Stop thinking of selves as victims, Jews urged

March 26, 1992|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Staff Writer

American Jews still relate to society as victims, a leading Jewish historian said here yesterday, urging them to recognize their membership in the establishment and their duty to help the dispossessed gain a place in it.

"We would like to drive a Honda or a Mercedes to the board meeting of the Jewish charity and think of ourselves as victims," said Arthur Hertzberg. "My generation was socialized on the idea, 'They have the goods, and we want in.' Now Jews are regarded as being in that position."

Jews would make greater inroads against anti-Semitism, he said, by attacking social and economic inequalities that give rise to it.

Dr. Hertzberg, appearing at the Johns Hopkins University, was the first speaker in a new lecture series on Jewish studies.

It was a homecoming for Dr. Hertzberg, 70, a 1940 Hopkins alumnus who grew up as the son of a Hasidic rabbi on Collington Avenue in what he said was the original East Baltimore "shtetl." Now a visiting professor at New York University, he has written widely on Jewish history and culture.

Dr. Hertzberg, a Conservative rabbi who was president of the American Jewish Congress from 1972 to 1978, said Jewish success in America had outdistanced the approaches many U.S. Jewish organizations take toward anti-Semitism.

The Jewish minority, he said, is no longer operating within a dominant, white Christian majority culture. Non-whites -- blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others -- are on their way to becoming the new majority, Dr. Hertzberg said.

To these groups, "Jews are not victims, they are the elites," he said. " 'No more Holocausts' has not the same resonance for [the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson] that it supposedly does for the white community."

What many Jews today call anti-Semitism, Dr. Hertzberg calls "group conflicts" between Jews and other ethnic or racial minorities seeking their place in society.

"I submit that the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] is not an anti-Semitic organization," said Dr. Hertzberg, who calls himself a "dove" on Middle East issues. "The PLO is engaged in a conflict between Palestinian nationalism and Jewish nationalism," and he expressed hopes that peace talks can solve it.

In the United States, anti-Semitic appeals of the likes of Louis Farrakhan to blacks or of David Duke to whites would diminish if "there is less abject misery to fuel them," Dr. Hertzberg said. "We had better think about it in terms of social justice. Or indeed, there will be anti-Semitism from below with demagogues to play on it that will give us vast trouble."

The Hopkins audience was occasionally challenging in its questions, but deferential.

Josiah Rotenberg, a student, said afterward that he agreed with the liberal social justice platform, but he objected to Dr. Hertzberg's sense of a specifically Jewish obligation to carry it out. That would offer tacit acceptance of the anti-Semitic theory of Jewish control of economic forces, Mr. Rotenberg said.

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