blog wars boxing

It should come as no surprise that I side more with Ariel Beery than with the folks at Jewschool on the issue of whether Jews should focus on particular or universal concerns. In June, responding to a piece in Commentary about declining Jewish interest in specifically Jewish causes, I posted the following on my blog:

Just as Dreyfus’s Jewish supporters came to his defense out of concern for justice and human rights, not to save one of their own, today’s American Jews and American Jewish organizations make sure to reiterate time and time again that they care if anything less about the Jews than about the rest of the world.

But the authors are missing something–when Jews favor “humanity” over their own people, this isn’t mere apathetic, comfortable assimilation, and admirable readiness to solve the world’s problems regardless of race/creed/nationality of the opporessed. Sometimes, the desire to help the world rather than the Jews comes from what some would call self-hatred but which could more justly be called fear. Many Americans are convinced that Jews are behind the Iraq war and other less-than-successful aspects of American politics today. Yet peace in the Middle East is taking a whole lot longer than anyone with even a shred of optimism would have guessed, and Europe is problematic for other reasons–governments’ not knowing what to make of Islamic radicalism, etc. America seems in many ways the best place to be Jewish (or to live, period) these days, and American Jews don’t want to blow it.

This is where my view seems to differ from Beery’s: while I agree that American Jews are wrong to equate Jewish action with universal action, I don’t believe the main message here is that there’s some poor thinking on the part of my co-religion/nation-ists. Jewish preference for the universal over the particular says something not so fabulous about the level of comfort experienced by Jews in America. Acting out of fear, many among us are wary of admitting to any specifically Jewish concerns. Many among us want so desperately to be liked, not out of patheticness, but out of a genuine understanding that we, well, aren’t. Does that excuse Jewish committment to the universal over the particular? Perhaps, but at any rate, it explains it, and reveals that the problem lies both with the Jewish community and with society in general.

But all this brings up a larger question, which is, what should the relationship between the particular (Jewish rights) and the universal (human rights, etc.) be? To me, this is absolutely straightforward: Jewish rights matter– and no matter how irritating or neurotic or horribly Christ-hating some may find Jews– because they are a subset of human rights. You do not have to be Jewish or even philo-Semitic to believe that Jews, like all other people, should be allowed to live in peace. But which group is most likely to care about the Jewish subset of human rights, especially when major rights–think national self-determination–are being messed with? Jews, obviously. But if Jews stop trying, then we are implicitly agreeing either that a) Jews are not human, or b) Judaism, or Jewishness, is something not protected by human rights, that the universal rights we all ought to enjoy include being all sorts of things– gay, Palestinian, obese, and so on– but not Jewish.

So does this mean that Jews must only worry about Jewish causes? Of course not. But it means that Jews need to stop apologizing for caring more about the particular than the universal. It’s the way the rest of the world works, and the rest of the world has a point. Also worth understanding: Jews were hated pre-Zionism and once the movement succeeded. We’re hated if we stand in Union Square declaring our committment to the Palestinian cause or if we demand a Greater Israel. So what we might as well do isn’t take any out-there stance just because we’ll be hated anyway, but rather we should choose the most moral, nation-survival-promoting route we can come up with, and follow it without worrying all that much about if these jeans make us look fat.

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  • Um…thanks for the link, Phoebe, but I am not quite sure that I did, in fact, equate Jewish concerns with universal concerns, or demand less of the former, and more of the latter. Rather, I disagreed with Ariel because of his preferance for secular nationalism, while I prefer a non-Zionist, Judaism based nationalism.

    And, just to be safe–non-Zionism and anti-Zionism are not the same at all, and in many ways, Jewish non-Zionists are quite sympathetic to the Zionist Entity, even if we are not as hopeful or certain that it alleviated the Jewish condition or solved all that much of the really scary stuff, and prefer more Diasporic expressions of cultural and culinary identification, or at least, not a rejection of them. But TM can explain all the major ideological breaks and nuances. He is very into non-Zionism, and no longer always conflates the two.

  • Sure, I’ll help out.

    Non-Zionists – enjoy hummus.

    Anti-Zionists – also enjoy hummus but can’t stop thinking – between bites – that the Zionists stole hummus from Arabs along with their land and other cultural artifacts.

    Or is it the other way around?

    Was that accurate and nuanced enough, Kelsey?

  • By the way, Phoebe, make sure to quiz Kelsey carefully on what he means. He often discovers on the website of the anti-Zionist – or is that non-Zionist – Dan Siedrasky, that he is attacked by all sorts of intelligent people for stuff he didn’t quite mean in his intelligent but oh-so-subtle posts.

  • Many among us want so desperately to be liked, not out of patheticness, but out of a genuine understanding that we, well, aren’t.

    I seem to recall many surveys showing that American Jews are among the most LIKED ethnic/religous groups.

    They are stereotyped as hardworking, intelligent and succesful.

    Muslims are much more hated according to numerous polls.(see here for just one).

  • you know, i’m not sure the issue is universalism vs.
    particularism as much as What Kind of particularism– because this whole conversation has to do with Usness. It really feels to me much more abut what’s going to be the better particularism, what’s better for Us?

  • because i don’t think the issue anymore in america is being liked by others: Lehefech, it’s the most hardcore zionist nationalists who, to me, seem most concerned with what the others are thinking of us, who have the strongest strategy for being respected by the gentiles– be tough, strong and confident.

    I think it’s more a question of being able to like ourselves. I think that’s alot more what the progressive agenda is about. The main hope of doing the good for others is to be able to feel like not a selfish craven parasite on the world, at least that’s my experience of that feeling. I want to help starving African children more for my peace of soul than a need to impress anybody, but I feel compelled to wear a yarlmuka in goyish ghettos and be strong on defending Israel so that They will say higdil adonai laasot im eyleh.

  • A great post, Phoebe. It really sums up my feelings on the issue. Jews are afraid to stand up for themselves and their causes. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”, asks Hillel Rabbeinu. Yes, universalist causes are important. But its a matter of prioritization. The same way that family comes before friends, so do Jews come before the rest of humanity. “Kol Yisrael arevim ze l’ze”; all of the Children of Israel are responsible for one another.

  • See, TM? As you displayed in your comments in point #2, you really aren’t sure there are significant differences between non-Zionists and anti-Zionists, or what they may be. Even though heavy fire has consistently been exchanged across the lines. And still, you see the two sides as allies.

    As if.

  • DK, it seems that you’re spinning non-Zionists to be some sort of conscious movement. In fact, I think you’re merely referring to unaffiliated and/or Jewishly-illiterate Jews. Could *you* clarify the difference between Jews who are decidedly ‘non-Zionist’, and those who simply don’t know and don’t care about Israel?

    There’s a huge difference.

  • In the American context, it’s a very odd notion that Jews are “desperate” to be “liked” because they “genuine[ly]” aren’t by everyone else. (And if they aren’t liked, they’re perforce hated?) Steve’s absolutely right.

    This post demonstrates a solipsism so extreme as to have precluded any nuanced, objectively-grounded view of the broader (US) culture. Oh, and forget the polls Steve cites: there are lots of Americans who muse about Jews as much as they muse about, say, Chadians, or Middle’s Zoroastrians. Which is to say– not much.

    And as for universal concerns– leave it to Christians. It’s our theological duty, and we’ll deal with it as best we can. (But feel free to help out if time permits.)

  • Oyster,

    That is a fair point. I would have to concede that the educated and committed Non-Zionists are a small minority of the non-Zionist community.


    It means if I eat hummus it does not mean I am eating it instead of gefilte fish or, chas v’ shalom, knishes. Hummus is easy to eat and keep in the fridge. It’s isn’t an expression of New Jew or anything like that. At least, not without confliction.

    For instance — I used to work with these Zionist Entity chicks. They used to mock me for regularly going to B & H Dairy, a stealth kosher dairy restaurant, where I would get things like a white fish sandwhich. They informed me that this was not cool at all.

    I explained that I expressed my Jewishness by going to the old Jewish places, and they expressed theirs by refusing to patronize such places.

    It actually shut them up, something I didn’t know until then was possible.

  • But, Mr. Kelsey, what about those of us who appreciate old Jewish places as a reminder of a past era of Jewish history, and would be glad to go get a bowl of soup there, but simply like hummus and falafel much more than whitefish sandwiches?

    I mean, speaking as someone who appreciates food as much as I do, I’d hate for everything I eat to have to be an ideological statement.

    Although actually I must say, being a recovering hipster and all, that going to old-school stealth kosher dairy restaurants actually, by all indications, IS cool.

  • Michael,

    I don’t know if it’s cool, but it is good essen.

    I think you have a point. As long as we don’t feel Diaspora culture and the old places are held in contempt, the rivalry recedes. The whole yiddish vs. Hebrew thing still provides a backdrop, even though most of us (non-Zionists, not anti-Zionists)do accept that the Hebraisists had history and universal Jewry on their side. But it didn’t feel good, that defeat, and it went past language or even the Entity. I think it is important that Zionists are sensitive to those of us who see value in Diaspora culture, and should make sure their preference for Zionism is not mistaken for a desire for cultural hegemony.

  • Kelsey, had you simply invited them to the stealth kosher dairy restaurants instead of this passive-aggressive eating-of-the-whitefish-sandwich (representing the diaspora Jew’s preference for an Eastern European diaspora to a Land of Israel culinary feast) -while- sticking- it- to- the- nubile- new- Jews- of- the- Land- of- Israel- whose- hummus- eating- habits- reject- the- shtetl, you might actually, uh, get lucky with one of the Zionist Entity chicks. Trust me, it’s better than whitefish sandwiches. Or being a non-Zionist.

  • Kelsey, if it makes you feel better about your level of coolness and ability to engage with the Zionist Entity, heimishe essen is very cool in Tel Aviv. Restaurants full of Zionists getting their Friday cholent. But still no good bagels.

  • Wha-at?!!!
    American Jews – living in the most open and philo-semitic diaspora experience ever – bend over backwards to ignore their own because…. they are hated and insecure?

    This is a testament to how deeply victimology politics can distort one’s view of reality.

    Let’s try it this way:
    American Jewry is caught in the same devil’s pact as post-Enlightenment German and French Jewry. In order to facilitate assimilation and acceptance, Jewish identity was

    (a) dumbed down into an ethnic label, rather than spiritual/religious credo.
    (b) universalized into an amorphous Western Ethical Culture or Shining Socialist Dream.

    In a sad, sad, inversion, it is Jews who don’t get with the program of assimilation who provoke a combustible mix of shame and guilt – which leads to rage/lashing out/denial of traditional Judaism.

    These patterns of behavior led to the vicious fighting between Reform and Orthodox Jews in post-Englightenment Germany and France – to the point where the Reform movement invited the German government’s intervention to dissolve orthodox communal structures and prevent traditional Jewish observance. The last bitter moment of that feud was when assimilated German Jews comforted themselves that Hitler just wanted to kill those smelly, backward “OstJuden” in Poland, who had rejected Western culture.

    It’s worth recalling that Theodore Herzl was not very popular among the salons of the assimilated. His (almost thoroughly secular!) vision of renewed Jewish national identity was a scandalous anathema to many, simply because it asserted Jewish separateness.

    Well, American Jewry is not only not threatened by America – it has reached such an advanced state of assimilation that assertions of Jewish nationhood are the real discomforting elements, not gentiles (whom we are marrying at record rates).

    Israel – even the most secular Israel imaginable – represents an assertion of Jewish nationality, and an assertion that Jewish identity is worth preserving in the modern world.

    This is deeply threatening to many American Jews, who are well along the path of cultural syncretism and assimilation.

  • Ben-David, that makes no sense. If you wish to prove that my claims re: Jews in America today reflect “victimology politics,” why on earth would you assert that Jews in America today are like Jews in post-Enlightenment France and Germany? Post-Enlightenment France and Germany being, of course, where facism’s roots lie. Are we supposed to think of 2006 in America as 1898 in France, and to find this in some way reassuring? I’m not seeing this…

  • That’s odd. There seems to be no conflict between being French and universalistic, or between being British, Brazilian or Chinese or American and being universalistic. No one even criticizes politicized ethnic groups within the US–the blacks or latinos, for instance–for being particularistic. So why the Jews?

    To me, that seems to be a way of stacking the deck. Jews have always been concerned with others, even when it goes against their self interest. So their effectiveness in articulating and defending their own goals is not a sign of ethnocentrism.

    There is nothing wrong with being for oneself, as well for others. Nothing wrong with insisting on rights for one’s own group that one would insist on for others, too.

    When you denigrate your own group, you’re not helping the rights of others, you’re only helping others deprive you of your rights.

    Jews may be concerned with their own issues because, well, they’ve traditionally faced more problems and hostilities than, say, the Swedish. They’ve simply had more issues.

    I think that setting this dichotomy for the Jews and not for others is intellectually dishonest. It’s simply another way to denigrate Jewish interests, prestige, and aspirations.

  • Phoebe – I am not equating the two societies, I am equating the two Jewish communities and their tactics of identity resolution/cultural accommodation.

    You may recall that American Reform Jewry was not very enthusiastic about the Zionist Enterprise pre-WWII. This is in line with European Reform’s removal of the yearning for Zion from its prayer books – the goal then was to be a “German of Mosaic background”.

    Similarly most US Jews view themselves as Americans/Westerners of Jewish descent. They freely drop aspects of received Judaism that contradict with American culture to make this work, and don’t view themselves as primarily Jews bound by the covenant of Judaism.

    The vast majority of American Jews certainly do not view themselves as sojourners, or somehow incomplete/unfulfilled without the state of Israel.

  • Tom Morrissey’s comments a perfect read on the problems with this thread. It’s frustrating, because this post raises an ethical issue of real complexity and importance, which, at bottom, the implicates the tension between the obligation to self and others, to friend and stranger, to one’s family, community, and tribe, on the one hand, and to society as a whole, on the other. Unfortunately, the conceptual framework upon which the discussion is based makes a meaningful understanding of the issue virtually impossible. The problem lies in the effort, which appears to me to have originated with Beery, to transform subjective moral judgments into the specious, impressive-sounding ethical constructs of “universalism” and “particularism.” Kind of how the pharmaceutical industry transforms heartburn into “acid reflux disease;” or how it will turn farting into “gaseous emission syndrome.” This process is reflected in the following:

    the nature of the world in which we live in . . . makes an ethics of universalism simply irresponsible at the moment.

    the emphasis on universalistic social justice, while appealing, is no more than junk-food Jewish education:

    without the particularism of peoplehood the Jewish community will soon find itself undernourished and unable to survive.

    But what looks like a trickle today is really a breach in the dam of peoplehood.

    THIS ATTITUDE. . . is especially prevalent among the leadership of what many call the New Jews.

    This all sounds very imposing, but what does any of it mean? Much of the difference between the universal and the particular is determined by the attitude of the so-called New Jews. Thus, when Mobius expends his efforts on behalf of both Israelis and Lebanese civilians, he isn’t simply an individual with different ethical priorities than Beery, he’s a “universalist.” And what of those who expend their efforts on behalf of, say, the Special Olympics or St. Jude’s Children Hospital? Are they “universalists” too? Somehow, I doubt it. “Particularism,” conversely, means precisely one of two things: It means, first, that specifically Jewish causes always take moral precedence over broader societal concerns, and that Jews should accordingly never expend their efforts on behalf of those broader concerns. It’s tough to imagine anyone stepping forward to defend a proposition that asinine. More plausibly, it means that concerns of broad social justice are subordinate to Jewish causes only in certain cases, which remain conveniently undefined. In that circumstance, “particularism” is a subjective ethical standard that, as Tom points out, devolves into empty solipsism.

    Without some objectively defined terms, the discussion elicits jargon-ridden ideological blathering, at the center of which is the noxious fairy tale that the Orthodox are the descendants of the humble, pious, God-fearing shtetl-dwellers of Eastern Europe, while the remaining 90% of American Jewry are heirs to the decadent, aristocratic cosmopolitans of France and Germany, whose arrogance somehow provoked the wrath of God and the deaths of six million of their own brethren. Of course, it’s the modest, simple Jews of the East who brought about the fulfillment of the Zionist dream, while the effete, assimilated snobs of the Enlightenment West played no more than an incidental and passive role in bringing about the State of Israel. Along these lines, another thread produced the following bit of typically specious doggerel: “In the 19th century, quite a few Jews repudiated the basic Zionism inherent in Judaism, saying, ‘Berlin is Jerusalem.’ We know where that ended.” Funny, last I checked Hitler hadn’t consulted with any representatives of European Jewry on how to implement the Final Solution, nor did the Orthodox emerge from the Holocaust with a survival rate any different than that of the fully assimilated. Accordingly, “We know where that ended” is complete bullshit.

  • David cites a particularly odious product of cultural solipsism: ‘We can blame Hitler and the Holocaust on those of our [craven, self-loathing] ancestors who disagreed with us’ (avant la lettre, of course).

  • David Smith wrote: nor did the Orthodox emerge from the Holocaust with a survival rate any different than that of the fully assimilated.

    Having just gone on the March of the Living this past spring, I can assure you that you are wrong on this point. The ultra-Orthodox community in Europe suffered a greater proportional loss than any other Jewish sector in Europe, with the commonly-quoted figure of 4 of every 5 ultra-Orthodox Jews being wiped out. With their devotion to Jewish appearance, their overt and tight-knit neighborhoods, and their refusal to hide or fight (by and large), this is easy to understand.

    This was one of the arguments that the re-established ultra-Orthodox community in Israel after WWII used to win concessions from Ben-Gurion; to help them re-establish their communities.

  • OK, please allow me to clarify a few things here. No one at Jewlicious, if I may speak on behalf of my fellow posters, is saying that helping non-Jews is a bad thing. Jewlicious has been involved in numerous projects wherein the main beneficiaries have been non-Jews.

    For instance, we gave away a laptop to a Jaffa teen ager who won a History of Zionism contest. That kid, Rami Wated, was a Christian Arab. We also raised over $1000 for the Task Force for Human Trafficking who advocate on behalf of sex slaves in Israel, most of whom aren’t remotely Jewish. We run free ads for the Jewish Coalition for Service who send Jews to assist in humanitarian missions, of which most of the beneficiaries aren’t Jews. Finally, we also recently told all our readers to attend a rally in support of the mobilzation of UN peace keeping troops to Darfur in order to end the Genocide of African tribesmen, none of whom are Jewish.

    Are you paying attention Steven I. Weiss?

    Anyhow… the issue really is one of motivation as I see it. I mean why hold a fund raiser in Jerusalem where part of the money raised will go to help Lebanese reconstruction?

    Do the Lebanese need it? No. The International community has pledged close to a billion dollars for reconstruction and Iran is sending buttloads of cash to Hizballah to give out to people whose homes have been dammaged.

    Is it a statement emphasizing our lack of enmity towards the Lebanese people? Maybe. But it’s all of $500. That’s not exactly an enormous PR coup. That’ll hardly repair a wall. People aren’t suddenly going to love us because we raised $500. $500 isn’t going to remotely check the growing influence and popularity of Hizballah.

    So one has to ask oneself, why go through the excercise? What’s the point? The only thing I can think of, with respect to at least one of the organizers of the party in question, is to curry favor with certain uh “progressive elements.” I promise you we’ll be hearing about this little party for many years to come. It’ll be used to establish the organizers’ “progressive” bona fides.

    I mean look, it was a lovely idea. But the Lebanese people don’t need the cash. That cash could have been used to liberate 10 slaves in Sudan. It could have been used to feed and house a runaway sex slave for a month. It could have been used to feed an African child for a year. That it went instead to people who totally didn’t need it (I don’t care that they’re not Jewish, I don’t care that they are still technically at war with us) speaks to the organizers’ self congradulatory motives and their desire to be shit disturbers for the sake of shit disturbing. It speaks to their desire to curry favor from extreme leftists and non-Jews critical of Israel. That’s the issue here. Not that it’s wrong to help non-Jews. But that it’s wrong to divert charity to those who do not need it for the sake of self aggrandizement and to seek the approval of goyim.

    That’s the real issue here. In my ever so humble opinion.

  • ck:

    Yes, I think you’ve identified the issue with absolute precision, and that is an essential to what I was trying to convey as well. For reasons that I don’t have time at the moment to describe, but which I’ll outline shortly, I disagree about the value of the Lebanese fundraiser. At least on my own behalf; I have no basis on which to attest to the motivations of those organizing the event, or anyone else who believes in its value.

    My main point, however, was that being for the for the fundraiser doesn’t make me a “universalist,” and being against it doesn’t make you a “particularist.” That having been said, a conversation on the relative merits of both positions is still worthwhile, and, strikes me as likely to be even more productive.

  • dave smith, share the love! My comment deserves a reply from you. 🙂 Can’t let ck get all the fun…

  • Oyster,

    Sorry about that; I’m just not used to that much competition for my attention!

    Actually, the only reason I didn’t respond to your argument is that your explanation seems compelling, and gives me no reason whatever to doubt your conclusion. Indeed, though I know very little about the comparative survival rates of Jewish communities emerging from the Holocaust, it seems altogether plausible that the death rates for the Orthodox would have been higher than those for the rest of European Jewry for the reasons you cite.

    Another reason I didn’t respond is that your conclusion is consistent with my own argument, though I obviously expressed it poorly. What I was trying to get across is that not that death rates for the Orthodox were the same, but that they were no lower than for the rest of Europe’s Jews. Again, I was attempting to refute the grotesque and baseless calumny that the Holocaust was somehow an expression of God’s displeasure at the assimilation of the uppity German Jews. If that were so, one would expect God to have been harsher with the assimilated Jews, and more merciful with the Orthodox. He wasn’t. Though it’s easy enough to understand how people could grasp at such straws in seeking to explain something as monstrous and incomprehensible as the Holocaust, the simple fact is that no one “brought it upon themselves.” To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate a groundless and particularly ugly stereotype.

  • Hi David Smith,

    While I might not agree with your hypothesis in the broader sense, I do agree with what you’re saying in that it is an insult to the memory of the six-million to propose facile and simple-minded explanations to the huge and complex horrors of the Shoah. It is something that must be treated with the utmost respect, tact, and serious study.