Jew­cen­tric­i­ty: Why the Jews Are Praised, Blamed, and Used to Explain Just About Everything

Adam Garfin­kle
  • Review
By – September 8, 2011

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.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions