‘We Are All Jews,’ David Brooks Claims, Stretching Definition to Breaking Point
“We are all Jews,” New York Times columnist David Brooks claimed in a recent column.
By which he meant, all modern Americans are “creative minorities.”
The full paragraph: “In a world of radical pluralism, we are all Jews. We have no choice but to build a mass multicultural democracy, a society that has no dominant center but is a collection of creative minorities.”
Sorry, David Brooks. It might be accurate to write that in modern America we are all “like Jews,” in the sense of being creative minorities.
But to claim that “we are all Jews” skates on thin ice. Many people — gentiles, Christians — are not Jews. Claiming that those people “are all Jews” is a kind of insult to the actual live Jews, at least as I read it.
If that seems a hyper-sensitive reaction to a columnist’s intentionally provocative overstatement, forgive me.
Brooks has just published a bestselling book, The Second Mountain, in which he details his personal spiritual journey, including his view that the accounts of Jesus in the Christian Bible “do feel like a completion to me,” and his description of himself as “a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian.” Religion News Service reports that, “When he attends church, he says the Nicene Creed and takes communion.”
What Brooks does in church is his own business, at least as far as I am concerned, but when he writes in The New York Times that “We are all Jews,” it becomes more problematic, because a lot of people read it. It’s inaccurate. He is, though, echoing a longstanding Christian theme.
As I wrote earlier for the Algemeiner in response to a Times column that appeared under the headline “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Celebrate Rosh Hashana”:
There’s a long-running conflict between Jews and Christians over who are the rightful heirs to the Abrahamic covenant. Jews say we are. Christians say they are. The Albert List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, Jon D. Levenson, wrote an entire excellent book about this, titled Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It came out in 2012 from Princeton University Press as part of the Library of Jewish Ideas series cosponsored by the Tikvah Fund, and it was, predictably, not reviewed by the New York Times. It’s a complicated story, but the Christian Bible, in Galatians 3:29, puts it this way, quoting the apostle Paul: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
As Levenson explains this Christian contention in his book: “Conversion to Christianity (to use terminology that did not exist in Paul’s time), then, gives Gentiles the status that Jews claimed for themselves: it makes them descendants of Abraham and thus heirs to the promise given him. It does this, moreover, while bypassing the laws of Moses and even the law of circumcision.”
Being a Jew merely by being a “creative minority” — but not by believing in one God, attempting to follow the laws of Judaism, or participating and joining in Jewish communal life — is a contemporary version of Paul’s shortcut. Think of how women might react to a New York Times op-ed claiming “we are all women” or how African Americans might react to a New York Times op-ed claiming “we are all black.” It’s not that one doesn’t appreciate the sentiment or the feeling of having admiring allies, but one has the uneasy feeling that these allies don’t quite get it. They are expanding the definition of the group beyond the definition’s breaking point. Anyway, be warned: what Brooks means by “Jews” when he writes “we are all Jews” may be something distant from what most Jews mean.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.