Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Innate Jewishness (WOF)

One of the most disgusting aspects of racism is how it strips its targets of agency - making them into animals, automatons, or some other mindless subhuman. Amy Chua dances uncomfortably close to that type of argument during this weeks installment of World on Fire.

This becomes apparent when she moves past a brief analysis of Jewish history into direct study of the situation in Russia using a conversation with a New York financial analyst and Jewish Russian emigrée, Sonia. Chua recounts, "But wasn't it strange, we persisted, that so many of the oligarchs should be Jewish? 'You know Jews!' Sonia laughed. 'They gravitate towards business!'" (Chua, 83). A Jewish predilection is treated as something almost biological in the conversation and throughout this section. Sonia previously explained, in contrast to her later statement, "'These oligarchs - they are 95 percent Russian and only 5 percent Jewish. They are fully assimilated, products of the Russian environment [...]'" (Chua, 83). It doesn't matter, goes this claim that Chua repeats, what degree of socialization is shared between the Jewish population and the gentile Russians - they're still driven towards business at unequal levels. Their existence as Jews somehow overrides everything else, rendering them nothing but a stereotype of a Jewish financier.

Subtler variations on this appeared throughout the proceeding section on the history of Jews (focusing almost exclusively on European Jews). It begins by noting "Jews do not appear to have been particularly economically successful during antiquity - but that's about the last time in their history that they weren't, at least when left alone to pursue their livelihoods" (Chua, 79). The effect of this is that all economic successes of Jews are cast as due to their Jewishness, while all failures are treated as the result of restrictions placed by other actors. The effect is strange, since it reduces Jews to a narrow stereotype but also excuses any economically hostile behavior on the part of the "Jewish oligarchs" since their behavior is only part of their nature.

Behind all of this is a strange lack of curiosity as to why Jews became economically successful but only in certain times and places. As Chua notes,
During the Middle Ages, despite recurrent anti-Jewish restrictions and persecutions, Jews prospered visibly and disproportionately as merchants and middlemen and eventually as international traders, particularly between Christian Europe and the Muslim lands (Chua, 79).
She does not go on to even remotely explore why Jews were well suited, or at least better suited than most Christians or Muslims, for trade. I'm not an expert on this, but I would theorize that the social networks created by the diaspora would be useful, not to mention that capacity to live as a clear ethnic minority. The lack of even a cursory analysis, however, makes the Jews into an innate force - destined for economic dominance if unfettered by restrictions. Instead of fully addressing that issue, Chua goes on to examine how the less restrictive environments of Eastern Europe allowed Jews to briefly become quite economically successful, with the notable exception of czarist Russia. On that outlier, Chua concludes,
[...] restricted to the Pale [areas of permitted Jewish settlement], subjected to economic discrimination, and victimized by recurrent anti-Jewish plundering and violence, most Russian Jews at the turn of the twentieth century lived in cruel poverty (Chua, 81).
Likewise, in the more recent Soviet era, Chua similarly states, "[...] no one (outside the Politburo) got billionaire-rich in the former Soviet Union, and Jews were no exception" (Chua, 82). In both cases, the economic power of the Jewish population is purely related by Chua to restrictions or liberties placed on the Jews by the gentile governments, making the Jewish experience essentially an expression of gentile tolerance or hostility.

If you accept this argument, its hard not to fall into the trap Chua has set for herself. She mentions, at the end of the historical analysis,
During the 1990s, seven cutthroat entrepreneurs, six of them Jewish, came to control the overwhelming part of Russia's newly privatized economy [...] they became billionaires by playing the game more ruthlessly and effectively than anybody else during Russia's free-for-all transition to capitalism (Chua, 82).
If you accept that Jews are innately ruthless, then you accept that they must be constrained. Chua's established another self-defeating argument on faulty premises - namely that Jews have one nature: brutality.

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