A couple of weeks ago a media friend came to visit my wife for the day. I like the friend a lot but I am always aware that he is connected. He is Jewish and has a good job in the media… I had the same path and rode it as long as I could, so I can’t hold it against anyone else… Hey, it’s a good deal.
My wife and her friend went for a walk and my friend Dave stopped by with his son. Since I moved to the sticks my closest friend is a contractor. We spend a lot of time together. He is from the working class/middle class and from the beginning we have learned to navigate the class difference between us that is there and not there (he’s made a lot more money than me some years). We’re fine at it.
My wife and the friend came back, and we all had tea. I had out an the atlas because my friend’s son is tracing the family’s roots in southern Italy and they are thinking of going there on a visit. Naturally the subject turned to other people’s ancestry. The visiting friend said, “My whole family were poor Jewish peasants. They were in Poland and Rumania and Russia [same place I’m from, reader] and just as poor as dirt before they came over here.”
Everyone left, and my wife and I had the usual post-mortem. It had been a very nice visit. This guy is nice. I didn’t say anything till the next day. Then I said, “ I just want to say one thing. Jews weren’t peasants. They were privileged in Europe. This is what the histories tell us. So ——- didn’t come from peasant stock. He was putting on airs around Dave, and I don’t like it.”
My wife flipped out on me. It was about the issue, partly, but also about my obsessions shadowing our social life. She doesn’t read this site, and that’s fine, she sounding-boards my concerns 24/7. She has to put up with a lot. Some people appreciate this. Lately a friend from this site gave her a subscription to the London Review of Books. That made her happy.
My wife was upset by a, my stored-up intensity around her friend, and b, the tunnel vision. She decided to take me on. “Don’t be crazy. Don’t be so blanket.” Later she googled Jews and peasants, and when I came in her office, she said, “You said Jews were never peasants.” “Well I didn’t say they were never peasants,” I said. “Yes you did. You said never. [I don’t remember that part.] OK: When do you think they were peasants.” “Maybe in ancient times.” “What does that mean?” Etc.
She produced the fact that in Jesus’s time there were tons of Jewish peasants. Jesus was a Jewish peasant. I accept this.
The beauty of Mark Rudd’s paper on Jewish radicalism, identity and privilege is that the old radical quotes Israel Shahak on this issue. Jews were not peasants, Rudd said. We were the middle men between the landowners and the serfs– "[for] almost one thousand years… which we occupied a middle position between the landlords, whom we served, and the peasants who despised us and whom we in turn despised. How could it have been otherwise?" A similar point is made in Paul Kriwaczek’s Yiddish Civilisation. He has a lot more Jewish pride than Shahak and he tells about Jewish achievement throughout central and eastern Europe. “The greater the Jews’ success, the more did anti-Jewish resentment spread and fester among many of their gentile compatriots, particularly.. the lower middle class,” he writes of the 19th century. In 1522 there was going to be a peasant uprising in Alsace. A leading court Jew went to the authorities to appeal for protection. “The peasants were in revolt in Germany. In Alsace they were bent on massacring us,” he wrote in his diary. The rage was directed at the urban population, not just Jews, Kriwaczek says, and in suppressing the peasant revolt, 20,000 peasant fighters were “left dead on one battledfield, and 6,000 more on another, perhaps one in ten of the population.”
Talk abut pogroms. Talk about fellaheen, the Arabic word for peasant. Herzl was repelled by the fellaheen. And on it goes…
This is an important discussion. It is about Jewish self-recognition. We are privileged people. It is part of the puzzle. I don’t think you can take a step in any analysis about the Israel lobby in the United States without reckoning with this issue. Don’t tell my wife.
Update: I think some of the commenters are right about the crudeness of my history; I’ll undertake to be more careful next time, though I defend the thrust of the post. Also my wife tells me my sin was arrogance, my intellectual assumptiveness.