Jump into multicultural debate, new book urges Jews

While the multicultural debate rages, Jews — despite their status as a minority group — often choose to opt out of the dialogue.

David Biale would like to change that.

A professor of Jewish history at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley who is known for his 1997 book "Eros and the Jews," Biale recently collaborated with fellow academics Michael Galchinsky and Susannah Heschel to edit "Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism."

The book, which brings together essays by Jewish literary critics, historians and political theorists, examines Jews' ambivalence toward the current debate on multiculturalism. It also suggests ways in which Jews can contribute to the discussion.

Biale hopes the work will "turn around" the prevalent Jewish attitude towards multiculturalism, which he describes as a negative one. "We tend to react against multiculturalism, and say that we don't want any part of it," the Berkeley resident says.

The negativity, he contends, stems in part from Jews' unique position in contemporary American culture.

"In America today, you can opt out of being Jewish, so that in a sense, all Jews today are Jews-by-choice," he says. "It's possible to construct an identity in which assimilation is not a dirty word — and we're seeing many different types of Jewish identity."

In his own essay in the book, titled "The Melting Pot and Beyond: Jews and the Politics of American Identity," Biale describes the process by which early 20th century Jewish immigrants to the United States worked hard to become Americans, and in the process "became white."

That left them with a curious legacy, the "insider/outsider" status of the book's title.

"Never before have so few barriers existed to Jews entering the corridors of political, cultural and economic power," according to the book's introduction. "Yet the path to integration has also created enormous contradictions in Jewish self-consciousness."

But while most Jews still usually define themselves as members a minority group, other minority groups see them as part of the majority culture.

"Interestingly enough, very few [multicultural] diaspora theorists recognize Jews as the paradigmatic people of diaspora," says Biale. "And yet, it seems entirely appropriate to bring the Jewish situation to bear in thinking about these issues."

Biale and his co-editors argue that since the Jewish community is itself multicultural, it could serve as a useful model for multicultural integration.

"The Jewish experience suggests that the categories of 'white' and 'black' are far too simple," Biale says. "We don't fit in easily to one or another of these categories. After all, what are Jews? There are Jews with dark skin."

And while many multiculturalists want to form an identity "based on separatism and victimization," he adds, it should be possible to "choose an ethnic identity without giving up one's identification with the larger culture." He says Jewish writers such as Philip Roth and Woody Allen have done this, "turning [American] English into a Jewish language.

"Obviously, Jews had certain advantages and we would be remiss in claiming that [a group such as] African-Americans has the same advantages," Biale says.

"But we're hoping to increase that middle space…to point out that there's something in the Jewish experience that's interesting and important for multiculturalists, for people inside and outside Jewish studies."