Not What Isaiah Had in Mind
At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews
By Alan Wolfe
Beacon Press, 2014
No recorded diaspora has been longer than that of the Jews. Consider the Elephantine papyri, uncovered some hundred years ago near Aswan in Upper Egypt. These included a cache of 5th Century BCE Aramaic documents produced by a community of exiled Judean who lived in Abu, a fortress town in upper Egypt. The documents opened a window into the past. They dealt with topics from the quotidian – contracts, property transfers, divorces – to the extraordinary. Several fragments were of correspondences between Jews of Abu and the reestablished Jewish commonwealth. In one, Hananiah, a leader in Judea, details Passover practice for Yedaniah, a leader in Abu. In another, Yedaniah pleads to the governor in Judea. Abu’s Jewish temple had been razed in a riot led by Egyptian priests. The diasporic community begs assistance so that they might rebuild their sanctuary.
The Elephantine papyri came to mind while reading Alan Wolfe’s, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews. It is worth recalling that the current Diaspora is not the Jews’ first. Even before the Roman Exile, Jewish communities thrived across the Mediterranean world. Far from passive, these disparate communities actively contributed to both Jewish and the broader Roman culture. Philo, the synthesizer of Torah and philosophy, was born in Alexandria, Egypt. The apostle Paul was a child of the Jewish community of Tarsus, a major trading city in what is now southern Turkey. Even the Talmud was codified not in Israel, but in Babylon. Diaspora can be dangerous, but it also fueled and fuels Jewish creativity; maintaining competing community centers only strengthened Judaism. The Second Exile reinforced this trend.
Wolfe has little interest in the Diaspora’s history. Instead he argues that the Diaspora (or at least some of it) is far better than most Jews think. Unfortunately, among a series of shortcomings, his book never answers the implied question of his subtitle: what exactly does it mean to be “good for the Jews”? Wolfe writes:
In the years after World War II, the most important development in the three-thousand year history of the Jewish people took place. I am not referring to Israel’s birth in 1948, significant as that event was. I mean instead that a vibrant, successful and above all else secure life has, for the first time ever, become possible in a state in which Jews are, and will always be, in the minority… That Jews can live among gentiles without living in fear is an epochal accomplishment…Most remarkable of all, it is rarely remarked [on].
“Ever,” of course, is an awfully strong word (to say nothing of the hyperbolic “most important…in three-thousand year history”). As this passage hints, Wolfe’s primary concern lies with the Western Diaspora, especially that of American Jews (Western Europe gets a chapter, but the rest of the world receives only fly-by consideration). Other Jewish communities that fared less well in the postwar period receive little to no attention. Nothing is said of the Iraqi community, midwives of the Talmud, long-established when Mohammed rode out of Arabia, now obliterated. Nor does Wolfe discuss Persian Jewry, a community which predates even the first exile, now a mere shadow. No, the rich diversity of the Jewish world is of little interest to Wolfe, save where he can find opportunities to scandalize. Nor is he much interested in Jewish history. Wolfe instead seeks to atomize Judaism into a facile duality. For Wolfe that which he approves of he labels “universalist” while what he finds questionable he declares to be “particularlist.”
It is often said that there exists within Judaism a tension between particularism and universalism…particularists believe that Jews should be primarily concerned with their own, while universalists insist that they are under special obligation to spread the light of reason to as many people as possible… Statehood promised a final solution to the Final Solution: now that they had achieved it, Jews would finally constitute a nation like the others, able to speak in its own name and defend its interests…Nor, despite a dynamic economy and numerous efforts at outreach, has it been able to appeal to all Jews: roughly half of world Jewry has made Aliyah [emigrated to Israel]…As it increasingly becomes clear that the Diaspora is not a disaster and that the security offered by statehood has proven to be precarious, the lost universalism that has so much a part of the Jewish tradition may well be prepared for a comeback.
What source makes Wolfe imagine Jews are under a “special obligation to spread the light of reason?” He never says. One imagines he is referring to Jews being a “light unto the nations.” Yet surely reason wasn’t what Isaiah had in mind. Instead he the prophet refers to the nations following the examples of the Jews “righteousness” and their embrace of monotheism. Nor is Wolfe’s lack of biblical literacy the only problem with the passage. Here, as he does elsewhere and frequently, Wolfe plays fast and loose with history and facts. It is simply wrong that half of world Jewry has made Aliyah. Yes, around half of world Jewry now lives in Israel (Just over 40%). That is not the same thing as claiming “half of world Jewry” immigrated to Israel. Israel’s rising percentage results more than anything from the American Jewish population either flattening or actually declining. That lack of growth in the American Jewish population is the result of assimilation. Is this an attempted sleight-of-hand by Wolfe to conceal something about the state of Diaspora Jewry or mere sloppiness? And in a book so awash in errors of basic history and fact, which would be worse?
Given his focus on actions considered particularist and universalist one might well wonder: which actions for Wolfe count as particularist? Which as universalist? Israel offering sanctuary to a diversity of Jews, Soviet, Ethiopian, and more recently Ukrainian is likely, for Wolfe, particularist. Israel is also at the forefront of medical and technological innovation: does being at the forefront of trying to cure Ebola count as universalist? What about Israel welcoming Vietnamese and Bosnian refugees? Or Israel sending first responders to Haiti after the earthquake and offering similar post-quake aid to Iran, a nation committed to its destruction? Nation-states, by their nature, are particularist institutions. The primary concern of each is its citizens (or should be). Yet, by any standard, Israel continues to demonstrate Jewish civilization’s “universalist” commitments. Wolfe charges again and again that the founding of Israel somehow smothered world Jewry’s universalist commitment. This claim, however, ignores the degree to which Israel has become a lens through which Jews throughout the world – whether though financial support or joint research or business assistance – often focuses their universalist imperative.
Those modern acts are less interesting to Wolfe than the idea that the enterprise of building a Jewish state must necessitate the destruction of the Diaspora Jewish community. While he is correct that this concept underlay the pre-state period of Zionism, it is certainly not a prevalent notion in the modern world. Besides, is it really surprising that thinkers like Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion, born under the Tsar, could easily imagine their fellow Jews taking flight en-mass? The Jews they imagined coming were departing not the Brooklyn, but Bialystock, not Maryland but Minsk. As fate would have it, most European Jews would not have the opportunity. The world that resulted, however, just isn’t that historically atypical. Two major centers competing for the status of most important Jewish cultural font. This competition is sometimes friendly, sometimes less so, as each criticizes and praises the other. And, as has likewise been historically the case, each exists in both a “universalist” and “particularlist” frame.
In Wolfe’s analysis, it is anti-Semitism pushed and continues to push Jews towards “particuarlism.” In the wake of the Holocaust, of course, this would hardly be surprising. It might even be considered simply human. However, he offers scant evidence that it continues to the present day. The possibility that the scars left by genocide might have inspired Jews to take such a strong part in justice movements like Civil Rights also receives only scant attention. Moreover, given the tendency of Jews to struggle in the universal realm of social justice, there is little evidence that Wolfe’s poles are in any way mutually exclusive. Yet Wolfe seeks evidence of a simple dichotomy. Unfortunately, in this search for evidence he commits factual errors too numerous to consider here. For example, he writes “…Maimonides thrived in medieval Spain,” medieval Spain being a Jewish community often held up, to use Wolfe’s description of the United States as for Jews, “vibrant, successful, and above all else secure.” Unfortunately, that was not the great rabbi’s experience. When the ascendant Almohad dynasty demanded that all non-Muslims choose between conversion and banishment, the adolescent Maimonides was forced to flee to Egypt. Perhaps Wolfe is simply unaware of Maimonides actual biography.
Another issue is Wolfe’s choice to never offer a clear definition of anti-Semitism. The closest he gets is quoting Karl Marx’s infamous description of LaSalle as a “Jewish nigger” (which, thankfully, he does recognize as anti-Semitism). Instead, in a section considering various self-described “anti-Israel Jews,” Wolfe offers up and shoots-down definitions of anti-Semitism used by others. In the end Wolfe defaults to the ultimate straw man, attacking the canard that someone, somewhere, claims that any criticism of Israel is definitionally anti-Semitic. As you will soon see Wolfe demonstrates extraordinary selectivity in quoting figures accused of letting their animus towards Israel tip over into anti-Semitism. Such cherry-picking gives his case studies a deceptive air of moderation. In doing so, it undermines Wolfe’s argument and smacks of intellectual dishonesty.
Consider the example of the journalist Philip Weiss, who runs a leading anti-Israel website. The best, tepid criticism Wolfe can muster against Weiss is that he has had “flirtation” with a figure that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as the “neo-Nazi’s favorite academic.” Even this Wolfe forgives, claiming that in his pursuit of universalism, Weiss has “…shown something of a blind spot towards unsavory figures.” Now consider Weiss’s own words, absent in Wolfe: “…over half the money given to the Democratic Party comes from Jews. Obama’s top two political advisers are Jewish, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. The news lately has been dominated by Obama aides Kenneth Feinberg and Larry Summers. And what does it mean that the Treasury Secrt’y gets off the phone with Obama to confer immediately with Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman and Jamie Dimon of Morgan (Dimon’s Jewish; Blankfein would seem to be)?”
And there you have it. Since poll after poll shows a majority of American citizens support Israel, something nefarious must be at work. All that is missing is the graveyard venue. Weiss seeks shelter beneath the weak shield of posing his conspiracy theory as a question (“what does it mean…?”), but that hardly reduces the obvious implication. One can further point to Weiss’s penchant for maintaining lists of Jewish journalists as evidence for his claims. As it happens, Weiss has long exhibited a fetish for conspiracy theories (he spent much the 90s claiming that dark forces lay behind Vince Foster’s tragic suicide. Were those dark forces Jewish?). Certainly Wolfe is correct that the Diaspora is for Jews a place of intellectual and spiritual vitality. Yet n failing to discuss – and perhaps even hiding – the full breath of thinkers like Weiss, he betrays the weakness of the other half of his thesis: that the Diaspora is truly safe.
In his effort to prove his thesis that stateless Jews in the Diaspora serve the “universalist” – as opposed to those “particularlist” Jew struggling and eventually succeeding to reestablish a homeland – Wolfe reaches back to the great German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. At first blush, this seems an obvious choice: Mendelssohn, the autodidactic German Jewish philosopher and critic was the founder of the 18th Century Jewish Enlightenment movement. Mendelssohn likewise urged Jews to shed the insular aspects of Jewish life in favor of full participation in Jewish society. Moreover, given Wolfe’s discomfort with Jewish orthodoxy, it is only natural that he should reach back to the intellectual godfather of the Reform Movement. Yet, as elsewhere, Wolfe’s discussion betrays a shallow understanding of the topic. For example, it is a far stretch to claim that Mendelssohn “paved the way for separation of church and state, religious toleration, the idea that the rights of Jews were best protected where the rights of all were most honored.” Our understanding of separation of church and state traces back at least to Locke and is most indebted to Montesquieu discussions written years before Mendelssohn birth.
Yet putting aside such errors, Mendelssohn and the Reform movement were also not quite the “universalist” that Wolfe chooses to conjure; yes, they did shed parts of Judaism to engage in the broader culture, but they saw this very much as an effort to engage German culture. “Germans of the Mosaic Faith,” as they called themselves, were less concerned with establishing universal justice as they were in integrating themselves in the majoritarian German culture. Indeed, it was not long before jokes began that their real effort was to prove themselves more German than any other German. Wolfe obviously perceives no relationship between these efforts and German Jewry’s final fate. Whether because of ignorance or lack of interest, he does not consider the rising tide of anti-semitism that rose concurrently with Jewish integration in German life and the birth of the unified German state, typified famously in the writings of Richard Wagner. That these sentiments ran from German nationalists on the Right to Marx on the Left, speaks volumes. Yet perhaps the most stinging of indictment of Mendelssohn’s thought comes not from the response of Germans or not what the future held for the descendants of his fellow German Jews; of his six children, five converted to Christianity. By the rise of Nazism, none of his descendants would count themselves as Jews. At least for his family’s Jewish identity, the path Mendelssohn chose proved self-annihilating.
Nowhere do Wolfe’s arguments go so far off the rails as when he wishes to claim that American Jews do not appreciate their unparalleled freedom and opportunity. Wolfe writes, “…Jews seem lacking in the confidence that would enable them to become a little more appreciative of just how securely this one part of the Diaspora has offered them a home.” A provocative statement to be sure. As a social scientist, one might expect Wolfe to evidence his claim with polling data on the opinions of American Jews. No such luck. Indeed, he offers no empirical evidence. He might have sought support in quotes by Jewish community leaders and intellectuals but presents none. Another option would have been to look to the practice of temples and synagogues (though in my experience this would have gone against his claim, American Jewish institutions being in fact effusive in their patriotism)
Instead, Wolfe offers a rather tortured case study of Yale University’s ending its long standing policies of excluding Jews. To be sure, the end of restrictive quotas by elite universities has been a great advance for Jews, (and, of course, other minority groups). Why did Yale choose to open its doors? Most likely it resulted from the broad shift towards a more meritocratic admissions system that ran across the previously insular world of elite American higher education; Yale (or any Ivy) that failed to keep pace would surely have been reduced to little more than a second rate social club. Wolfe, another narrative in mind, gives this obvious motivation only passing consideration. They were, for Wolfe, motivated by “justice.”
The seeker of justice on whom Wolfe focuses is R. Inslee “Inky” Clark, Yale’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions. To increase the pool of Jewish and ethnic applicants, Clark began bypassing elite prep-schools in favor of urban public schools that attracted elite children of immigrants, like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. After Clark left Yale in 1971, he became Head Master of the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, a wealthy Bronx enclave. When Clark spotted Amos Kamil, a poor Israeli kid, pitching a baseball game, he recruited Kamil to Horace Mann and paid for his scholarship. Decades later, Kamil wrote a New York Times Magazine article exposing Horace Mann’s terrible secret: during Clark’s tenure, a cabal of teachers had sexually preyed on students. Clark certainly oversaw the cover-up. Worse still, legal filings implicate him as an abuser.
For Wolfe, Kamil’s brave decision to reveal this abuse and make healing possible was neither brave nor universalist. It was instead churlish. “Far from showing gratitude, at least one Jew [Kamil] who was the recipient of Inky Clark largesse turned to accusations… [even though Clark] thought they [people like Kamil] deserved the chance to have opportunities once denied their parents and grandparents.” It is worth mentioning that Horace Mann’s current leadership saw fit to rename the athletic field formerly dedicated in Clark’s honor. Perhaps Wolfe imagines that, like Kamil, they just failed to appreciate Clark’s less predatory qualities.
In the end, this book suffers more than anything from the superficiality of Wolfe’s knowledge of Jewish history and Judaism. His errors – factual, historical, even statistical – abound. Even where he correctly invokes Judaism, it serves only to support his preconceived world view. What he likes, he labels “universalist.” What he finds troubling, he declares “particularist” (bad). The tradition’s beauty, however, is not in either extreme but in the tension between. One of the greatest Jewish sages, Hillel – born ironically in the Second Temple period Diaspora – summed up Jewish ethics in an aphorism so famous as to be almost cliche: “If I am not for myself, than who will be for me? But if I am only for myself alone, what manner of person am I? And if not now, when?” In that three-sentence distillation, Hillel offers the ultimate retort to the notion that particularlism and universalism cannot cohabitate in the same heart. Those three sentences refute the argument Wolfe strains to build in more than two-hundred pages. Besides, once one strips away all the errors and generalities, little of those pages remain.
A very old joke comes to mind. When traveling through Czechoslovakia between the wars one encountered three sorts of people. Most were Czechs. Fewer were the Slovaks. By far the smallest group were those who declared themselves “Czechoslovaks,” every one a Prague Jew. Now Czechoslovakia has been dissolved and its Jews are spread onto the wind. Theirs was a peculiar sort of universalism, a powerless people struggling for identity in a hostile world. I suspect most Jews prefer their current, far less beleaguered, communities. In the Diaspora, its members marched with King and march still for social justice. In Israel, they send aid to the downtrodden and strive to cure disease and lessen hunger. Of course, I have no hard data to prove that most Jews share my preference. And unlike Wolfe, I am willing to admit this shortcoming in my assumptions.
Jordan Magill is a freelance writer. His other review for Open Letters Monthly can be found here.