Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Hunting for Assimilation

This Phillip Weiss essay about Justice Kagan's recent forays into hunting feels like it could stumble across an interesting observation were it not so resolutely opposed to it. Indeed, Weiss' final paragraph (where he -- natch -- explains how this all inexorably points to the end of Zionism) is almost incomprehensible. Nonetheless, I do think Justice Kagan's experiences in this area raise some very important points about assimilation and the status of Jews in America.

The question of Elena Kagan and hunting first arose during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the result of rural-representing Republicans who were concerned that Kagan would be hostile to gun rights while on the Court. The problem was that Kagan came from a particular culture -- east coast, urban Jewish -- that really doesn't have much of a tradition with regard to firearms. And hunting, in particular, is discouraged amongst observant Jews. Nonetheless, Kagan gamely volunteered that she'd be willing to try hunting, and that promise smoothed (albeit certainly didn't clear) the path to her eventual confirmation.

This story always resonated with me because I have also thought a bit about how the "gun question" might sink my own fantasy confirmation hearing.* Like Kagan, I have very little gun experience -- limited to once at summer camp when I was in 4th grade (I'm quite proud to report that one shot did strike the edge of the paper). And I have no interest in going hunting -- frankly, the idea makes me a little queasy. So what could I do to assert my red-blooded Americaness? Somehow, I don't think professing my love for the History Channel's Top Shot is going to cut it.

To be fair, I don't disagree with Weiss that trying something outside ones comfort zone displays a laudable flexibility when one is about to be installed in such a powerful decision-making position. But there is another way of looking at this, which is that, despite her incontestable status amongst America's rarefied elite -- Harvard Law School Dean, Solicitor General, Supreme Court nominee -- Kagan's Jewish culture still rendered her an untrustworthy outsider. If she wanted to truly be accepted as "one of us", she would have to distance herself from being distinctively and differentially Jewish.

As best I can tell, Weiss views this as a good thing. Kagan is a "Jew who was granted enormous power and who then felt a keen responsibility to represent a broader constituency than her own group." Dominant groups in America don't face these sorts of choices, because they perform their status as part of that "broader constituency" simply by living their lives. Their Americaness is an entitlement, while Jews have to earn it by casting aside their Jewishness. Jews, as a small minority in America, cannot be Jews qua Jews while legitimately exercising power. We must become "just" Americans. The "melting pot", assimilationist ideal is fundamentally incompatible with the distinctiveness of minority and marginalized groups.

Contra Weiss, this does not show that "Zionism is doomed." If anything, it shows Zionism's enduring appeal for Jews, because Zionism holds out a promise to Jews that they need not make this choice. A Zionist state is to Jews what America is to Antonin Scalia -- a place where he can just be Antonin Scalia and it is entirely normal and unremarkable. That's going to be very appealing to a lot of people.

* Of course, in the real world my lack of gun ownership would play no role in sinking my judicial candidacy. This blog's archives would more than suffice my chances of ever being confirmed, or even nominated.

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