After publishing my first reactions to the news of the day in “After the Caucus, A Different Race,” this post did not feel fully cooked to me. But there may be a good reason. I, like most people from my tribe of secular Jews, have ideological commitments designed to give short shrift to tribal thinking and tribal allegiances. There’s an irony to this. Our specific group has flourished in the U.S. compared to everywhere else we’ve ever lived, precisely because [edit. once the black-white line was breached] civil rights were not doled out by specific group. So we have a tribal stake in not thinking tribally.
But tribal behavior is a reality.
Then, too, it’s obviously a disadvantage for a candidate who plays on group loyalties to hail from such a tiny tribe. Jews are less than 2% of the U.S. population, and secular Jews are a smaller group than that. If groups are mutually supportive of one another’s aspirations, then that’s not a problem, but if every group competes for prerogatives, we automatically lose.
As a writer, I would prefer to have command of these tensions. A better literary critic or historian might be able to place my grandfather’s stories in context. In fact, within the same book, there are other stories I did not write about that are overtly tribal; warning, for example, against intermarriage.
On the larger scale, there have been characteristically Jewish forms of cosmopolitan universalism. All are laced with ambivalence. Going back to Peretz’s generation, Jews who bought into the enlightenment idea that they could trade being less Jewish and more Polish (or German, or Russian, or French) for equal citizenship rights were still discriminated against. So, national loyalty did not grant the privilege of being accepted in the larger group. But Jews were also continually accused of having dual loyalties. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Keeping an eye open to the past is a way of honoring both poles of this ambivalence. There are all kinds of ways of thinking about this election. I have not yet heard any of my secular Jewish friends talk about what a Sanders presidency would mean for the Jews. Again, it’s the politically and religiously more conservative Jews that usually think in this way. But seeing the racism that came out of the woodwork following Obama’s win, can you even imagine?