Monday, January 25, 2010

The Elders of Arugula

It has recently come to my attention, through Facebook browsing of friends of friends' fascinating lives and an email from a listserve, that there is an entire Jewish branch of the back-to-the-farm movement, complete with a Farm School, blog, and hippie summer camp. While I was aware of people being simultaneously hippies and Jews, and certainly of Jews in the food movement (a majority of adherents? not to get all Protocols of the Elders of Arugula...), and of course that there's always been a subset of Jews who interpret Judaism to mean universalist devotion to left-wing causes, I did not realize there was a whole subculture centered around specifically Jewish efforts at farming here in the US, in 2010.

My first thought is if/how one can connect this to earlier attempts at getting Jews into agriculture. Because so much of Jewish history, really, is about Jews' relationship (or lack thereof), real or perceived, hoped-for or denounced, to the land. (For a Slate-contrarian introduction, see here.) Unlike the pro-farm Zionists, this set does not appear to be trying to found anything akin to a Jewish state. But this does, I think, have something in common with earlier efforts still, with the idea of regeneration-through-farming, that Jews' exposure to 'honest' farm work could 'normalize' a population long dependent on commerce (if more typically peddling than finance), the idea being that all work not about physically producing something was suspect, that all business, not just the sneaky sort, was inherently corrupt.

Whereas today in the US, farming is not the occupation of some vast majority, making all not involved in that line of work the odd ones out, ripe for the scapegoating. But at the same time, we're looking at a wave of (not altogether unjustified) demonization of bankers. Whether anti-banker statements do or do not usually have anti-Semitic undertones (see also this debate), the association of Jews with finance is enough of a thing that I suspect many Jews do feel uncomfortable when Wall Street is denounced, particularly when real, hardworking Americans are evoked as the opposite. Even those of us Jews who financially have no reason to feel solidarity with bankers, who may even agree with much of the anti-Wall Street critique, understand that at times, when they're insulted, we are too.

There are two possible responses, then. One is for even hippie Jews to stick up for bankers. Not going to happen, which leaves the other possibility: earnest, visible reiteration of the fact that not all Jews are suits. And what could make this point more clearly than gathering a bunch of Jews who perhaps don't go in for nose jobs or hair-smoothification and offering them work (or internships, apparently) on a farm, manicured ladies need not apply?

None of this is to say that I think this is actually the motivation of anyone involved in any of this to do so. In all likelihood, it's just about Jews who'd be doing Jewish stuff anyway also being at one in the same time Americans of a certain milieu who'd be Pollan/Waters-inspired anyway, who've joined forces to combine two of their favorite things. But I can't see "Jews" and "farm" together without this thought process rolling.

15 comments:

Petey said...

"the association of Jews with finance is enough of a thing that I suspect many Jews do feel uncomfortable when Wall Street is denounced, particularly when real, hardworking Americans are evoked as the opposite. Even those of us Jews who financially have no reason to feel solidarity with bankers, who may even agree with much of the anti-Wall Street critique, understand that at times, when they're insulted, we are too."

Sometimes it really seems as if you went to the University of Chicago...

------

Personally, while otherwise being a pretty lefty Democrat, I'd support a Buchanan/Palin ticket in 2012 if they ran on a pledge to conduct a public guillotining of Alan Greenspan on the Washington Mall during their first day in office.

And while I understand that my own perception of Alan Greenspan as Satan Incarnate may not be shared by everyone in American Jewry, I will suggest that if you conducted a poll among all the NYC metro Jews on whether or not they'd support a public crucifixion of Bernie Madoff in Times Square, I think you'd find majority support for nailing him up.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

Read what I wrote. I said that there are anti-banker Jews. If there are anti-banker Jews, obvs there are super-duper-anti-Madoff ones. (It's not UChicago to be pro-Madoff. I don't think anyone's pro-Madoff.) My point is that even anti-banker Jews with just the teensiest bit of historical awareness - or awareness of our own times - might realize that some 'Down with Wall Street' types consider all Jews, even nice Petey-like ones, or ones living on their literature grad school stipends, components of that which they euphemistically call 'Wall Street.'

PG said...

Even those of us Jews who financially have no reason to feel solidarity with bankers, who may even agree with much of the anti-Wall Street critique, understand that at times, when they're insulted, we are too.

from the link:
Is Limbaugh perpetuating an anti-Jewish stereotype, defending Jews from Obama or both?

When Obama attacks bankers for having over-leveraged their institutions, you think he is insulting Jews? Or are you thinking of someone else's criticism of bankers that has an anti-Semitic flavor? Because it'd be pretty weird for a biracial guy who grew up overseas and spent his adult life in NYC and Chicago to get on the anti-cosmopolitan bandwagon. And the Obama Administration clearly thinks what the Wall Street banks do in the economy is important, otherwise why keep funneling cheap money to them through the Fed window?

If anything, I think this is an Administration that is too close to the finance sector. Geithner in particular seemed to have been running the NY Fed with the view that what was good for the finance sector was good for America -- including having the finance sector avoid disclosure to taxpayers.

Phoebe said...

"When Obama attacks bankers for having over-leveraged their institutions, you think he is insulting Jews?"

No, I don't think Obama means Jews. Did I say this? I wasn't clear enough I suppose - I linked to that discussion not to agree with Limbaugh, but because it's the most recent bankers-as-Jews discussion that's been in the news. So, my views are that anti-banker populism is often anti-Semitic, but not always, and not in this instance. So it's accurate to say that anti-banker is code for anti-Jew, and I see how someone who moves in far-right circles would be especially exposed to this line of thought (as opposed to, say, Petey, who seems to think I've invented the phenomenon), but given the context of what Obama's addressing and as you point out the administration overall, no, I obviously don't agree with Limbaugh.

I do disagree with this, though: "Because it'd be pretty weird for a biracial guy who grew up overseas and spent his adult life in NYC and Chicago to get on the anti-cosmopolitan bandwagon."

Politicians are largely self-constructed entities. While I don't think Obama, given how he presents himself, is headed towards that particular bandwagon, I don't find it at all hard to imagine someone else with an on-paper cosmopolitan past and multiracial background demanding suspension of disbelief and becoming even the leader of an anti-cosmopolitan movement. (Say, by defining 'cosmopolitan' not as cosmopolitan but as Jewish, which even most multiracial and city-dwelling people are not.) I mean, if those with ties to secessionist movements can present themselves as definitive of real-America, it's clear imaginative identity is pretty key in these situations. I would attribute the fact that Obama's not an anti-cosmopolitan demagogue to the fact that he is who he is, or if we're being cynical to the fact that this wouldn't benefit him politically/fit with his political image, but not to something inherent in his upbringing.

Petey said...

"some 'Down with Wall Street' types consider all Jews, even nice Petey-like ones, or ones living on their literature grad school stipends, components of that which they euphemistically call 'Wall Street.'"

Well, sure. But so what? Or put another way, why am I supposed to condition how I feel about things based on how a small and insignificant anti-Semitic fringe in America feel about things? I simply don't care about them.

I think Israel has behaved as a rogue nation for the past several decades, and that US foreign policy should involve using our considerable levers of influence to force Israel back into compliance with international norms. Am I aware that some of the folks who hold the same position as I do are anti-Semitic? Sure. But so what? I simply don't care about those folks.

I hate Steven Spielberg movies. If I hear someone else bashing his oeuvre, am I supposed to feel uncomfortable because there is some possibility that the bashing is due to anti-Semitism rather than good taste in cinema?

I mean, how far does this go? Should I feel uncomfortable when folks whack Rahm Emanuel even though I agree with them?

"It's not UChicago to be pro-Madoff. I don't think anyone's pro-Madoff."

Agreed. But it certainly is UChicago to be anti-anti-Wall Street.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

You're views on the Middle East are well-known here. But the same holds - one can be a Jewish pro-Palestinian (well to your left, even) and still recognize that many others' expressions of 'pro-Palestinian' views are just thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. Where you're mistaken is to suggest that anti-Semitic views are "fringe."

"But it certainly is UChicago to be anti-anti-Wall Street."

The sort of anti-anti-Wall-Streetism I was referring to had zilch to do with an appreciation of free markets, and could in fact be embraced by a socialist.

Petey said...

"Where you're mistaken is to suggest that anti-Semitic views are "fringe."

Do you think anti-Semitic views are "mainstream"?

Do you really think that the median expression of anger at Wall Street is actually a coded expression of anti-Semitism?

Despite the superficial similarities, (both have blue skies), 21st century America actually is not Dreyfusard France.

Things are still a bit dicey in America for folks of African descent and for gays. But Jews?

-----

On a topic where you might actually have a clue what you're talking about, I demand a Limited Perspective Theater movie review of La Fille du RER. When I originally sent away for my subscription to this website, the mailer claimed that subject material such as this would be covered. I don't wish to go through the hassle of requesting a refund of my subscription fee, so please provide said review in a timely manner.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

Don't argue against that which I didn't say. I didn't say the majority of Americans suspicious of finance-types are anti-Semitic, nor did I say it's harder to be Jewish in the US than gay or black.

And, that movie does not sound terribly good, from reviews I've seen, and has get-around-to-it-eventually-on-Netflix written all over it. So, refund time for you?

Petey said...

"So, refund time for you?"

I just sent a sternly worded letter to your business office in Iowa.

And why do you keep your business office in Iowa if your editorial office is in New York? Is it merely to ensure that I won't receive my refund for 6 to 8 weeks? (And no, my complaining about this is not a coded bit of anti-Lutheranism...)

PG said...

I mean, if those with ties to secessionist movements can present themselves as definitive of real-America, it's clear imaginative identity is pretty key in these situations.

I think this is a glib view of secessionist movements in the U.S. Even the Confederates did not consider themselves to be leaving "America" (after all, they called their new club the Confederate States of America) so much as to be breaking ties with the North, which they considered to have abandoned the founding principles of states' rights and to prefer mercantilist/financiers' interests (sound familiar?).

These folks represent the Jeffersonian branch of American history, even though the majority aren't actually engaged in farming themselves. Their view of real America is one that idealizes a past in which taxes were low, regulations were few and Protestant Christianity was disseminated in the public schoolhouses. That they prefer the structure of the U.S. as it was in 1840 to how it is today does not imperil their credentials as real-America, because nostalgia and backlash are sufficiently powerful forces that no one really wants to stand up for the actual America we're living in.

And I don't see how someone could define cosmopolitanism as that-which-is-Jewish without most voters noticing. Even Palin was at pains to talk about how much she loved Israel, which presumably ranks higher in Jewishness than NYC.

Phoebe said...

PG,

With the secessionist remark I was sort of going for glib. You're right that they

Palin-on-Israel's the same as any other Christian social conservative with that line. Some Jews go for it for pragmatic reasons (either they're pro-Israel or they're conservative), or because for whatever reason they find anti-Semitism on the left more repugnant or pervasive than the sort one finds on the right. But I think most Jews recognize on some level that anti-NYC is a better proxy for anti-Jew than pro-Israel is for pro-Jew.

Phoebe said...

*You're right that they go in for Americana nostalgia. Way to not finish that sentence!

Petey said...

Via Jeffrey Goldberg, I find myself lumped in with "some people":

"Some people will say Mr. Asness is over the top in comparing Mr. Obama's proposal of a 0.15% tax on liabilities of firms with assets of $50 billion or more to a pogrom, in which Jews were thrown from rooftops, raped, and had their homes looted."

PG said...

I'm not sure that even Maureen Dowd deserved to be criticized for the terms she used. It's not like she's only criticizing Jews-who-are-bankers; she's criticizing the entire modern banking industry that to a large extent left behind long term capital investment (something that seems to now be the province of hedge funds and private equity groups) in favor of millisecond-timed trading.

This is the industry getting cheap money from the Fed (because the U.S. government needs to pump more liquidity into the market), yet making massive profit margins not through clever investments but simply through the maintenance of high interest rates even on good borrowers. (I tried to refinance my mortgage last year, so pardon my bitterness on this topic.)

"Bloodsucking" doesn't strike me as unreasonable in this context. The finance industry is taking an increasingly parasitic role in our economy, extracting a fee or a profit cut from every transaction -- and yes, I know lawyers can be like this too -- rather than one of directing capital to its best use. Although as usual Dowd's religious metaphors make no sense: Jesus threw the money-changers out of the temple because He didn't think money had any place in the house of God, but it's kind of important to have money in, you know, banks.

I can see some sense in taking care of what terms you use in criticizing an individual who is of a particular race or ethnicity, but it's ridiculous not to use the term bloodsucking for bankers generally because banking is associated with Jews, or about Goldman Sachs specifically because it was founded by two Jewish guys and its current CEO is Jewish (would "bloodsucking" be OK if the financial crisis had occurred during Christian Scientist Henry Paulson's tenure as CEO?).

At least in the Northeast, being a police officer is associated with being Irish and Italian, but I would hope that one can describe the police generally, or a particular department like the NYPD, as lazy and drunken or lecherous and corrupt, without having this being seen as drawing on historic slurs against particular ethnicities that happen to be disproportionately over-represented in police forces. If the criticism is inaccurate or unfair, call it out for that, but so far everyone seems to be at pains to say that bankers deserve to be reviled and it's just that we have to be careful of our terms.

The comparison of Obama's proposal to tax debt of large financial institutions to a pogrom is so ludicrous that the person who makes it destroys his own credibility. It's no better than Laura Ingraham's comparison of bumping the top marginal income tax rate back up to Clinton-era levels to the Holocaust.

PG said...

The "pogrom" analogy, in which Obama Administration:Cossacks ::bankers:Jews might make a little sense if the governments that used Jews as scapegoats had previously been giving the Jews billions in taxpayer support and continued to lend them money. But I think that's actually what the Jews historically were doing, with the pogroms sometimes "coincidentally" timed to allow certain borrowers to avoid having to pay their debts by killing or displacing the lenders). So in this metaphor they're somehow both the Obama Administration and the bankers? Very confusing. It's splendid that Asness thinks the government should have done nothing and allowed the finance industry to fail or survive on its own, but since that's not what happened, his comparisons need to account for reality.