David Solway, On Being a Jew, David Mason, 342 Queen Street W. Toronto, ON, M5V 2A2, available privately…
Some time ago, Toronto bookseller David Mason gave me a copy of the latest in his series of elegant Nicky Drumbolis-designed limited edition monographs, this one an essay by Montreal writer David Solway titled On Being a Jew. I’ve read a few of Solway’s poems and reviews in the past, and was vaguely aware of his reputation as something of a self-promoter and latter-day Doug/George Fetherling—a professional aggrieved public intellectual, in other words, but one who, like Fetherling, seems to be in everyone’s face over things that really aren’t very urgent, like why everyone doesn’t want to read his poetry and shower him with grants and prizes. But since Mason is a personal friend and among the country’s most knowledgeable antiquarian booksellers—and two of his previous monographs have been works of mine—I was determined to read the Solway monograph with an open mind.
I was also interested in its subject, as it happens. Being Jewish, which hasn’t ever been easy, seems to have become difficult in a new way over the last few years. As far as I can figure, the new difficulty is mostly due to the ongoing crisis in Israel over the West Bank and Gaza settlements and the rash of Palestinian suicide bombers that have made life dangerous both in the contested territories and inside Israel itself. Then there’s the questionable Israeli behavior within the occupied zones.
I’m no Orientalist, don’t have many Israeli acquaintances and haven’t ever met a Palestinian that I can remember, so I don’t have a firm opinion on Israel other than that it has a right to continued existence. But like every card-carrying North American intellectual I have an inordinate number of Jewish friends and acquaintances. With one cherished exception – my long-time friend Stan Persky – I’ve lately detected amongst them, if not quite a quantum shift to uncritical support of Israeli policy and the American political right of which it has (strangely) become the darling, then at least the emergence of a palpable anxiety about their relationship to Zionism and Israel, along with an attraction—often slightly reluctant—to the authoritarian and militarist geopolitical values that can be summarized either as “The New World Order” or “Bushism”.
I also note that to be Jewish at this point in history now seems to require several subsidiary definitions: secular or orthodox, Diaspora or Zionist, pro or anti George W. Bush and his wars. Each of these self-identifications seems to have recently become problematic and sometimes consuming. Twenty years ago no one I knew – Jewish or not –cared so frantically about such sub-definitions, and the identities they inscribed were comfortable if not interchangeable with other kinds of identities—social democrat, doctor/lawyer/Indian chief. Not so today. So, I guess I was hoping that David Solway would shed some light on that endemic anxiety, and on the disturbing simplifications it has brought with it.
* * *
David Solway has titled his essay On Being a Jew, not On Being Jewish. Right off the bat I find that a troubling syntactical distinction. The word “Jew” is a proper noun, while “Jewish” merely would ride as a qualifier to “a human being” (or, for that matter, “a potato pancake”). “Being Jewish” would have invited him to define himself in relation to an extremely broad but optional checklist of characteristics and fidelities that comprise “Jewishness” within the still-broader cultural spectrum that we’re all in. But describing himself as “a Jew” leaves him little room to be anything else, and little room for the consideration of anything beyond ethnicity and race.
I’m also uncomfortable with the monograph’s title for a private reason: the word “Jew” has literally never crossed my lips. Northern B.C.-raised country boy that I am, I’m nonetheless acutely aware of the history of that term’s recent and long-past usage, and out of a circumspection concerning the ways it has been used in the past – usually as an accusatory epithet – I steer clear. If an Anglo like me were to ask a member of the Jewish community if he/she was a “Jew” it would likely get – and deserve – a hostile response, because I would be asking that person to assign him or herself a singular and circumscribing identity, not, as with “are you Jewish?”, where I would merely be requesting a cultural self-identification that allows for—at least—other, and potentially equal self-identifications: Jewish intellectual, Jewish land developer, Jewish whatever—and hopefully other things like “baseball fan”, “wine afficianado”, etc.. This may seem like an overly subtle distinction, but it’s similar to the distinction made during the early and middle decades of the last century between a “Communist” and those who held beliefs within and sympathies towards social democracy and/or socialism.
What always bothered me about Communists was that they never let up on being Communists, and that they never seemed to be competent at anything except being Communists. That made them hard to be around, because they were always shoving their sense of rightness in your face, and insisting on a priori understandings of everything. Whenever I lodged the slightest disagreement, they accused me of being a capitalist running dog (or in one deliciously funny incident, a “Left Hegelian”) – and dismissed me out of hand for just not getting it. None of my Jewish friends are this bad, but some of them now exhibit similar rigidities of dialogue whenever Israel comes up.
Solway frames the beginning of the essay by relating a personal anecdote in which, at age 5, he was kidnapped by some neighbours to stand in front of a picture of Jesus Christ and be accused of murdering him. He escaped, we learn, only because a chicken roasting in the kidnappers’ oven caught fire and distracted them. I suppose this is his way of suggesting that the interrogation went on for an unbearably long time, and that the kidnappers were serious – and hysterical – about their accusation. But there are some flaws in his depiction of the event. As a serious cook, I can testify to how hard it is for a chicken roasting in an oven to catch fire without overcooking it for at least three to five hours at high temperatures. Solways is therefore implying that he was interrogated about whether he murdered Christ for at least three hours, assuming that the chicken was about ready for the table when the kidnapping took place. This strains credibility in any number of ways, and I found myself wondering if the incident is just – and somewhat clumsily – symbolic, and that Solway is exaggerating to make a point. And what is exactly is that point? That Christians are crazy? Sure thing. Christianity has been an oppressive force in the world since about the 5th century CE, when the apostolic church became the state religion of the Roman Empire , and proceeded from there to authoritarian atrocitiy to zealous hysteria right into the 21st century. A lot of today’s Christians are pretty crazy people, particularly the evangelical ones, who seem little different from Islamic extremists except that they have RVs filled with guns instead of oil and hand-held rocket launchers. Religious fundamentalism is an ascendant phenomenon across the globe, and there’s no reason why Christians shouldn’t be losing their minds along with the rest.
So if Solway’s rural Quebecois deferred dinner to bully a defenseless five-year-old for three hours, stopping only because their stove oven burst into flames, I’ll cheerfully agree that they’re crazy enough to be institutionalized, not to mention being banned from cooking food. But more likely their bullying of young Solway went on for ten or fifteen minutes, and what we have is a writer exaggerating his materials to make a point that is hardly revelatory: that thirty or forty years ago in Quebec uneducated Christians often badgered Jewish children cruelly, and thought nothing of doing so.
I guess that’s worth saying even if it says more about the nuttiness of ignorant people than anything else. But if the anecdote is a serious attempt to bear witness to today’s culture, it is foolishness, and it is stale-dated. Contemporary North American bigotry – even in the back woods – is much more sophisticated. So, I ought to add, are the apparatuses that have been raised to single out and ostracize that sort of bigotry. A kidnapped minority child today is more liable to be rescued from the clutches of rural religious lunatics by a human rights lawyer or a multicultural tribunal than by an exploding chicken – or on the darker side of the formula, that minority child is much more likely to end up dead in the same circumstances because the offence has been elevated from hazing and harassment to felony crime. I learned, while I was teaching poetry in maximum security prisons a few years ago, that this sort of incident has a tendency to escalate as the average intelligence of the perps drops. That said, you’d have to get awfully deep into the turnip fields today before you’d find this sort of bigotry running around without a muzzle.
Unfortunately, out-of-control rhetorical points are a recurring phenomenon in Solway’s essay, and they work against his authorial stance as a measured, tolerant and skeptical man trying to come to terms with self-definition in an historical period that isn’t making that easy. The succession of anecdotes he proceeds to offer each verify that to him, the world is filled with crazy, misinformed, or ignorant people, most of them contemptible – and, not incidentally, contemptuously hostile to what is Jewish in general, if not always toward David Solway. The trouble with these rhetorical cultural inflations is that they contribute mostly to making the author appear misanthropic, not the victim of cultural prejudice.
Now, David Solway, by his own testimony, got smacked around in elementary school and high school, and I see no reason to doubt that he did. In his mind, this happened solely because he was Jewish, or at least, alternate explanations don’t seem to rate consideration. Maybe they should. I was also conspicuous when I was a kid, and more than just occasionally, I got my behind kicked because I hadn’t learned that being quick off the lip isn’t a license to lip off. Don’t bright Jewish kids ever get into trouble because they’re lippy smart-asses?
I wonder about this for two reasons. The first is that kids—everywhere—pick on one another. Where I was, in Northern B.C., no one picked on the Jewish kids because there weren’t any Jewish kids. Instead, Protestant kids picked on Catholics, and vice-versa. Because we were about equal in number, this felt like gang warfare, not oppression. Where it was oppressive was when the Catholic and Protestant kids picked on the less-numerous aboriginal or immigrant kids, which admittedly sometimes happened. But where things felt right—and they felt right about 80% of the time—was when nobody gave a damn about any of this crap.
Whether we like to admit it or not, getting picked on is a pretty unavoidable part of childhood. What appears to have eluded David Solway is that it isn’t something directed exclusively or even very specifically at one group. Maybe bullying one another is an expression of powerlessness under oppressive regimes, and in that sense, the recent upswing in school bullying appears to be critiquing our schools in an unexpected way. Still, it’s relevant to point out that bullying is an instinct inherited from our baboon ancestors—it establishes a hierarchy of prestige, however addled the underlying value system. Where I was, it was also, indisputably, imitative behaviour – kids trying on the prejudices of their goofy, ill-educated parents. One can spin this any number of ways, but the sensible response is to treat it within a fairly open contextual field. It doesn’t mean that Jewish kids didn’t get picked on or that David Solway’s anecdotes are complete fabrications, only that they may not have been part of the world-wide anti-Semitic conspiracy he seems to believe they reveal.
The second thing that I wonder about here is the distressing misanthropy that keeps appearing in Solway’s thinking, within the “On Being a Jew” essay and pretty well throughout his published work. That the meanness of his judgment of his fellow human beings excludes no one, not his culturally-challenged childhood Christian neighbours, not his contemporary Portugese grocer, not Montreal’s Hassids, not farmers from Northern Quebec, and not even famous Jewish intellectuals he’s never met, isn’t an excuse. “The Nazis,” he writes in one bilious outburst in “On Being a Jew”, “would not have spared Noam Chomsky for all his twisted, ideological blather and an irrelevance like Susan Sontag would have experienced a stark and long-overdue awakening from the fugue of sectarian rhetoric and pharisaical moralism into which her work has increasingly subsided.”
Excuse me? However much I may dislike Noam Chomsky’s self-righteous sense of mission, putting away his massive and intelligently-researched opus as “twisted, ideological blather” isn’t a competent criticism. Susan Sontag as nothing more than “an irrelevance”? Likewise an unreasoned and adjective driven dismissal.
Solway’s critical writings—most recently in Director’s Cut (Porcupine’s Quill, 2003)—are similarly littered (if not quite filled) with these sorts of over-the-top judgments. His attack on Anne Carson in the essay “The Trouble With Annie” is both asinine and transparently envious of Carson’s immense talent, and it’s hard not to conclude that he’s simply frantic at having a superior intelligence and talent within civic proximity.
Occasionally, to give him his due, he does hit the mark, as with the defenestration of Lorna Crozier in Director’s Cut—even though that’s a little like shooting a fish in a barrel. What makes me wistful about Solway’s lousy attitude is that the man can write, as witnessed by this encapsulation of Milton Acorn’s relationship with fellow-poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, which he delivers inside a sentence: “…[Acorn’s] unfortunate Shrek-like marriage to the ineffable and deceptively fionine Gwendolyn MacEwen.” The other redeeming quality he has is that he reads, and widely. It’s hard not to admire the erudition and the writing skills, but when he uses them as a bludgeon to, as he puts it, “straighten out the highbrows” it’s about equally hard not to find the extremity of both his excoriations and his praise slightly silly. At very least, a fully literate man of 65 who envies the relative fame and influence of other Canadian poets needs a refresher course on perspective.
In “On Being a Jew”, as elsewhere, Solway appears to be a man blithely prepared to backhand anyone who isn’t one of his acolytes or hasn’t recently given him a favourable review or book blurb into the nearest dumpster. Outside of his provincial circle, is there anyone out there he does like? I don’t see any reason to forgive the spewing arrogance of his dismissal of Chomsky and Sontag because he goes on to argue that Jews are as stupid and feckless as the rest of humanity, or because he admits that clear lines of Jewish descent – genetic or historical – are at best open to question. Every sensible person understands that racial purity has always been an ugly illusion, and that recently it has been exposed as an empirical illusion. What troubles me most, though, is that “pure Jews” are being sought out in the first place. Seems to me that any ethnic group that tries to seek out purity ends up—sooner or later—trying to cleanse itself of those who aren’t pure.
Maybe that’s why, when late in the essay, Solway offers Jean-Paul Sartre’s ostensibly sensible if tautological summary of what constitutes Jewishness—‘a Jew is someone who calls himself a Jew’—I’ve lost most of the intellectual good will I started with, and that permits me to notice two things I would have otherwise let go by. Neither, I suspect, he would be happy to have me point out. The first is that he defines himself not in solidarity with others of Jewish descent, which would have to include Chomsky and Sontag, but against an abstraction created from centuries of prejudice and oppression: “the Jew.” I don’t naturally gravitate towards such abstractions because, historically, they always seem to end up mired in dismal social, political, and intellectual violence. Aryan or Soviet or Hebrew Supermen: one or the others are equally distasteful. Where I come from, which is a brew of the small-town Canadian need to get along with a lot of different people and a university-calibrated and uniquely-Canadian social democratic liberalism, people can be fools and jackasses, and they can be decent and good people. Usually, they’re all of these things at the same time. But they’re defined by their actions, not by their resemblance to a perfect racial or ethnic specimen.
Second, in Solway’s attempt to define what – and where – Jewry rests in the 21st century, he drifts, like a man inexorably moving to scratch an itch that can’t be denied, towards the Middle East, and to the seemingly unanswerable questions surrounding Israel and Palestine. As he does so, the essay grows progressively more opaque and rhetorically suave, and eventually he’s sitting in the midst of that choir of zealots and murderous shitheads responsible for the black and white of 21st century Middle East geopolitics.
And as I read through the essay for the umpteenth time trying to find something to redeem it, I discover something unexpected in my reaction to all this: a weariness with the clichés of ethnic and racial uniqueness and singularity. I’m just plain weary – maybe “angry” is a better word, although it is anger fueled more by despair than with hostility or malice – with all the claims to racial or cultural or religious uniqueness that pass for cultural discourse these days, whether it’s among Jewish intellectuals, aboriginal politicians or the various cultural minorities vying to be more “visible” than the rest of us. I’m weary because these claims – all of them – are science-poor and self-aggrandizing.
They’re science-poor because geneticists have now empirically established that there is no such thing as race and that all human beings share a common and marvelously intertwined genetic heritage likely originating in some long-legged baboons from the Ulduvai Gorge. The uniqueness claims are self-aggrandizing because they deny, as they ought not to in a Democracy, that we’re all basically the same before the law and before the supermarket of social and economic opportunity that life in the West has become. They shout that their people are specially aggrieved and oppressed and thus deserve special treatment – which always involves, I notice, jumping whatever lineups the rest of us are in.
I’m angry with this because I believe that culture is supposed to be the crucial and permanent discussion of how we can keep from pounding on one another, both interpersonally and in groups. Cultural discourse is not about how and why one group constitutes a special case in whose presence everyone must kowtow or tiptoe. And maybe I’m angry because, as a white Anglo male, I’ve been playing by the nondenominational rules all my adult life while these gangs of entrepreneurs and racketeers have been manipulating them—or simply ignoring them for their selfish advantage. That’s racism, or social entrepreneurism, or just plain crappy behavior.
David Solway, among the several good things he’s trying to do in this essay, is running with that pack: he proceeds to pile on anecdotal datum after anecdotal datum to secure his specialness and that of his group. He’s racializing at the same time as he’s attesting to the idea that Jewish people aren’t any different than anyone else. And I don’t give a damn if everyone else does it too. It’s wrong, and it lends itself to social violence.
Let’s follow this into the text of the essay. “The fact”, Solway concludes one string of debunking anecdotes with, “is that a Jew simply cannot help being educated. He is the perpetual scholarship student, the prodigy who receives his doctorate before puberty, whose fabled intelligence is not a consummation of angels in the blood but the tainted gift the world bestows on him and then is resentful of. He goes to the head of the class to answer the question and be punished for it.”
A more generous reading of this is that Solway appears to be twisting one of the admirable characteristics of modern Jewry: as a minority, they have placed a high value on education and tend to seek it out for their children. But he’s attributing other things to this. He uses the phrase “being educated” to mean “being singled out and punished for academic achievement”, along with its ostensible meaning. Aside from restating the unpleasant truth that nearly all bright children are punished by their classmates—which merely means that intelligence isn’t a social asset—what is it that he’s trying to establish here? That life isn’t fair?
Trying to figure out what he’s getting at leads me to discover not just why I’m annoyed at his obtuseness, but something about my own view of Jewish people that I hadn’t been fully aware of. Most of the Jewish people I know today are, on balance, better educated and more intelligent than the people I grew up with. That’s why I gravitate toward them—and why I’m not running a construction company in Northern BC. : culturally sophisticated and well-educated people are less likely to resort to violence in resolving conflict, if nothing else. Maybe this is why I believe that Israel and its supporters have an obligation to be politically rational and just that goes beyond the contingencies of the present geopolitical situation. They’ve suffered, individually and collectively, from systemic and frequently violent oppression for at least 2000 of the last 2500 years, and were the primary target of the Nazi state’s racially motivated genocidal program between 1933 and 1945. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that this has conferred on them an intrinsic capacity for justice or superior intelligence. It’s more like, “if they don’t understand the need for state justice and the avoidance of social violence after what has been done to them, no one will.” I believe, in other words, that Zionists ought to be Jewish and not the other way around. And I guess I think that being Jewish confers extra responsibilities.
This is, of course, unfair, and not only because it implies that the Islamic states that surround Israel in the Middle East don’t have the same obligation. But on Western democratic terms most of Islam and its converging political and religious cultures are theocratic, and maybe some of them are politically insane—on those Western terms. Israel , by contrast, at least tries to be a Western-style state, and succeeds to the degree that it is a mish-mash of political and cultural compromises, and, I should add, that it has my profound admiration despite its recently cruel and feckless actions.
I don’t, as Solway (for different reasons) tries hard not to, accept that the Jews are a chosen people. To be chosen requires the presence of a chooser and I simply can’t see any evidence for the existence of a sentient chooser, least of all one that would choose one group over another as a pet project—or as a target for retribution and capricious cruelty. It is true that the Jews have been, in the past, very much a singled-out minority in the world, always without sane justification if not always without causal sequencing – i.e. jackasses looking to use them as scapegoats have never had trouble finding them because they’ve tended to stand up and bear witness where a more Falstaffian group wouldn’t. (The imaginary nation of Falstaffs – which is as close as I can comfortably identify my own ethnic loyalties – would flatten itself, instinctively and en masse, against the nearest surface).
Thus I’m irritated at a number of levels by Solway’s implicit insistence that the Jewish people remain a special case – whether self-chosen or singled out – and notwithstanding the frankly impossible position that Israel is in geographically and geopolitically. And no, I’m not forgetting the way some of the Islamic regimes in the Middle East have used the Palestinians for the last 60 years as a stalking horse to obscure their own abuses of justice and their autocratic kleptocracy.
Where I get completely exasperated with Solway is when, near the end of the essay’s 24 pages, he returns to the fixation with anti-Semitism, and posits the truly nutty argument that whatever the ostensible reason anyone might give for being anti-Israeli, behind it is anti-Semitism. I can see sound reasons for being critical of Israeli actions and policies, and I can even understand, abstractly, why stupid people hate and fear Jewish people. But anti-Semitism has always eluded me, particularly when establishing its presence characterizes all human beings as nasty animals with a genetic propensity towards a specific subset of racial discrimination. Solway posits anti-Semitism, quoting Walter Benjamin, Chaim Weizmann, and Matt Cohen, as a phenomenon as fundamental to our species as breathing oxygen, and suggests that these characteristics are impossible to overcome or eradicate.
I don’t think that any single group of human beings is either superior or inferior to any other group, and I’ve never seen a shred of evidence – anywhere – that suggests otherwise. Racism, of which anti-Semitism is one of several virulent strains, is the unreasoning hatred of other people who appear to be different but actually aren’t. Racism is the product of stupidity and lack of education, and if it can’t be eradicated then we’re all screwed.
Racism, and along with it anti-Semitism, isn’t elemental to the human condition. Accurately described, both are forms of cultural illiteracy. We need to redefine cultural illiteracy as a form of psychosis, whether expressed socially or individually. Thus, when Solway’s ultimate definition of what it is to be a Jew is that “a Jew is the incarnation of a destiny….to be in exile from everywhere”, I beg to differ. Aside from the fact that he’s describing the conditions under which about 4/5ths of the human species now lives, he’s both obsessively insisting that racism is a fundamental mode of human interaction and trying to convince us that one strain of it is somehow unique. The implication that, ultimately, he can’t be a Jew without anti-Semitism is as nihilistic as it is depressing.
October 31st, 2005, 4375 w.