American Jews Are Double Agents: Deal With It
By David Samuels
Published on the Jewcy website, May 21, 2008
To: Shmuel Rosner
From: David Samuels
Oh, come off it, Shmuel.
You don't think American Jews are a tiny little itty-bitty bit weird? You think that Israeli Jews are a proud, normal, happy, contradiction-free people inhabiting our ancestral Jewish homeland of Israel-Yesha-Palestine-Hamasland? The Israeli religious establishment isn't corrupt, isn't an arm of the state, and doesn't decide who can get married, buried, or divorced based on its medieval definition of Judaism? Iran doesn't pose an existential threat to Israel? Gee, sign me up for whatever planet it is that you are living on.
I thought Ha'aretz correspondents spent their time moaning about the evils of checkpoints and Occupation, urging the government to negotiate with Hamas, covering up the corruption of Israel's Prime Ministers, and sucking up to Norwegian diplomats. And here you are, telling me that everything is perfect.
While I plead guilty to provoking you for the sake of argument, you are guilty of the greater sins of silly logic-chopping and arguing in bad faith. You turn my musings about existential conflicts and contradictions between the American and Jewish identities into "allegations" that "Jews are liars" and then say that such statements are "dangerous" and that "words can be weapons" while proclaiming yourself to be an "adult" and calling me a "rebellious child."
So please believe me when I assure you that the goyim in the FBI are too busy worrying about Barack Obama and John McCain and the price of gas right now to revoke your visa or put me in prison for speculating about the deeper implications of the fact that thinking American and thinking Jewish are not always and exactly the same thing. No one cares besides us Jews and the 15-20% of the population who are already confirmed antisemites. In fact, no one is reading this dialogue on Jewcy besides you, me and my mother, a beautiful and highly intelligent lady who doesn't like it when you call me a Nazi.
Now doesn't this look a tiny little itty-bitty bit weird?
So why not be honest, Shmuel: You know that what I am saying about the creative tension and lack of total congruence between Americanism and Judaism is true. You would just rather that I didn't say it. In fact, you think that I am an idiot for saying things that could "ruin" America for the nice Jews who are all exactly like their neighbors despite the fact that they hurry their children past Christmas trees (guilty!) and celebrate New Year's in September, (guilty!) and pray in synagogue for Ehud Olmert and the IDF (guilty!) --- the same way that Italian Catholics pray for the health of Silvio Berlusconi and the carabinieri in Milan (not).
I speak Hebrew and go to shul every Shabbat, so enough with the personal slurs and the self-righteous propaganda, please.
What do you imagine might be the results of further public discussion of the weirdness of American Jewry? Pogroms? Show trials for Elliott Abrams and Norman Podhoretz? A ban on playing "We're an American Band" at Bat Mitzvah parties? Luckily for us, the real America is a pretty tolerant place that long ago embraced the real world knowledge that blacks, Jews, gays, Hispanics, woman --- nearly everybody, except White Protestant Males, as far as I can figure out --- think about the world in ways that run counter in small and big ways to more commonly accepted American narratives, with blacks and Jews being the most visible and influential counter-narrativists.
I think that discussing the often productive and creative tension between American and Jewish identity is important for the present and future of the Jews who choose to live here. What I said was:If Americans are self-made people who embrace an imagined future in order to escape the burdens of the past, American Jews seek to have their cake and eat it too by embracing the future-oriented American idea without relinquishing their historically bound identity as Jews. While I don't think that the American and the Jewish identity principles are always necessarily opposed, I do think that keeping both ideas in one's head at one time can be the source of a tremendous amount of creative tension.
I am not saying that "Jews are liars" (or traitors) but that there is an inherent and often productive contradiction between the life-shaping stories that "normal" American Christians and American Jews tell each other about where they come from and where they are going. As a writer, I believe that people live through stories that are handed down through the ages by parents and grandparents and that we pass on in turn to our children.
Americans believe, very deeply, in the value and necessity of abolishing the past and living in the future. Americans believe that each individual has the capacity for finding God's grace within him or herself, and can only find it by being born again --- independent of family history and ties. While you don't have to be a Christian to accept historically peculiar American ideas about the individual, the past and the future, it is hard to ignore the fact that these ideas are Christian in their history and, I would argue, in their essence.
The stories Jews tell ourselves are different. We tell ourselves stories about our unbroken connection to a common set of tribal ancestors to whom all Jews are connected by blood. We tell ourselves about the unbroken chain of interpretation that connects today's Torah sages to the medieval commentators to the sages of the Gemarra and Mishna to the revelation given to Moses on Har Sinai. We tell ourselves stories about our survival as a people through thousands of years of exile and persecution in which we still claim to be able to see the hand of God.
As a Jew who was educated in religious schools until I was 18 years old, and who travels often to Israel to do reporting and blah blah blah, I have a pretty good grasp of what our common Jewish narratives are supposed to be. I also believe that the stories that American Jews tell themselves fuse elements of American narratives and traditional European Jewish narratives together in ways that don't always make sense.
Now for the question of deception. Let's look at what I actually wrote:It is also inherently deceptive, in the sense that one is quite often signaling to others that one has agreed to dissolve one's particular heritage and historically bound point of view into a common Christian-inflected, highly individualistic and alienating, yet incredibly productive future-oriented social whole that most American Jews view with a high degree of distance and skepticism.
This part of what I wrote is more controversial, even if I don't state (or believe) that "Jews are liars," to quote your phrase. There is an added complication in the way that Jewish narratives contradict mainstream American narratives: Jews can pass for "normal" Americans today in a way that most blacks or Hispanics can't. And yet the personal, internal, mental act of identifying ourselves as Jews necessarily commits us to some version of a story about Jewish specificity and difference that in turn contradicts some fundamental aspects of the larger story that unites most other Americans.
I am not saying any of the things that your very literal-minded way of reading is forcing on our patient readers. I don't believe that American Jews are likely to spy for Israel, or that being Shomer Shabbat is un-American. I don't believe that the way Jews understand ourselves and our relation to society is a superficial question of customs and manners (although manners too can be important).
I am talking about something deeper. The ways that Jews see the individual and his or her place in the world contradicts core American beliefs about abolishing the past, living in the future, and making yourself up from scratch. Sometimes we acknowledge this contradiction to ourselves, and sometimes we pretend that we think and see the world the same way as everyone else. Sometimes we acknowledge our difference to ourselves and to our friends but not to our Christian neighbors. We are double agents. That's what it means to be a Jew in America.
As an American Jew, you can chose to make sense of the inherent contradictions of our existence in a creative way, which is what I try to do in my own life. Or you can simply live your live as a Jew who randomly happens to reside in America as opposed to Israel or France, like the ultra-orthodox do. Or you can embrace mainstream American notions of personal identity and cease being Jewish in any meaningful way. Finally, one can gratefully acknowledge the contributions of one's long-ago Jewish ancestors (see: John Kerry, William Cohen, Madeleine Albright, etc.).
You are way too eager to overstate the case that superficial cultural blending is somehow essentially "American" and that therefore no contradictions between being a Jew and being an American can possibly exist. That's a silly, ahistorical argument. American history is not Jewish history. You can understand your life according to one narrative, or the other narrative, and sometimes according to both at the same time; but they are two different stories.
Perhaps the one-dimensional version of American Jewish life that you offer is intended to make you sympathetic to your English-speaking audience while concealing your actual, more nuanced and interesting views of the relative weirdness of Jewish life in Israel and America.
It is also possible to understand your arguments here as a symptom of a larger American disease. Not the repugnant suggestion that Jews in the state of "exile" are diseased --- an idea that was and is part of the foundational myth of Zionism, and which has little to do with the history of the Jews in America. What is most American about your argument is the fact that you are lying to yourself and to others by reasoning backwards from what "should be true" --- for pragmatic reasons --- to what is true.
I admit to using techniques of misdirection and deception in my writing in order to bring readers closer to a more nuanced perception of some fraction of reality. Your behavior in this argument is no more or less calculated than mine. The difference between us is that you expect to be taken at your word --- and when your convenient version of "reality" is challenged or questioned you get angry and call people names. If that's what you mean by "adult" behavior, don't blame mean-hearted skeptics like me when your kids turn out to be rebellious.
Israel Is The Largest Jewish Ghetto In History
By David Samuels
Published on the Jewcy website, May 15, 2008
To: Shmuel Rosner
From: David Samuels
You are right to say that we do different kinds of work. You are a reporter with a gift for simplifying Israeli politics and Jewish institutional wrangling in a way that makes outsiders like me feel like we are informed about an exotic world that we actually know very little about. My purpose is to captivate readers into leaving the orderly and reasonable-seeming place that you inhabit when you sit down at your keyboard for the wilder pastures of reality. I take the same facts you have available to you, filter them through my subjective consciousness, and create a universe whose particular combination of familiarity and strangeness causes readers to get The New York Times and Shmuel Rosner out of their heads and see the world with fresh eyes.
So yes, when you seem unsettled by the idea that life is full of paradox and contradiction, I feel like I am doing my job --- though I also wonder why you have chosen to devote your particular gifts to thinking about literature. The demand that people "mean what they say and say what they mean" is futile in everyday life, and simply nonsensical when applied to literary work. If you think my mildly personal and contradictory brand of journalism is troubling and frustrating, just wait till you clap eyes on Kafka and Babel, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, or any of the other major or minor literary masters whose habit of forceful contradiction defines 20th century Jewish writing everywhere except perhaps in the Hebrew language --- and even there.
American Jews: Freaks even by their own standards
Now that I've complemented your very real talents while mocking your naÃ¯ve and uneducated approach to literature, let's get down to the thread of my response that worries you the most, namely the idea that American Jews may not be exactly like other Americans.
I am sure that you have met plenty of patriotic, God-fearing Jews in Potomac, Maryland who say hamotzi every Shabbat under a Norman Rockwell portrait of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. But please believe me when I tell you that these people are freaks even by their own standards. If these people are really so uber-American, why do they pray every Sabbath for the welfare of a foreign government and its leaders, and the soldiers who defend its borders? Why do they celebrate the Independence Day of a small country in the Middle East? Why do they celebrate the new year in September instead of in January? Why do they insist on converting their goyish wives or children's children to their religion instead of simply letting them chose to be whoever they want to be? I'm telling you, Shmuel: by American standards, American Jews are pretty weird people.
But a more germane question may be why even such a mild assertion of the fact that American Jews are not exactly like all other Americans makes you so nutty. You say that my rather benign allusion to the double-ness of American Jewish identity is "a serious charge, with potentially grave consequences." I assure you that the Cheka or the FBI will not come knocking on my door --- even in this age of AIPAC prosecutions, and with Jonathan Pollard still behind bars.
I believe that American Jews are different, in the same way that blacks are different. Jews and blacks are both guilty of embracing an alternative historical narrative that at times trumps the mainstream narratives commonly accepted by our fellow citizens. I am not "ruining" anything for my fellow Jews in America by speaking the truth about the fact that we live as Americans even as we also live sometimes contradictory lives as Jews. Telling the truth is part of how I see my job as a writer, even if I choose to speak in opposites and misdirection some of the time.
One reason you may be such a timid mouse when it comes to discussing these subjects is that the word "double" suggests "double agents." To clarify this point, I want to state clearly that I do see American Jews as double agents in American society. I think both Judaism and America have been greatly enriched by the creative tension produced by trying to live two very different narratives at the same time.
Look at the history of progressive political movements in America in the 20th century, and lo and behold, you find Jews. Look at the history of anti-Communism in America, and lo and behold, you find Jews. You find Jews on the front lines of aesthetics and commerce, and for the same reasons, namely, that we don't see things exactly the same way that lots of our fellow citizens do. The struggle of American Jews to be both American and Jewish, and to bring two sometimes conflicting kinds of narrative consciousness to bear on the society in which they live, has had such an outsized effect on American life over the past century in part because many of the best minds of the Jewish people emigrated here. There is also the fact that the country was founded by a group of uniquely philo-semitic Protestant dissenters for whom "Jewish" ways of thinking and acting were more congenial than they were to the Catholic regents of France or Spain.
The other reason this conversation scares you is that you are an Israeli, meaning that you are a product of a 19th century ideology that believes that blood, soil and language must be united in order to form a healthy, unified self. It is no secret that Theodore Herzl and his fellow Zionist ideologues were heirs to many of the antisemitic stereotypes of the 19th century European nationalists they sought to imitate.
Israelis can't help but believe that the doubleness of the Jew in exile is a diseased condition that needs to be healed, and that the mark of being a healthy Jew is to be a member of a free nation living in its own land. That's why Israelis have such trouble understanding what it has historically meant to be a Jew in all other times and places --- and what it means to be Jew today for those of us who are not Israelis. The irony of course is that the Jews of Israel are in many ways the ones who are stuck in the past: You live in the largest Jewish ghetto in history, under threat of nuclear catastrophe, and under the thumb of a corrupt ultra-orthodox religious establishment whose definition of Judaism is quite literally medieval.
While I am a strong political supporter of the State of Israel, I don't see Israel as the necessary solution to the historical condition of the Jewish people, just as I do not necessarily believe that American Jews will always be at home in America. Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that I believe that the Jewish condition is, in its essence, contradictory. I am Jewish, not because I think things are rosy, but because I chose to be Jewish, because I feel lucky to carry the historical weight of 3500 years of contradiction and argument and exile, and because there is something irreducibly slippery and human and contemporary about having to be two or more things at the same time.
Addendum by Radio Islam:
In the earlier article in Jewcy, published May 12, 2008, that is referred to above, David Samuels also wrote the following (here a longer excerpt from his article "Meritocracy And Other Fairy Tales" is quoted):
I think that the themes of double-ness, lying and imposture have a special significance for me as an American Jewish writer. If Americans are self-made people who embrace an imagined future in order to escape the burdens of the past, American Jews seek to have their cake and eat it too by embracing the future-oriented American idea without relinquishing their historically bound identity as Jews. While I don't think that the American and the Jewish identity principles are always necessarily opposed, I do think that keeping both ideas in one's head at one time can be the source of a tremendous amount of creative tension.
It is also inherently deceptive, in the sense that one is quite often signaling to others that one has agreed to dissolve one's particular heritage and historically bound point of view into a common Christian-inflected, highly individualistic and alienating, yet incredibly productive future-oriented social whole that most American Jews view with a high degree of distance and skepticism. The only real parallel for the ungracious refusal of large numbers of American Jews to buy into the full weirdness and wonder and scariness of the American idea is the experience and behavior of blacks --- whose situation is radically different because of the overt and inescapable historically-bound prejudice directed at the color of their skin. Blacks can't dissolve themselves in the American melting pot, and so they often see the American idea as a open lie at the same time as they taste its sweet honey.
Jews have many more opportunities to lie to themselves and to others about the degree of distance they feel from mainstream American narratives that do not include them. But the distance is still there, in the minds of Jews and in the minds of those who are aware of how Jews relate to the society around them - some of whom are friendly to us, and increasing numbers of whom see Jews - in some religio-political-national formation - to be aliens or enemies. The secret inner man of questionable moral convictions who animates my work is the Jew who presents himself to the world as an American.