Prisoner of identity politics

July 25, 1996|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- Do you have to be Jewish to direct a Jewish studies program? That's the question that has roiled the campus of Queens College in New York -- spawning an indignant resignation and charges of religious bigotry.

Until this month, Thomas Bird was an assistant professor of Yiddish at Queens College. He is a Roman Catholic. Ordinarily, the existence of a professor of Yiddish who is Catholic would cause eyebrows to arch -- in surprise and admiration. After all, taking the trouble to become expert in Yiddish -- the language of most European Jews until its recent decline -- suggests respect and affection for the Jewish people.

The trouble began when Professor Bird was named to become director of the Jewish Studies Program. This provoked outbursts from two former directors. Joseph Sungolowsky, professor of French literature and Judaic studies, denounced the appointment of a Gentile, saying the director "should be culturally and emotionally in tune with the students and with the members of the Jewish community of Queens. . . . Only a person who is Jewish can speak to such a population."

Really? And how can a non-Frenchman teach French literature?

Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and past director of the Jewish Studies Program, told the Forward newspaper, "He's not Jewish. He does not have a Ph.D. in Jewish studies, and he doesn't speak or understand Hebrew." He declared that teachers of Jewish studies should be "role models."

Professor Bird is a role model, as it happens. He is a role model as a scholar -- which is all a college teacher should be. From available accounts, he sounds like a pretty good one, too. A small "c" catholic in addition to a capital "C" Catholic -- someone whose interests are universal, not parochial.

But Professor Bird and broad-minded scholars like him are prisoners of a parochial age -- the age of identity politics, wherein what you have made of yourself is not nearly as important as what you were born.

Ethnic studies programs have blossomed at campuses around the nation and, with some exceptions, are treated as cheering sections for their respective groups, not as serious academic endeavors. Thus, it is possible for professors of African-American studies to insist, as many have, that white teachers cannot teach their discipline. The same is true for Asians, Hispanics, women and now Jews.

Professor Bird is understandably embittered. He has resigned, citing "primitive religious bigotry." It fell to the Forward (a Jewish newspaper) to defend both his credentials and his fitness to serve as director of Jewish studies.

Star-crossed pursuit

Professor Bird's pursuit of a doctorate in Slavic studies has been unusually star-crossed. His original mentor at Princeton University died suddenly just before Mr. Bird was scheduled to defend his thesis. He revised the work for a different adviser, only to have him also die in the final process.

At that point, the Slavic studies department at Princeton was so decimated that the Ph.D. program was suspended. Mr. Bird then submitted his thesis to Warsaw University, where it was accepted. But political turmoil in Poland has prevented the completion of the degree process. The objection to his lack of a Ph.D. -- even apart from the religious controversy -- smacks of nit-picking.

As for Professor Bird's lack of knowledge of Hebrew, so what? He isn't going to be leading prayers or chaperoning visits to Israel. The post of director is primarily administrative, rotating among various professors. His exclusion is obviously based only on his religion.

The attack on Professor Bird tends, unfortunately, to undermine the serious rationale for a Jewish studies program. Ideally, Jewish studies would examine the Jewish contribution to Western thought and life -- a not insubstantial subject for a civilization that routinely calls itself "Judeo-Christian."

Religious and ethnic pride are fine, but they don't entitle groups to claim history for themselves alone. Jewish history and culture aren't the sole preserve of Jews any more than Greek history belongs exclusively to Greeks. Knowledge cannot be ghettoized.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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