CULTURE MARCH 23, 2011
by George Bornstein
Harvard University Press, 272 pp., $27.25
IN 2005, GEORGE BORNSTEIN, emeritus professor of literature at the University of Michigan, published a scholarly article titled “The Colors of Zion: Black, Jewish, and Irish Nationalisms at the Turn of the Century.” Six years later, the article has grown into a book, and the change points to the ambiguity at the heart of Bornstein’s project. What is it, in fact, that these three ethnic groups had or have in common? The first version of Bornstein’s title suggests that it is nationalism, a desire for political independence; and a century ago, this similarity would have been quite plain.
In the pre-World War I era, Zionists were pressing for Jewish sovereignty in Palestine just as Irish nationalists were pressing for an independent Ireland. Both liberation movements eventually took up arms against Britain, the imperial power, and on occasion they cooperated with one another. In 1938, Bornstein writes, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of the hard-line Revisionist Zionists, went to Ireland to receive guerrilla training from Robert Briscoe, a Jewish veteran of the Irish underground. Yitzhak Shamir, as a leader of the terrorist Stern Gang in Palestine, used the code name “Michael” in honor of Michael Collins, a leader in the Irish war of independence. And both these causes helped to inspire the African American nationalist Marcus Garvey, whose Universal Negro Improvement Association sought to create a new homeland for the black diaspora. At the UNIA’s rally in Madison Square Garden in 1920, Bornstein reports, Garvey read a telegram of support from a Zionist leader and announced that he was sending a telegram of support to the Irish revolutionaries.
Here, then, is one interpretation of Bornstein’s title: Shamir and Collins and Garvey each had a “Zion,” a dream of national redemption, and so they understood one another. But there is not much reason to tell the stories of these nationalisms together, because their Zions were, at best, parallel. By definition, nationalism is opposed to fusion, and the last thing any of those leaders would have wanted was to mix the three groups together. (Indeed, Bornstein acknowledges that some major Irish and black nationalist leaders, including Garvey, were anti-Semitic.) But that kind of mixing is the whole purpose of the American “melting pot.”
The metaphor of the melting pot comes, as Bornstein notes, from a play by the English Jew (and leading Zionist) Israel Zangwill. At the premiere of Zangwill’s The Melting Pot in Washington, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt called out, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill!” He recognized that its message of patriotic tolerance was perfectly suited to an America struggling with mixed feelings about the immigration of Jews, Italians, and other groups. Bornstein usefully summarizes the plot of Zangwill’s play, now more often referred to than read, and quotes its Act One peroration: “Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to … into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.” For Zangwill, as for Roosevelt, the real colors of Zion were red, white, and blue.
Bornstein, then, is telling two very different stories about these three groups, with contradictory implications. Are Irish, blacks, and Jews different nations, with destinies in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, or are they three ethnicities, happy to blend together in America? If Bornstein never really comes to grips with this question—and his method in The Colors of Zion remains magpie-like and anecdotal, now examining Broadway shows, now giving a close reading of Ulysses—it is because he is writing less out of a historian’s desire for enlightenment than out of a familiar, and undeniably appealing, kind of Jewish liberal sentiment. Bornstein wishes to remind us of a time when Jews, blacks, and Irish all stood together because they were all victims. Today, he complains in his introduction, that solidarity has dissolved into mutual suspicion:
When our present historical memory includes contact at all, it usually stresses tension rather than cooperation. Whether in the Black-Irish confrontation of the movie Gangs of New York, the poetry of Amiri Baraka libeling Jews as absent from the World Trade Center on September 11, or the tendency of the Irish nationalist movement to align itself with the Palestine Liberation Organization or Hamas rather than with the Zionist movement it once invoked, the images of the past few years feature antagonism between separate groups.
It is a peculiar list, reflecting the uncertainty of Bornstein’s focus. It mixes up American ethnic tensions with geopolitical tensions, Irish Americans with Ireland, and Jewish Americans with Israel. Then there is the more basic problem of insisting that black, Jewish, and Irish relations can be seen as three sides of a triangle, with each group having similar allegiances and tensions with each other group. In fact, it is the black-Jewish part of the equation that has been most historically fruitful and complex, and which interests Bornstein the most. The alliance of blacks and Jews, from the founding of the NAACP through the Civil Rights movement, and the subsequent fracturing of that alliance, have been the subject of much study and emotion (on the part of Jews, mainly).
The Jewish-Irish relationship, by contrast, is much less significant to the development of American Jews’ sense of themselves, and it mostly appears in Bornstein’s book when he discusses literature and popular culture. He devotes a number of pages to Leopold Bloom, the Irish-Jewish hero of Ulysses, and quotes Joyce’s riff on the parallels between Gaelic and Hebrew:
The presence of guttural sounds, diacritic aspirations, epenthetic and servile letters in both languages: their antiquity, both having been taught on the plain of Shinar 242 years after the deluge in the seminary instituted by Fenius Farsaigh, descendant of Noah, progenitor of Israel, and ascendant of Heber and Heremon, progenitors of Ireland: their archaeological, genealogical, hagiographical, exegetical, homiletic, toponomastic, historical and religious literatures …
This is good fun, but it would be hard to argue that Joyce had much effect on the way Jews and Irish thought about each other, especially in America. And only a little more weight can be given to the vogue, in the 1910s, for Broadway shows and vaudeville songs about mixed Jewish-Irish romances: It’s Tough When Izzy Rosenstein Loves Genevieve Malone, My Yidisha Colleen, Kosher Kitty Kelly, and so on.
The interaction of Jewish and black musicians was more significant, but by now it is a very well-known story. In writing about George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess, Bornstein is mainly concerned to refute the idea that a Jewish composer was exploiting an African American art. On the contrary, he writes, one of the black singers in the original production called Porgy and Bess “a monument to the cultural aims of Negro art” and described Gershwin as “the Abraham Lincoln of Negro music.” So, too, Bornstein argues that The Jazz Singer, which is now in ill favor because of the scene in which Al Jolson wears blackface, was largely embraced by black audiences in 1928. (The Amsterdam News, New York’s leading black newspaper, called it “one of the greatest pictures ever produced.”) To see Jolson as a Jewish interloper in black culture, Bornstein writes, is a “back-projection of present attitudes onto the foreign country of the past.”
This phrase suggests that the best way to read The Colors of Zion is as Bornstein’s nostalgic protest against the identity politics that have dominated American life, especially in the academy, over the last twenty years. The academic field known as “whiteness studies,” in particular, emphasizes the way the Jews and the Irish were helped to assimilate in the United States by identifying as white, in opposition to America’s eternal Other, blacks. (See books like How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America, by Karen Brodkin, and Walking Towards Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White by David Roediger.) In response, Bornstein reminds us of occasions when Irish and Jews and blacks all stood together—whether it was Louis Armstrong wearing a Star of David in honor of the Jewish family that helped him as a young boy, or Al Jolson refusing to eat in segregated restaurants that excluded his black fellow-performers. In his closing pages, Bornstein goes so far as to apply the term “righteous gentile” to all “men and women who served and saved groups other than their own … whether they risked their lives or only their reputations.”
The problem is how to translate that old and fine solidarity into the present, when the situations of Irish, blacks, and Jews are no longer so parallel. By ending his study in 1945, Bornstein spares himself such perplexities, remaining content with the pleasures of a virtuous nostalgia.
This piece was originally published in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.