More from Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism

51u+2xHneTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This is from the introduction by David Biale:

Standing somewhere between the dominant position of the white majority and the marginal position of peoples of color, Jews respond with ambivalence to the attack of multiculturalism on the Enlightenment. For two centuries Jews have staked their position in Western society on the promise of the Enlightenment. When given the chance, they used emancipation to enormous benefit and they came to repay the Enlightenment with almost excessive gratitude, rushing to adopt political liberalism and cultural rationalism to a much greater degree than any other group. At the same time, the Jewish embrace of the Enlightenment reflected the limitations within the Enlightenment itself: it was Jewish men, much more than Jewish women, who realized the benefits of the Enlightenment, so the very enthusiasm for the Enlightenment needs to be qualified to some degree along gender lines. And Jews also recognize that the very failure of the Enlightenment led to Auschwitz. The dialectic of Jewish Enlightenment therefore oscillates between these two poles of enthusiastic celebration of modern Western culture and awareness of its most horrific results.

Having finally reaped the fruits of the promise of the Enlightenment, American Jews sometimes ask why liberalism can’t do for other marginalized American groups what it has done for them. This is the source of the conflict among Jews about affirmative action, a policy often associated with multiculturalism. If Jews historically associate quotas with barriers to opportunity, it is then particularly difficult for some to accept such quotas (or similar vehicles) as just means for American society to redress inequities. As beneficiaries, for whatever historical and cultural reasons, of the Enlightenment’s equality of opportunity, some Jews find it hard to understand why such slogans might be inadequate in dealing with the long-term consequences of slavery. At the same time, however, since probably the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been Jewish women, Jews have just as many self-interested reasons to see the virtues of preferences.

(Biale does not offer a citation for his claim in that last sentence.)

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One Response to More from Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism

  1. 1
    Ben David says:

    This passage does not mention the considerable overlap between Enlightenment thought and the basic tenets of the Jewish world view:

    – Human life has an axiomatic value, above other creatures.
    – Human equality as equally axiomatic.
    – Free will + responsibility for one’s actions (now called “guilt culture” to distinguish it from “shame cultures” like Islam).
    – A “natural law” that closely tracks Torah morality
    – Property rights as the basis of a culture of personal liberty.

    As an 3rd or 4th generation secularly-educated American Orthodox Jew, I was taught to see the Enlightment as a fulfillment of Maimonides’ statement that the diaspora was meant to spread Torah values, preparing the world for redemption…. in this view, the Enlightment is Christendom “building out” Jewish ideas to their political/secular conclusion. Ideas such as universal human worth and suffrage are now commonplace in a way they were not before.

    (Was/is the Christian West imperfect? Sure – but the trend was positive, and oppressed groups could appeal to the Jewish value system and point out the hypocrisy in slavery, racism, sexism, etc. By comparison, there was no such ability make a values-based argument in Egypt, Babylon, or Rome.)

    Certainly progressive Jews could make/have made the argument that collectivism is a more perfect expression of Jewish values. And a similar argument could be made that postmodernism is simply a continuation of Jewish notions of the importance and uniqueness of each individual.

    But the anti-clerical, revolutionary nature of most “progressive” movements made it harder to sell the “continuum of Jewish values” argument. It’s worth remembering that Reform Judaism developed as a response to the Enlightenment – as a way to continue to live as a Jew (at least that was the intention) – whereas most Socialist movements considered religion something to be discarded and left behind on the way to a new “promised land”.

    The postmodern attack on the notions of universal moral law and personal responsibility distances the progressive camp even further from the traditional Jewish view.