From Pluralism and Its Discontents: The Case of Blacks and Jews,” by Cheryl Greenberg

Twenty five years or so ago, not too long after I first started teaching at the college where I am still a professor, one of my colleagues—the woman who started the institution’s Jewish Studies Project—tried to start a Black-Jewish dialogue on campus. It was not successful. One reason, I think, was structural. In my memory the idea for the dialogue did not emerge from a shared sense of need, but rather with the desire of the white Jews on campus to do something” about Black-Jewish relations. I don’t mean that Black people on campus didn’t also feel the need for dialogue, but, as far as I know, no one actually asked them how they understood the need and so nothing about what they thought, felt, and understood was incorporated into the initial discussion about how the dialogue should be structured or what its goals ought to be.

I remember sitting in a room with about eight or nine of my white Jewish colleagues and maybe three or four Black colleagues from across campus and watching the dialogue fall apart before it ever really go started. One Black colleague, used a term to describe those non-Jews who were critical of Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitic rhetoric, especially if they were Black, that was the structural equivalent of nigger lover,” though it obviously did not carry the history of that term. The word my colleague used was Judeophile, and my colleague meant by it people who were not Jewish who defended Jews because they had a love” for Jews that, while they were not entirely aware of it, went against their own self-interests. Jews, he suggested, were lucky to be able to count on people like that. Responses to this assertion consumed the rest of the meeting, which was the last one we had.

After the meeting, I went to this colleague’s officer to talk to him about what had happened, but that discussion degenerated too, into one where he tried very hard to convince me that Farrkahan was not antisemitic and ended by saying that he respected the commitment with which I defended my people.” I thought about that exchange a lot while reading Cheryl Greenberg’s essay, which appears in Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism. The essay is long and well worth reading carefully and begins with these two sentences:

Blacks and Jews, once partners in the struggle for civil rights and racial justice, have more recently become estranged. Paralleling the rise and fall of that coalition is the rise and fall of pluralism as an ideal for structuring American social life. (55)

This is an excerpt from the first couple of pages (55-60):

Multiculturalism, the most recent attempt to address the diversity of America’s (and the world’s) peoples and histories, challenges traditional historical understandings and redefines the American landscape of racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Rooted in a critique of traditional power relations that favor white male elites and their world view, multiculturalists argue instead for understanding the world as a cacophonous multiplicity of voices and experiences…

Because multiculturalism received its focus and energy primarily from the later phases of the modern civil rights movement, it has tended to address racial differences. While most definitions of multiculturalism includes not only race but also class, gender, and sexuality as fundamental social categories, they nevertheless exclude or finesse other crucial social divisions and (I believe) still enshrine race as first among equals. Positing race as the greatest divide may certainly be valid; my point here is that the most common versions of multiculturalism can therefore all be subject to a similar critique of downplaying other distinctions in favor of racial ones.

But little can be generalized about multiculturalism beyond its commitment to dethroning the while male voice. The term multiculturalism itself is contested and is embraced by those with different and sometimes contradictory visions of society…._

Yet despite this apparent indeterminacy, multiculturalism as a sociological concept is grounded in a particular history that gives it much of its contemporary resonance. Since the nation’s founding, Americans have debated how to absorb diverse populations, a debate that reached a crescendo with the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans and the migration of southern blacks to urban areas in the north. For the traditional Anglo-conformists or monoculturalists,” white Protestant Western European (and male) culture, norms, and values defined the best of America. For them, assimilation to this norm was the only alternative. In the early years of the twentieth century a newly popularized image of America as the melting pot replaced the traditionalist notion with another that posited a new and unique American culture–still a monocultural vision–this time shaped by contributions from many ethnic, national, and religious groups. Alongside this cultural paradigm, others posited pluralism, which called for the recognition of the unique cultures of different groups who were to retain their distinctiveness in private while conforming to the prevailing (monocultural) norm in public.

…Regardless of its theoretical variants, the popular understanding of pluralism is perhaps best exemplified by World War II movies like Bataan, whose all-American fighting force included Jake Feinberg, Felix Ramirez, F. X. Matowski, Bill Dane, Jesus Katigbay, Wesley Epps, and Yankee Salazar.

Standing against this vision of the ideal society were nationalists: Zionists, followers of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, and others who objected to the assimilative nature of pluralism’s public life. Although most of these early groups insisted that their vision of an extranational homeland in which to nurture and sustain their distinctiveness did not contradict their commitment to American values, by the 1960s the separatist Black Power movement and others inspired by it repudiated the integrationist goal altogether. They argued that integration required cultural genocide and in any case was impossible to achieve given the impenetrable barriers of the American racial state. Thus was multiculturalism born. At its most basic level it was pluralism without the element of public conformity and without pluralism’s optimism of ultimate inclusion for all.

The fact that multiculturalism has been used to promote conflicting political agendas, however, should not prevent critical analysis of the more narrowly and explicitly defined anti pluralist theory that emerged as the most recent paradigm of social relations. What is Jews’ relationship to it and to previous paradigms? Because they had no place in the Anglo-conformist view, Jews themselves helped create and promote alternative theories that both recognized their differences from mainstream white American culture and valued their unique contribution to society. Thus it was Israel Zangwill who popularized the expression melting pot,” in his 1908 play by that name, and Horace Kallen who pioneered (with others) the concept of cultural pluralism. Both these schemes recognized Jews’ continued minority or outsider status, as indeed Jews themselves did. Both also redefined the notion of outsider from unwanted alien to valued societal contributor–part of the multi religious, multiethnic polyglot that shaped America. But multiculturalism, putting race first as it does, removes Jews from the outsider community they had helped to legitimize. Instead Jews have become Euro-Americans” with their cultures and contributions subsumed under that broad heading (and their victimization by other Europeans thereby effaced). Now outsiders are racial minorities: African American, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics (that last a problematic category in itself since it does not define a single ancestry group at all, but that discussion is best left for another time). And Jewish social scientists, who had tremendous control over the creation and shaping of pluralism, have far less power over multicultural theory to which they have come later and more hesitantly. Under multiculturalism, then, Jews are as left out as when assimilationists described their version of inside and outside.

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