Monday, June 18, 2007

Ethnocentrism, Race, Group Belonging, the Present and Future, Jews

Could I add more keywords to the title? Sure, but it's already onerous, and doesn't even begin to get at how the following intersects with much conversation as of late here.

From the website Jewcy, a letter by Jack Wertheimer that offers a view completely opposed to what I posted from the UK site Jewdas last week. No rootless cosmopolitan yeshiva here, but a dismissal of "cosmopolitan pluralism" as mere adolescent frivolity. American Jews can be cosmopolitan, Wertheimer explains, because they marry so late that the "real" work of raising a family and worrying about a bounded (as opposed to imaginary and expansive) future isn't theirs. A quote:
Don’t be so quick to assume that the easy pluralism and globalism you take for granted is forever, any more than is the post-nationalist era proclaimed by the Tony Judt’s of the Jewish world. And don’t assume your non-Jewish peers are as indifferent to group allegiances as they might claim. Your Jewish spiritual ancestors with their flights of internationalist fancy learned this lesson too late.
Dire stuff. Easy stuff to write, too, especially with a sneer. I'm not saying there is no truth to it -- there obviously is -- but surely the harder work is to bring about a future that doesn't repeat or allow to be re-enacted this lachrymose past. A very hard question: to what extent do we learn history in order to escape it? Do we allow history to teach us to brace ourselves for dire times to come? How do we bring about a future that doesn't allow a writer to proclaim that to be a cosmopolitan is to sign the warrant for your death warrant, or that of your children, your people?

Wertheimer is a well published scholar of contemporary Judaism. If you read through the comments that follow his piece, you'll see that his argument that Jews need to take care of Jews first is not finding a receptive audience on the website at which it was published.

Why am I thinking about this? I've just been reading William of Newburgh on the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190.


Anonymous said...

A lazy comment, (as always?), I'm afraid I too am immersed in family dramas and work thoughts which are only very tangentially relevant to this discussion.

But "it depends" - seems to be the crucial phrase in all this. I find it increasingly hard to discuss any of these issues without context. I certainly do not want to put any particular time, place of context in a hermetically sealed box from all other times, places and contexts. But I do find it hard to answer these questions (which seem to revolve around 'love' as either a liberating and inclusive emotion, or conversely as a coercive and oppressive one) without reference to time and place and even person.

I like what you said before about opening up possibilities - possible alternative pasts and thus futures. Maybe that is what History should be best at?

By the way is the past always History?

Sorry - this ramble isn't especially helpful comment.

Property is where I am at - what is property - actually quite relevant to the York Jews, much of whose life expectancy and experience was framed and expressed (especially to us their readers) in terms of property. The present (UK) government talks of stakeholders a great deal - an evocative medieval phrase of possession if ever there was one. Is it also current in the US?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Stakeholders ... I hear that everywhere from the business consultants hired to tell us why we need a strategic plan for every department at my university to the principal of my son's elementary school. It's a word that doesn't do much for me, but apparently makes those who use think they are saying something new.

The reason I posted a piece of this letter is that while I disagree with it, the part that I have to take seriously is the numbers game/projection into futurity. That is, we write quite often here at ITM about taking science seriously. So what about demographics and population science? Isn't it going to matter in the long run that communities whose values are very different from -- in many ways, antithetical to -- my own tend to reproduce at a far greater rate than those groups with whom I feel greatest affinity? Doesn't it matter if, generally speaking, fundamentalist flavors of many religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) tend to have practitioners who marry early and have many children? Won't that delimit the future in important ways?

I know that such observations are typically made in a context of "We need to stop immigration!" Or "France will no longer be French!" or some such, and again such desires are against my own values. The harder question is, how do you bring about the kind of future you believe is most ethical even as you suspect it's not the kind of future burgeoning segments of the population will embrace? I could put it more concretely: the kind of reform Judaism in which my wife and I are raising our kids is cosmopolitan and inclusive in a way that the Jewishness described by Wertheimer is not. Yet despite the websites I've been posting (Jewdas, Jewcy) it does seem that recent growth in Judaism is in conservative and orthodox congregations more than reform.

Karl Steel said...

So what about demographics and population science? Isn't it going to matter in the long run that communities whose values are very different from -- in many ways, antithetical to -- my own tend to reproduce at a far greater rate than those groups with whom I feel greatest affinity?

Maybe. But don't forget the power of influence and, for that matter, people changing minds. My mother had 4 siblings; many of her siblings had as many children. Although I don't spend much time (read: none) with my cousins, I know that there are far fewer conservative Xians per capita in this family among my generation than in my mother's generation (her generation: 80%; this generation? I'd guess 50-60%).

Now, if you want to be frightened, there's this, but you might want to look at this too.

it does seem that recent growth in Judaism is in conservative and orthodox congregations more than reform

Do you sense that there's a shrinkage overall in communal practicing of Judaism once we adjust for overall increases in population? Are reform congregations shedding members who end up in no congregation at all?

Anonymous said...

Property can be a powerful concept for making a grounded connection between abstract ideas and emotions on the one hand and material and embodied presences on the other. Every time you give somebody a birthday present you establish the link between property and love.

There is no society that does not have some conception of property, some way of imagining ‘human belonging’ in relation to things. But the conception and practice of property is immensely variable over time and space. European colonists made the mistake in India, in America and in Australia of thinking that indigenous people did not have a sense of property, that they were rootless hunter-gatherers who could to be civilised by being brought into Europe’s own late medieval/early modern and Christian idea of property. But of course those peoples did have a rich understanding of the relationship between human values and material things, they were just expressed in ways that were entirely alien to the new settlers.

As I understand the modern concept of stakeholding in management theory – it was in origin an attempt to unsettle the hierarchical power relations that had become embedded in established concepts of European-American property, management and economics (including the economic concept of ‘rent’). Rather than thinking about business in terms of a hierarchy of employers and employees, shareholders and customers, landlords and tenants, even competitors and partners – all those parties are supposed to be re-imagined as having something at stake in the success of the business, in a flatter, more open and more equal set of relationships. So cleaners are stakeholders in the success of an academic department as much as students or professors. [And I am not saying that this is how the concept IS being used in your department – though I would not be at all surprised if you weren’t being asked to rethink who your stakeholders might be]. A positive way of thinking about this might be to say that it is a way of ‘spreading the love’ and making it take effect in the world in reassessing the very nature of ‘wealth’ and its redistribution (giving employees shares in the company for example). What you intimate is that either practice in your time and place does not live up to that lofty idea, or that you feel you are losing your place in the hierarchy and being dispossessed.

My line on ‘property’ tends to be that it is exactly at this disjuncture between idea and practice that we find the human. Mostly property has been studied in the middle ages in the abstract (in terms of what the law said property rights should be) – rather than in terms of how people used property (actually this is truer of real estate than moveable goods). When you look at how people used property (from the property itself, or from textual references to property) – you can find some startling differences from contemporary philosophy and law – and even some direct and moving testimonies of raw emotion. So the law may define twelfth-century Jews and their wealth as property in one way – but traces of their and their neighbours’ use of property might reveal something quite different about what they felt and practiced about assimilation at a specific place and time, for example. So you can (as JJC said in a different post) open up alternative possibilities of how Jews and non-Jews might be: and it is also a way of showing how ideas matter, how they have an effect in the everyday but are also changed by the everyday – they are not just out there in a vacuum divorced from bodily existence.

“Breeding like rabbits?” Well I’ll leave that to others – but first you need numbers to put the emotions in context. Secondly – the baby rabbits might grow up to want to be foxes (or vice versa)?

Similar issue in Wales – where some people are agitating against the imposition of the Welsh language in public life as an affront to their human rights. Should Welsh survive as a public language or not? Can the non-Welsh speakers be given a stake in its future?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, srj and Karl, for those timely reminders of the indeterminacy of futures. Extrapolating futurity from the present (as if the future were destined to be an expanded replica of the now) is something I've argued against before, and will do so again...

Rabbits do become foxes (or hedgehogs). Siblings grow along divergent paths. Context and history are not destiny.

Karl, from what I know (and I am very far from being an expert) only orthodox Judaism is experiencing growth in the US.

srj, that was quite a meditation on property and its cultural determinations; I thank you for it. As to stakeholders, I very much see the potential it has for a flattened and more democratic approach, especially as you describe it. However, in my experience -- limited to educational settings -- it has been used as a synonym for something like "customer" and has to do with the delivery of educational "services." It doesn't break down hierarchies so much as put them in a language of business and efficiency rather than, say, of shared projects and goals.

Anonymous said...

well i'm afraid 'property' fills my head - it's a bit like giving you a piece of yellowing old type-written paper from the back of my filing cabinet.

And - sounds like your people have got it wrong (if fashionably wrong).