My Jewish Orientalist Streak

Commenter Rowan Berkeley has accused me of “Jewish Orientalism.” It’s not the first time; my friend Dan Swanson (author James North) has accused me of orientalism on a number of occasions. What do I cop to:

I think there’s a clash of cultures. Western culture (which I believe is based on Judaeo-Christian teachings) has at this point anyway assimilated certain values that are higher than certain Islamic values, in the free speech and literacy and women’s rights departments. (Some of these beliefs come from observations during 4 weeks of travel in Syria and Morocco that no one can persuade me out of—nonpresence of women in public life; nobody reading.) I think Bernard Lewis is on to something when he talks about Islam’s fall from grandeur, and I pray, well, pull, for reform in the Islamic world. I see some of my own attitudes toward Islam in Sam Harris’s (yes: deeply-arrogant) The End of Faith. Those guys in their robes and beards and women in their burkas, their rules about art being nonrepresentational and their devotion to one text which seems to me from the occasional glance to lack poetry—it all scares me.

I imagine that some of my attitude is Jewish, notwithstanding my effort to assimilate. I grew up with feelings of Jewish superiority I haven’t gotten over because I see evidence for it: I think Jews in western societies tend to be, for whatever reason, and actually mostly cultural, better than other peoples at the logical/conceptual/symbol-manipulation that produces good SAT scores and wealth and media power. I say tend to be. We have a lot of company, but we’re the A team. (Cf, my big influence, Yuri Slezkine, author of The Jewish Century: in modernity everyone must strive to be Jews, to be merchants and priests, no longer princes and peasants.)

To take a slightly defensive turn, I’m different from my fellow Jewish orientalists Bernard Lewis, Paul Berman, David Frum and Thomas Friedman (and Sam Harris, who I sense is Jewish; with a kind of intellectual depravity, he immunizes Judaism from any real criticism in his nudnik book attacking all religion) (and probably, to toot my horn, different from most people of any hue or dogma) inasmuch as I think it’s important to acknowledge the role of my Jewishness in my politics; I feel I should interrogate my own attitudes and privilege, and I don’t think a pogrom will result from my doing so. Also, maybe it’s my Shiksa wife, who comes from a Protestant tradition that includes, hosanna, abolitionists; but I have been granted by this country a humanist egalitarianism that expresses itself in a romance: in modern America, because of their emulable success, Jews have been compelled to share their gifts. Many of them seem to resist this process, I don’t. And duly, their gifts are being shared. I note that when James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute goes on CNN to deplore the Israeli overreaction in Lebanon, he demonstrates what I regard as Jewish qualities, logic, clarity of thought, restraint, precision of expression, married to a regard for human life no matter the color or religion….