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House Jew, Field Jew

The Daily Beast's new group blog, "Zion Square," and the sad saga of Peter Beinart.

by
Benjamin Kerstein

Bio

March 23, 2012 - 12:00 am
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But as odd as Beinart’s obsessions may appear — he claims, for example, to be critiquing Zionism, but never discusses it, preferring to lament the lack of a discussion — it becomes fairly clear fairly quickly what really troubles Beinart and, one imagines, those like him.

“One of the things we want to really have a conversation about,” Tablet quotes him as saying:

Is Jewish identity and Jewish culture more generally, and especially the question of what it means to live an ethical Jewish life in an age of Jewish power. For me, one of the important questions in American Jewish life is the question of whether the Jews are willing to admit that we wield power in a way that we didn’t 50 or 75 years ago, and to acknowledge that with power has to come responsibility.

Katznelson was an articulate man, but when it comes to this particular pathology, another revolutionary may have said it better. “There was the house Negro and the field Negro,” Malcolm X once said,

The house Negroes – they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good ’cause they ate his food — what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved their master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master’s house quicker than the master would. The house Negro, if the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we,” he said “we.” That’s how you can tell a house Negro.

The field Negro was beaten from morning to night. He lived in a shack, in a hut; He wore old, castoff clothes. He hated his master. I say he hated his master. He was intelligent. If someone came to the field Negro and said, “Let’s separate, let’s run,” he didn’t say “Where we going?” He’d say, “Any place is better than here.” You’ve got field Negroes in America today. I’m a field Negro.

Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. … Because someone has taught you to suffer — peacefully.

Mr. Beinart will forgive us, I hope, for choosing not to suffer peacefully. Most of us, however ethically problematic he may find it, believe that the answer to his question is fairly simple: It is good for the Jews to have power; we are glad we have it; and our primary responsibility is to maintain it and, if necessary, expand it.

And there is a good reason many of us feel that way. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, many of us didn’t go to Ivy League schools; we didn’t have family connections to the worlds of academia or the arts; we didn’t have the money or time to enjoy unpaid internships at the New Republic; we must have been absent the day the Rhodes scholarships were given out. Some of us had to make our way on our own merits, and the support and strength given us by other Jews along the way was and is more important to us than belonging to a club that wouldn’t have us as a member without foregoing such support and strength. We have little trust in the kindness of gentiles because we have rarely enjoyed it. We are the field Jews whose ancestors decided, at long last, that a piece of the field was going to be theirs: a testimony to their labors and their sufferings.

It is possible, of course, that Mr. Beinart will choose to leave the house and come out into the fields, where life is less comfortable but also warmer and vastly superior in its fecundity. But if not, I feel the sorriest for him. Because sooner or later, the Arabs will commit yet another in their long line of heinous atrocities, too heinous to be either ignored or explained away, and Beinart and others like him will be given a choice: Are you a Jew, or are you one of us? In other words, collaborate or be purged. However that little scenario plays itself out, it won’t be pretty.

The rest of us, however, may not even notice. We will be too busy, I imagine, tilling the fields.

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Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor who lives in Tel Aviv.
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