Monday, May 19, 2008

Romanticizing Minorities: Jews conceived in Power and Powerlessness

I recently wrote a little bit about (my experience learning about) the "Magical Mystical Negro." It's a pattern in which (1) blacks are relegated to secondary roles in Hollywood films (often, unfortunately, by liberal, Jewish filmmakers) and other literature at the same time (2) they seem to be exalted with patronizing stereotypes about how they're not subjected to the problems of modernity that whites face. In other words, they're portrayed as different from "us," reinforcing the very idea of essentialism. Because whites don't immediately recognize it as racist, the discussion (in which white privilege dominates the same as everywhere else) tends to get immediately sidetracked into attacks on blacks who are offended by the portrayal. While it does have its own particular features, the Magical, Mystical Negro is a subgenre of films that romanticize and relegate all sorts of oppressed people. (I'd like to direct your attention to Immortal Kickboxer.)

For Jews, the portrayal has often been one where 'Jewish exceptionalism' derives from oppression. Since liberals see Jews as simplistically white, we're not always relegated to supporting role, though those may be filled by Holocaust survivors or the Orthodox while an assimilated Jew plays the lead. But the oppression of Jews is seen as a good thing, producing the circumstances by which we can be a moral people. If we achieve any sort of power -by getting our own country, perhaps- these "exceptional Jews" become a Jewish cabal of world-dominating power. The Jewish Partisans, who fought the Nazis in the ghettos, are romanticized. The Zionists who actually saved lives, though, are demonized. Gandhi's call for Jews to commit suicide perverts morality to defend genocide.

It's not uncommon among contemporary leftists -who are vulnerable on this to the sorts of charges they regularly hurl at liberals- to thus emphasize a false solidarity with Jews while fighting against the pragmatic solution to oppression which Jews favor in overwhelming numbers.

This weekend, I attended Nextbook's Festival of Ideas on "Jews and Power". Leon Botstein admitted to finding the exceptional Jew an attractive figure (and one he believed to exist) that he would be sad to see disappear. Yet he did recognize that the ordinary, commonplace vulgarity of the contemporary Jew, made possible by Zionism, was for the best. If Israel is not the Jew among nations but a nation like any other that happens to be Jewish, good. Yet Aaron David Miller, as he suddenly realized in the middle of his conversation with Paul Berman that US support for Israel might actually disappear if we look further out than fifteen years, seemed ready to demand of Israel a moral standard worthy of support. (Perhaps I misread him, and he will come to a view like mine here. He's recording an interview with Charlie Rose today, so check it out.) But this is incompatible with the Zionist project as one creating a country like any other. It is, of course, good to expect of all nations, Israel included, moral behavior and to chastise them for their failures. I don't think anyone at the conference, speaker or attendee, would disagree with that. But that is a standard that falls far short of the existential demands commonly placed on Israel. No other nation is thus threatened with dissolution (though Germany was divided into East and West for decades) regardless of human rights records. The demands made upon Israel are too often that it not defend itself, that it never do the wrong thing. If Israel is to be a nation like any other -and not the exceptional Jew among nations made possible only by Jewish oppression- it must be understood that Israel will do the wrong thing from time to time. Perhaps often. Like any other nation. We can and should criticize it when it does without introducing or ignoring existential threats, without romanticizing Jews as victims.


David Schraub said...

Thanks for the link at Racialicious, and can I just say, this blog looks fantastic.

Matt said...

Thanks. I found your blog fairly recently, but I'm really grateful for it.