Continuing my excerpting from Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism, this is from the first essay in the book, “The Melting Pot and Beyond,” by David Biale, a fascinating look at the Jewish role in forging the notion of the United States as a melting pot. This is from the section of the essay called “Jews Become White.”
When Jews came to America, they assumed both that America was different [from Europe] and that their “privileged” status as the emblematic minority [which Biale argues persuasively the Jews represented in Europe] would continue. The erection of educational quotas and the rise of a virulent American strain of anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s confirmed the sense of continuities with Europe. The fact that such groups as the Ku Klux Klan targeted Jews together with African Americans reinforced the feeling of a commonality of persecution. But as anti-Semitism and formal discrimination waned in the post-World War II years and as Jews became economically successful, they found themselves for the first time in modern history doubly marginal: marginal to the majority culture, but also marginal among minorities. They were no longer a minority that defined the central political discourse of the majority culture [as they had been in Europe]. In the American histories of victims, Jews were no longer sociologically “the chosen people.”
Instead, with the rise of the civil rights movement, a very different narrative focusing on African Americans became dominant. As Cheryl Greenberg shows elsewhere in this book [in an essay called “Pluralism and Its Discontents: The Case of Blacks and Jews,” which is well worth reading], although it seemed for a period as if Jews might be able to wed their narrative to that of blacks in the rhetoric of the early civil rights movement, it quickly became apparent that the experiences of the two groups were fundamentally different: despite the mythic memory of enslavement in Egypt, the more recent history of Jews in Europe was not commensurate with the African American experience of slavery. In fact, despite the persecutions and disabilities suffered in Europe, the Jews had still enjoyed a degree of internal autonomy utterly different from that of African American slaves. Their culture in Europe may well have prepared them better than most immigrant groups for success in America. Thus, not only economic success and social integration but also an intrinsically different history divided the Jews from American blacks. Whether they liked it or not (and usually they did), the Jews in postwar America had become white. (27-8)
The indeterminacy of contemporary Jewish identity is often the cause of much communal hand-wringing. But instead of bemoaning these multiple identities, Jews need to begin to analyze what it means to negotiate them and, by doing so, perhaps even learn to embrace them. Reconciling of Jewish identity along postethnic lines would undoubtedly require a sea change in Jewish self-consciousness, since Jews often continue to define themselves according to the old fixed categories. In particular, the issue of intermarriage…requires radical reevaluation. Far from siphoning off the Jewish gene pool, perhaps intermarriage needs to be seen instead as creating new forms of identity, including multiple identities, that will reshape what it means to be Jewish in ways we can only begin to imagine. For the first time in Jewish history, there are children of mixed marriages who violate the “law of the excluded middle” by asserting that they are simultaneously Jewish and Christian or Jewish and Italian. Whether these new forms of identity spell the end of the Jewish people or its continuation in some new guise cannot be easily predicted since there is no true historical precedent for this development: it might be compared to the great sea change that took place with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the first century of the Common Era. Such moments of revolutionary transformation are always fraught with peril, but whatever one’s view of it, the task for those concerned with the place of Jews in America is not to condemn or condone but rather to respond creatively to what is now an inevitable social process.
Beyond intermarriage, all Jews in the modern period have learned to live with multiple identities: Jew and German, Jew and American, Jew and Israeli. At one time it was fashionable to describe these identities as hyphenated or hybrid…. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that multiplicity in the precise sense of the word is more apt a description than hybridity. As opposed to the melting pot in which a new identity emerges or the cultural pluralism model in which only one ethnic identity remains primary, this is the sort of identity in which one might retain at least two different cultural legacies at once. The Jewish Enlightenment slogan “Be a human being on the street and a Jew at home” now comes to fruition in a new guise: one can hold several identities both in the street and at home. (31-32)