I went to a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah on Saturday and in some part because of my blog, and its discussion of Jewish politics, felt a little alienated. I forgot to get a yarmulke, then I ran to get one. I wondered who if anyone there had seen my ideas. Later, at the reception, I got into a discussion about these issues with an old friend, who was joined by a friend of his.
My friend said he was a secular Jew and asked me how I define myself. An assimilating Jew, I said. Shortly after that, his friend said, I don’t know what an assimilating Jew is, and walked away.
My friend is more intellectual. He said, What do you think will be lost if Jews assimilate into America? He answered his own question: the excellence that Jews have brought to any number of endeavors, science, the arts, finance, education, and so forth.
I said, But what if these qualities are more widely shared with assimilation? Will our excellence pull up others’ mediocrity?
He said, I think those qualities will be diluted. I.e., lost.
I said I wondered if the process wasn’t inevitable. Jews are successful and prominent, and the more successful people get, the more sociological pressure there is on them to melt in, including pressure on their children to marry out. That is what happened to me. I went to the Ivy League because my family pushed me to excel and I met people who weren’t anti-Semitic. I liked the water.
I had to admit to my friend my indifference as to whether the institutional element of my tribe persists. Religion may well be necessary to social structure and order, but we need some new ones. Pedophilia seems to be inherent to the Catholic church; and its hierarchy is covering it up. Islam has all kinds of problems, with free speech, patriarchalism, and the tolerance of violence. Indifference or disdain for Palestinian suffering seems inherent to the Jewish church. I don’t see why I should revere these institutions.
Still it is interesting that my friend and I shared a premise: Jews are superior; for whatever reason Jewish culture is superior in areas of modern civilized achievement.
In discussing My Jewish Problem on this blog, that’s a core Jewish value I would point to: Jewish exceptionalism. Belief in that idea underlies so much of Jewish social attitudes and achievement. (Maugham extols it in The Alien Corn; Hemingway throws it in Robert Cohn’s face in The Sun Also Rises). Larry Summers sought to broach the issue of Jewish innate intelligence in his notorious women-and-science speechof January 2005:
Summers was bumping backwards into the fact of Jews as an elite. And, sociologically, Jewish achievement in the last generation is stunning. We entered the Establishment. A Jewish hedge fund guy who owns oil tankers chairs the American Enterprise Institute, the harbor to Mr. and Mrs. Cheney, and fount of bad ideas.
That’s why this is a public issue: this elite has conducted itself at times in Jewish ways that deserve discussion. Specifically, the neoconservative promotion of a deluded disastrous war out of some degree of love for Israel, and the degree to which their agenda has been afforded political cover by the larger, liberal Jewish community—that is the heart of my interest. When you consider the overall failure of the Jewish intelligentsia and of Democratic politicians to even look at the way religious zealots on the West Bank are affecting American foreign policy, you have to ask, What does secular Judaism mean? Does it also have its faith-based ideologies?
But outside of private conversations like the one I had at the bar mitzvah, these things are not discussed. Of course there is a reason for that. The last time Jews had such prominence in the life of societies, Europe in the first third of the last century, we know what happened. The Nazis pointed to the Jewish elite as a cause for extermination. So the Holocaust has acted as a ban on our even broaching the issue. Myself I don’t have any choice, it’s mine. It’s knit into the fabric of my life, from my tribal beginnings to my achievement phase as a youth, to my involvement in progressive ideas post 9/11.