Monday, June 07, 2010

If Not Special, Then Why Bother?

Either I am not as smart as I think I am, or Michael Chabon's argument against Jewish exceptionalism is confusing and unpersuasive. The title of his piece is Chosen, but not Special. I would say exactly the opposite: Special, but not Chosen.
I agree with Chabon that there are as many stupid Jews as there are smart ones (I have a laundry list; don't get me started). My instinct is that in the world there are far more stupid people than there are smart ones, so this must apply to Jews as well.
But what makes Jews special? Not the idea that we're chosen, which is like an advertising slogan -- catchy but totally spurious.
Is it the Bible? That's a pretty special book. Assyrians, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians: amazing cultures that at one point coexisted with us have been gone for centuries; we are still hanging in there. Why is this? Luck hardly seems to be the answer. If what Jews have is luck, I certainly want no part of it. Jews have survived by being exceptional. Perhaps by being tribal instead of imperial. By stubbornly taking our culture with us even when we were displaced. By marrying within the faith, keeping it within the family, and by making sure that the faith and the culture are passed along even in the direst of circumstances. Surely this explains as bizarre an accident of history as is to be born a Mexican Jew, with origins in Eastern Europe and perhaps medieval Spain. So at my family's Passover seder in Mexico I am not wondering who is the smartest or the stupidest person in the room; (in contrast to Chabon, I find stupid people are extremely hard to ignore). Instead, I'm wondering how is it possible that in this place and this day and age we are all singing a song in Aramaic that was written thousands of years ago somewhere in the Middle East.
Jews have seen no end of grief for sticking to our own kind, even if it looks really bad to everybody else. We care about our heritage and we don't want to lose it. And what is this culture that we are passing along? It's not just the tenets of the faith, which the great majority of Jews, in their modern secular incarnation, do not really obey. We eat chazer, desecrate the Sabbath and don't take the Bible as literally as our ultra-orthodox brethren. But we still have a unique culture and a rich philosophical and narrative tradition. A culture that prizes life on earth over paradise in death, and, that at its best, values education, intellectual inquiry and intelligence both in business and in thought. It is also a culture that, at worst, seems to feel more alive when beset by the anxiety of persecution, real or imagined, which I would advocate for turning down a notch or two. In fact, I would suggest that instead of being so fearful, we should use our seichel, which means brains, a little more.
Some cultures place a great deal of value in hard work, others in education, others in their own concepts of honor or piety. Yes, some of us humans are smart and some aren't, but we are not all alike. Are Jews like everybody else? I would say no. Are Tainos or Tasmanians or the French like everybody else? No. Not better or worse. But different. And why should this not be so? What exactly is Chabon advocating for? Is the point we should stop being so arrogant as to think that we know better than anyone else? This could be communicated more clearly and directly. I read the piece three times and still could not gather what exactly is his point.
Let us not, henceforward, judge Israel or seek to have it judged for its intelligence, for its prowess, for its righteousness or for its moral authority, by any standard other than the pathetic, debased and rickety one that we apply, so inconsistently and self-servingly, to ourselves and to everybody else. And let us not forgive ourselves — any more than we forgive Israel, or than Israel can forgive itself — for that terrible inconsistency.
Somebody please explain this paragraph to me. If there is irony in this, I'm not getting it. I certainly hold Israel to a higher standard. I hold the US and Israel to a higher standard than I hold Sudan or North Korea. The better equipped a country is to be better, the better we should expect it to be.
Israeli writer David Grossman has said that he pines for the day when Israel will be a normal country, with the problems of a normal country and not with its apocalyptic and apoplectic daily burden of war and hatred.  Who knows if this is possible, but it is certainly more desirable than asking Jews to stop placing a high value on using our head. 
Just this weekend I had an argument with an Israeli woman who was berating me for asking what she thought were the wrong questions, and daring to tell me what to say to a manager at a gym. I didn't know her, but this did not prevent her from acting as if I was a pathetic moron and only she knew how to deal with the situation. If Jews think that we are smarter than everyone else, wait until you meet an Israeli. They think they are smarter than all the other Jews and everyone else. This comes across as incredibly aggravating arrogance (see: Bibi). This arrogance can on occasion be justified by their hard circumstances and the good they have done with them (but not the bad). So maybe a better idea would be to ask Israelis to stop looking down on an uncomprehending world and stop looking down on the Jews that are worried sick about it, and as Amos Oz said last week:
Hamas is an idea, a desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians*. No idea has ever been defeated by force — not by siege, not by bombardment, not by being flattened with tank treads and not by marine commandos. To defeat an idea, you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one.
Let's use our brains. 

*and I may add, a very concrete organization that is funded and supported by Islamic countries that have no interest whatsoever in the peaceful existence of Israel.


  1. Anonymous10:55 PM

    Way to go, JAP! Chabon's piece is so anxious to get it right that it ends up just being confused.

  2. David1:14 AM


    I too read Chabon's piece and posted it to facebook with the tag, Yiddishe Kop or Self-Hating Jew? Chabon's piece read like some sick and sad manifesto that he penned in the dark of his study late one night last week and sent in to the Times with the bleary misconception that it was a) easy to follow and b) smart. It wasn't smart. It was self-serving and pandering, though pandering to whom I'm still not quite sure I know. His own readership? A new readership? An old one? Jews are smart. We are exceptional. We have had to be.

    I'm living in Berlin at the moment and when I arrived, I found myself hearing the ghosts of the past all around me, whispering into my ear, Dumb, dirty Jew. My response of course was to be better than all the Germans, smarter, more successful, etc. I too come from NYC and the competition to be smarter, more successful, etc., is fierce, but having now lived in Germany, where I can still feel and hear the reverberations of the screams of the Jews being stolen from their doorways and shoved into cattle cars, that competition pales in comparison to the competition I carry in my head—the competing notions that Jews are better and that's why we were nearly exterminated and the other idea that Jews are just like everyone else and that's why it was so easy to get rid of us.


  3. Thanks for your comments, folks!
    David: I don't think Chabon is a self-hating Jew, but I think he has that particularly American impulse that tries to smooth every edge over in the name of political correctness. So everybody ends up being bland, generic, and comforting, like World Music or horrid food mutations like taco salads that, as far as I know, only happen here in a grand scale. It's as if being different was somehow unseemly, and not suited to some sort of pious, ecumenical palate that prefers everything a little bit easier to swallow. Take out the bones and make it into pap. Make it smooth and make it go away. That's what I gather from his bewildering piece. But I still don't understand what he was twisting his words into a pretzel for.