Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews is a progressive young American Jewish woman’s exploration of some nagging questions: What makes a good American Jew? And, correlatively, What makes a bad one? Tamkin, an editor at the New Statesman, engages them through historical inquiry, literary analysis, and her own ruminations on immigration, geopolitics, race, and so much more. She comes to an unsurprising answer: There is no way to say what makes a bad Jew, or what distinguishes a good Jew, because Jewish identity is infinitely malleable and always changing.
Tamkin’s structural choices shape her study. Rather than proceeding chronologically (seeing how the notion of a Bad Jew developed over time) or denominationally (by identifying distinct traditions within American Jewry and assessing how each thinks of Good-, Bad-, and Not-a-Jew), she mixes and matches her chapters from historical, political, and sociological categories. She explores the emergent fault lines within each category, tracking the myriad things on which Jews disagree—needless to say, comprehensiveness on this front is impossible—from Communism to the importance of bourgeois norms to Zionism.
The scattered structure and lack of rigor end up dooming the project from the start. Unmoored from the restraints that could hold her to account for maintaining her objectivity, Tamkin descends into left-wing platitudes—chiefly an obsession with “whiteness” that she never quite explains, but also half-hearted defenses of Soviet spies and, wherever needed, the Democratic Party—and tired progressive non-judgmentalism. Neither systematic enough to be a serious work of history nor bold enough to work as a pop-sociological provocation, Bad Jews is a book about Jewish identity marked by several identity crises. It wants to be critical of the Jews she clearly thinks are “bad,” but it’s committed to treating all things as equally Jewish; it wants to analyze the particularistic while maintaining Tamkin’s universalistic bona fides; it aims for objectivity but slides into hackneyed leftism without realizing. What it ends up doing is either trailing off before each story ends or reciting the kind of pablum you would expect from a mediocre progressive candidate for public office when asked what her Jewishness means to her.
Tamkin’s style lands somewhere between that of a dispassionate academic and an activist whose only training was reading Robin DiAngelo. Her writing is speckled with superscripts directing you to the endnotes as if she were engaged in scholarly pursuits, but she frequently makes journalistic moves we would never allow a scholar to make. She draws on interviews she conducted with supposed subject-matter experts without explaining how or why she chose them. Some appear to just be Tamkin’s progressive friends, and some are her family. Some insights are presented as Tamkin sharing what went on in her own mind during various conversations, despite her own admission that she has so little grounding in Jewish things that she might not be the right person to write this book. (She is half-right; no one is.) In Tamkinville, talking to yourself is a scholarly pursuit.
Trendy activist language eventually seeps through. She frequently fixates on the importance of “whiteness,” but toggles between treating it as a legal, cultural, racial, or other category. Her bible is a 1998 book called How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America, as if a UCLA anthropologist named Karen Brodkin provided the world with the definitive history of the Jewish-American experience, and as if her readers could not seriously challenge that “whiteness,” whatever it is, is the force that moves all of American history.
One ironic side effect of seeing American history through the lens of trite progressive orthodoxies is that Tamkin seeks to place the negative aspects of the Jewish experience in America in context—which is to say, she asserts that it just wasn’t as bad as the suffering of black people. In the middle of a section detailing how Jews suffered at the hands of white Americans through quotas, discrimination, and occasional lynchings, she offers this thought: “Though [the lynching of Leo Frank] is a gruesome example of a gross miscarriage of justice, it is not regular, systematic discrimination by the federal government.…Discrimination against Jewish people was not baked into the country’s founding documents as, say, slavery was.” Aside from assuming some contestable premises, this analysis is a bizarre non sequitur. It’s as though the voices in her head direct her at all times: Do not take your eyes off the ball, Emily Tamkin. You must bring all discussions back to anti-black racism.
Because its presentations of facts are meant to speak for themselves—res ipsa loquitur that Jewish progressives, anti-Zionists, and labor leaders have been betrayed or misunderstood, while right-wing Jews are greedy and kind of racist—Bad Jews frequently leaves the reader grasping for any kind of analysis that would integrate its sparse evidence into the book’s overall argument. A promising paragraph in the chapter on Jewish involvement in the civil-rights movement and its unsteady aftermath suggests that Jews “embraced identity politics for themselves” in the ’60s and ’70s, only to yield to a six-sentence parenthetical about the rise of Evangelical Christianity before pivoting to biracial Jews and Zionist Socialist “graffiti subculture.”
The worst example comes with Tamkin’s discussion of the minor events of May 1948. Here is the story of Israel’s founding: First, Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish friend of President Harry Truman, convinces the president to recognize Israel. “For Jacobson, the moment was one of joy,” Tamkin wraps up the anecdote. “For hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, great pain.” Section break.
Then, as you might expect from someone steeped in Critical Theory’s approach to American history, Israel’s founding is derided as full of hypocrisy: “The lofty ideals” of its Declaration of Independence “were one thing; the reality on the ground…was another.” Tamkin does not even toy with the idea that something heroic occurred, that some miraculous event was at hand, or even that its benefits outweighed its costs. She does not attempt to defend Israel’s founding at all. Instead, we learn about the “Nakba” at some length. Then, another pivot: Expecting at long last some analysis of the single most important event in modern Jewish history, the reader is condemned to wander longer in the wilderness, through an excessive discussion of how critics misunderstood Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib when she said in 2019 that she got a “calming feeling” when she thinks about her ancestors fleeing Israel so that the Jews could have their post-Holocaust haven.
“Listening to her, I didn’t hear antisemitism or hatred for Jews at all,” Tamkin concludes. “I heard a person who was trying to make sense of loss and pain.” Whether it was a lack of authorial discipline or the sincere conviction that this was the primary storyline emerging from the Jewish return to Zion that caused her to veer off track we cannot know for sure. But it tells us quite a lot about Tamkin’s brand of emotivist universalism, which knows only two modes: solidarity with victims and iconoclastic rage at villains. It cannot bear the thought of heroic Jews who are neither. It adverts to infantilizing psychological apologetics for intifada cheerleaders in the West, grasping for the stable ground of victimhood, implying that they and not the pioneers who reclaimed Jewish history from the Diaspora are really the Goodest Jews of all.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Gkilkis79
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