The ‘politics of respectability’ must end now for American Jews

Long before he was indicted for sexual assault, Bill Cosby sparked African-American ire with what is now known as the “Pound Cake” speech, in which he blasted many Black people for failing to live up to the promises of the Civil Rights Movement. Among the controversial points was Cosby’s criticism of the refusal to conform to acceptable (read: white) standards of behavior.

It’s easy to dismiss the speech in light of Cosby’s subsequent criminal convictions. But it epitomized what’s become known as “the politics of respectability” — and, as such, it’s newly relevant to American Jews in the heartbreaking aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel. 

Cosby’s message was that respectable Blacks should assimilate, blend in, and rise socially. Jews have largely been masters at executing this process since we first arrived in America in the mid-17th century. But the time for respectability is over. 

Minority groups worldwide have been at this moment before – often slow to fully perceive the threats against them. 

But following a week in which Jewish students were trapped in a library at the Cooper Union as protestors rallied on the outside and a group of pro-Palestinian protestors shut down Grand Central Station days later, many of them Jewish, American Jews today are like many of those groups. This degree of fury at the Jewish state will inevitably transform into fury at Jews everywhere; it already has. It’s like the world on day one of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Aztecs witnessing the arrival of Cortez, sunset just after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. 

This is a reset of epic and quite likely bloody proportions — and no amount of respectability is guaranteed to keep us safe. 

Who would have imagined that the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust would be followed by antisemitic outbursts becoming only more common on college campuses and in city squares? 

That those outbursts would be rationalized by university presidents and thought leaders under the banner of “free speech” — despite their propensity for violence? 

That the city of Richmond, California, would issue a formal municipal decree against Israel’s right to defend itself, as it did this week?

But the most frustrating players in all this are actually Jews themselves — a least the hefty slice of us still hell-bent on maintaining all that respectability. 

It’s easy to understand why: Playing by the rules has provided many of us with outsized successes. It’s OK to be proud of it: Jews are influential in this country, particularly considering our meager numbers.

But we were also influential in Weimar Germany during the years before the Anschluss, and in Andalucia in the decades before the Inquisition. No amount of wealth spared us from expulsion or conversion as Columbus set out for the New World — nor the death camps four centuries later. 

If anything, Jewish exceptionalism only fueled hatred, and ultimately violence, against us.

The politics of respectability would tell Jews today to remain calm and keep playing by the rules. To continue with our galas and charity lunches and art openings. This would be a grave mistake. Because as mobs chant “from the river to the sea” at rallies nationwide, the writing is clearly on the wall, and it is full of hatred for Jews.

Mainstream cultural and academic institutions are failing to condemn the Hamas attack and, in some cases, defending it. “Consensus was out of reach,” sighed the Writers Guild of America before eventually declaring support for Israel’s right to defend itself. Even my alma mater Brandeis University — established the same year as Israel by Jews — failed to get an anti-Hamas resolution approved by its student senate. 

Last week, 2,000 artists and creatives issued an open letter laden with claims of “genocide” and demand a ceasefire in Gaza, with no mention of Hamas. Hundreds of British academics did essentially the same. 

Such condemnations are nothing new – they’ve accompanied previous Israel-Gaza conflics in 2014 and 2021. In each instance, Jews accepted such sentiments with nervousness, rather than outright fear. Propelled by a sense that “we’ve seen this all before,” Jews remained confident in their commitment to respectability even as latent antisemitism brewed (but not boiled) to the surface.

It is certainly boiling now.

A kid at my sons’ school already hurled anti-Israel barbs at one of his Jewish classmates — they’re in second grade. Jewish friends have told me they’re trying to make themselves appear “less Jewish” to avoid antisemitic attacks. My respectable Jewish neighbors are talking about buying guns. Hardly surprising considering that reports from London that antisemitic offenses are up a staggering 1,353% compared to a year ago. The New York Police Department reports a rise as well.

The most privileged among us may be able to hide behind their Hamptons hedges or within their dachas in Deal, New Jersey — for a while. But the antisemites come for us there, too — just like they did for the Jews smoked out of safe rooms across southern Israel. 

Many will scold my alarmism. But take it from a man who’s been through two wars in Israel: few days have felt darker than today — and they will likely become darker still as Israel’s military response continues. That’s when the protests and flag-burnings and chant-filled rallies will shift from horrifying and shocking to ordinary and routine. The deaths of 1,400 Israelis will fade from view. 

Our instinct will be to fade back into respectability — much like Cosby instructed his brethren to all those years ago. But Black folks were clearly fed up with respectability by the time George Floyed was murdered 15 years later, and were understandably ready for confrontation instead. It may not seem respectable, but perhaps we should follow their lead. 

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