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

Published as a ZNet Commentary, August 29, 2000

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 has picked a fellow Hebrew as his Vice Presidential running mate. Well, excuse me if I refrain from engaging in the teary-eyed celebrations over this ostensibly brave decision. 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?” Of course such a question would ultimately allow for the continued neglect of persistent 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 Goldman 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 most Jews to undergo a transmogrification that, in effect allowed us to “become white”–something we could do by downplaying who and what we were, and hiding in our epidermal camouflage; 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.

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 ’60s and ’70s, fifteen percent of Jews in New York City were poor or near poor, as were twelve percent 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 expanding 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 forty-nine percent of English immigrants, fifteen percent of Southern Italians, thirteen percent of the Irish, and six percent 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, ninety percent 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. 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. He was 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 7th 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 Talmud-based instruction, for males 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, dreidels, 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-culturation was the price of our ticket (as Baldwin called it) for the commodity known as America, and increasingly, I have to 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 meant to be Jewish: and that silence was all he could pass on. For the sake of becoming American (and that had really 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.

Leave a Reply