Jerry and Jewry: Ethnicity and Humanity in G.A. Cohen


If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? presents Gerald A. ("Jerry") Cohen's musings on his ethnic identity. The interplay between the personal reflections, central to which is Cohen's "communist Jewish" upbringing in Montreal, and the philosophical position that Cohen holds, sheds Canadian light on the foundations of Western culture. Although he identified as Jewish throughout his life, Judaism Cohen rejected. Too, as a Marxist early, a luck egalitarian later, he was critical of the liberalism that Jewish people (certainly those of his native Montreal) embrace. Most Jewish Canadians self-classify as secular Jews. Cohen is right to waver, but not because, as he incorrectly avers, being a Jew is in tension with irreligiosity. Cohen does not qualify as a secular Jew because he does not qualify as a Jew at all. His philosophy disqualifies him. What is it to be a Jew? The Hebrew Bible contains the answer. Against the then-regnant, pagan, belief system, the Bible advances a conception of a person as an effective locus of action within the system that is nature. This conception is the essence of humanism. In effect, being a Jew is an ethnically inflected form of being, in the dominant Western sense, a person. As distinct from adhering to Judaism, or being Jewish, being a Jew associates more than just voluntarily with liberalism. The religion-friendly irreligiosity of the secular Jews of Montreal turns out, then, to link with a value embedded deep in Canadian political life. Cohen's philosophical anthropology, enmeshing men and women in a wider whole, socio-economic (Marxism) or natural (luck egalitarianism), marks him as a neo-pagan. As to Cohen's Jewishness, even a pagan can eat bagels and speak Yiddish.