More on My Jewish Problem

The hardest thing for me to write in the last couple weeks was a bit I did on Jewish superiority. I was pleased to see I got some positive comments, including this from JooToo:

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Asians as the “new Jews” in the context of your beliefs about Jewish exceptionalism and elitism.

The answer to JooToo is first, I don’t know much about Asian-Americans, I know my tribe. But it strikes me that Asian-Americans are filling a similar role in western society to the one that Jews have, but coming after Jews. Maybe that’s obvious.

My thoughts on these issues have been (this week!) completely influenced by a historical work of genius, The Jewish Century by Berkeley professor Yuri Slezkine, a Russian emigre who is half-Jewish.

I’m only a third of the way through, but what Slezkine says in essence is that for centuries Jews functioned in European society as necessary strangers, or “service nomads”: outcasts who cultivated “people and symbols, not fields or herds.” In contrast to the agrarian roles—princes and peasants—Jews were merchants and priests. Their economic contributions were essential to these societies, but so was their strangeness. They operated in different ways from the agrarians, ways that were suspect, and they had to be isolated. The Jews preferred that isolation, and evolved language and values to separate themselves.

“They tended to base social status on personal achievement, associated achievement with learning and wealth, sought learning by reading and interpreting texts, and pursued wealth by cultivating human strangers rather than land, gods or beasts.”

And then society changed. Post-industrialization, everyone had to become more Jewish, Slezkine writes. “Modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious and occupationally flexible.” And Jews themselves also had to change, leaving their “legal, ritual, and social seclusion.”

This transformation was most staggering in Austria, Hungary and Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s, where Jews made up a high percentage of banking and professional life, and across eastern Europe, where “virtually the whole ‘middle class’ was Jewish.” As public opinion became a key element of civic life, “Jews became important—and very public—opinion makers and opinion traders.” They were the journalists and salonistes. And as their power increased, so did a countervailing idea, nationalism, and anti-Semitism.

It stuns me to realize that the elite role I struggle with today in a democratic society has a very long tradition sociologically. Though it is my sense that Jewish specialness is under pressure in a whole new way in American society, because we have achieved such prominence in political life (neocons and this horrifying war), and because the special values we brought are now more widely shared than ever. Everyone knows they have to get an education. Clever Jews on Wall Street are emulated, and glorified in business magazines, not snickered at as sleazy.

Slezkine is full of meanings. One of them is that these special traits are culturally produced. Jews are not all that special. There were nomadic strangers in African societies and Asian ones, too. We are all human and have the ability to adapt and change. We change one another.