More on Biden and the Jews: A Response to Critics of My Salon Column

My Salon column this morning on Joe Biden and the Jews has generated a lot of conversation, at Salon, on Crooked Timber, and on my Facebook page and others. I want to address here four objections to the column that have been made.

1. A few commenters have claimed that I completely misinterpreted Biden’s comment. Biden wasn’t saying, they claim, that American Jews have no guarantee of their safety save Israel but that Israeli Jews have no such guarantee. What’s more, I alone have come up with this far-fetched reading, ignoring for my own reasons—a desire for “clickbait,” one commenter said—the more obvious interpretation of Biden’s remarks.

There’s a few problems with this claim. First, and most obviously, Biden’s remarks were first reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic about two or three weeks ago. Goldberg’s piece, as I point out in my Salon column, has attracted a tremendous amount of attention. The topic of his piece is whether Jews can feel safe today in Europe. That’s the context: the safety of Jews in Europe. But at the end of the piece, Goldberg moves to Biden’s comment, and after reporting it, this is what Goldberg writes:

There was applause, and then photos, and then kosher canapés. I will admit to being confused by Biden’s understanding of the relationship between America and its Jewish citizens. The vice president, it seemed to me, was trafficking in antiquated notions about Jewish anxiety.

Nearly 30 years ago, I moved to Israel, in part because I wanted to participate in the drama of Jewish national self-determination, but also because I believed that life in the Diaspora, including the American Diaspora, wasn’t particularly safe for Jews, or Judaism. Several years in Israel, and some sober thinking about the American Jewish condition, cured me of that particular belief.

I suspect that quite a few American Jews believe, as Biden does, that Jews can find greater safety in Israel than in America—but I imagine that they are mainly of Biden’s generation, or older.

A large majority of American Jews feels affection for Israel, and is concerned for its safety, and understands the role it plays as a home of last resort for endangered brethren around the world. But very few American Jews, in my experience, believe they will ever need to make use of the Israeli lifeboat. The American Jewish community faces enormous challenges, but these mainly have to do with assimilation, and with maintaining cultural identity and religious commitment. To be sure, anti-Semitism exists in the United States—and in my experience, some European Jewish leaders are quite ready to furnish examples to anyone suggesting that European Jews might be better off in America. According to the latest FBI statistics, from 2013, Jews are by far the most-frequent victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in America. But this is still anti-Semitism on the margins. A recent Pew poll found that Jews are also the most warmly regarded religious group in America.

For millennia, Jews have been asking this question: Where, exactly, is it safe? Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher, wrestled with this question continually, asking himself whether it was better for Jews to live in the lands of Esau—Christendom—or in the lands of Ishmael.

For five paragraphs, Goldberg responds to what he takes to be the centerpiece of Biden’s claim: that the Jews of America cannot count on America to protect them; they must ultimately look to Israel itself.

So the first point to make is that this isn’t my interpretation of Biden’s comment; it’s Goldberg’s interpretation. And Goldberg isn’t just anybody; he’s probably the most influential writer on Israel in the United States, someone who is consistently read by the White House. One would think that if Goldberg got Biden wrong, the White House or Biden’s office would have immediately issued a clarification. They haven’t. Nor have any of those Jewish leaders and officials who were in Biden’s audience when he made the comment he made. And Biden’s comment, or Goldberg’s interpretation of it, has been taken up by others, most notably by Dana Milbank—another not insignificant journalist—writing in the Washington Post. Again, nobody but nobody has taken Biden to be saying anything other than what I have taken him to be saying.

That is, until today, when I pointed out what’s wrong with what Biden is saying.

The other problem with this claim is the statement itself. Here’s Goldberg’s account of the comment:

“I’ll never forget talking to her in her office with her assistant—a guy named Rabin—about the Six-Day War,” he said. “The end of the meeting, we get up and walk out, the doors are open, and … the press is taking photos … She looked straight ahead and said, ‘Senator, don’t look so sad … Don’t worry. We Jews have a secret weapon.’”

He said he asked her what that secret weapon was.

“I thought she was going to tell me something about a nuclear program,” Biden continued. “She looked straight ahead and she said, ‘We have no place else to go.’” He paused, and repeated: “‘We have no place else to go.’”

“Folks,” he continued, “there is no place else to go, and you understand that in your bones. You understand in your bones that no matter how hospitable, no matter how consequential, no matter how engaged, no matter how deeply involved you are in the United States … there’s only one guarantee. There is really only one absolute guarantee, and that’s the state of Israel.”

Even by Biden’s standards, semantically speaking, it makes no sense to open with Meier saying that the only guarantee for Israel’s existence is that Jews in Israel have nowhere else to go, and then to pivot from there to say to American Jews, you know that, despite your influence and involvement here in the US, the only guarantee for the Jews of Israel is that they have nowhere else to go. That doesn’t exactly provide a ringing endorsement of your belief in Israel to American Jews.

Syntactically speaking, it makes no sense either. Even by Biden’s standards. Look at this sentence again:

You understand in your bones that no matter how hospitable, no matter how consequential, no matter how engaged, no matter how deeply involved you are in the United States … there’s only one guarantee. There is really only one absolute guarantee, and that’s the state of Israel.

When Biden says “hospitable,” whom is he speaking of? Whom does he mean the US is being hospitable to? Look at the subsequent phrases, the phrases mentioning consequential, engaged, involved. He is talking to and about American Jews. No matter how consequential, engaged, involved, they are. That’s the subject of address in the first phrase about hospitality. He means, in other words, “no matter how hospitable the US is to American Jews.” What does the hospitality of the US to American Jews have to do with the safety of Israeli Jews? Nothing. And that’s because Biden is talking in this sentence about American Jews, not Israeli Jews.

2. Some people have said to me that Biden is just pandering. I agree with that; he is pandering. Like most politicians. I even say that in my Salon piece: he’s pandering to the Jews. But that’s the point. Notice how John Kennedy, who I quoted in my column, pandered to the Irish: not by saying their country was a refuge for Irish Americans because the Irish didn’t belong in the US, but that the two countries were homes for the Irish because they were both free republics. Biden panders to American Jews not only by disregarding his constitutional oath but by making statements that are anti-Semitic—you Jews can’t ultimately count on the protection of the US government because, unlike the Irish, unlike Latino/as, unlike blacks, you are, well, different, you are not like us, you belong elsewhere. Rather than criticize him, his audience applauds him. Anti-Semitism can sometimes be so deeply normalized and buried in layers of philo-Semitism that we don’t see it for what it is. A much earlier generation of American Jews, I think, would have seen it for what it is, would have been offended by the suggestion that they should look to Israel rather than assume the American state would treat them as the equals of everyone else. Not apparently this generation.

In any event: claiming that Biden is pandering doesn’t change the toxicity of his comment; it only adds to it.

3. A lot of people have criticized this sentence: “A country that once offered itself as a haven to persecuted Jews across the world now tells its Jews that in the event of some terrible outbreak of anti-Semitism they should… what?” These critics have pointed out that the US government hasn’t always or even mostly offered itself as a haven to persecuted Jews. Most notably during the lead-up to the Holocaust.

This is obviously true, as every Jewish child in America knows. I could have written that sentence more carefully; in retrospect, I wish I had.

But one of the reasons I didn’t write it is that it would never have occurred to me that this needed to be spelled out. I assumed, because I was once a Jewish child in America and did learn this at a very early age, that it was a given, so obvious it didn’t need to be stipulated. I would never have thought anyone would think I meant otherwise.

But also, and more important, in a lot of the comments I’ve gotten on this phrase, there seems to be an assumption that not only did the US not offer European Jews a haven in the 30s and 40s, but that it was never a haven to European Jews.

This sentiment bothers me. For two reasons.

First, it’s wrong. Between 1880 and 1920, about two million east European Jews came to the US. A lot of them were fleeing a rising wave of anti-Semitism. One of them was my grandfather, whom I’ve written about before. When he was three, he and his family fled Odessa not long after the worst pogrom in Odessa’s history. They came to the US and found a home here. There was anti-Semitism here, discrimination and sometimes worse. But like so many of that generation of East European Jews they were able to build a thriving community for themselves here. That the US welcomed them because it needed cheap labor has about as much relevance to my point as the fact that the US ended Jim Crow because it couldn’t afford the bad press in the decolonizing world.

But it’s not just in those years when the US provided a haven for European Jews. Beginning in the 1970s, Soviet Jews found a home here as well. I remember a Soviet Jewish family that our synagogue helped sponsor here in the US; my father was especially involved in helping them get started here. According to a report from the American Jewish Committee’s Director for Russian Affairs, in the 1970s, as many Soviet Jews came to the US as went to Israel — much to the chagrin of the Israeli government, which tried to block them from doing so. And the Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1989, classified Soviet Jews as a persecuted group and gave them automatic refugee status, which prompted another massive wave of emigration to the US from the Soviet Union and then Russia.

So, yeah, to assume that persecuted Jews have never found a refuge in the US is just wrong.

But beyond being wrong, it’s politically dangerous. It plays into an idea of the eternal Jew, forever unwelcome everywhere. It’s fatalistic, and needlessly so. My grandfather was part of a generation of enormously patriotic and proud American Jews. You only need to read a Philip Roth novel to get a sense of that patriotism and pride. These Jews weren’t unaware or unmindful of American anti-Semitism. They just didn’t think that that was the end of the story. They believed they could build America into something else, and to a great degree, they did. As readers of this blog know, I’m not big on patriotism or nationalism, but I am big on pride, particularly pride in one’s own political capacities and collective agency. It just does us all a tremendous disservice to pretend that American Jews didn’t transform this country, that they didn’t make it more welcome, as a culture, to Jews than it once had been.

This, incidentally, is not just a problem for Jews; it’s a problem for our entire political culture, which is swimming in a particularly toxic kind of identity politics. Note that I don’t say all identity politics is like this. Just this fatalistic kind, which is deeply antipolitical, and assumes that there is never a political solution or answer to the problems of racism, otherness, and inter-group conflict and enmity, that there is no political art by which to deal with these challenges other than separation. Separation and ghettos: keeping one group over here, another over there, protecting each group’s presumably homogenous culture and identity from external contaminants and hatreds. That’s the problem with Zionism, or at least one of them, but it’s not a problem peculiar to Zionism; it’s endemic to a lot of politics today.

Which brings me to the last criticism.

4. Many people, including Brad DeLong, have said in response to my column that American Jews historically were threatened in the US and still might be. They take the point of my column to be a criticism of that claim, that I am diminishing anti-Semitism or the potential for it. As it happens, that’s not at all the point of my column. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that the claim is right. My objection is what follows from that claim: namely, the notion that since American Jews are unsafe here, they must look not to the US government but to the Israeli state for their protection. That’s the real problem with Biden’s claim: not that he thinks America’s Jews aren’t safe, but that he’s saying he and the rest of the government can’t ultimately protect them.

As I said to Brad on the Crooked Timber thread, merely substitute African Americans for Jewish Americans in Biden’s comment in order to see what’s wrong with his statement:

You understand in your bones that no matter how hospitable, no matter how consequential, no matter how engaged, no matter how deeply involved you are in the United States … there’s only one guarantee. There is really only one absolute guarantee, and that’s the state of Liberia.

There was a time when benevolent American officials did say stuff like this. And they were criticized bitterly by abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass, a lifelong critic of colonization, for saying it.

It expresses merely the desire to get rid of them, and reminds one of the politeness with which a man might try to bow out of his house some troublesome creditor or the witness of some old guilt.

It’s a measure of something “not altogether wholesome,” as I said in my column, that Biden not only said what he said, but that far from eliciting something like Douglass’s response, it was greeted with applause from his audience, and no comment at all, along the lines of what I said in my column, from anyone in the media.

12 Comments

  1. freespeechlover March 29, 2015 at 9:21 pm | #

    I read some of the comments on your piece at Salon. Unfortunately, a good many of them confirmed what I feel as a university instructor-no one actually reads anything, word for word, from start to finish anymore. Reading today is skimming, often for one’s political prejudices, and then making a set of assumptions, regardless of whether those follow logically from what one’s read and of course regardless of what was actually stated.

  2. jonnybutter March 29, 2015 at 9:59 pm | #

    One would think that if Goldberg got Biden wrong, the White House or Biden’s office would have immediately issued a clarification. They haven’t.

    Of course Goldberg didn’t get Biden wrong. But it’s possible that the WH decided (provisionally?) that calling more attention to this by ‘clarifying’ might be worse than letting it lie there and die in *relative* obscurity. A less preposterous, insane statement might be easier to walk back, in a way. How do you walk back something as offensive as this?

  3. Glenn March 29, 2015 at 10:12 pm | #

    I’m sure there is more thought about Biden’s statement than he put into it; somewhat along the lines of Chauncy Gardiner’s statement, interpreted as there will be growth in the spring, when he said “after the winter, there is the spring.”

  4. Mehmet March 29, 2015 at 11:10 pm | #

    Biden, as a loyal Zionist, speaking to Zionists, has to utilize the discourse of Zionism, which not so implicitly states that the legitimacy of Israel depends essentially on the racialization of Jews. The racialization of blacks, on the other hand, in its dominant conception or understanding (as opposed to other less dominant conceptions in the U.S. in the form of political projects such as Nation of Islam) delegitimizes the United States.

  5. SHN March 30, 2015 at 12:19 am | #

    I’ve been amazed at the response to Corey’s Salon piece. People rushing to defend Biden and reduce the USA to an unrelenting dangerous anti-semitic dungeon, attacking Corey for daring to remember a more complex history for Jews than the hellhole of anti-semitism his critics insist on. How dare anyone actually remember the millions who made a home here, struggled here, endured bigotry but who were nonetheless able to make themselves successful, integral members of American society, politics, business, art, science, education and so on. Apparently all we’re supposed to remember is the ignorance and hatred they suffered — and nothing else.

    • Mike Schilling March 30, 2015 at 11:55 am | #

      Of course Jews have had great success in the USA. But one of the reasons Robin’s critics didn’t write it is that it would never have occurred to us that this needed to be spelled out. We assumed that it was a given, so obvious it didn’t need to be stipulated. We would never have thought anyone would think we meant otherwise.

  6. Dov March 30, 2015 at 7:01 pm | #

    This article is incredibly unfortunate.

    No, let me put that more succinctly. WTF?????

    I did a double-take on your name because I couldn’t believe that someone who has been the uber supporter of Steven Salaita would choose to write this.

    What you wrote is only slightly less amazing than the fact that you chose to write it at all!!

    You’ve set the cause back, something it can ill-afford.

    What in the h∑ll were you thinking?????

    • thom March 30, 2015 at 10:22 pm | #

      what cause .. Biden 2016?

  7. YM Goldstein March 31, 2015 at 10:08 am | #

    Every so often, politicians tell the truth, as Biden mostly did in this case. Stop wrestling with G-d.

  8. David Green March 31, 2015 at 4:54 pm | #

    Stage 1: Jews, especially the later Eastern European immigrants, come to this country and endure hardship, struggle to fit in with a modicum of dignity, and largely succeed. They do so while being important to labor movement, civil rights movement, anti-war movement.

    Stage 2: Jews who have moved to the suburbs and assimilated wonder what happened to their identity; they start reading Irving Howe’s (important) accounts of the Lower East Side, a great book about Maxwell Street, etc. Isaac Bashevis Singer becomes popular in his old age. This period concludes roughly with Woody Allen’s “Radio Days.”

    Stage 3: Jews are fully successful and integrated; they (we) miss being able to feel like victims. Fortunately, there is increased awareness of the Holocaust and increased importance of Israel to USFP. Combine this with increased political representation (in S. California it was at one time Waxman, Berman, Harman, Sherman & Schiff in the USHR). The nostalgia for ethnic/cultural solidarity has turned into the reality of Zionism/incipient victimhood.

    No need for nostalgia for the “good old days” when the USVP is telling you that you’re under the gun, and Netanyahu is reminding you how great it was when you had a crazy uncle to be embarrassed about in front of the goyim. Now you have the best of both worlds: victimhood and wealth/power; fake shame and a great psychotherapist. You can not only claim to be a victim, you can do something about it. Kind of like Jeffrey Goldberg going to Israel to be a prison guard for Palestinians.

    This culture has become absolutely nuts.

    • evets April 1, 2015 at 11:04 am | #

      And there’s the appeal of all this to the religious traditionalists and angry nationalists, who can now call for a retreat to the ethnic cocoon, to a time when assimilation was not an option. They’re often not the descendants of the early 20th century immigrants, with the labor unionism, civil rights activism etc., but from the WWII era refugees who naturally had a very different worldview.

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