from “In Defense of Shaatnez: A Politics for Jews in a Multicultural America,” by Mitchell Cohen

51u+2xHneTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Shaatnez refers to the prohibition in Jewish law against mixing wool and linen in the same garment. Such mixing is considered, as Cohen puts it, “an inappropriate bringing together of opposites” (35). His article is an exploration of the value that multiculturalism could have for American Jews, despite the fact that proponents of multiculturalism often seem to exclude Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness from the multicultural umbrella. Here is an excerpt:

[T]oday’s multiculturalism is often expressed in a spirit quite distant from [previous versions that] almost invariably included Jews. [Nowadays,] multiculturalism is often identified…with a segment of the left that has, to put it bluntly, a Jewish problem. Sometimes this problem is manifested in an obtuse anti-Zionism, other times in insensitivity to Jewish interests and fears, and sometimes in an inability to rebuke anti-Semites without qualification. The Jew, in short, is the problematic Other. The reproduction of this attitude among some advocates of multiculturalism, especially those with third world orientations, threatens to taint multiculturalism in the same way that Communism unfairly tainted the left as a whole.

The problem doesn’t necessarily express itself in outright anti-Semitism…or in the tendency of some people to speak of Israel with a hiss reminiscent of neoconservative pronouncements about the left. Sometimes this tendency is manifested simply as intellectual numbness when it comes to Jews, a numbness multiculturalists quickly protest when it comes to other groups. Moses Maimonides is rarely on the list of authors these multiculturalists aim to incorporate into the canon. Consider, for instance, Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader, a recent, weighty collection of some twenty essays. The only reference to Jews and Judaism to be found in it are in passing, and Jewish studies, which has flourished across the United States in the past quarter century, does not exist in it at all, even in the essay entitled “Ethnic Studies: Its Evolution in American Colleges and Universities.” Marx wrote somewhere that in his vision of the future, the conditions for the liberation of one would be the conditions father liberation of all. If some American Jewish liberals are wary of some advocates of multiculturalism, the reason is plain: it is not always evident that the multicultural “all” includes Jewish culture. (45)

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9 Responses to from “In Defense of Shaatnez: A Politics for Jews in a Multicultural America,” by Mitchell Cohen

  1. 1
    Max G. says:

    Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader is not a “recent” collection. It’s twenty years old. From the contents it appears that it excludes not only Jews, but all white ethnics – a glance at the contents page reveals that the essays concern different peoples of color – African American, Latino, Native American. I read a few pages of the preface, and it’s the usual “hegemonic white Euroethnic” jargon. That is, there are white people and there are ethnic people but there are no white ethnic people. Not surprisingly, the editor is Jewish. I personally have no patience for this sort of stuff, and I think the fact that it excludes Jews is the least of the problems with it.

  2. 2
    Ruchama says:

    I haven’t read the Multiculturalism book, so I can’t comment on that, but the “recent” part is within the quote from Insider/Outside, which was published in 1998. So it was recent then.

  3. 3
    Mandolin says:

    Not surprisingly the editor is Jewish?

  4. 4
    LTL FTC says:

    This brings back a lot of feelings I had in temple youth group in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when we were taught to be proud of the martyred Jewish Freedom riders but got Farrakhan and Jackson’s “Hymie Town” in return. It was confusing, but we were also taught that tikkun olam was not a quid pro quo.

    Feelings aside, it’s not surprising that Jewish concerns get shut out of identity politics, no matter how many Black Panther fundraisers Leonard Bernstein hosted. Some possible reasons or contributing factors:

    1. Lack of common enemy. Picture the guy most likely to shoot up a black church. Then picture the guy most likely to shoot up a synagogue. For over half a century, the threat to world Jewry has not been white people, annoy us as they might with their end times fantasies and occasional condescending proselytizing.

    2. Cold War politics. The immediate post-colonial era was concurrent with the Cold War. Israel was mostly supported by the West, and many liberation movements were supported by the Soviets. The Soviets were not so much interested in liberation for the sake of the liberated as they were in the global fight for resources and strategic hegemony, but “any port in a storm.” Marxist thought is embedded deeply within academic multiculturism by an accident of history due to this. Same with Pan-Arabism.

    3. Respectability politics worked for Jews. My father, as he taught me how to tie a tie, told me to “think Yiddish, dress British.” This is respectability politics. The diaspora taught Jews that it was best to try and participate and succeed in whatever culture you find yourself in. If you’d never be even close to the majority, it was important to be known as not too different and thus not too much of a threat to the established order. There are countercurrents to this, from Jewish-American revolutionary communists to Hasidim, but the standard Jewish narrative in the west has been one of integration and assimilation. This is anathema to the rest of the identity politics movement.

    4. Ability to pass as white. Totally understandable. It really is a different set of issues we’re faced with in this regard. Not much more to say here.

  5. 5
    Patrick S. says:

    LTL: I think your 3rd and 4th points are basically a sufficient explanation for why Jews often aren’t included under the umbrella of multiculturalism: because to the majority of (white) Americans, to be Jewish means to be a white person with some minor religious eccentricities. I grew up in a town with a very large Jewish population, with an especially high number of recent immigrants from Israel, and even there Jewish people were considered to be, if not completely devoid of ethnicity, then at least much, much closer to “white” than any other group. The fact that Jewish people “pass,” sometimes even without wanting to, means that most liberal academics aren’t interested in questions of Jewish identity the way they are about groups which are oppressed in more obvious and inescapable ways. And I don’t think that’s an entirely unfair way to look at it; it seems fairly difficult to me to argue with the notion that Jews are treated very differently from blacks or Latinos, and probably significantly better than Asians, the other ethnic group which often gets considered “basically white,” where white is a synonym for “privilege.” Which, again: Jewish people in America are wealthier and better educated than any other ethnic group, with the possible exception of Asians (I can’t find any exact statistics, since even the U.S. census considers Jewish people to be “white”). If there’s one thing rich, educated liberals aren’t interested in studying (outside the pages of the New Yorker), it’s people who are rich and educated.

  6. 6
    LTL FTC says:

    Patrick S.,

    I think that gets you halfway there. But the fact that we’re “boring” doesn’t account for the specific animus that the campus multicultural infrastructure (student, faculty and administrative) have toward Jews mentioned in the post.

    It’s often couched in anti-Israel rhetoric, but local Jews pay the price. Witness the case of the UCLA student who was denied a position on a student government board for being Jewish, the South African university student government that wanted to kick out all anti-BDS Jews and the completely out of control situation in the UK. It’s “about Israel” but takes the form of harassing or denigrating local Jewish people.

    That’s where 1 and 2 come in, especially 2.

    And of course, there’s the redefinition of racism as “privilege+power”, which can be boiled down in its most self-interested form to the idea that there are no standards of behavior oppressed groups can be held to when it comes to bias against others. Without a common enemy, that makes being the odd minority out a dangerous place to be.

  7. 7
    LTL FTC says:

    Y’know what, just strike that last paragraph. It’s another topic entirely. Certainly a driver of this behavior, but off-topic.

  8. 8
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    LTL FTC, I’d have thought that the person (in the US) who’s most likely to shoot up a black church wouldn’t look different from the person who’s most likely to shoot up a synagogue– it would be a white male who’s racist about blacks *and* anti-Semitic. I’d have different expectations for France.

  9. 9
    David Schraub says:

    @8 Nancy: That was my thought too. The last major shooting that targeted a Jewish center (the Kansas City JCC shooting) was perpetrated by exactly the same sort of person who’d also target a Black church.