Discord in the Choir: It's all-American

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 04, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- When the Clarence Thomas affair is at last, blessedly, over, no one will be able to portray the black community anymore as a monolithic hometown where everyone speaks with the same voice.

When the last of the black organizations takes its stand for or against this nominee for the Supreme Court, no one will be able to assume that black ''leaders'' always command followers. Among blacks, a kind of silence has been broken by the nomination of an African-American conservative. The lingering feeling that disagreements should be kept ''within the family '' has ruptured. Differences that were tamped down under grandmother's warning -- ''don't air your dirty linen in public'' -- have become part of a very open debate.

Something similar has been happening, with a good deal less fanfare, among American Jews. For the better part of 50 years, being pro-Israel was an article of faith among the majority. Israel was both a redemption for the Holocaust and an insurance policy for the future. It was a center that held, especially for the second generation of American Jews.

Now the conflict over building settlements on the occupied West Bank has revealed fissures. The notion that American Jews are supporters of every Israeli government move -- Yitzhak Shamir right or wrong -- is cracking. The idea that Jews too speak with one voice, the voice of ''Jewish leaders'' has finally shattered.

The issues facing blacks and Jews are wholly different. For blacks, the debate is about public policy, affirmative action and reaction, self-help and government help, responsibility and victimization. For Jews, the debate is about foreign policy, about Middle East peace and security, about Israeli vulnerability and aggression.

But from the vantage point of the American experience there is something similar in this unraveling. For better and for worse, two communities that remained relatively cohesive in the face of prejudice, are arguing in a time of relative tolerance. Their arguments are often as rending as a family feud.

''There came a generation that knew not Joseph,'' said one black lawyer, musing to me about the generational tilt to this struggle. His ''Joseph'' was American apartheid, the old world of African-Americans, a community of outsiders who created their own inside. Their personal differences took second place to unity in the face of a hostile world.

Among Jews, ''Joseph'' is the Holocaust, the evil capstone to a ** bleak history of ''wandering Jews'' that carried a warning: Keep your bags packed. The notion of a ''homeland'' held special meaning for immigrants and survivors. But it holds less meaning for the next generation.

The transition from a coherent community to a loose affiliation of people is part of the American experience, another chapter of an old story. The process of becoming ''American'' seems to weaken the ties that connect people to ethnic groups as it strengthens individual voices. It wasn't just the integration of the suburbs and workplaces that stretched the bonds of ethnicity so thin. Rather, it was the American mainstream culture itself that so fiercely prizes independence.

But this independence exacts a price. For Clarence Thomas, the cost has been ''shunning.'' The opposition from blacks has been harsher, and more personal, than from whites. You don't have to admire his legal mind to acknowledge that emotional price tag.

American Jews who publicly part with Israeli policy are often subject to their own special sort of analysis. It's not just their arguments that are picked apart by other Jews. It's their psyches. It's easy to be labeled a self-hating Jew.

Such strains are not unique to blacks and Jews. Other ethnic groups in hyphenated America have felt them. Other elders have tried to tamp down disruptions in the family. Other dissenters have wrestled with the desire to belong and the desire to speak out. The claims of the group are especially strong when racism and anti-Semitism menace.

But Americans value independent voices for good reason. The airing of difference is honest. Without dissent there can't be change. Without the admission of conflict, there can be no resolution. However we may belong to groups, we can only, finally, speak as ourselves. So these very public debates -- over affirmative action and the occupied territories, over what is right and wrong -- blow fresh wind through stale arguments. They topple certainties and introduce new possibilities.

These visible, high-profile fractures in the community may be painful, but they are also an indication of how much things have changed. Those who were once designated outsiders, who kept their fights to the family kitchen, feel at home enough to argue in the front parlor of public opinion.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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