week and sending out vicious anonymous letters to the couples who combined Swedish or Norwegian names and Irish names, any intermarriages. Or when I was at the Daily News in Philly, we did a police item about a rabbi arrested at the airport for embezzling synagogue money, and a Harvard friend’s father railed at me for putting that in the paper. That is the essence of the issue. He thought that it would feed stereotypes of Jews even though it was true, and he felt I had the power to block it, as I did, and he felt kinship with the rabbi even though he didn’t know him.
I titled this post Notes on my racism and undoubtedly these feelings feed racism. But they are real. To argue my friend’s father’s side for a moment, in the rabbi case, it came out of fear and insecurity, the fear that we would be wiped out, which again I have heard from some of the most empowered people on the planet. I don’t share that fear, I dedicate a lot of time on this site to arguing that history is moving in a completely different direction, but I feel a kinship with people who do, and as such I know that I will always be responding to that concern. I will always be in that conversation, even with members of my own family. I will argue, as Shmuel does, that you should not put Yad Vashem at the center of your world view. And we will win that struggle, some day. Still the fears are there, they unite people who regard themselves as a people, and if you think that we can get out of the Middle East mess without dealing with these identity issues, well–