Sunday, April 26, 2015

What's wrong with praising the Jewish people's "contributions" to society?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy of TNR sharply observes:

This past Friday, The Atlantic posted part of Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Conservative Party leader and current Prime Minister David Cameron. . . . Cameron tells Goldberg, “The Jewish community in Britain makes an incredibly important contribution to our country.” Later he reiterates the “contribution” idea: “So I think in Britain we’re taking the right approach, tackling anti-Semitism, emphasizing the contributions of the Jewish community, and all the rest of it.” In a March speech to a British Jewish organization, Cameron again praised his country’s “Jewish community” for its “contribution,” modified in this case with the word “enormous.” . . .

But talk of “contributions”—apart from just being patronizing—has a way of reinforcing difference, and, in turn, encouraging xenophobia.

Jonathan Chait expanded on a related point in 2013 in New York magazine, in response to some over-the-top contribution-talk from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that, Chait argued, delivered “a speech that is likely to be quoted by anti-Semites for years and decades to come.” The flip side of praise is stereotype: Jews are great, until their greatness means that they are controlling the entire world.

More restrained contribution-rhetoric is “standard spiel for praising any ethnic group,” Chait continued. This is true, but it shouldn’t be: Contribution-talk is always a rebuttal to the notion that some segment of society hasn’t pulled its weight, not a way to change the terms of the discussion. Cameron’s choice to respond to British anti-Semitism with contribution rhetoric ends up implying the Jews’ placement in Britain is contingent on sufficient (unspecified) contributions. Does he mean bagels? What they pay in taxes? If Jews were to earn less, or to introduce fewer charming cultural products, would anti-Semitism then be more acceptable?

Rather than speaking of Jews’ or any other minority group’s “contributions,” politicians should be clear that there is a path toward full belonging. They should promote acceptance of “communities” but also of individuals. Politicians shouldn’t ask that the communally minded chuck out all identity other than national ones, and they should be welcoming of the proudly hyphenated. But they should also remember that not everyone whose name or appearance marks him or her as a minority wants in on organized communal or religious life. Yet everyone who reads as a minority is, by definition, a target of racists and xenophobes. A true rhetoric of inclusiveness would acknowledge existing societal bigotries without reinforcing them.