- Race, Rights, and Recognition: Jewish American Literature since 1969 by Dean J. Franco
Dean J. Franco’s latest book explores the works of contemporary Jewish authors who engage the themes of group-based rights and recognition. Through careful close readings of texts that speak to ongoing debates about race, rights, and liberalism, Franco recalibrates our understanding of familiar Jewish American authors such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, and Allegra Goodman by juxtaposing them with names perhaps less familiar in the context of this type of literary analysis: Lore Segal, Harriet Rochlin, Tony Kushner, and Gary Shteyngart. Franco asserts that in engaging contentious debates like the problem of multiculturalism, these authors “take us right to the edge of what can be thought and said” when addressing political claims for group-based rights and recognition (4). “In so doing,” he continues, “they test the ethical bases for the claims of multiculturalism. . . . [and] help us think productively about our current crises of [End Page 882] global rights and recognition.” Franco cogently articulates the paradox that confronts these writers, which is the fact that the concepts of individuality and multiculturalism are essentially at odds; indeed, as he shows, multiculturalism in its most basic incarnation represents a radical call for group-based recognition at the expense of the individual. Franco’s examination of how this paradox is addressed in contemporary Jewish texts provides a new—and necessary—focus on the social, political, and ethical dimensions of the issue of race and the rise of multicultural philosophies and policies in the United States.
Although the Jewish writers addressed in Franco’s study engage the same themes of group-based rights and recognition that are commonly examined by African American, Native American, and Latino authors, they are wary of adopting or promoting some semblance of a group identity. This hesitance is demonstrated by the fact that they generally tend to deploy postmodern literary strategies as a means of distancing themselves from—and therefore avoiding the sin of presuming to speak for—the broader Jewish American public. Caught between the ideologies of liberalism on the one hand and radical multiculturalism on the other, the Jewish writers included in Franco’s book often seek to occupy a middle ground fraught with competing impulses: “sympathy for an ethical basis for human recognition” versus “criticism of recognition’s expedient circuit into normative politics—the politics of naming groups, claiming rights, and shaming the perceived antagonists of social equality” (4).
Franco’s text is divided into two parts. The first, titled “Pluralism, Race, and Religion,” examines texts that address the “dilemma of the moral, ethical, or political conflict that occur when individuals are also members of social groups” (8). Focused on the works of Roth, Ozick, and Goodman, this section examines cultural divisions. The second section, “Recognition, Rights, and Responsibility,” “extends the topic on civil rights and race to the international dimension of human rights and social recognition” (23). The chapters in this section highlight the works of Segal, Kushner, and Shteyngart, and, in Franco’s own words, “offer ways of overcoming those divisions” addressed in the first half of the book (21). Also central to the book are “two major topics, less divisible according to section”: 1) literary accounts of diversity and multiculturalism, and 2) theorizations of human and civil rights. As if the roadmap of sections and subthemes wasn’t enough, Franco suggests yet another metric by which to read the book, directing readers interested in Jewishness and diversity in America to read chapters 2, 3, and 4 and encouraging those who might be drawn to “focused critiques and theorizations of discourses of civil and human rights” to refer to chapters 1, 5, and 6. The thoroughness of the book’s directives bespeaks the author’s efforts to guide [End Page 883] the reader as carefully as possible and will likely be appreciated by scholars seeking to engage with specific subthemes.
Throughout his study, Franco adopts a deconstructive methodology, one that challenges the tendency toward binarism and takes to task the reductive thinking that arises...