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American Quarterly 55.2 (2003) 277-284

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Fighting to Become Jews

Jeffrey Melnick
Babson College

Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America. By Michael Staub. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 386 pages. $29.50 (cloth).

MICHAEL STAUB'S TORN AT THE ROOTS MODESTLY CALLS ITSELF A STUDY OF THE "crisis of Jewish liberalism" but really encompasses so much more than that. Published at the same time that Camp David and Oslo devolved into the second Intifidah and increased Israeli aggression against Palestinians, and as the United States' government prepared to make war against Saddam Hussein for the second time, Staub's work stands, ultimately, as a melancholy account of a time in the relatively recent past when official and semi-official representatives of American Jewry took a surprising number of positions on the issues of the day, positions that in our own moment might strike many of us as refreshingly unorthodox and unpredictable. In a moment when it has become harder and harder to speak in public both as a lover of Jewish culture (and Jewish people) and also as a critic of Israel, Staub's book brings us back to a time when such a combination would have been entirely common—when, in fact, a person could have found mainstream organizations to join (including synagogues), petitions to sign, protests to march in, that would support just such a position. Staub's characters are liberals for many reasons. Some found the rationale for their political activity in doctrinal teachings—in a rediscovered (or newly invented) "prophetic tradition" for instance. Many others rooted their liberalism [End Page 277] in a more secular idea of Jewish identity, an idea that might include a hint of Biblical justification but that ultimately rested on a post-Enlightenment sense of Jewish peoplehood and mission.

Staub demonstrates convincingly in Torn at the Roots that the story of liberalism in American Jewish life after 1945 can, in many ways, be seen as a fifty-year discussion about the meaning of the Holocaust for American Jews. Arguing with the conventional wisdom that American Jews did not really start to discuss the Holocaust publicly until after the Eichmann trial, Staub shows how Holocaust consciousness became the "lingua franca of intracommunal contest" (17) in the postwar years. In a far-ranging set of investigations that follows this insight, Staub is able to show how American Jewish debates on Zionism, desegregation, Vietnam, Black Power, Palestine, feminism, and gay liberation all were shaped by a concern with the legacy of the Nazi genocide. While the ultimate meanings of the Holocaust remained fluid in these years, Staub deftly sketches two basic constituencies in the debate. On the one hand are those who take the evidence of the Holocaust as a demand for a narrowing of Jewish concerns around only those issues that directly touch on Jewishness and Judaism; on the other hand are the many who see the Holocaust as a call for "multi-particularism" (a term Staub borrows from Arthur Waskow [155])—a turning outwards to activism and alliance. The general trajectory of Torn at the Roots takes us from a time when the multi-particularists were in ascendance, up until the late 1970s when, as Staub sees it, the inward looking, anti-liberals won the day.

Torn at the Roots recuperates a time in the very recent past (a time that has, it seems, largely disappeared from our historical record and our cultural consciousness) when American Jewish identity was defined for many individuals as constructed by ambivalence, bricolage, and nonconformity. If Staub is right, that time is passed and this is something to mourn. Towards the very end of the book Staub quotes anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff on the meanings of intracommunal fighting. Fighting, says Myerhoff, "is a partnership, requiring cooperation. A boundary-maintaining mechanism—for strangers cannot participate fully—it is also above all a proudly sociable activity" (308). Staub adapts Randolph Bourne's dictum that says, "war is the health of the state" to now read, "arguing is the health of the Jews."

But, according to Staub, the shared...


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