Multi-cultural Longing for Zion

A scholar trawls through the literature to prove that there was a day when three diverse ethnic groups were once bosom buddies.

The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish from 1845 to 1945, by George Bornstein. Harvard University Press, 254 pages, $27.95.

In this age of Jewish anxiety, among the classics often quoted is "Altneuland," the utopian novel published in 1902 by Theodor Herzl, the man who invented Israel. How far we have declined, lament the gloomy pundits, from Herzl's vision of a peaceful, secular Jewish polity in Palestine. How prescient he was - explain the cheerleaders - in anticipating the industrial sophistication of the Jewish nation-state. How naive and racist of him, say the leftists, to assume that the Arabs of Palestine would be grateful to the Jews for upgrading their "primitive" way of life. And the famous epigraph of the novel - "If you will it, it is not a fairy tale " - has lately been hijacked by Im Tirtzu, an Israeli organization that seeks to purge public discourse of ideas that fail to conform to its rightist reading of Herzl's liberal vision.

Obama, pesach, passover
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To these diverse voices is now added "The Colors of Zion," an intriguing work of advocacy scholarship by George Bornstein, professor emeritus of literature at the University of Michigan. Bornstein's ambitious project is devoted to an exploration and celebration of the interconnection and mutuality of blacks, Jews and Irish in the century prior to 1945, as reflected in a wide range of writings from both sides of the Atlantic. He rejects the "identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s," champions "hybridity rather than purity and love rather than resentment," and argues that "projecting our current conceptions of race and ethnic groups back onto the past results in misreading of literature, culture, and our own history."

Bornstein cites "Altneuland" in juxtaposition to Article 32 of the Hamas charter, which invokes the notorious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and speaks of a "limitless" Zionist plan to "expand from the Nile to the Euphrates." This canard, he writes, is antithetical to "the vision of intergroup cooperation" presented by Herzl in his novel, but the example he brings has nothing to do with Arabs: "There is still one problem of racial misfortune unsolved," says Professor Steineck, a scientist and secondary character in Herzl's Zionist utopia. "I mean the Negro problem . . . Think of the hair-raising horrors of the slave trade . . . I am not ashamed to say, though I be thought ridiculous, now that I have lived to see the restoration of the Jews, I should like to pave the way for the restoration of the Negroes."

Herzl barely figures in this sprawling study, and Zionism is one topic among many, but the man and his plan offer a key to Bornstein's intentions. First consider the ingenious title: "Color" connotes race, shades of meaning, flags of nations. "Zion" is not a place but an ideal state of mind, a metaphor of longing and redemption. In a sub-chapter called "Psalm 137 and its Influence: Lament for the Diasporic Condition," Bornstein traces "Zion" from the Hebrew Bible through Joyce's "Ulysses," via the Irish Sinead O'Connor singing the Rastafarian "Rivers of Babylon" and the Hasidic rapper Matisyahu: "Jerusalem, if I forget you/ fire not gonna come from me tongue." En route are quick mentions of Lord Byron's "Hebrew Melodies," a speech by Abraham Lincoln in Philadelphia, T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," and "By the Waters of Babylon: Little Poems in Prose," by Emma Lazarus, whose subtitle, incidentally, "explicitly evokes Baudelaire's famous prose poem 'Petits poems en prose,' whose technique Lazarus was one of the first to adapt to English."

It's that kind of book - eclectic, free-associative, digressive, repetitious, a grab bag of academic goodies. But it's also a book that commands attention and invites interpretation. Bornstein lets the sources pile up, creating a cumulative impression. In his words: "I have tried to recuperate strong voices from the past of all three groups in order to let them speak for themselves and their age rather than ventriloquizing them in the terms of our own. They have more to teach us than we have to teach them." The sheer weight of his evidence - nugget after nugget of ethnic convergence and harmony - cracks the fashionable hegemony of identity politics. Cameo appearances by "strong voices" of another ilk - WASP nativists and bigots including Madison Grant (influential author of the "The Passing of the Great Race" ), Henry Ford and Ezra Pound - help drive the lesson home.

One great stew

"The Colors of Zion" is the product of impressive erudition. It is divided into chapters and units and topics - race, diaspora, nationalism, melting pots, popular culture - but true to its theme, it blends by the end into one great stew, an assemblage of facts and quotes, plot summaries and biographical sketches, a thick cholent with a clear message: hybridity is good. (The figure of Barack Obama, son of Kenya and Kansas, is of great symbolic import for Bornstein. ) No "race" is pure, neither the Irish, the blacks nor the Jews. Racialist thinking leads to lynching and genocide. Bornstein's call for humanity and empathy is utopian and conservative, a nostalgic return to Arcadia. His use, more than once, of the word "recuperate" suggests the restoration of cultural health, a goal also articulated by Herzl. In a curious way, this book is an academic analogue of "Altneuland," a hopeful imagining of the future fueled by a romantic reading of the past.

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The specific quote from "Altneuland" about Jewish and black "restoration" reflects Bornstein's most urgent concern. "The fracturing of the long-term Black-Jewish alliance by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school tensions of 1968," he writes, "combined with the anti-Israel sentiments of the Black Power movement displace memory of half the lawyers of the civil rights movement being Jewish or the sympathy of virtually all major African-American figures a century ago for Zionism." Bornstein provides only scant evidence for this last, startling assertion. But he does marshal a parade of pro-Jewish sympathies from a pantheon of black luminaries: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, the nationalist Marcus Garvey and the literary lion Ralph Ellison, who once said, "All of us old-fashioned Negroes are Jews." (Douglass, in the 1840s, also traveled to Ireland and reported on the ravages of the famine. ) In 1939, the black author Zora Neale Hurston published the novel "Moses, Man of the Mountain," in which the Hebrew slaves speak in black Southern dialect and Pharaoh's draconian edicts are worded to resemble the Nazi Nuremberg Laws.

'Wail of the Hebrew'

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong wore a Star of David around his neck. The magnificent bass-baritone Paul Robeson famously performed "The Hassidic Chant of Levi Isaac." ("I know the wail of the Hebrew," Robeson told the New York World-Telegram. ) Returning the favor, George Gershwin wrote "Porgy and Bess" and Irving Berlin broke into the big time in 1911 with "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which "inspired the legend," writes Bornstein, "that Berlin had paid an African American to write it." And of course we have "The Jazz Singer," the historic "talkie" of 1927, starring Al Jolson as the cantor's son who croons "Mammy" in blackface. "Current attacks on 'The Jazz Singer' turn out to be largely back-projections of present attitudes onto the foreign country of the past," argues Bornstein. At the time, he points out, African-American newspapers gave the movie rave reviews. "It is one of greatest pictures ever produced," gushed the influential New York Amsterdam News.

Popular culture that may reek in retrospect of kitsch and stereotype furnishes further grist for Bornstein's mill, especially in the Irish department. Comic songs of the early 20th century included "It's Tough When Izzy Rosenstein Loves Genevieve Malone," "My Yiddisha Colleen," "There's a Little Bit of Irish in Sadie Cohen," and "Kosher Kitty Kelly." Not to mention the hit play "Abie's Irish Rose," which opened on Broadway in May 1922 and ran for 2,327 performances. (The play, we learn, was backed by the Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein. ) On a more serious note, Yitzhak Shamir, while fighting the British in the 1940s, took the nom de guerre "Michael" in admiration of the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. Another Irish freedom fighter, Michael Davitt (1846-1906 ), reported on the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 for the Hearst newspapers and wrote a book called "Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia." But the book that buttresses the author's case the most is "Ulysses," with its Jewish-Irish hero, Leopold Bloom. "Joyce," declares Bornstein, "not only recognized but celebrated hybridity. 'Mixed races and mixed marriages,' he has Bloom exclaim in his vision of the 'new Bloomusalem.'"

Can Bornstein's thesis be challenged? Would it not be possible for an equally assiduous and motivated researcher to exhume countervailing examples, from the same time period, of prejudice and hate? Bornstein implies that it would be, noting the anti-Semitism of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, and anti-Jewish violence and boycotting in Limerick, Ireland, in 1904. He makes fleeting mention of an article called "Anti-Negroism among Jews," published in 1942 in Negro Quarterly by a Jewish scholar, but doesn't describe its content.

Bornstein is happier to dwell on George Eliot's novel "Daniel Deronda." "The book's embrace of a proto-Zionism is well known," writes the tireless author, "but its association of that cause with Black and Irish ones is not." This is how it goes, in a lifetime of reading. You cherry-pick and share the stuff that speaks to you. The bitter fruit you leave to others.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.

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