Trying to explain a complicated formation, my high school soccer coach once told my teammates, “Ask one of the Jewish guys. They’ll know what I’m talking about.”
There tend to be two ways to react to such a statement: Thank him for the vote of confidence, or call the Anti-Defamation League.
Did I mention my coach wasn’t Jewish? He wasn’t a bigot either, just a product of an era when you could casually stereotype students by race and religion without losing your tenure. Besides, isn’t it a compliment to say Jews are brainy?
Nevertheless, I can never work out how I feel about stereotypes. Unlike my coach, I grew up in a “Free to Be You and Me” era when individuality was celebrated and talk of religious or ethnic “traits” frowned upon. Archie Bunker was supposed to be funny because he hadn’t yet learned that you don’t refer to “Jew lawyers” or “dumb Polacks.” In 1973 National Lampoon published a famous —– and famously hilarious — issue devoted to nothing but ethnic jokes. We junior high schoolers knew it was subversive because those very jokes had fallen so far out of official favor.
And that’s where my ambivalence sneaks in. Humor (the good kind, anyway) depends on certain gross generalizations — about women, men, dogs, those crazy airports. But it works the other way, too — good comedians remind you of the things various people or phenomena have in common. They make you see patterns. In fact, most men do hate asking for directions. Most women do want to talk about their feelings. Don’t blame the messenger.
And Jews? Let’s just say a lot of us would fall comfortably under the heading “neurotic.” I know more than a few who have, well, complicated relationships with their mothers. And very few of us hunt. Very few.
The problem, of course, is that as soon as you acknowledge a group’s positive or even benign traits, you open the door for less savory associations. If it is okay to say Jews value education, why can’t you also say that they drive a hard bargain? As Lawrence Grossman points out in a review of a new book about philo-Semitism, admiration of the Jews by, for example, Christian Zionists is “likely to be seen by the contemporary reader as highly attenuated and, at times, not that far from anti-Semitism.”
Consider, for example, the popularity in China of a book called The Jews — Why Are They Rich? Not to worry, Ronen Medzini reports in Ynet: “While in many parts of the world the Jews’ businesses and dominance are viewed with a feeling of disgust, the Chinese have developed great admiration, even idolization, for the Jewish mind.”
Jews also indulge in a kind of self-adulation that borders on — or at least invites — bigotry. Last year, Victor Navasky, the longtime editor of The Nation, wrote a piece for Tablet about the Jewish contribution to the magazine industry, making the debatable claim that Jews were largely responsible for the “golden age” of the American magazine.
And then he indulges — via Irving Kristol — in a little pop historical conjecture on why that might be so. “A lot of New York intellectuals”— i.e., Jews — “have roots in Eastern Europe, where, unlike in England or France, there was no tradition of civility,” Navasky quotes Kristol as saying. “In England or France, you operated within a framework of existing institutions. In Eastern Europe, we wanted to change existing institutions, to improve them. The Cossack was the existing institution, so ideas were more important than institutions. That is why if you disagree with someone, you stop talking to him and start your own magazine.”
Is there any truth to this? I’m no historian of the magazine business, but it sounds a little, well, convenient. I find that whenever an ethnic group excels at something, it’s pretty easy to concoct an origins story. Here, I’ll try, based on no research whatsoever: “Indian-Americans are disproportionately represented in the motel trade because, back in their home country, hospitality was central to their culture. Greeting travelers and giving them a place to stay is deeply ingrained in Hindu culture.”
Pretty good, right? Am I close?
The problem with this kind of casual ethnography is that weak arguments explaining an ethnic group’s good points implicitly condone weak arguments explaining their negative traits. There’s no difference between Navasky explaining why Jews are poised to revolutionize the magazine industry and an anti-Semite explaining why Jews are poised to destroy the banking system.
That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the role of ethnicity in certain niche industries — Jews are indeed disproportionately represented in publishing and academia, just as Dominicans are disproportionately represented in the Major Leagues. But to discuss this without sounding like a bigot or your grandmother, you need to use a little be rigorous in your arguments. The example I always cite is Neil Gabler’s great book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. Gabler carefully laid out the economic, sociological, and serendipitous reasons that the movies became a “Jewish” business.
Without that kind of careful research, you give license to the nudniks who chalk it all up to some sort of Zionist conspiracy.