Jewcentricity was a finalist for the Jewish Book Council’s award for the best book on Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. It focuses on the question of why a numerically small ethno-religious group garners so much attention both positive and negative. In the course of answering this question, Garfinkle paints a broad canvas ranging from an analysis of contemporary Jewish identity issues, to an historical overview of the Ben Zakkai ‘system’ that promoted Jewish continuity over centuries of diaspora, to the question of genetic self-selection resulting in high levels of intelligence, particularly among Ashkenazim.
Garfinkle’s title, “Jewcentricity,” is about exaggeration. More specifically, it is about the various roles Jews are imagined to play on the world stage that they do not, in fact, actually play. Some of this imagining is done by Jews, but most of it is done by non-Jews. Some of those roles are imagined to be benign, some cosmically evil. But as unusual as the actual history of the Jews is, Jewcentricity by definition involves distortion that insists on its being even more unusual still.”
The book includes three narrative threads, each described in subsequent sections. The first part of the book examines the historical roots of the centripetal forces that promote Jewish cohesion. The Biblical idea of ‘chosenness’ is central (although Garfinkle omits the critical idea that the Jews were chosen to receive the Torah, not chosen in an inchoate fashion) as is the post-second Temple system of Rabbinic Judaism that sharply distinguished between Jews as an in-group, fostering practices and beliefs that sustained us over many generations and enabled us to survive in spite of numerous instances of persecution.
The middle section examines “various manifestations of Jewcentricity, from the silly to the sublime” in the U.S., including the overtly anti-Semitic pronouncements of Mark Twain, who both overestimated the numbers of Jews in America and pointed out that the “Jew is a money getter, and in getting his money he is a very serious obstruction to less capable neighbors who are on the same quest…”
The third section examines “Jewcentricity in the Middle East” and considers a range of topics including the anti-Israel lobby, Jewcentricity among Muslims, and the implications of post-Zionism “as a kind of Jewish apostasy.” Indeed, throughout the book, Garfinkle points to the important role of self-hating Jews in the course of political and social events.
Yet, at the same time, he points out that “paradoxically, the enemies of the Jews…end up saving the Jews” since their persecution and marginalizing promotes internal cohesiveness. He views Jewcentricity as somewhat eternal since “as long as Jews are still around, someone will exaggerate their role in whatever transpires.” Garfinkle muses that perhaps if Jews were less Jewcentric, then Jewcentricity would decrease, but he also realizes that “Jews can’t change human nature, even their own, and exaggeration is as much a part of that nature as the sun and the snow, as a smile and a smirk.”
This is clearly a book written for a popular audience. As such, it would not be expected to include the same kind of detailed documentation as a volume written for scholars. Nonetheless, this reviewer would have appreciated greater clarity about the sources of Garfinkle’s argument, possibly through the inclusion of a short bibliographic essay.