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The Jewish question has become the Jewish quandary

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Columbia had its semi-annual University Lecture last night: history professor Ira Katznelson's thoughts on tolerance and liberalism, using the example of the history of Jews in England, from their expulsion in the 1200s to their readmission in the 1650s to the granting of political freedoms in the mid-1800s. I went with the hope of an intellectual feast. It was more of an antipasto.

Katznelson it turns out is a scholar of American history. He wrote an important book saying that affirmative action for blacks just reprised the affirmative action that whites got, starting with the New Deal. As soon as he got into his lecture, it was clear that European religious history is not his area. I wondered why he didn't do an American subject. Still he is a very smart guy and had a lot to tell us.

King Edward ordered the 5000 Jews out of the kingdom in part to quiet
unrest. The expulsion was preceded in England by baronial pogroms–and
knights had lost their estates to moneylenders, a trade to which Jews
were of course confined. The expulsion of Jews damaged the monarchs'' ability to finance wars. The point resonates with Israel Shahak's view that Jews played an essential part in the feudal structure and were resented for their economic privilege.

There was a suggestion in the lecture that Jews were sought back as the yeast of a modern economy. That goes along with the famous Jewish threat/truth: a society cannot prosper that does not treat its Jews well. England got there slowly. Katznelson said that Foreign Secretary David Miliband's grandfather was rejected for citizenship in 1945, even after having fought for England, the country he had sought refuge in as a Jew fleeing the Holocaust.
The rotunda of Low Library where the lecture took place is beautiful but a little solemn, ponderous. Dark marble columns. A high dome with a few lightbulbs at the very top, high balconies with unidentifiable statues, and some of the high windows open on the east. As the sun went down, the place became dim. The lecture was long, and the acoustics are terrible. The friend I went with scribbled a note on his pad. "Not enough Jewish humor."
My problem at dignified events like this is that one question forms in my mind, the Seder question: How can you talk of the history of Jewish affliction for an hour and a half, and say not a word about the fact that millions of Palestinians are right now oppressed and American Jewry is a party to that oppression? This question disturbs me: I wonder if I am crazy for thinking it, if I am the only one who's thinking it. Then I get angry at the people around me who are not thinking it. Then I wonder if it won’t be a commonplace in 20 years to talk about this intellectual humbug. Then I wonder again if I have lost my mind.

Katznelson was at his best when he posed the question of whether the progress of the Jews in England came about because of the progress of ideas –-Locke was proselytizing for Jewish emancipation, Spinoza was questioning the idea of the chosen people in Amsterdam—-or on the other hand, per what the professor called the new school of historical realism, was it partisanship, instrumental leadership, and power relationships that did the job? (Having lost my mind, I thought at once of the Israel lobby as an example of historical realism in action.) Katznelson said neither theory fully explained the Jews' progress, but he sort of left it there.

The questioners tried to push Katznelson into today's world. One man asked what he thought of the Madoff case, and everyone prayed for a Jewish joke. Katznelson said with correctness that it wasn’t about Jewishness, it could have happened to any social or business network. (But it didn't, did it?) Another guy asked my Seder question but from the other side: How it is possible to reconcile tolerance with Islamic fundamentalism? Again Katznelson gave the correct answer, that the Muslim community is not simple.

Then he offered a moving statement from John Rawls on multiculturalism, that groups had to give up their particularity in the public square. I wish I could quote it exactly. My tape sounds like we were all underwater. It was a statement that there is a public interest; and again I thought about the Israel lobby and the stunted view it has of the public interest.

But I'm saving the best question for last. The showstopper came from a small older man whom Katznelson identified as Walter Eberstadt (maybe this man):
“I submit that without intolerance there would no longer be Jews.”

Katznelson really didn't have an answer. He said something about an AB Yehoshua novel, his one reference to Israel. But Eberstadt was asking about assimilation, and his question echoed a subtle theme in the lecture itself: part of the motivation of the oppressor, apart from classical anti-Semitism, was the impression that Jews didn’t want to be a part of the society anyway. Well that is changing. Now many of us want to be, and there is nobody to stop us. The Jewish question has become the Jewish quandary.

Katznelson's had referred to important liberal theorists. John Rawls. John Locke. As I left I thought of Steven Smith's work on Spinoza and liberalism that ends with the bracing, conservative statement that "to the extent that the liberal Enlightenment urges the abolition of a particular providence, it will always be at odds with Judaism." This is what Eberstadt was getting at, the Jewish idea of chosenness. It is the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, and it has taken up residence inside Judaism, from Spinoza to Arendt. You get to choose for yourself, it's a free country.

(P.S. My religious friend Mark writes: Quick historical note. The Jews were far from the only medieval
moneylenders/bankers who ran afoul of kings who didn't want to pay
their debts–Knights Templar come to mind immediately. Cutting the royal nose to spite the face–bankrupting the kingdom by
putting out moneylender/bankers (of whatever origin) was common
(mal)practice at the time.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-06.

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