Andrew Silow-Carroll | JTA
The history of Jewish identity and politics in America has been told as a triumph of spiritual renewal (“A Certain People,” Charles Silberman, 1986), as an overdue flexing of political muscle (“Jewish Power,” J.J. Goldberg, 1996) and as a series of clashes between denominations and world views (“Jew vs. Jew,” Samuel Freedman, 2006).
Emily Tamkin takes a different tack, tracing the history of American Jewry through the ways Jews on one side of social upheaval seek to discredit the very Jewishness of those on the other side. In “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities,” Tamkin writes about key moments in American and American Jewish history — the Cold War, the civil-rights movement, the rise and fall of the labor movement, the internal debate over Israel. Jews didn’t just disagree with one another during these debates, but charged that their Jewish antagonists were “self-hating,” “kapos,” “radicals” and “antisemites” — in short, bad Jews.
But her goal, writes Tamkin, is not to reveal Jews as hopelessly divided or judge who is and isn’t a “good Jew,” but rather to describe how these debates are part of a constant conversation about “who is Jewish, how to be Jewish and what it means to be Jewish.”
In fact, Tamkin, 32, calls “Bad Jews” a “love letter to Jewish pluralism,” celebrating the many ways Jews have come to define themselves, as well as a corrective to historians, journalists and politicians who treat Jews as a social and political monolith despite their diversity.
- In 2002, New York Times columnist William Safire urged Jewish Democrats to put their domestic agenda aside to vote for Republicans he felt had a better record on Israel.
- In 2008, neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz lamented that liberalism had “superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right.”
- In 2011, conservative Jewish firebrand Ben Shapiro tweeted: “The Jewish people has always been plagued by Bad Jews, who undermine it from within. In America, those Bad Jews largely vote Democrat.”
- And in 2018, Jonathan Neumann turned that idea into a book-length attack on Jews involved in social justice movements, subtitled, “How the Jewish Left Corrupts and Endangers Israel.”
In each case, the writers implied that good Jews put the fate of Israel ahead of other values — which, to the degree that they are liberal, seem to the writers barely Jewish in the first place.
Some of those objecting to Trump’s tweet said it fed the “dual-loyalty” accusation — that is, Jews pledge their true allegiance to Israel. But again, Trump is turning an internal Jewish discourse back on itself. Let’s be honest: Caring about the well-being of Israel — political, social, military — is a normative value in the vast majority of American Jewish settings: synagogues, schools, summer camps, community councils.
That’s not dual loyalty, but solidarity with millions of co-religionists and extended family members. Such solidarity is the right of any ethnic group, and Jews have rightly owned it, even as polls show that is the minority of Jews who make Israel their No. 1 issue at the polls. Trump’s tweet is a funhouse version of that tendency — demanding Jews stand in solidarity with Israel but on his terms, and exclusive of other priorities.
Trump’s tweet is of a piece with what Maggie Haberman, in her new book about the former president, describes as the “racial tribalism” the real estate mogul absorbed in the New York City of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
In that Archie Bunkerish New York, individuals were pegged and defined, for good and ill, by their ethnicity. In Trump’s view, Jews are good business people, savvy negotiators and of one mind when it comes to Israel — and are confounding and even ungrateful when they are not. That’s the Trump heard in a recent video clip, asking if the filmmaker was “a good Jewish character.” Good Jew or bad Jew?
Tamkin calls her book an attempt to “wrestle with what I believe to be the one truth of American Jewish identity: it can never be pinned down.” Still, a lot of people have tried — sometimes out of the best of intentions, and sometimes to push people out of the fold. When we presume to tell ourselves who is and isn’t a “good Jew,” however, we shouldn’t be shocked when others — especially a politician who has made racial tribalism his brand — do the same.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the New York Jewish Week and senior editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (@SilowCarroll).