The Trap of the “Exceptional Minority”

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Hannah Arendt

As a bit of light summer reading, I decided to read Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. While it’s title may not suggest it, much of the historical analysis revolves around the place of Jews in the transition to the modern nation state in late 19th and early 20th century. Obviously there are huge pitfalls in attempting to make neat historical parallels between different groups, but there is a lot to learn from the experience of European Jews that can be applied to many different struggles, especially around integration, paranoia, and intra-group hierarchies.

One of the most striking parallels of Arendt’s history of anti-Semitism to our modern world is the development of intra-Jewry hierarchical distinctions. In order to integrate into late 19th century European society, Jews with bourgeois ambitions would actively place themselves outside of a generalized Jewry of greedy, dirty, and secretive Jews. While this may help the individual integrate, it comes at the cost of normalizing strains of anti-Semitism that eventually lead to an organized anti-Semitic politics.

So much of the social pattern of Jewish integration was based on the individual Jew’s exceptionality. How unJewish they were was what made them acceptable in society. They were “the good ones”. Simultaneously, many of these integrationist Jews would play up particularly “jewish” traits to highlight their exoticism while simultaneously distancing themselves from lower class Jews from eastern Europe and Russia. Respectability politics, 1870s style.

Figures like English politician Benjamin Disraeli played up his “exotic” Jewishness even though he was extremely integrated and Christian. He would comb his hair in odd ways, wearing out of fashion foreign cloths, and emphasize his Jewish nose and olive skin. Arendt describes his Jewishness as being more informed by the upper class English idea of Jewry than working class Jewish life on the continent.

In 2018, the tendencies of racist integrationism are at play all over the place. The most obvious examples are conservative commentators like Candice Owens and Milo Yianopolous use their status as a black woman or gay Jewish man as a cudgle against those same communities. Even liberals and leftists will fall into these tropes, highlighting “patriotic Muslims” or “well-educated African Americans.”

These dynamics are also present in conversations around immigration. During 2017, as the Trump administration and Republican Congress attempted to repeal the Dream Act and empower ICE, many liberals made an argument that we must protect the dream act because these are the good immigrants, the ones who are valedictorians, members of the armed forces, and “not criminals.” By highlighting what Arendt calls the “exceptional”, we are making the judgement that there are the unexceptional who deserve our conservative scorn or liberal pity.

Reject these temptations. Throwing your own people under the bus for personal mainstream acceptance or a seat at the table can never be the way to build power.

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