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Gore-Vey!: Joe Lieberman, Jewish Mobility, and the Politics of Race in America


Tim Wise

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 running mate.

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 ticket.

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 apparent.

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

superior "culture."

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 enrichment.

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 protected]