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Dreams of Zion

A new book examines black, Jewish, and Irish quests for national redemption, identifying their century-old similarities but ignoring their more recent differences

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Michael Collins, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and Marcus Garvey. (Collage” Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; The Melting Pot program: Wikimedia Commons; Collins photo: Wikimedia Commons; Jabotinsky photo: Wikimedia Commons; Garvey photo: New York Public Library; Easter Proclamation of 1916: National Library of Ireland; Garvey Memorial flyer: New York Public Library; A Home in Palestine cover: Center for Jewish History)

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, The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews and Irish from 1845 to 1945 (Harvard University Press, $27.95), 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 writes, 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, 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”—a metaphor that comes, 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.” To Zangwill and 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 if 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. In brief, Bornstein wants 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.

This 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 is much less significant to the development of American Jews’ sense of themselves, and it mostly appears in The Colors of Zion when Bornstein 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. 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 20 years. The academic school 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, however, is how to translate that 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 questions, remaining content with the pleasure of virtuous nostalgia.

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Adina says:

Israel Zangwill was “a leading Zionist”? More like, a leading writer, politically complex man, and, very briefly, a Zionist.

Conor says:

Not to trivialize a much deeper topic – but the “Northern” Irish began to identify with the Palistinians not so much out of any true sympathy with their cause but rather out of seeing a parallel with the activities of the tiny group of ultra-protestant anti-Irish/Catholic Unionists who dominated the mini parliament in Belfast.

Interesting that one would chastise someone for writing out of liberal Jewish sentiment. It seems like a criticism meant to conceal the deepest insecurities of the critic himself. What is Enlightenment, Kirsch?

“Virtuous nostalgia” for times of Jewish-black solidarity hinders an accurate appraisal of the present. For instance, Tablet and other magazines’ myopic focus on Glenn Beck’s alleged anti-Semitism because it fits the liberal narrative, when polls show anti-Semitism is far more prevalent among blacks than the traditional boogeyman of white conservatives.

Einstein Wanabe says:

Why are the words Jewish and Irish capitalized through out the article and the word Blacks lower cased? It’s also sad to have Al Jolson as the best representation of a Jewish musician interacting with Jazz music. Jews are a people and contrary to any beliefs, they have no particular color. I would not let a political leader to persuade me not to practice and embrace Judaism. I would not ask Politicians to explain to me the current situation or relationship of humanity. Anti-Semitism, racism,and ignorance is terrible where ever it comes from. I don’t allow its influence to guide me and I avoid the source no matter the image it appears as. I wouldn’t wait for a poll to tell me what is the source.

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zalel says:

Garvey was anti-Semitic? This is the first time I’ve ever heard that. To the contrary, the one thing that I’ve read numerous times is that his right-hand man was a Jewish Jamaican.

James philadelphia says:

Fabulous Blacks, Irish, Jews. All humans all together. That Irish and Jews have blended into America because they are white? That is not so. The matter is more complicated than that. Very sadly has to do with having a strong family nucleus. Just like the cells in our bodies. The family has to consist of father and mother staying together, raise their children and have a strong attachment to each other. Where Black families have the strong nucleus they succeed always. Condoleeza Rice is an example of strong family nucleus, and success, I am happy to say. Single mothers and single grandmothers are too common in the Black communities. Many succeed many fail. The male parent of the Black family is not there. This is the main reason that Black families have not kept up with the Irish or the Jews. And have lost ground to Hispanics, Orientals, Moslems and new minorities that are successful in achieving the American dream. I came to this country in 1962. Blacks were out of the American dream, it disturbed me greatly. Nearly 50 years later with great sorrow in my heart, Blacks are still out from the American dream. It is the responsibility of all of us to find ways to encourage formation of the family nucleus within Blacks in America.

I’ve said that least 442138 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Dreams of Zion

A new book examines black, Jewish, and Irish quests for national redemption, identifying their century-old similarities but ignoring their more recent differences

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