- Editor’s Introduction
The essays collected here are evidence of how the Trump regime can be critically clarifying for Jewish studies, offering us—scholars if not Jews—an opportunity to think about the ways identity operates for and circulates through the Jewish studies field. As Neil Levi and Michael Rothberg point out in their Introduction, the Trump era’s juxtaposition of resurgent antisemitism (often dog-whistled or encouraged, if not in fact openly expressed, by Trump himself) and so many Jews in his inner circle (I hesitate to say “brain trust”) is, at least initially, cognitively dissonant for scholars raised on liberal commonplaces. They direct us to examine the historical forces at work that have expressed themselves in recent years.
If white supremacy has arguably been fair disciplinary game for Jewish studies scholarship for as long as there’s been a professional association for Jewish studies scholars (even if that association was initially more interested in ancient scholarly objects than modern ones), the Trump era’s catastrophic (in the sense of its etymological signification of a “sudden turn”) illumination of Jewish white supremacy— taking form in Stephen Miller’s white nationalism, Bibi Netanyahu’s alliances with racists like Viktor Orbán, Israel’s “nation-state law,” and Richard Spencer’s praise of Israel for being an ethno-state, for example—has been jarring for a Jewish studies establishment whose intellectual identity is still largely exceptionalist. Used to a historicist liberalism whose progressive narratives incite a kind of privileged identification with their scholarly objects, Jewish studies scholars (to say nothing of Jews, that population that, it pays to keep close to the front of our minds, supplies the majority of Jewish studies scholars) find themselves newly faced by an assertive need to interrogate their foundational concepts of Jewish identity.
One of the defining characteristics of our era—I’m really not sure when to date this emergence, but Vietnam might stand as a useful, if revisable, placeholder for now—is the affective elision of ideas and identity: it’s becoming increasing difficult to disentangle what one believes from who one takes oneself (and whom others take one) to be. For Jewish studies the signal illustration of this turn is the potency of [End Page 1] “Israel” in American intellectual discourse. So, for example, an array of American Jewish community organizations, like Hillel International, insist that support for Israel (if not necessarily support of specific Israeli state policies) is an essential part of American Jewish identity; “intersectionality” has become the banner under which “The Left” is criticized for an antisemitism that takes form in a refusal to countenance Zionism; Stephen Bannon is cheered by the ZOA for declaring himself a “Christian Zionist”; Trump and Netanyahu, funded by Sheldon Adelson and fluffed by Stephen Miller, suggest that American Jews who don’t embrace Israeli ethnonationalism are disloyal; and the charge that anti-Zionism or even simply criticism of the Israeli denial of civil, legal, and political rights to Palestinians, in fact, indicates antisemitism is becoming institutionalized, even sometimes among those who take cover behind that increasingly obfuscating and distracting term “liberal Zionism.”
In fact, the Trump era’s (including the Trump administration’s) intensification of Israel politics is demonstrating that Jews can be antisemites in addition to self-haters. Jewish self-haters presumably (so the accusation goes) don’t like their Jewishness and (thereby) make their fellow Jews look bad; indeed, the charge is levied by Jews at Jews, its persuasiveness, presumably, deriving from the fact that both parties equally embrace the identity-term (if not necessarily the specific shape or signified of that term). Thus was Philip Roth pilloried by some Jews early in his career for (so we read and heard) airing dirty Jewish laundry. Roth’s less than entirely flattering depictions of postwar Jewish American life caused great consternation among conservative Jewish community establishments, as they saw Roth as necessarily a Jewish American Writer—and therefore as a representative of Jewish Americans. Concerned about acceptance if not assimilation above all else, and little if at all about literary or aesthetic value, they saw Roth’s Jewish sensationalism as nothing but a hindrance. On the other hand, Roth adamantly...