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Observing America's Jews (Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life)

jan peczkis|Sunday, April 20, 2014

Author Marshall Sklare was a Jewish American sociologist who had studied America's Jews. [Review based on 1993 edition]. He was eminently qualified to speak on this subject. A number of coauthors had joined him. Most of the themes of this book are familiar: Jewish self-identity, Jewish mobility, intermarriage with non-Jews, Jewish support for Israel, Jewish philanthropy, Jewish conversions and resistance to them, etc. There is relatively little on the role of the Shoah in the self-identity of American Jews.


This book also has little-known information, including the fact that there were quotas limiting the number of Jews at American universities, until well after WWII. (p. 270). (Obviously, the numerus clausus, though often presented as such, was not only in effect in pre-WWII Poland!)


Jews are generally a very secular people. (e. g, p. 31). Sklare briefly traces the history of Jewish secularism, inadvertently validating Polish Cardinal Hlond's much-condemned 1936 Jews-as-freethinkers statement. He writes, (quote) A substantial segment of those who arrived in the United States during the great wave of East European immigration were at best nominally Orthodox. They had already felt the impact of secularization before they left Europe and the process gained considerable momentum in the United States. (unquote). (p. 37).

Even Jewish religious observances, when practiced, have become subject to atheization. Consider Hanukkah and Passover. Sklare comments, (quote) However, the miraculous elements inherent in both holidays are capable of redefinition: both holidays are interpreted to symbolize man's unquestionable desire for freedom. The focus is no longer on God's benevolence but on the struggle of the ancient Jewish people and their heroic leaders to overcome slavery in the case of Passover and religious intolerance in the case of Hanukkah. (unquote). (p. 40).


The question of Jewish elitism is usually framed in terms of a correct or incorrect understanding of the Jewish religion (notably the Talmud), to Jews protecting their identity in times of persecutions and pogroms, and the like. However, Sklare expounds on the fact that Jewish elitism, notably among American Jews, goes far beyond these considerations. He comments, (quote) Although very little is said about it publicly, it is apparent that not only is there the feeling that Jewish culture is suprasocial but many Jews, including those quite secular in orientation, believe that Judaism is superior to Christianity. The point, which has been made publicly in literally thousands of sermons and speeches before Jewish audiences, is that Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism. Listeners do not take this statement as a simple historical judgment. Rather they take it to mean that Christianity "needed" Judaism--that Christianity could not establish itself without extensive borrowing from a superior religion--Judaism. And the view of Christianity held by many Jews is that Christianity did not gain the upper hand because it was superior to Judaism. Rather, it "won" because it was inferior--because it was imposed by officials of the state, because it appealed to a large mass of gullible individuals who were receptive to the miracles that it promulgated, and more especially to the belief in the divinity of a Jew named Jesus. Christians can therefore be viewed as intellectually naïve, religiously unsophisticated, and as adhering to a religion geared to the masses. All of this is seen in contrast to Judaism, which stresses demanding ritualism and high standards of learning. (unquote). (p. 32).

Author Marshall Sklare also sees a form of Jewish elitism originating from Jewish achievements, and implicitly rejects the argument that Jewish resistance to assimilation had been driven primarily by the hostility of non-Jews to Jews. He writes, (quote) Eliteness is rarely discussed publicly because of the fear that it will be resented by Gentiles and boomerang against Jews. But it is constantly present and constantly reinforced. Thus the awarding of the Nobel Prizes in 1976 served to underline in Jewish minds that the eliteness of the Jews still persists. As a consequence, if you assimilate you enter into a group that is not superior to the Jewish group. On the contrary, the belief is that the Gentiles are inferior. Is it the Jews or the Gentiles who produced the three titans of the modern age: Freud, Einstein, and Marx? (unquote). (p. 32).

Finally, Sklare sees a form of Jewish elitism coming into existence among the many Jews in high positions. He comments, (quote) Jewish eliteness has a variety of implications. It means that as high as one may climb in the class or status structure of the nation, there are enough Jews of similar accomplishment with whom to form a clique. However high one's brow level, there are enough Jews to interact with. Finally, being Jewish is taken to mean that one automatically becomes a member of the elite by virtue of being born Jewish. (unquote). (p. 32).


Poles have long been mystified by the bottomless Jewish attacks on Poland, the refusal of Jews to come to terms with their share of responsibility for past Polish anti-Semitism, and the greater anger of Jews directed at Poles than against the Germans (who, after all, rather than amorphous Nazis, had been the ones who had murdered the 5-6 million Jews). Without mentioning the foregoing themes, author Marshall Sklare identifies the underlying cause. It all boils down to the Jewish elitism. He comments, (quote) These points about Jewish eliteness become quite apparent if we take the example of the Poles and the current rash of Polish jokes that has infested the nation. The Polish joke is based upon the fact that the Pole is inferior, is at the bottom of the heap, and belongs to a group that is the very antithesis of an elite group. From this perspective, the Pole who has attained elite status is conflicted about his identity. Even if he accepts his identity as a Pole, he suffers under the burden of being an exception. He has achieved elite status despite the inferiority of this group. Jews experience something quite different--namely, the feeling that one may have achieved eliteness precisely because of one's Jewishness. (unquote). (pp. 32-33).

The dynamics are very clear. For more on Poles in the role of the antithesis of the elite, please click on Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture (Jews of Poland), and read the detailed Peczkis review.

Let us briefly focus on successful Poles and their self-denigrating role. From Sklare's quoted comment above, it is not surprising that the prominent Pole, conflicted about his identity, and wanting to be liked by the elite, commonly sides with those who demean Polish patriotic and religious traditions (e. g, the demonization of RADIO MARYJA). In particular, the successful Pole in Jewish-dominated fields, such as media and academia, frequently repeats the standard Holocaust-related attacks on Poland [witness, for instance, the LEWAK (Polish leftist), the KATOLEWICA (Catholic left), and the neo-Stalinist (e. g, Jan T. Gross)]. For more on this creole mentality among successful Poles, please read the first Comment.
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