Last week in an attack on online critics of Israel, Commentary slammed me for what it suggested was anti-Semitic ideas, including this one: “Weiss reflected that Jewish identity imparts ‘a sense of difference, yes, inevitably of elite identity, that’s part of Jewish history and one I struggle with.’”
Well I do struggle with it; and I think it’s anti-intellectual of any supposed magazine of ideas to suggest that the American Jewish experience is not an elite one. Privilege is a reality of American Jewish identity, and denial doesn’t help. Two recent examples from public radio bear me out.
This morning, Krista Tippett whose spiritual show “On Being” I listen to regularly, did an hour with celebrity chef Dan Barber from a synagogue. I could not believe Barber was Tippett’s guest, because he serves the court at his lavish expensive restaurant, on a Rockefeller estate in Westchester County. But that’s the point: in his charming presentation, Barber effortlessly melds Rockefellers, his own privileged background, and service to the court; and when an audience member in the Indianapolis synagogue suggested that his approach to cuisine is “elitist,” Barber said that elites often drive progressive trends and cited the writer Michael Pollan.
I think Barber and Pollan are plainly right on this point, but it also suggests the ways in which Jewish identity is invested in privileged cultural politics. When a Harvard student was told about the wonders of “the Jewish mind” on her recent trip to Israel, she was only getting the indoctrination that I have received all my life– and a sense of cultural difference that in some ways I accept.
The other NPR report that bears out this point was Susan Stamberg’s piece a couple weeks back on an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York on the painter Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and his Jewish patrons in Paris. The piece was quite frank about a Jewish elite (a word I am pretty sure NPR used in promoting the piece the night before). Wealthy Jews with great taste sustained Vuillard’s career — “very intellectual and very artistic in… manner and… interests,” as Stamberg described them.
Or as Alma Mahler wrote in her Viennese diary in 1899, “[T]he opera public is mostly Jewish anyway.” This is also the scene of Maugham’s story about Jewish musical patronage in London, The Alien Corn. And, going back to Vienna, of the famous case of the Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis from the Block-Bauer family.
No one who opens this door can deny the anti-Semitic uses of such observations. The Maugham story has an anti-Semitic flavor. And in the LRB, Adam Shatz lately quoted De Gaulle, after the ’67 war, describing Jews as “an élite people, sure of themselves and domineering”. There have to be ways to understand our presence without that bigotry; but understanding that presence is simply too important a task to me to avoid that mental struggle.