Saturday, August 21, 2010

Charles Blow on Jews' disproportionate influence:

"While Jews are only 2 percent of the United States population, their influence outweighs their proportion."

Are we just going to let this one slide? Influence defined how, exactly? Charles Blow doesn't elaborate. Is it our moneybags, our secret meetings, or the way we're able to steer foreign policy in one direction or another through the very force of our noses?

It's 100% possible to write a column praising Obama for being tough on Israel without resorting to anti-Semitism. Blow's latest column gets within one sentence of that goal.


Michael W. said...

I read the entire column and I think you are over reacting.

Scott Rose said...

Blow's column is beneath contempt. Despite the uptick in Republican-leaning Jewish voters, Jews remain the most Democratic of all groups as defined by religion. If Jews really have "disproportionate influence," and are in their overwhelming majority Democrats, then they would cause Democratic victories, no? Or is Blow saying that a Republican Jew has 20 times more influence than a Democratic Jew, who has 10 times more influence than everybody else? Clearly an anti-Semitic column.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Michael W.,

Note that I said "one sentence" of the column was the problem. The rest, not that I agreed with it, was nothing remarkable. I don't see how that somehow mitigates the straight-up classic-anti-Semitism remark thrown in. Remember, for example, how much Walt-Mearsheimer stressed that they were writing about the "Israel" lobby, not a "Jewish" one. Well, Blow comes right out and says which people he's talking about, all right!

Scott Rose,

Agreed. One anti-Semitic sentence so classifies an entire article, and it does whatever the rest of the article may say. And what the rest of this one says is not terribly convincing. However, what I would say puts it over the edge, from 'that which I disagree with' into 'that which is potentially threatening to all Jews, even full-on anti-Zionists', is that one sentence.

rshams said...

The "disproportionate influence" line stood out to me, as well, though I don't think it was intended to be anti-Semitic. I'm pretty sure he meant something more along the lines of "A higher percentage of Jews are politically active than non-Jews." Nonetheless, Blow should have known what sorts of connotations references to Jews, politics, and influence have.

That aside, it was just a lousy article. I didn't find anything to disagree with (being reasonably hawkish on Israel/anti-"tough love"/etc.), simply because Blow stated facts without providing any analysis whatsoever. A little bit of intuitive thinking might have led him to see that Obama's numbers have dropped among most demographics, which would include Jews.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm not sure it matters that much whether Blow "intended" to make Jews squirm. For each minority group, there's a set of jump-out-at-you words and tropes that might at face value seem innocuous, but whose meaning in their historical context is so charged that they can't be used innocently. Not everyone in the general population gets which these words and tropes are, or why they need to be avoided. But someone with a column in the NYT, choosing to write about Jews, could reasonably be expected to know what a sentence like that means. As in, if someone's uncle randomly said this, it might be innocent or it might not, but will in either case need to be responded to with education, explanation, etc. With Blow, if it's ignorance, it's fairly shocking ignorance. I can't imagine he needs it explained to him that tossing in remarks about Jewish power is, uh, anti-Semitism at its most basic.

And yes, the article itself was flawed. Blow was heading down the wrong path signaling out Jews to begin with. But what I was getting at, signaling out the one sentence, is that one can write an article (even a "lousy" one) about Obama, Jews, Israel, etc., without your friendly Zionist blogger thinking OMG anti-Semitism. But not if the article includes whoppers like this one did.

PG said...

"Disproportionate influence" is one of those tropes for Jews, apparently, but I don't think such a remark is so obviously and inherently anti-Semitic. If someone tells me that Asians are disproportionately represented at U.S. institutions of higher education, for example, I don't assume that person is anti-Asian. It is statistically true that Asians are over-represented at such institutions (particularly the elite ones) relative to their presence in the U.S. population of college-going age.

Matters such as "influence" are more difficult to measure than Ivy League attendance, of course, but there may be some proxies such as levels of giving to political groups. Would you consider the following dialogue in "Charlie Wilson's War" (written by Aaron Sorkin, who is both Jewish and pretty aware of the political impact of word choice) to be anti-Semitic?

Charlie: Okay. It's not likely the President of Pakistan is a Christian, but I'm gonna do this
for you, Joanne, 'cause you saved my ass once with the pro-lifers and I owe you my seat in Congress, and because you look very good naked. But I have to tell you, I'm elected by Jews.

Joanne: How many Jews do you have
in your district?

Charlie: Seven. But congressmen aren't elected by voters, they're elected by contributors, and mine are in, well, New York, Florida, Hollywood, because I'm one of
Israel's guys on the Hill. And I don't know how they're gonna feel
about me taking up the cause of Muslims.

(The "seven" is not an exaggeration, BTW. I grew up in Rep. Wilson's district and I only knew one Jewish person before I went to college.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I explained this better than I could half-asleep at the moment in an earlier post I linked to above, but the idea is, trope-wise, that words work as signals. The example I gave (not a perfect analogy, but it gives you an idea) was what it means to call someone black "articulate." It's not immediately apparent why this would be a problem, but if you step back and see the context, it becomes clear. (In the case of Jews and "influence," there's the whole history of conspiracy theories, along with the notion that Jews are all acting in concert, as Jews, as opposed to as, say, Americans.) Whether or not the statement is true is beside the point - especially in this case, because Blow doesn't elaborate. He switches to a different if related point right after alluding to Jewish "influence." So we can't assess if Jews do or don't have this particular influence, because it's not clear what kind of influence he's referring to.

As for that dialogue, assuming it's fictional, I'm not really sure what I'm meant to be assessing for anti-Semitism. A character? Is "Charlie" meant to represent the views of Aaron Sorkin? When is this even set? It's fully possible for a character to say something anti-Semitic without the creator to be anything close, but without more context, I wouldn't know how to begin to answer this.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Or think of it like this: it's not that "positive" stereotypes can't be discussed, but that they have to be discussed with sensitivity. If you're going to write about Jews' power, Asians' math skills, gays' interior decorating skills, or blacks' sports prowess, you have to do so a) in such a way as to show that you're aware how this discussion could go a dangerous route, and b) in such a way that you're very, very specific about what it is you're trying to say, and why it matters for a reason not related to your hopes of oppressing that group. As in, you can't just say, 'Jews have disproportionate influence,' and leave it there, leaving it up to readers to decide what, precisely, you meant by it.

For example, Walt-Mearsheimer, I recall, partly did this right by saying in their book, rather than simply that Jews have Power, that Jews vote more often than non-Jews. They didn't quite get there all the way, though, because, in refusing to outright admit that they were talking about Jews (as opposed to euphemistic Israel lobbyists), they only hinted at why it would be a 'problem' or even of interest that Jews vote so diligently. Blow, on the other hand, doesn't qualify his statement. He leaves it to the reader to piece together from other things in the article what it is he's getting at, but provides the "influence" sentence as a thought in and of itself, one the reader's just expected to nod along with because of course Jews pull the strings behind the scenes.

PG said...

'As for that dialogue, assuming it's fictional, I'm not really sure what I'm meant to be assessing for anti-Semitism. A character? Is "Charlie" meant to represent the views of Aaron Sorkin? When is this even set? It's fully possible for a character to say something anti-Semitic without the creator to be anything close, but without more context, I wouldn't know how to begin to answer this.'

The dialogue presumably isn´t meant to be wholly fictional, given that the movie is based on a nonfiction book about real people and real events. And Charlie Wilson is clearly the hero of the movie, albeit of the good ol´ boy, womanizing variety. The movie is set during the 1980s, when Rep. Wilson successfully steered military aid toward Afghans who were fighting the Soviet invasion. And my question wasn´t whether Sorkin himself is anti Semitic, but whether the dialogue in itself is. Is it anti Semitic for a congressman to declare that he is 'elected by Jews,' despite having almost no Jewish voters in his district, because he receives large amounts in campaign contributions from Jews outside his district, and further for that congressman to say that their support is motivated by his being 'one of Israel's guys on the Hill'?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


OK, I see what you're asking. The best I can do with this:

-Someone who isn't anti-Semitic can still create a movie/book/whatever about an overall sympathetic character (based on a real person or not) who is. I'm not sure how Sorkin not being an anti-Semite matters.

-The dialogue itself is different from Blow's remark, because it's about a specific case of disproportionality being mentioned. Blow just hinting at Jews-have-money-and-power-beyond-what-they-should. But what could make the remark you cite anti-Semitic is that it's unclear why it's relevant that these donors are Jews. The implication is that they're somehow acting on behalf of The Jews, and that Jews generally control politics through their moneybags. I mean, imagine an equivalent conversation about a basketball team and its members being black and the excellence of that team. There could be some truth behind a stereotype, and it could be a positive stereotype, yet it could still be offensive insofar as it's clear that the race/ethnicity/religion is only being mentioned because a stereotype is being confirmed.

Freddie said...

Gun owners are disproportionately powerful in our society; their political power is greater than the sum of the votes of their membership because of their organization, funding and tactical skill. This is true in all democracies and around all kinds of affinity groups: groups that organize and are smart about it have more influence than those that don't. A single elderly American has significantly more political power in this country than a single 18 year old, despite them both having one vote, because senior citizens are far, far more organized, involved and strategic than their young counterparts. That's just reality; different kinds of groups in our country have different levels of influence disproportionate to their demographic size. What's so frustrating is that I know you know that.

And, since you are such a fan of insisting what someone's implications are, and then using it to sort-of-but-not-really call them an anti-Semite, I'm not implying that there's some powerful cabal of wicked Jews plotting domination. I'm implying that American Jews have generally done a better job of working within a democracy and creating structures and organizations capable of representing their interests than other groups of greater size.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


All Blow had to do was spell out in what way he felt Jews had more power, as you do wrt Jews, etc., in your comment, and then to show why that matters wrt some point he was making in his article. He managed to do neither. What he did was like throwing into an article, 'many Mexicans do bad things,' without spelling out what those things are, or why you're singling out Mexicans in the first place. As in, for all we know there's a legitimate point to be made, but if that point hasn't been made, and a group's been singled out for no explained reason, members of the group in question are not paranoid in wondering what, exactly, someone's getting at with such a comment.

"since you are such a fan of insisting what someone's implications are, and then using it to sort-of-but-not-really call them an anti-Semite"

I spelled out clearly enough why I thought that one sentence in Blow's first article was anti-Semitic, and that his failure to take it back, or (what would have been the most helpful, really) to explain what he meant by disproportionate - which may not have been what you meant, but we can't know because he doesn't say - made it impossible for me to interpret his tossing in of that sentence as a careless error, one whose sinister implications hadn't occurred to him initially.

Also, from the tone of your comment (the "such a fan" bit) I suspect nothing I've just written by way of explanation will change your mind on this. But I thought I'd explain anyway.