My second-favorite joke about Jewish newspapers takes place in New York in the 1930s. Two Jews are sitting on a bench; Leo is reading the Yiddish paper, Morris is reading the Nazi tabloid Der Sturmer. Leo glares at his friend, asking, “How can you read that Nazi rag?” Unabashed, Morris asks, “What’s your Jewish newspaper reporting? In America, there is a depression going on and the Jews are assimilating. In Palestine, the Arabs are killing Jews. In Germany, they’ve taken away all our rights. You read it and just get more and more depressed.
“You know what the Nazi newspaper tells me? We own all the banks, we control all the governments….”
Happily, the Jewish news has gotten a little less depressing over the years. Sure, Israel is still in a bad neighborhood and assimilation is a problem. But papers like ours are just as likely to report on Israel’s rich culture and booming economy, the innovation and creativity at synagogues and Jewish organizations, and achievements by Jews in the arts, business, politics, and philanthropy.
If anything, some are starting to worry that the news is too good. Call it the Kaynahara Conundrum: By boasting about Jewish achievement, aren’t we inviting trouble?
That’s Jeffrey Goldberg’s contention. The influential Bloomberg News columnist wrote a piece last week imploring Jewish newspapers to stop making lists of the year’s most accomplished Jews. (Coincidentally, I also wrote about Jewish list-making last week, but made a different point. Unfortunately for me, Goldberg is the kind of writer who actually gets named to such lists, so his opinions count for a lot more….) Goldberg worries that such lists only reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish control.
“Why are these publications aping a practice of non-Jews — singling out Jews for their special prominence in society?” asks Goldberg. “The phenomenon of disproportionate Jewish representation in many high-profile fields (including, but not limited to, musical comedy, gastroenterology, the violin, physics, hedge funds, column-writing, and, in an earlier period, professional basketball), combined with ancient and deeply embedded anti-Semitic ideas that are still prevalent in some parts of the world, suggests that they should resist the urge to quantify ‘Jewish power.’”
Goldberg wasn’t the only columnist sweating the Kaynahara Conundrum. After hearing Joe Biden sing the praises of Jewish achievers at a Jewish Heritage Month event last week, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wondered if Biden wasn’t inadvertently helping the anti-Semites do their dirty work.
In truth, Biden’s remarks were a little over the top. “No group has had such an outsized influence per capita” as the Jews, said Biden. “You make up 11 percent of the seats in the United States Congress. You make up one-third of all Nobel laureates…. I think you vastly underestimate the impact you’ve had on the development of this nation.”
Um — thank you? As Biden went on to praise Jews for their support of social justice, civil rights, and gay marriage (which he credited, in part, to “immense” Jewish “influence” in Hollywood), some of his listeners may have recalled Tevye’s line from Fiddler: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
Chait wrote that Biden’s speech “is likely to be quoted by anti-Semites for years and decades to come,” adding that it had already gained traction on white supremacist websites. “Jews regard [their success] with a mixture of pride and neurosis,” wrote Chait. “The neurosis is a fear that our success will be seen as a kind of invidious control….”
Pride and Neurosis sounds like something Jane Austen would have written were she Jewish, or the editor of a Jewish newspaper. Among ourselves, we like to talk about Jewish accomplishment. But we also know that there are people who resent our good fortune and deserved success, or use it to confirm their own twisted prejudices.
But there’s a big difference between our enterprise and that of our enemies. When the Forward makes a list of “top Jews” the focus is inward — not “Look who’s running the world!” but rather “Look at the way Jewishness is being expressed in the marketplace of ideas and influence.” When we write about “influential” Jews, we’re talking about people who captured the Jewish imagination and the wider world’s attention in a distinctly Jewish way.
Likewise, when the Jewish media tally Jewish “power” we do it to describe something about what it means to be Jewish. An anti-Semite sees Sheldon Adelson as another cog in the Jewish conspiracy machine; a Jewish newspaper sees him as the embodiment of a number of converging trends: the rightward drift of pro-Israel politics, the ability to translate personal wealth into national influence, the relationship between a man’s philanthropic interests and his political activities. We’re not responsible for the anti-Semites’ reductionist worldview. And I don’t think anti-Semites rely on Jewish newspapers to fuel their hatred.
Take away our ability to talk about Jewish cultural, political, and economic impact, and what do we need a Jewish press for anyway?
Don’t answer that.