From firstname.lastname@example.org Fri Sep 22 21:48:57 2000
Date: Fri, 22 Sep 2000 15:06:16 -0400
From: Tim Wise <email@example.com>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Gore-Vey!
Gore-Vey!: Joe Lieberman, Jewish Mobility, and the Politics of Race in America
By Tim Wise <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I am a Jew. And according to what others of my faith
tradition tell me, I should be beaming with pride at the
fact that Al Gore -- a Southern Baptist whose denominational
leaders once said God didn't answer the prayers of folks like
me -- has picked a fellow Hebrew as his Vice Presidential
Well, excuse me if I pass on the L'chayim-fives and teary
fulminations about what a grand day this is. Given Lieberman's
voting record, which places him in the Benjamin Netanyahu
school of political Jews, I find it a bit difficult to be
ebullient at the sight of such a person on any political
While certain neo-Nazis are predictably attacking
the Senator as a card-carrying member of the monolithic
Jewish conspiracy, the most disturbing noise arising from
the nomination has not been the vitriol of perennial losers
looking for a Talmudic scapegoat. Rather, what has been even
more disconcerting is the patriotic blather offered up by
the Jewish community itself, which takes his nomination as
"proof" that, in America, anything is possible, and anyone
can make it: even a nice, rich Jewish boy.
This recapitulation of the myth of individualism, together
with a not-so-thinly-veiled nod to the notion of Jews as a
"model minority" who confirm America as a land of promise,
may seem benign to some. But as with all symbolic politics,
there is a danger, and the danger in this imagery should be
Fact is, the notion of model minorities has always been
about one thing: contrasting said model citizens to those
perceived as members of a perpetual deficit culture;
specifically, African Americans, viewed by many as the
nation's not-so-model problem child. Thus, it should be
of more than a little concern that the resurrection of the
Jewish Model Minority concept will inevitably cause folks to
ask: "if the Jews have made it in America and are successful,
then why can't blacks do the same?" and thereby serve to
justify all manner of malign neglect of the barriers to
equity still facing black folks in this country.
But in the real world, as much as ethno-cultural
supremacists like Nathan Glazer might deny it, the Jewish
success story is anything but a simple tale of struggle
and sacrifice. Indeed, the measure of our success has been
proportional to our acquiescence with a decidedly non-Jewish
cultural norm: No more Emma Goldmans or Rosa Luxembourg types.
And our ascent has been every bit as contingent upon good
fortune and the skin we're in, as anything beneath it like
In fact, a good deal of our community's advance has come
at the direct expense of black people, and would never have
materialized in the absence of their oppression, coupled
with a willingness by many if not most Jews to undergo a
transmogrification that, in effect allowed us to "become
white," by downplaying who and what we were, getting nose
jobs, and hiding in our epidermal camouflage. And then our
success could be heralded as a bludgeon against those of
color whose ability to partake in the advantages of
whiteness was circumscribed from birth.
But the truth is always more complex than the fantasy. Read
Stephen Steinberg's The Ethnic Myth: Fact is, Jews haven't
all been successful, and pretending otherwise harms the
less-than-affluent Jews who, thanks to the triumphalist
image, are perceived as especially flawed in some way.
Even as Glazer and others were developing the Jewish Horatio
Alger image in the '60's and '70's, 15% of Jews in New York
City were poor or near poor, as were 12% of Jews nationally.
About a third of Jewish men at this time were working class,
not the professionals and scholars portrayed by stereotype.
And Jews who came to America and succeeded hardly came
with nothing. Jews from Russia came with experience in
manufacturing, commerce, or as artisans: three areas that
were significant economic sectors in the "New World." It
wasn't our culture or values that were impeccable, but
rather, our timing. Our experience in the garment and
textile industries fit perfectly with an economy where
those industries were growing 2-3 times faster than the
economy as a whole.
Indeed, two-thirds of Jewish immigrants between 1899
and 1910 were skilled laborers, compared to 49% of English
immigrants, 15% of Southern Italians, 13% of the Irish, and
6% of Poles. And blacks, no matter their skills, abilities
or ambitions, were locked out of the sectors open to many
Jews, seeing as how for most of this period, 90% were still
serfs on the national plantation known as the American South.
When my great-grandfather came to America in 1910, though
he was poor, and a religious minority, he was offered work
the very first day that was off limits to African Americans
whose families had been here for over 200 years. Not yet
fully "white," he was nonetheless favored over America's
untermenschen, and over time, if he played the game, and
tried hard to forget the old world ways that had kept his
family and people alive, and if he took special care not
to teach his children Yiddish, nor act or speak too Jewish,
then he could work, save some money, send his child (my
grandfather) to a college blacks couldn't attend, who would
then be able to get a house in a suburb where blacks couldn't
live, and send his children, including my father to schools
that were segregated. A hard worker, to be sure, but one
whose hard work was met by access to an opportunity structure.
No shame in that, but also no model minority.
And the much-heralded Jewish cultural emphasis on education
is also largely mythical. As anthropologist Miriam Slater
has noted, and as Selma Berrol's study of Jewish experience
in New York City confirms, economic mobility and success -
largely due to the above-mentioned good timing, pre-existing
skills, and apartheid barriers elevating us over blacks -
came before substantial educational gains in the Jewish
community. In the early part of the century, the average
American Jew - supposedly part of a culture with a special
affinity for education - was a seventh grade dropout, and
working class Jewish kids typically received no greater
level of schooling than other working class immigrant
children. Indeed, a look at pre-immigrant Jewish "education"
makes clear that to whatever degree "learning" was valued,
it was largely non-secular, Talmud-based instruction, for
male children only: hardly indicative of a special love of
the life of the mind.
None of this is to take away from the accomplishments of any
Jewish person or the community writ large, which, once upon
a time, really did stand for something. But so much of that
early radicalism has faded, to be replaced by a political,
cultural, and economic assimilationism that has rendered
much of the Jewish collective unrecognizable by historic
standards, even as it has paved the way for our material
We have been reduced to what Herbert Gans has called
"symbolic Judaism," typified by an "objects culture" of
mezuzahs, dreidls, and stars of David on the one hand; a
popular culture of food, Jewish comedy and entertainment on
the other; and all of it topped off by a "problems culture"
preoccupied with Israel and anti-Semitism: a negative
identity based on real and potential victimhood. This
de-acculturation was the "price of our ticket" for the
commodity known as America, and increasingly I wonder
if it was a fair trade.
In the final week of my grandfather's life, I recall how he
- knowing he was sick, and wishing to finally share stories
from his father about life in the old country - tried
desperately to conjure up some memory, fable, or seminal
event about struggle and triumph. And I remember the look
in his eyes and frustration in his voice as he realized
that all he knew could fit in the space of about two minutes.
This was what he had been given: a silence about what it had
really meant to be Jewish: and that silence was all he could
pass on. For the sake of "becoming American," - and that
meant to become white - one had to give up what one was, in
order to metamorphose in Kafkaesque fashion into something
one was not: a white man.
At the end of the day, even with the advantages that come
with transformation, one has to wonder if it was a decent
bargain: to trade your traditions and political-cultural
soul for a permanent guest pass at someone else's club, and
a shot at the vice-presidency. The self-doubt we Jews have
on this score is likely part of the reason we cling to the
model minority myth with such dialysis-machine like ardor:
it allows us to think it was worth it after all.
If American Jews want to feel good about Joe Lieberman so be
it. But how sad that we have come to define our progress by
how high some of our individual members are able to climb.
How sad that we need so terribly to believe that this says
something truly amazing about our country and its openness
to equity. How sad that we fail to realize the irony here:
Joe Lieberman is a fully-functional white man, sans kippah,
I might add, beholden to the same corporate interests as
all gentile elites; the same corporate interests that a few
generations ago, Jews with a commitment to social justice
were challenging in the streets. To the extent Brother
Joe has turned his back on that tradition, he is hardly
recognizable as a Jew at all. In the end, he might just
be a guy who walks to work on Saturday.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based activist, writer and lecturer.
He can be reached at <email@example.com>.
Copyright (c) 2000 Tim Wise. All Rights Reserved.
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