The Case Against Chutzpah


September 27, 1991|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The cringing ethnic is a pathetic specimen in American culture, whether it is Uncle Tom meekly defending his Master for selling him down the river (''It goes agin me to hear one word agin Mas'r . . . He couldn't be spected to think so much of poor Tom'') or Walter Lippmann oleaginously agreeing with Harvard's WASP president, A. Lawrence Lowell, that the university ought to have fewer Jews (''bad for the immigrant Jews as well as for Harvard if there were too great a concentration'').

One blessing of the existence of Israel is that it relieved pressure on Jews elsewhere to ''cringe, assimilate, normalize'' themselves. Being Jewish became normal.

Nevertheless, Alan Dershowitz's best-selling book, ''Chutzpah'' makes me, as an American Jew, cringe. And so does the lobbying campaign for $10 billion in American loan guarantees to Israel for the absorption of Soviet Jews, which partakes of the spirit of chutzpah, if not of ''Chutzpah.''

Although President Bush seems to have succeeded in getting the matter put off a few months, Israel continues to demand the money while making no concession whatever on the matter of settlements on the West Bank. The United States government favors the principle of ''land for peace,'' as do most American Jews and probably most Israelis as well. These settlements are openly intended by the Shamir government to make a ''land-for-peace'' deal of any sort impossible.

Whatever you think of the settlements issue on the merits, to ask another huge favor of a country that is already giving you $3 billion or so cash every year, and to stick your thumb in that country's eye at the same time, is a pretty good definition of chutzpah.

Mr. Dershowitz says, ''American Jews need more chutzpah.'' They are not ''pushy or assertive enough'' to protect their own bTC interests or Israel's. They still ''act like second-class citizens,'' overly worried about how they appear to gentiles. He discerns a subtle new form of anti-Jewishness, replacing the cruder anti-Semitism of the past, which he calls ''Judeopathy.''

It consists of a ''double standard'' under which Jews and Israel are ''held up to super-scrutiny'' and criticized for behavior tolerated uncritically in others. In particular, the role of Jews in helping Israel through the American political process is simply an exercise in first-class citizenship. That is the ''American way.'' Chutzpah is patriotic!

But are there not limits to chutzpah, both as a political strategy and as a lifestyle?

To start, claiming that the fruits of Jewish political chutzpah are merely Jews' fair share in the American system moves you onto dangerous logical ground. Because of their organized determination, general civic involvement, social prominence and -- yes -- financial success, Jews enjoy political influence out of proportion to their share in the population.

That does not mean disproportionate in any right-and-wrong sense. Nor does it say anything about the substantive merits of any particular Jewish cause. But the suggestion that American politics is or should be a scramble among interest groups to split the American pie does not lead to the conclusion that Jews are entitled to a bigger piece.

Furthermore, one problem with American politics is that too much of it is indeed an interest-group scramble. The days when ''pluralism'' seemed an unalloyed blessing are long gone. The demands of Americans as members of narrow interest groups often undermine their interests as citizens of society as a whole.

The deficit is a concrete expression of this problem. Urging Jews to flex their chutzpah without restraint, then granting them absolution on grounds that this is the ''American way,'' is advice less patriotic and more cynical than it seems at first.

But, even measured cynically, is it good advice? Moderating your chutzpah for fear of appearing ''pushy'' may be psychologically demeaning, but it may also be politically sensible. AIPAC, the American pro-Israel lobby, will be happy to explain to Professor Dershowitz that what the gentiles think does matter. Appearances do count, after all, and the appearance of an all-powerful Jewish lobby that will stop at nothing to get its way is self-defeating.

On a personal level, what is wrong with not wanting to seem pushy? The standard chutzpah jokes -- the man who kills his parents then pleads for mercy because he is an orphan, etc. -- are funny precisely because the behavior they describe is appalling. Ethnic traits are a sensitive subject, and rightly so.

I don't even object to the unwritten rule that you -- especially if you are an outsider -- can ascribe good traits to an ethnic group but not bad ones. Logically, though, the possibility of the one category existing suggests the possibility of the other.

But leave that aside. Unattractive behavior is unattractive, whether or not it is an ethnic stereotype and whether or not that stereotype has any validity. Irishmen, like anyone else, shouldn't drink too much. It would be a foolish response to the stereotype of Irishmen to say, ''I'll show them,'' and go get plastered.

Pushiness isn't nice behavior, and I intend to try to avoid it. I hope that doesn't make me an Uncle Tom, or an Uncle Walter.

TRB wrote this commentary for The New Republic.

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