Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
from “In Defense of Shaatnez: A Politics for Jews in a Multicultural America,” by Mitchell Cohen
Shatnez–or, as Cohen has it in the title of his essay from Insider/Outsider: Amer­i­can Jews and Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, 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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