Bad Jews

I am a Bad Jew by many people’s standards. Other people would deny me even that, since I never had a bar mitzvah and have never belonged to a synagogue. I am only very slowly learning Hebrew. I’m mostly committed to holidays for the food and a loose sense of seasonality. This year for Chanukah I said a blessing lighting candles but decided that I didn’t want to say the others. In recent years I’ve found myself feeling a stronger pull toward my ancestry within the Eastern European Yiddish community than the Hebraic Zionism that I find problematic for its assimilationist obliteration of specific Jewish heritage before considering the actions of the state of Israel.

It was with this background that I read Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews: A history of American Jewish Politics and Identities. For a history of Jewish people in the United States, the plural in “identities” is important, according to Emily Tamkin. Essential, in fact, because there has been a multiplicity of ways to be Jewish, so too is there a multiplicity of ways to be “Bad Jews,” in any number of respects deficient. Narratives and counter-narratives. Tamkin even includes in her introduction like the one I wrote above to explain how she might just be too bad a Jew to author this book, but perhaps that is just the point.

Bad Jews, which blends history, more than 150 interviews, and a streak of memoir, unfolds in chronologically, with each chapter constructed around two interlocking themes: what might prompt some Jews to characterize others as “Bad Jews” and how Jews fit into the broader patterns of American culture.

American Jewish history is a history, or a set of histories, of immigration and the subsequent oscillation between accepting and resisting acculturation.

While it is common to speak of Jews as a cohesive group, Tamkin invites readers to think otherwise down to the most fundamental levels. Ashkenazim from the Germany and Eastern Europe form the dominant image of what a Jewish person looks like in the United States (and have formed the majority of the population since 1730), but Tamkin notes that the earliest Jews to arrive here were Sephardim who arrived by way of the Iberian peninsula and, thus, early Synagogues followed Sephardic practices. This early arrival also inevitably entangled the Jewish community with slavery, both in terms of employing enslaved labor to construct their places of worship and owning enslaved people. She points out that the first Jewish person to hold a cabinet position was Judah P. Benjamin, a wealthy slave owner who became secretary of state of the Confederate States of America.

Tamkin weaves this same thread back in during the Civil Rights Movement when, in 1965, famously, the Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Many Jews are rightfully proud of this heritage and Tamkin cites polling form the 1950s that suggests that most Jews considered commitment to civil rights more essential for being a “Good Jew” than support for Israel. And yet, as a number of recent comments from Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, and other prominent African Americans indicate, there is also a longstanding frustration with, if not hostility in, this relationship. Tamkin builds from an analysis of James Baldwin’s essay “Negroes Are Antisemitic Because They Are Anti-White,” to identify the disconnect in that while Jewish allies of the movement emphasize the similarities in their place in American society, African Americans chaffed at the differences in lived experience when most Jews received the privileges of being white. In other words, it isn’t that Jews are not marginalized in essential ways in American society, but they also get to be the landlords.

In turn, this point again reinforces the tensions within the American Jewish community when it comes to Jews of color.

[Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Jews who participated in the civil rights movement are] American Jewish history, but…only a part of it. In the contemporary context, that means grappling with all of American Jewish history and with the various stances American Jews have chosen to take with respect to white supremacy. It also means that those who say that Jews aren’t white only to turn around and malign Jews who do not look white as not really being Jewish are only fooling themselves.

Race is a construct, but it is a construct with lived implications. And there are, in the United States, Jews who go through life as white. This is the majority of American Jews. If they—we—do not wish to be considered as complicit in white supremacy, a good place to start would be by not insisting that we’re more Jewish than Jews of color.

The issue of race stood out because of the current state of discourse in the United States and other books I have read in the past few years like Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene and Koshersoul, both of which address the intersection of his race and his Judaism, but it is only one example of the questions at the heart of Bad Jews. There is no one way to be a “Good Jew,” in Tamkin’s thesis, and thus there is a multiplicity of ways to be a “Bad Jew.” Moreover, these are contested definitions perpetually undergoing regeneration.

In many respects, the story that Tamkin tells about Jews parallels the evolution of the United States more broadly, and it is important to recognize those connections. However, “Jews” make for a compelling subject for thinking about the United States as a pluralistic polity because of the way that both mainstream Christian Americans and parts of the Jewish community have tried to articulate Jews as an eternal other, separate from and incompatible with the rest of the citizen body.

Bad Jews is not a book one can turn to for answers. That very idea is antithetical even to Tamkin’s project. Rather, this is a book that is designed to think with. I came into it with a strong sense of certain schisms within the broad Jewish community, but I quickly discovered that I had underestimated how deep and multifaceted these divisions were.

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This is the second in a backlog of books I read months ago that I still want to write about. Since I am currently re-reading several novels that I’m teaching with this semester, I might even “catch up” before the semester overtakes me too much.

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Black and white image of the cover of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd people stormed the US Capitol Building in order to stop the certification of the electoral votes that made Joe Biden president. This was the result of actions meant to undermine faith in election and polarization heightened by the present media ecosystem, but it was also the culmination of decades of growing extremism among white nationalist and anti-government militia movements. That growth is the subject of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

While there has been a pronounced strain of separatism in the United States as long as there has been a United States, Belew identifies the modern iteration in the resolution to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. White power was at the heart of the militia movement from its inception, but she argues that the perceived betrayal in Vietnam prompted a very specific metastasis beyond bog-standard racism. It prompted people like Louis Beam to form militia groups with the stated intent of continuing the war. Naturally, they found common cause with groups like the Knights of the Ku Klux Klax that David Duke founded in 1975.

In these early ears, the militia movement claimed to be fighting against insidious forces and on behalf of the United States. They were soldiers taking the war into their own hands. However, Belew traces how this resentment and frustration transformed over the course of the 1980s until their orientation had turned 180 degrees. By the start of the 1990s militia groups operating around the country–and not merely at places like Ruby Ridge–saw themselves as soldiers in a war on behalf of white people against the United States, which they referred to as the Zionist Occupation Government. She concludes with a chapter on Timothy McVeigh and his terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, though that incident clearly did not put an end to the movements Belew documents is documenting.

At this point, I feel like I need to offer a caveat. I finished Bring the War Home a month ago and while I take copious notes on the books I read for “work” take only haphazard notes on books that I read for “fun.” This book technically falls in the latter category even though parts of it will undoubtedly make its way into my US history classes. I meant to write this post within a day or two of finishing the book, but it turns out that writing here is a lower priority than, say, my classes or work on academic publications. All of this is to say that the following analysis is going to be more a reflection on what I saw as a couple of key themes and less an actual review.

The first thing that stood out to me in Bring the War Home was how Belew traces multiple loosely-connected organizations joined by a common sense of purpose and sometimes, marriage. The various groups saw themselves as part of the same conflict and Belew shows how they used the early internet to support one another, but the absence of a hierarchy meant that quashing one did nothing to slow the spread of the movement. In fact, efforts by the federal government to address the militia movement in places like Ruby Ridge only galvanized other cells and sympathizers. This part of the book sometimes meant trying to keep track of a web of names, but it effectively highlighted the challenge of addressing the militia movement.

Second, perhaps the most striking chapter in Bring the War Home was “Race War and White Women.” In this chapter, Belew shows how white women were of central importance to the militia movement. That is, they claimed to be defending the virtue of vulnerable white women who, in turn, were expected to bear white children. These vulnerable white women were both an abstract ideal, rather like love interests in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and people who played a concrete role in spreading the militia ideas. In the case of a the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988 that ended with the jury rendering a not guilty verdict, two of the white women on the jury subsequently entered into public relationships with defendants.

(One of the key witnesses in that trial went on to murder three people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas in 2014.)

Bring the War Home is a terrifying book in many ways. It brings into focus a strain of extremism in the United States that has been steadily growing in prominence in the past few decades. This movement coalesced around racism, anti-semitism, and christian identitarianism, took advantage of new forms of media new media, and, as Belew put it on the first anniversary of January 6, ruthlessly seizes any opportunity. And yet, while these militia movements have themselves shed blood in their war against ZOG and fully intend to do so again, I can’t help but feel that their presence reveals a bigger and more insidious danger. The militia movement emerged from a specific knot of beliefs, but its growth and evolution stems in no small part from how many people not directly affiliated with any tentacle of the movement express sympathy for their positions. That is, the militia movement won’t win its war through force of arms, but through a steady campaign of radicalization that plays on preexisting prejudices. The fact that their ideas can be found elevated into nearly every level of government demonstrates that it is working.

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Crunch time on getting my book together meant giving almost all of my spare time to that, but I have still been reading a little bit every day because it helps me feel normal. Since my last one of these posts I finished Trevor Strunk’s Story Mode, a literary analysis of video games that had some interesting things to say about the evolution of games and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, which had a gift for rich descriptions of place and with a clever story structure but that I ultimately found disappointing in terms of the characters and how the plot was written, James S.A. Corey’s Nemesis Games (Expanse, book 5), and S.A. Chakraborty’s Empire of Gold. I intend to write about the latter two series at some point. Currently, I am reading Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne.

Ghost Wars – Steve Coll

Two events on successive days in September 2001 changed the trajectory of modern Afghanistan. On the 11th, terrorists hijacked four planes in the United States, crashing two into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC. On the 10th, suicide bombers posing as reporters assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, the leading Afghan leader opposing the Taliban. Coll’s book tries to explain what led to these two events.

The story in “Ghost Wars” begins in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan government was in effect a client state of the Soviet Union, but plagued by civil war and insurrection, leading to a stream of military aid, which grew to a flood and finally a full-fledged invasion. As part of its Cold War strategy, the US worked in tandem with Pakistan’s ISI and the Saudi intelligence services to funnel resources to Afghan rebels.

The rebels were not a united front and aid was not distributed evenly. Pashtun mujahideen in the southern part of the country received the lion’s share, for a number of reasons. They were close by Pakistan and so easy to supply, as well as being the preferred allies or clients of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. At the same time, devout Christians saw fundamentalist Muslims as natural allies—fellow religionists in the fight against Communism.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the independent Tajik leader in the northern Panjshir Valley received the short portion, being harder to supply, attached to illegal opium smuggling, and not as fanatical in his religion. In years to come this choice would prove costly. The actions of the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the last years of the Cold War kicked off a transnational, radical Islamist movement of which Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda was just one particularly virulent strain.

Coll tackles the monumental task of mapping the shifting currents of Afghan politics, including the rival alliances during the 1980s, the rise of the Taliban after 1994, and how these developments were related to the other political developments in the Middle East, but it is made even greater still by also charting how American interest in the region waxed and waned throughout the region. The result is both the story of the situation in Afghanistan and an enormously frustrating one of bureaucratic and political calculus in America. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1990s when the US administrations declared the Cold War won and Afghanistan a lost cause that was not worth engaging with. The result was that the US had effectively no presence in the region for years, until after the threat from terrorists trained in Afghan bases originally supported by the United States was beyond dispute.

There is too much in Ghost Wars to do a summary justice, but several themes stand out. One is the wide the blind spots of many US policy makers. These included the decision to cultivate militant religious fanaticism and to abandon the region after the end of the Cold War, both of which smacked of short-term thinking with little long-term planning. But equally frustrating were those issues that the US policy makers were concerned with. In the 1990s this meant a focus state-sponsored terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, to the exclusion of transnational actors and conventional attacks. The deliberations in Coll’s recounting, moreover, seemed to register too little awareness that the agendas of even American allies would not necessarily align with the best interests of the United States. The confluence, then, went to explaining how the United States lost touch with, let alone control over, this powerful movement it had helped set into motion.

A second, related, theme is the deep divisions between Afghan and Arab. Coll makes clear that the Arabs were outsiders in Afghanistan, sometimes tolerated, but never really accepted, which added a second level of complexity to the situation. Moreover, it was in this somewhat fragile situation where Osama bin Laden began his slow rise—tolerated because of his wealth, but a relatively minor player until the United States made him the face of transnational Islamic terrorism.

Ghost Wars is a deeply frustrating book to read, by turns making the reader feel for for the Afghans, the CIA, and becoming infuriated by the seemingly-obvious mistakes out of blindness, short-term thinking, and a host of other considerations. But it is also a compelling look at developments that continue to affect the world today even as it seems that US administrations (not simply the one in office today) continue to make some of the same mistakes of policy and rhetoric that characterized the US interactions with Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001. Radical Islamic terrorism is not a phenomenon that developed in a vacuum and the United States is complicit in its rise.

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I am now reading Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and so far I’m finding it as good as it is touted to be.

White Trash – Nancy Isenberg

[Redneck] had become part of the cultural lingua franca, a means of sizing up public men, and a strangely mutated gender and class identity.

White Trash starts from a provocative thesis: all (or nearly all) developments in American history can be traced to the underlying tension between “the American Dream” on the one hand and what to do about the *white* people who don’t measure up. Isenberg examines how these tensions are articulated, repurposed, exploited, and weaponized as America went from a country where land was plentiful to one that was heavily urbanized, and as notions of science, eugenics, and racial uplift changed.

America’s tortured history with non-white people, Isenberg suggests, are painful consequences of this other, innate conflict.

Isenberg begins her story in Britain, showing how the only reason many of the early white settlers left was that they were “waste people” in England, discarded to North America to turn their lives around or just not be around anymore. Once in America, though, the question of what to do with these people remained. Many of the colonial elite wanted to avoid interbreeding with people they saw as lesser than themselves, and there was an open question whether giving them land (where squatters were often already living) would allow for racial uplift. Then came the Civil War, a hybrid class-race war, the age of Eugenics where the idea was to stop poor whites along with African Americans from breeding, and finally the emergent “Cult of the Country Boy” in the 1950s.

White Trash has something of a teleological progression toward the final two chapters of the book, a section called “The White Trash Makeover.” Her argument holds water. The terms change and the widespread cultural cache that the lifestyle currently holds is a modern phenomenon, but “white trash” has been a persistent part of the American landscape for centuries. The change, Isenberg posits, is that what was once explicitly marginal is now mainstream, albeit in a way that still consciously frames itself as marginalized.

The story in White Trash is distinctly uncomfortable, particularly as someone whose hometown Isenberg might as well have been writing about. This same discomfort makes it all the more important. Certain aspects of redneck culture have been commercialized and accepted, but it is notable that in the latest iteration of the electoral victory for this class of people, the people filling the executive branch are overwhelmingly not representative of them. This seems to me not an accident, the latest iteration of the same issues that shaped the debates around squatters in the 1700s.

In a classroom, I would want to build from Isenberg’s book to make more explicit the horrific consequences of these class conflicts for people of color and other minorities, and not simply in that they are treated as a lower class. Overall, though, I found White Trash to be an effective frame through which to think about American history, one that recognizes the aspirations of the American dream, but also recognizes the ways in which that dream is dangerous as an exclusionary club with which to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t measure up in terms of breeding, education, culture, or wealth. There are ways to quibble with White Trash, but the overall product is a powerful message that demands consideration.

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I’ve been in the end of semester crunch the past few weeks, with a conference thrown in to boot, and have also finished two short novel/novellas, Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past and Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. With the semester coming to an end, I hope to start writing here with some more frequency, but, at the moment, I’m mostly just tired.

Wicked River: the Mississippi when it last ran wild, Lee Sandlin

I was in Minneapolis for a funeral last weekend and, as a result, was visiting with extended family. One of my cousins lives a matter of blocks from one of my favorite bookstores, Magers and Quinn, so we usually end up talking books. Not for the first time, she passed a number of books off to me. The first of these I picked up is Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi river before the Civil War.

Sandlin takes the reader along with the navigators up and down the river, into the swirling currents, and among the personalities that fought, swindled, and cavorted in the region. His inspiration, in a way, seems to be the stories of Mark Twain even though he notes early on that those stories were already conjuring up a bygone world. In this sense, it is more appropriate to start with what changed. In Sandlin’s account (and I do not think there is reason to doubt it), the infrastructure of the Mississippi River changed in the years after the Civil War when the first railroad bridge crossed the river allowing trains to almost completely replace steamboats. At the same time, US military engineers undertook a massive project to smooth out the rough edges of the river and demographic changes tamed the rough population.

Wicked River is an easy, indulgent read that eagerly regales its audience with the tall tales and local legends from the Mississippi River valley. Most of the stories, Sandlin concludes, are fictions that emerged out of a kernel of truth. Wicked River is well pretty well researched and draws from both contemporary accounts and geographic surveys, but Sandlin employs the same casual, comfy tone whether describing the winter snowmelt or legends about piratical gangs, which becomes only slightly more regimented at the end when those characters lived on only in memory.

I can’t vouch for the value of Wicked River as a historical study, not because I think Sandlin is wrong in his narrative but because I don’t know the historiography on the topic and there is only a loose thesis. But this judgement should not detract from a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read about a bygone time.

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Next up, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.