Friday, June 30, 2006

Commentary on "Commentary"

In Commentary, Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer criticize the American Jewish turn to universalism over specifically Jewish concerns. After explaining various facts about Jewish life in America today, the authors continue:

All of these factors have vastly complicated the task of mobilizing American Jews to take concerted action on behalf of specifically Jewish causes. Many, insofar as they are moved to action at all, seem to reserve their fervor for the approved "universal" causes of our time—Darfur, relief for victims of Katrina, domestic poverty, and the like. Although rabbis, educators, and Jewish agencies strive to link such non-sectarian causes to traditional Jewish teachings, they tend to become tongue-tied when it comes to urging attentiveness to distinctly Jewish needs.

So true. And also, such a sign, as if I weren't already convinced, that this is in fact fin-de-siecle France but with worse food. Just as Dreyfus's Jewish supporters came to his defense out of concern for justice and human rights, not to save one of their own, today's American Jews and American Jewish organizations make sure to reiterate time and time again that they care if anything less about the Jews than about the rest of the world.

But the authors are missing something--when Jews favor "humanity" over their own people, this isn't mere apathetic, comfortable assimilation, and admirable readiness to solve the world's problems regardless of race/creed/nationality of the opporessed. Sometimes, the desire to help the world rather than the Jews comes from what some would call self-hatred but which could more justly be called fear. Many Americans are convinced that Jews are behind the Iraq war and other less-than-successful aspects of American politics today. Yet peace in the Middle East is taking a whole lot longer than anyone with even a shred of optimism would have guessed, and Europe is problematic for other reasons--governments' not knowing what to make of Islamic radicalism, etc. America seems in many ways the best place to be Jewish (or to live, period) these days, and American Jews don't want to blow it.

Cohen and Wertheimer conclude:

In the end, the decline of Jewish peoplehood is symptomatic of a decline of morale, of national self respect. A people no longer proud of what and who it is, no longer dedicated to caring for its own, cannot long expect to be held in high regard by others, or to move the world by its message.

Interesting that the authors choose to mention "national self respect." The nation they're referring to is clearly not the United States, but I can't imagine that many American Jews consider themselves to be a part of any other. This is not all a matter of rhetoric--as long as Jews outside of Israel don't see Judaism as at all national, what the authors are describing will continue.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

The comment “the desire to help the world rather than the Jews comes from what some would call self-hatred but which could more justly be called fear” it a turn of phrase suitable for a Nazi hand-book explaining away Jewish charity. And on a more general level, charity outside the Jewish community does not need to take away from charity to Jews. Finally, while the world as a whole has consistently failed the Jews, there have been tremendous cases of charity to Jews and so, in all, putting any type of charity in negative context is sophistry and attempts to stereotype Jewish charity a slippery slope. -M

Petey said...

"Sometimes, the desire to help the world rather than the Jews comes from what some would call self-hatred but which could more justly be called fear."

Sometimes, that desire comes from following several thousand years of Jewish ethics.

And sometimes, that desire comes from the rational self-interest of diaspora Jews.

-----

If you are happily a diaspora Jew, your interests are best served by promoting Enlightenment values of progress.

If you are a wanna-be Israeli diaspora Jew, your interests may seem more aligned with an atavistic tribalism.

Anonymous said...

"All of these factors have vastly complicated the task of mobilizing American Jews to take concerted action on behalf of specifically Jewish causes. Many, insofar as they are moved to action at all, seem to reserve their fervor for the approved "universal" causes of our time—Darfur, relief for victims of Katrina, domestic poverty, and the like. Although rabbis, educators, and Jewish agencies strive to link such non-sectarian causes to traditional Jewish teachings, they tend to become tongue-tied when it comes to urging attentiveness to distinctly Jewish needs."

This is a western phenomenon that's hardly restricted to jews. The way to gain credibility as a "moral voice" in Europe is to concern yourself with things that have very little to do with Europe per se ie Darfur, palestine/israel, African poverty etc.