Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"No one could help doing that"

So what to make of this:

When I was a young man of twenty-five or so, I was once marooned for eight days on one of society's most arid islands, in company with a Jewish girl of twenty-three. There being virtually no one else to talk with, we were pretty strictly limited to each other's society, and became very intimate. She was the only girl I ever saw who seemed to me the acme of everything desirable, with no offset that I could discover - everything in nature and disposition, education, beauty and charm, cosmopolitan culture and manners. Such I have always imagined Fanny Mendelssohn must have been or perhaps rather Henriette Herz, at the time when the mighty Schleiermacher was making up to her and the great Wilhelm von Humboldt was writing her his charming and whimsical love letters. What especially interested me was my complete certainty that with the best will in the world on both sides I should know her no better at the end of a hundred years of close companionship than I did at the end of those eight days. I never saw or heard of her afterwards, nor tried to do either. I have often thought, however, of what would happen if some rash and personable young Occidental fell in love with her—no one could help doing that—and married her. If he were sensitive, how distressed and dissatisfied he would be as he became aware of the vast areas of her consciousness from which he was perforce shut out forever; and on the other hand, if he were too insensitive to feel that he was shut out from them, how intolerable her life with him would be.
Turns out that even in 1941, in the US, Jews were considered - by some, at least - "Orientals," even Jews whose families had been in the West since they could remember.

I'd always sort of assumed the Belle Juive - and this description is as Belle-Juive as it gets - had relevance in 1840s France, but WWII-era America? Count me surprised. But not that surprised - this does tend to back up what I'd assumed, which is that when non-Jewish men (such as this author) were the ones mainly responsible for creating stereotypes about Jewish women, the stereotypes were far more flattering - if, of course, offensive in their own way, as stereotypes kind of have to be - than are the ones we currently know (ahem, Roth-Allen two-headed monster), ones that come from Jewish men. I doubt if Jewish women today look radically different from Jewish women in 1840 or 1940. So it's strange to think that "Jewish" as a physical descriptor is today seen almost universally as unflattering (and no, the existence of Rachel Weisz proves nothing - an exception that proves a rule), whereas it was once if not the ideal, an ideal.

Ultimately, although this subject no doubt interests me as a, well, Juive, I'm not sure whether it would in any way have benefited me personally to live at a time when The Jewess was exoticized, thought "Oriental," and imagined to be something along the lines of a beautiful alien from outer space. All things equal, it's probably better not to be a fetish object on account of your ethnic background.


Withywindle said...

I wouldn't take Nock as entirely typical of American thought. And even to say "But the spectrum of American thought included Nock" is still an argument to be elaborated with care.

Phoebe said...

I don't know anything Nock, or for that matter much about 1941 in the US. All I do know is that it would be unthinkable for anyone in the US today to refer to Jewish women as a) 'Oriental', or b) unusually attractive. Not because these are stereotypes and we're too PC to express those, but because these are simply no longer stereotypes about Jewish women, as far as I know, anywhere. It's not that no one would dare express these, but that they'd seem bizarre.

So what I'm wondering is, in what way, in this context, are you suggesting Nock falls outside the spectrum of 1940s American thought?

Andrew Stevens said...

Read this response. Nock's view of Jews as "Orientals" was astonishing even in 1941.

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens,

What I got from that letter is a bit different. Clearly, not everyone in 1941 thought Jews were "Orientals," and some would argue that the label was backwards and dated. But! The same was true in the nineteenth century - then, too, you had the 'Jews are exotic and unassimilable' types arguing with the 'no, Jews are just fine/on their way to being just fine, and anyone who says otherwise is stuck in the Middle Ages' ones.

In other words, neither the fact that Marshall thinks Nock is wrong nor the fact that he thinks his argument is dated leads me to believe that Jews-as-Orientals was "astonishing" at this time. Today, a Nock-type argument would be treated not as wrong and dated, but as ridiculous and incomprehensible, simply because whatever stereotypes do persist about Jews, the one about Jews being somehow Asian, and particularly the subset of that view, in which Jewish women are presumed particularly alluring, no longer exists.

X. Trapnel said...

Keep in mind that "Oriental" has had a shifting referent, and Nock (b. 1873) was almost certainly using it in its more old-fashion sense as meaning Eastern in general and what we'd now term "middle-eastern" in particular rather than "Asian"; e.g. the Oriental Institute at U of C.

Which is equally curious, true. Things have changed a lot. Though I wonder how much of the de-exoticisation--reclassifying not just Jews but southern and eastern europeans generally into the category of "white"--has to do, in the US, with the shifting patterns of postwar immigration...

Phoebe said...

Right - Oriental as in the Oriental Institute, but also as in Said's Orientalism. But this still meant, at least in part, Asian, given the geography of the Middle East. I don't believe anyone thought of Jews as Chinese, although Nock, at least, I believe refers to the Jews and the Chinese as both being Oriental peoples.

Regardless, because of uneasiness regarding Zionism, it would today be seen as Zionist propaganda to suggest that a Jew, particularly an Ashkenazi, was somehow originally Middle-Eastern. Jews are the white colonizers of brown peoples! Meanwhile, part of the inspiration for Zionism came from some Jews' having grown accustomed to being told to go back to the Middle East, where they came from, and deciding that resisting this suggestion hadn't always worked out so well. Not that some Zionists didn't self-define as white with respect to Arabs...

Not that I could at all treat this subject with justice, esp. in blog-comment form, but the point I'm trying to make is that reluctance to calling Jews 'Oriental' or 'Middle-Eastern' could be more complicated than that Jews have 'won' and now get to be undifferentiated whites.

As for why Jews and other groups 'became white' in the US, I'd think - aside from, in Jews' case, Zionism - the reason really does come down to the black-white divide. It's not that hard to imagine, some day in the future, all non-black groups in the US now considered also 'of color' eventually getting referred to as white. In France, where there's also a French-Arab divide, I'd imagine Jews today - who are often themselves of North African descent - might, for reasons of relative 'whiteness', be less likely to be seen as white than those in the US, or at least that they'd been seen as not quite as white. If that makes sense.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, I certainly concede your reading is just as plausible as mine.

Isabel said...

Data point in favor of the Albert Jay Nock not being typical of mainstream American thought at the time: John Derbyshire is a huge fan of Nock and has written that he sees himself in Nock. I.e. they're both highly idiosyncratic libertarian/paleoconservative types who have more than slight contrarian inclinations.

Neither Nock nor Derbyshire has ever suffered the ignominy of being cast out of public intellectual life altogether, it's true. And each's views were more common among non-intellectuals of his day than they were among intellectual types. But they're both fundamentally sort of fringe figures in similar ways.

Britta said...

I'm not at all that Americans would think of Jews as being Oriental in the 1940s, but I am surprised that such a view would get published in the Atlantic. In the 40s, huge numbers of Americans were 1st generation European immigrants still, and late-19th early 20th century Europe certainly did not see Jews as white, so it's no surprise that immigrants to America wouldn't. Still in parts of the midwest, Jews are seen as "foreign" in a way they aren't in other parts of America, however anti-semitism (far more than racism, I think) is stigmatized to the point where few people who do see Jews as less than white would be willing to express such views outright.

Also, in at least some Scandinavian countries (Norway, and to a lesser extent Sweden, possibly Finland) Jews still are seen as fairly exotic. In part, this is because there are actually very few Jewish people up there, and in part it's a reaction to German-style anti-semitism. It's generally meant to be positive, but it's a philo-semitism based on little or no knowledge of Jewish culture or contact with actual Jews, so it can end up being a weird exotification crossed with model minority stereotypes crossed with sympathy for the victim (although this is changing a bit with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the perception that Jews are as likely to be on the side of the aggressor as they are to be the victim).

X. Trapnel said...

Given your interest in the relationship being Jews and the construction of 'Frenchness', have you ever looked into the more American-centered 'whiteness studies' stuff? Might be of interest, though I have no idea, not having read any.

Phoebe said...


That's interesting about Nock and Derbyshire. (Granted most of what I remember from when I last read anything by the latter was that he didn't think Jennifer Aniston's breasts were exciting enough to be on a magazine cover, on account of she was no longer 15 at the time.) But I still wonder, however much Nock was affecting being/was genuinely from another time, if the idea of an Oriental Jewess had entirely lost meaning for readers in 1941 America. I just think that today, we've had so many TV shows, books, and movies about the Jewish woman versus the much-envied 'shiksa' that the exotic-beauty cliché would be incomprehensible.


I suppose it would take a place like Scandinavia (assuming it's as blond as rumored - I've never been) for Jews to be thought visibly non-white, given that (Ashkenazi) Jews simply fail to look 'of color' anywhere where brunettes make up a substantial portion of the population. But I wonder whether, even if Jews are seen as foreign, exotic, extra-wonderful, extra-terrible, and so forth, whether even in Scandinavia a Jew would be considered non-white. As is I suppose clear, I know virtually nothing about Scandinavia, but I'm not sure regarding this: "late-19th early 20th century Europe certainly did not see Jews as white." I'd say it was more that Europeans at this time thought of Jews as part of a very broad category known as 'white' that separated Jews from colonized peoples one could only read about, and who, if in the metropole, would constitute a visible minority, but that 'white' did not have the same end-of-story meaning it did/does in the US. Which is to say, being not-not-white was not enough to avoid racial persecution. I could be wrong, but I recall Gobineau classifying both "Aryans" and "Semites" as "white." So Jews could be looked upon as a racially foreign element all the while going around being thought 'white' and even looking 'white' - again, thus the need for placing a physical marker on Jews to make Jews visible in a European society.

X. Trapnel,

I've read one book on Jews and whiteness, Eric Goldstein's The Price of Whiteness, and babbled about it here. Rereading my own ramblings, I remember that I liked this book, but that one problem with it was the emphasis on whiteness-as-a-construct that excluded the undeniable fact that a typical Ashkenazi Jew looks more white (as in, to give an unambiguous example, Western European) than black (as in, Sub-Saharan African, same deal). So it wasn't all some great toss-up to see who'd be thought what, in a society where 'race' quickly came to mean (in most cases visible) blackness or lack thereof.

Britta said...

No Phoebe, you're right, Jews were technically considered classified as "white," even in Europe, though they were seen as being of a different "race" than most Europeans. I think in modern America, both "race" and "white" have really different meanings, so it's a bit hard to compare, because whiteness was both a broader category in many ways than it is in America (Ethiopians were also "white," as were all Arabs and South Asians), but also not really as meaningful at least in a European context. I think "race" in terms of being Indo-European vs. Semitic was a more meaningful category at least within Europe itself, and in that sense, Jews were definitely considered racially other. Of course, Jews were seen as being more "civilized" and more "European" than Arabs, even though both were "Semites," and definitely whiteness marked a gulf of civilization that separated whites from the "savage heathens" that populated the colonial world.
I also think differing European countries had slightly different racial rankings (and different agendas which determined those rankings), and also these changed over time. (I have just been reading about how the Chinese fell in and out of whiteness over the centuries so I have been thinking about this a bit.) E.g., the British most definitely thought that Jews, even as Semites, were "whiter" and more civilized than Indians, even though Indians were Indo-European, a supposedly superior racial category, whereas German scholars were more likely to place Indians (at least in theory) as racially superior to Jews, etc. My guess is, even in say, 1938, the average German would consider an Ashkenazi Jewish person to be much more racially like them than the average Indian or Iranian person, but then of course one thing that allowed Jews to be perceived as other in the popular imaginary was the lack of other, actually non-white skinned people, at least in Western Europe.

Finally, in terms of Scandinavia, people are by no means all blond, but really dark hair, especially curly hair, and dark eyes are pretty unusual and definitely seen as exotic. Also, Jews aren't the only ones seen as exotic and vaguely racially other, Southern Europeans are also seen as exotic and "not-like-us" on a pretty fundamental level also (perhaps even more so than the Jews). I recall reading some comment from a Danish person about whether or not to let Turkey into the EU, and his argument in favor was basically, "well, Italy and Denmark have as much in common as Turkey and Denmark do, so why not?"

Sorry that's so long, this is an issue that interests me personally and academically, and is tangentially related to what I study, so I get excited and write really long comments.

Matt said...

(I have just been reading about how the Chinese fell in and out of whiteness over the centuries so I have been thinking about this a bit.)

There's a US Court case somewhere (I can't find it right now, I'm sorry to say) where it's determined by law the people from Finland are white for immigration purposes. (I think they were really interested in Laps, but if I recall correctly it was put in terms of Fins.) Before that they were categorized as "Mongoloid" peoples and so not eligible to immigrate to the US.

Phoebe said...


Of course not everyone is blond in Scandinavia (and I should note that my knowledge of what people look like in Scandinavia comes almost exclusively from street fashion blogs from the various Scandinavian countries - much of the hair color, blond and otherwise, is clearly artificial)... except that blond is relative. Which is to say, I would not be shocked if many 'brunette' Scandinavians would have been 'blond' at my predominately Chinese-, Korean-, and Jewish-American high school. As in, I got to UChicago and soon learned that a wide range of hair colors I'd long been informed constituted 'blond' were actually 'light brown' or even just 'brown', making my own hair not 'brown' or even 'dark brown' but 'black.'

Also, there's the question of blondness as a child - there are examples in my own family that contradict this (i.e. Jews who were plenty blond as children but not later), but it seems that even if in adulthood one finds a sea of brunettes, Jewish (or Southern European) children in 'blonder' countries might stand out more than would Jewish adults. I know I referred to this once before on this blog, but I found a book in Heidelberg with a photo of a little boy being 'tested' by the Nazis for hair color against a range of what from the black-and-white photo looked to be various shades, from blond to light brown or so. My admittedly unsupported-by-much-evidence guess is that blondness as a child came to define 'true' whiteness in some situations in Europe and perhaps in America as well.