Tuesday, June 24, 2008


A restaurant recently opened on the 4th Avenue edge of Park Slope, called "Bigotes." This is one letter short of certain failure in the neighborhood, but so long as the letter doesn't tumble from the sign, they should be in the clear.

Paul Gowder asks, "What is bigotry?" He sees a difference between "[t]hose who hold a negative attitude toward, e.g., blacks, women, and Jews" and those put off by evangelical Christians. Predictably enough, a commenter asks,

"[...] how you think prejudging a Christian is any different from prejudging a Jew?"

According to Gowder, the difference comes from two facts: that "there are no known true reasons to hold a negative opinion of those groups [blacks, women, and Jews]," and that Christians, unlike BWJs, are not discriminated against in contemporary America.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to hold a negative attitude towards any group. One could point to Jews, blacks, or women as the disproportionate cause of whatever one dislikes about the world today, backing this up with statistics.

Yet the commenter who sees no difference between hating Jews and hating Christians misses the point. What makes Jews, along with blacks, and women, different from evangelical Christians is simple enough: choice. One chooses to be an evangelical Christian, whereas one is Jewish (whether or not one believes), black, or female for life. One can point to rare cases of Jews who change names, convert and blend into society at large without people remembering that they are Jewish, although of course to point out such people would be to, um, remember that they are Jewish. The equivalent for gender is of course sex change, which is also quite rare. For race, there is, I don't know, Michael Jackson? In nearly all cases, black, female, and Jewish are immutable qualities. So to hate people on account of a quality over which they have no control is true bigotry, whereas to hate a group on account of its voluntary behavior is pretty much fair game. Thus it is not anti-Semitic to hate Hasids, not racist to hate followers of Al Sharpton, and not sexist to hate women who identify with "Sex and the City."


FLG said...

I know I brought this up before, but I question whether being Jewish is in the same category as being black or a woman. Being a Jew is about practicing a religion. If a person with a Jewish sounding name converts and becomes, I dunno, a Baptist, are they still Jewish? I don't think so.

Even if that person converts and you say, hey, Mr. Rosen used be a Jew, but now he is a Methodist, is that really any different from saying Mr. Smith was an Episcopalian, but is now a Catholic? I don't think so.

Certainly, there is a Jewish culture that is not explicitly religious. To be from a Jewish family probably implies that one is forever a part of that culture, even after conversion to another religion. However, would the converted Methodist still be a Jew because his parents are Jewish? I don't think so.

Furthermore, besides the names, there are certain semitic physical attributes. I think these are exaggerated as a means of determining Jewishness, and do not imply a race per se.

Perhaps the idea of Jewishness as a race is a way for non-practicing Jews to embrace the culture and tradition without practicing, and if true then maybe it's a bit of a cop-out.

Nevertheless, despite all that, and all of this is coming from a non-Jew, if somebody hates Jews, even Hasids, they are still a bigot. Asking someone to give up their religion is the same as asking a person not to be a woman or black. Religion is a so deep that it is a state of being. At least, in my opinion.

FLG said...

Sorry, but I wanted to say that hating people who think that their religion compels them to kill people of other religions does not make you a bigot.

Just to clarify.

Phoebe said...

"If a person with a Jewish sounding name converts and becomes, I dunno, a Baptist, are they still Jewish? I don't think so."

You may not, but the general public will. The convert himself may as well. This does not mean that Judaism is or is generally considered to be a race. Whatever quality one wishes to call it--race, nation, ethnicity, people--something or other ties Jews to Judaism in such a way that conversion out has not, at any point in modern or medieval history I'm aware of, meant that once ceases to be considered a Jew. To believe that one is Jewish even if one practices nothing, even if one practices a religion other than Judaism, isn't so much a "cop-out" as accepting reality. This isn't to say individuals can't or shouldn't challenge this norm.

Daniel said...

What about conversion in to Judaism... Don't those people choose to be Jewish? Doesn't this show some mutability to "Jewish"? Or are they somehow less Jewish than the born to a Jewish mother non-practioner?

Phoebe said...

Conversion is possible but more fraught than in/out of other groups also called "religions." That conversion is possible does not make Judaism 'just' a religion. Conversion to/from Judaism is in some ways more like changing nationality than changing faith (say, Baptist to Methodist), although neither analogy really explains it.

The problem is that there's no answer for all time and place. A Jewish family background can, in many situations, make a person more universally considered Jewish than a choice to join the community. Again, this is not about whether I feel one person is 'more' Jewish than the other, but an observation of how converts in and out are understood by others.

J. Otto Pohl said...

There is so much wrong here I am not sure where to begin. But, let me just note that first assimilation is possible. A very large number of Jews have assimilated into non-jewish groups. The Christian Goldwaters in Arizona used to be Jewish. But, after many generations I think we can say they have assimilated. The Goldwaters were not unique. I would say that when you take intermarriage into consideration quite literally millions of Jews have assimilated into other ethnic groups. So Jewish ethnicity is not immutable. States can categorize it as a race and make it immutable. That is define anybody who had ancestors who were Jewish as Jewish. But, only Nazi Germany, the USSR and Israel have done this.

Second of all the borders of these categories are all arbitrary. One of the main reasons for instituting pass-laws in South Africa was that lots of mixed race people were passing as White. In the US it happened all the time as well. Just because the state says that a person with one Black ancestor is Black or Colored does not mean that particular person or even society at large will agree. Being Black is not necessarily immutable. How one classifies the very large number of mixed race people is important. Especially since in the US the majority of Blacks do in fact have some White or Native American ancestry. The racial classifications in the US, Brazil and South Africa are very different. Almost all Blacks in the US would have been Coloreds in South Africa.

Third the essentialization of ancestral religion as a marker of race rather than phenotype is not unique to Jews. I suggest you look at the history of the Bosniaks who used to be called "Ethnic Muslims" in Yugoslavia. Being killed because your grandparents practiced the wrong religon is not unique to Jews. I will note that other ethno-confessional groups that base their identity on ancestral relgion also exist. But, the essentialization of Muslims as a race in ways similar to European anti-semitism is quite real.

Finally you confuse bigotry which in its original meaning is discrimination against people with different religious beliefs and racism. Yes hating Black people is racists. Hating Jews can be racist if it is on the basis of being genetically or primordial cultural essence of Hebrew descent. It can also be bigotry if is for instance rejecting the teachings of Christ and not converting.

Phoebe said...

There's so much right!

"But, only Nazi Germany, the USSR and Israel have done this [classified Jews as a race]."

Officially, perhaps, (although it's a stretch to say Israel defines Jews as a "race." Defining Jews by family history may be a bad idea, but it's not about race in the usual sense). Socially, not so much. Plenty of French people, Americans, etc. believe there is a Jewish race.

To repeat: I did not say Judaism is considered or should be considered a race. What I said was that it is treated--by those inside and outside the group, in the past and present alike--as something that extends beyond just a religion. What that "something" is is not always clear, but I'd say it's closer to "people" or "nation" than "race."

And as for my ignorance of the details of Bosnian history, guilty as charged, but I don't see how that's evidence of "so much" being wrong with my post. Did I say, "and none of this applies to Muslims, or to anyone other than Jews?" No, because that would be ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

"The equivalent for gender is of course sex change, which is also quite rare."

Unless, of course, you live in Albania, where no sex change is necessary: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/25/world/europe/25virgins.html?hp

Daniel said...

I agree that the existence of conversion doesn't make judaism "just" a religion. However, it does take it a little away from the "immutable" status that "black" may have (which may not be so immutable of a category as well. Some people insist on referring to "half-black" in the same way that some people refer to Jews with only one Jewish parent as "half-Jewish").
I'm just suggesting that it isn't one or the other (immutable or completely elective). There's some shades in there.

Dave said...

Interesting.. Here's a response: