Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Michael N. Barnett's "The Star and the Stripes"

Michael N. Barnett is the University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at George Washington University. His many books include Empire of Humanity and Dialogues in Arab Politics.

Barnett applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews, and reported the following:
The first question we ask when taking a test is: did I pass? If no, then the natural follow-up is, how badly did I fail? If yes, then it is how decisive? I can report that I passed, probably with flying colors.

Page 99 lands in the middle of an extended discussion of the ideas turn-of-the century American Jews held about trying to be both particular and universal – and at a time when Jewish nationalism and Zionism were emerging as important political ideologies. The dilemma was the following: American Jews were attempting to integrate into American society – which meant demonstrating that they understood and practiced quintessential American values. Many American Jews insisted that this did not require a herculean effort because Jewish values and American values were nearly one and the same. So, American Jews highlighted the universalistic and cosmopolitan strands of Judaism, and especially the prophetic tradition. And then here came Jewish nationalism and Zionism, which suggested that Jews really are a separate people, a separate nation deserving their own state. These political ideologies, then, potentially undermined the attempt by American Jews to portray Judaism as universalistic and capable of easily integrating into American society.

Yet Jewish nationalism and Zionism had one very important redeeming feature: they reminded Jews that they were Jews. If taken to its logical conclusion, universalism left little reason to remain Jewish. If Jews were just like everyone else, then why go through the bother of remaining Jewish? Universalism, in other words, opened the door to assimilation. Jewish universalism could lead to the disappearance of the Jews. A little nationalism, or tribalism, then, was not such a bad thing – it could keep American Jews from committing cultural suicide.

So, the intellectual, political, and theological challenge confronting American Jewish elites was how to have both universalism and tribalism, which often required interpreting both nationalism and cosmopolitanism in ways that were consistent with each other, not an impossible task, but requiring a lot of work. It would mean fixing an image of the American nation as pluralistic and open, and a Jewish identity that that could retain some vestige of the particular in a sea of the universal.
[Sentence begins on page 98]. He [Raymond Bourne, drawing from the political thought of Horace Kallen, an esteemed sociologist who figured prominently in the debates among American Jews and the broader question of the nature of American society] criticized the melting pot metaphor for several reasons: it would transform a vibrant ‘American population into a colorless, tasteless, homogeneous mass of WASPs’…A hyphenated America would…guard against blandness…

A defining feature of the Zionism of Brandeis, Kallen, and many other American Zionists was its rejection of tribalism and embrace of the prophetic tradition, which allied them with Mordechai Kaplan’s idea that Jews are a civilization…One reason why Kaplan preferred to see the Jews as a civilization rather than a nation is because the prevailing definition of the nation required a state; in contrast, [now on page 100] Kaplan argued, Jews are a transnational and diasporic people whose sense of peoplehood does not require a state.”
American Jews have been wrestling with the relationship between the universal and the particular for nearly two hundred years. The terms of the debate, and their answers, have changed with the times. But, as page 99 suggests, arguably the dominant strain is to find a universal that allows space for the particular – and to avoid a particular that dominates the universal.

But now that I know I have passed, I have to ask: is this a good thing? We are usually happy when we pass a test. Sometimes it means good things will happen – I get my driver’s license. Sometimes it means we get to avoid bad things – I don’t have to take my driver’s test again. Is it good that I passed the Ford Madox Ford “page 99 test”? I suppose the good news is that the central themes of the book can be found on a random page. This suggests a general consistency of narrative. I suppose the not so good news is that the book is overly predictable, perhaps even repetitive. Taking this test left me even more deeply unsure about how I feel about my book.
Learn more about The Star and the Stripes at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue