Friday, July 20, 2012

WWPD Guides: How to be exceptional

If you're a Jew looking to make a name for yourself in the field of writing about your experiences as a Jew, what you need to do is set yourself apart from all other Jews. All of them.

Since that's impossible - there are Jews across every political and ideological spectrum - what you'll need to do is write as if you stand alone, courageous in the face of small-minded detractors. You need to present yourself as the very first Jewish person to consider, say, that the Palestinians are people, too. You thought of this! Or, for example, that intermarriage is not 'finishing what Hitler started', because of course every last Jew - but not you! - would say something like that. You might also opt to be the first Jew ever to not hate Christmas, not to keep kosher, not to have a nose job. Or the first to think Holocaust memory is sometimes exploited. You must contrast your iconoclastic self, on the one hand, with, on the other, some kind of amalgam of Uncle Leo, Mrs. Broflovski, Abe Foxman, Senator Lieberman, and Rabbi Schneerson.

The crazy thing is that this works. Every single time. Which is, I think, why Tablet is standing up for the Breslaw monstrosity. As David Schraub says, their defense of the piece that called Holocaust survivors "Jew shit" (oh, but in German) was that the author had been really thinking through her Jewish identity, and this was the truth she found, it ain't pretty, but so it goes. I mean, what will it be next week? Maybe we can get a Jewish man who's thought through his Jewish identity and the honest truth of it is, Jewish women are repulsive? Or a Jewish woman, on how all Jewish men are money-grubbing mama's boys? But these wouldn't be insulting - sorry, sincere - enough. Calling Holocaust survivors "Judenscheisse" is a tough act to follow.

The "exception" Jew is hardly a new concept. See Hannah Arendt, Sander Gilman. (Their work, that is.) This is when someone Jewish totally buys into Jewish stereotypes, realizes that lo and behold he does not meet all of them, but instead of thinking, hey, maybe the stereotypes don't accurately describe real people, he'll think, gosh, I'm the only Jew not like that. He will then 'bravely' say what no one else dares (well, that's how he sees it), and will 'admit' that Jews are pretty much horrible people. He will find a fan base among certain non-Jews - and certain Jews - but will rejoice every time a fellow Jew calls him "self-hating" or otherwise criticizes his stance. Depending how he plays it, it's either that other Jews are all humorless, thin-skinned prigs, or, conversely, that he's the only Jew who actually cares about humanity and isn't caught up in parochial concerns.

There have been "exception" Jews since forever. What's new is that information about what other Jews are like, what they believe, has never been more readily-available. It used to be that maybe you went to some small high school on Long Island where it actually was the case that you were the only Jewish girl in your class not obsessed with designer clothing, that you had this small sample against which you were comparing yourself, and you really did feel different. You might have tried to imagine the world beyond your immediate experience, but may have simply not known that these particular eight girls did not female Jewry make. You might have, even past high school, had the experience of not fitting in with those around you, and confused a sense of outsider-ness with something about Jews generally, like  how someone who had a tough time growing up in a small town in Mississippi might unjustly-but-understandably attribute a few bad apples to the South. 

But now, with the Internet, with the countless Jewish blogs and websites, not even getting into other blogs and articles written by self-identified Jews, it's extra inexcusable for anyone claiming an interest in things Jewish to pretend they don't know that Jews come in all kinds. To pretend that they stand alone in whatever it is they believe. OK, not anyone - in this case, a 14-year-old gets a pass. But that's it.


Andrew Stevens said...

Great post. I hadn't been able to read the Breslaw piece until now and I was surprised to find that it was absolutely as bad as everybody said it was.

Britta said...

Yes, I think David Schraub's piece got it. What if she had done some "honest introspection" and realized the holocaust didn't actually happen and was some Jewish conspiracy to extract money out of upright Germans? Would The Tablet have published that, I wonder? I'm not always a fan of slippery slope arguments, but this is only a small step away in extremeness from what she already published.

Oh, and from the opposite side of the spectrum, looking like me and questioning anti-Semitism gets you told that "war-guilt" is clouding your judgment and led to knee-jerk reaction against your Nazi past and it was a joke anyways and obviously you are uptight and humorless. I'm always impressed that people's defense of anti-Semitism is to basically insinuate they have a suspect Nazi background, but then again, I suppose you shouldn't expect logic from people making ad hominem attacks.

Britta said...

oh, pronoun fail. insinuate that they = insinuate that you

Marni Jane said...

I kept avoiding reading it until finally, curiosity got the better of me. And sorely wish i had not. Good lord that first paragraph alone. I don't know but this does seem exceptional, at least in the fact that it was published on tablet instead of the archives of some denial/doubters site.

Withywindle said...

Regarding yourself ironically is useful in no end of situations.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

cracking stuff, phoebe.

Andrew Stevens said...

Britta, I'm astonished that anyone's made that argument to you. It's truly obnoxious since it shows a real lack of thinking about the issue. The plurality ethnicity in the United States is German, but the German immigration that led to this state of affairs occurred well before 1932. There are only a tiny number of people in the U.S. who could have Nazi pasts in their ancestry, secret or no. On the other hand, there probably is something to the argument, if it were at all likely to be true. If my grandfather had been a Nazi, it probably would make me more likely to be stridently pro-Semitic.

Withywindle said...

Andrew: This is somewhat off topic, but I've expressed skepticism about the "plurality ethnicity in the United States is German" on a number of occasions. If you add together the self-identifications of English, British, American, United States, etc., even before we get to the virtually identical by now Welsh, Scots, Scot-Irish, I believe you're already above the German self-identification. (US & American heavy in places like eastern Kentucky.) Then, with all the fractions, it's never the English/British part that gets mentioned; you have to assume the fractions skew British. Then just common sense: how on earth could there be more German descendants than English? If it wasn't true in 1890, it can't be true now. The German migration is large, but I strongly doubt that it's larger than even the English core, much less the Protestant British penumbra.

Actually, if and when Mexican ethnicity surpasses Black, then it might surpass German as well.

Andrew Stevens said...

Hmm, the last time I looked, I thought I was adding "American" to "English," but in reviewing the most recent figures, I see that you're right. It's close, though, and it doesn't take a substantial fraction of those "Americans" not to be English to keep German on top and I suspect that a lot of the "Americans" are more Scottish or Scots-Irish than English. However, if you mean British and we're going to count the Scottish and Scots-Irish as well, then I completely agree that will be a lot higher than German because we have many fewer qualms about throwing all of the "Americans" in with that group. Count the true Irish (which I think neither you nor I would) and it isn't remotely close.

I can easily see how the Germans could have outpaced the English, though - more breeding. For one thing, a lot of the Germans were Catholics and a huge percentage were farmers where children were an asset. Other than the Mormons, most of the English population did not breed particularly well, even the rural folks.

When it comes to fractions, I think you're probably right. There's a lot of English in the self-identified Scottish and Scots-Irish even if they don't know it. E.g. my grandmother's maiden name was Scottish, but in researching her ancestry, I discovered that the family actually came over from northern England where they had been for several generations with the sons all marrying English women. By the time they came to the U.S., the only thing Scottish left was the name. Anecdotally, I've helped a number of people in the area with their genealogy and, aside from a few full-blooded Germans and Scandinavians, everybody had at least a fraction of English in their ancestry somewhere. (Though almost all of them had some German as well, sometimes a lot of it, and it's not like I kept statistics or anything.)

I would say that we should just check surnames as a proxy, but unfortunately that's a very poor guide and would likely skew to English just through Anglicization. (On the opposite note, I once was investigating a 19th century ancestor named Neff. I was very excited by the German/Swiss name, making a nice change from the monotonous lines I had been researching which all led back to 17th century Puritans. Nope, turns out she was from the only Neff line in the country which came over from England in the 17th century. In fact, one of the very early immigrant ancestors from that line, Mary Corliss Neff, was taken captive with Hannah Duston in an event made famous by Cotton Mather.)

Withywindle said...

1) I'd like to claim that even the English core is larger than the German ethnicity, but obviously it's difficult to prove. As a very rough approximation, I would estimate that at least 2/3 of Protestant British ancestry in the country is English. (Basically because the 1790 estimate on Wikipedia is the English about 80% of the total British population, and I don't think later immigration or differential birth rates could have lowered that proportion much more than that.) I could see the German proportion being larger than English alone--but I'm still dubious, for reasons below.

2) There was massive population growth through much of the antebellum period, and as far as I can tell the large pioneer families were as much English as Scots-Irish. As of 1860, only about 5% of Americans (1.5M) were German immigrants, and even if you add 10%, on the grounds that nearly 10% of the 1790 population was German, I don't think you'd up the percentages much beyond 15%. (Since so large a proportion of Germans had arrived since 1848.) At a guess, the proportion of British Americans to German Americans must have been at least 4:1 in 1860, and perhaps English-Americans alone were in a 3:1 proportion.

3) As far as I can tell, the British and English population of the US was at least as rural as the Germans between 1860-1914. Nor do I know that American Protestants began to have lower birth rates than American Catholics for much or all of the period. I don't see that these factors would make that much of a difference during the period of heavy German immigration--and I've never heard of German-Americans being relatively fertile after 1914 or so.

4) You would then have to depend on the German immigration after 1860 to alter the ratio. There are indeed several million more German immigrants between 1860 and 1930--but into a country with 30M people in 1860 and 90M people in 1914. I'm willing to believe it increased the German proportion--and indeed, if in 2000 German-Americans were 17% of the total population, in line with the self-reporting, that would indicate they were about 23% of the white American population--and I would be perfectly willing to believe that German-Americans are 50% more common now than they were in 1860, even taking into account the proportional fall of both British and German Americans as against newer immigrant groups. But more than that seems excessive. And I find it very difficult to believe that British-Americans could have lost their substantial advantage in numbers over the Germans. There is no way to prove these matters, but I would take Protestant British ancestry to be at a minimum 40% of the white American ancestry, and probably at least 50%.

5) I take this to be less obvious outside the South (and the Mormon diaspora), where the proportion of Protestant British ancestry is much higher. Exclude the South, and there might possibly be more people of German descent than Protestant British descent. But even in the Midwest, I think the localization of immigration can be confusing; i.e., if you're in a heavily German area of the Midwest, you might not realize that there are very large patches of British descent elsewhere. (Like, the whole Copperhead fringe along the northern shore of the Ohio River. To speak nothing of all the Appalachian migrants to Detroit.) (And I realize the Appalachian migrants include some German descent as well.)

Withywindle said...

Re point 4: I was trying to make an apples-to-apples comparison between total population in 1860 and white population in 2000, and forgot how high the black population was in 1860. Assume those numbers are a little skewed, but not too horribly, honest.

Britta said...


You'd be surprised at the (non)limits of tactless, ignorant, and distasteful things people can say. Anyways, there's a difference between people assuming you are (partially) German-American and assuming you are an actual German person visiting the US/wherever. This is probably exacerbated if you match the stereotypical image of "this is what a German looks like." I guess one way the Nazis did succeed is spreading the idea worldwide that Germans are all blonde, and thus blondes are all German. Of course, if the worst that you have to experience is people erroneously calling you a Nazi, you aren't exactly winning at the oppression olympics here, but it gets annoying after not very long.

Phoebe said...

Andrew, Eamonn,



I'm surprised to hear that blond/e Americans get this sort of thing. Europeans, sure, but I'm surprised that anyone would think Americans of Northern European ancestry have any particular relationship to 20th C European history, given that it's generally assumed (not always accurately) that native-born very-white American families have been in the country for a very, very long time. I'd thought that because "all-American" was used to refer to what is actually a particular European ancestry, the foreign ties of the whitest Americans weren't often mentioned. That said, context is everything, and if your name seems more European than white-American, that may put you more into the "European" category in those interactions.

Marni Jane,

Yes - when I first saw a link to the thing, I couldn't believe it would be as bad as all that. And yet. You're right that it's exceptional, really the extreme of what one could possibly say to distance one's self from the expected Jewish opinion on some matter. And it's almost worse than denial - she's not misinformed about what happened, but thinks it was for the best.


Re: irony, care to elaborate?

Andrew, Withywindle,

Interesting discussion, but let's try to stay on topic.

Withywindle said...

Staying on topic is fascist.

I take reflexive irony to consist of a consideration of how the expression of your deepest, most heartfelt beliefs might reveal you to be a fool to the audience of God and man.

The self-righteousness of speaking an Original Truth that your audience knows to be trite should qualify.

Britta said...


Yes, the thing is no one anywhere in the world thinks I'm an American. Ever. Even panhandlers have shouted "do you speak English" at me. :P I've actually told people I was an American and been accused of lying(!) Because of this, I get the standard German treatment from people who assume I'm German, which is maybe 60% of people I meet. It's even more common out of the US, since I feel like non-Americans are even worse with the idea that people from one country can look really different, or that someone can look like they're from country X but still be American.

Why people assume I'm European when blonde hair/blue eyes is supposedly "all-American" is something I don't quite understand. It's partly my name, which is quite foreign and which I pronounce a way most Americans don't, partly how I look, since I have more angular features and I'm much paler than most Americans, and look very much like I'm from some specific place (even if people can't pinpoint that exact place). I've also been told I don't have an American habitus--the way I walk, carry myself, gestures, etc. all read as European.

Anyways, I'll stop derailing, since somehow I've managed to turn a post on anti-Semitism into a navel-gazing conversation about myself :P

Phoebe said...


This was relevant - not a derail! I genuinely did want to know whether it's a thing that blond Americans are confused for Germans/Nordic Europeans, and treated as such in these conversations. From what you say, this may be somewhat unique to you, and tilted towards your experiences abroad. (I've experienced something similar. In other countries, because I'm short, thin, pale, and dark-haired, and not dressed in a track suit - not that the reverse describes all Americans, not trying to be an "exception" American here! - I'm not what people would expect as "American"... but they'll still speak English, because I'll look foreign, and the default there will usually be English, no matter what the imagined nationality.) I doubt that as a rule, in conversations about WWII, blond Americans are imagined to have Nazi ancestors. Although there may be some "your Gentile privilege is showing" types of remarks.

To derail a bit myself, but staying on this topic, in Heidelberg recently I saw the tallest, blondest woman I'd seen in a long time, this even in Germany... and heard her speaking fluent, speedy, native-sounding Hebrew with her family.

Andrew Stevens said...

Withywindle, I'll have to think about your response and do a bit of research before I can respond. When I do so, I will choose a random post on your own blog to respond to.

Britta, thanks for the response. If people are assuming you're actually from Germany, then that response makes a lot more sense.

Phoebe, even in Connecticut I found the usual assumption was 19th century or early 20th century immigration for everyone, although I'm sure that wouldn't be true in some of the older small towns. Withywindle may be right and perhaps that should be the assumption, but I don't think I've met anyone who actually makes that assumption. Obviously, I've lived in the wrong places.

Phoebe said...


Thanks - whether Americans are more English or German is a fine topic, but not so related to "exception" Jews.

Re: immigration, even if it white people are/are assumed to have families that arrived in late 19th/early 20th centuries, this would still mean few are assuming that white Americans have Nazi ancestry.