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Saturday, March 08, 2003
 
Are you talking to me?

Something struck me, hard, in Bill Keller's column in today's New York Times, namely the title. "Is It Good for the Jews?"

What's wrong with it? Before I had a clear idea myself, I googled the phrase and found it to be more than merely the "staple of Jewish satire" that Keller asserts. It's often posed by Jews as a serious question, one that, given their history, is as often as not, deadly serious.

I couldn't help remembering the firestorm that resulted from H. Ross Perot's 1992 Nashville speech to the NAACP in which he referred to blacks as "you people." To me, it amounts to the same thing as "the Jews," the belief that they are, to the person, fundamentally different from the rest of us, and can be addressed collectively, based on the shared possession of one fundamental difference.

You don't find anyone in public life referring to "the Catholics," "the Hispanics," "the Irish," or even "the Republicans." To do so would be creeping bigotry; it would deny their humanity as individuals. Why is it ok for people, and especially for Jews themselves, to use this collective reference?

Perhaps there are Zionists for whom the use of the collective reference advances their agandas. It's also likely there are Jews who have absorbed into their religio-racial identities the prejudices and misconceptions arising from centuries of living among Europeans for whom they were Other. Possibly (and I do not advance this hypothesis), the idea is the consequence of seeing Jews, qua Jews, as God's Chosen People.

I grew up the son of a father of Jewish descent and a Catholic mother in a very un-Jewish part of the country, and neither believed in, or practiced Judiasm. But I was continually subjected to the assumptions of the people around me, children and adults alike, of "what Jewish people were like," what their sensitivities were, what their beliefs were, etc. Despite the fact that I wasn't actually Jewish, I didn't have the freedom to be an individual in many others' eyes, in any of these senses. I was a Jew before I was a person. The irony was deafening.

It was just this misapprehension about the special identity status of Jews that undergirded the justifications of the Inquisition, the pogroms, and, Godwin's Law be damned, the Holocaust. The current, widely-circulated theses that the interests of Jews and Israel, or those of Israel and the Likudniks, are identical, that give us the lovely formulation that it's anti-semitic to oppose Sharon's policies (UGH!), share the same logic.