It turns out that Louisiana Senator and Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin was not only a Jew (which I knew) but also a retailer of borrowed wit.
Eugene Volokh tells a story about Benjamin I hadn’t heard, but which seems to be well documented. During a debate over slavery on the Senate floor, abolitionist Ben Wade of Ohio called Benjamin “an Israelite in Egyptian clothing,” and Benjamin replied:
It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.
Not bad, for the spur of the moment. But it reminded me of a well-known Disraeli story. When an Irish member named Daniel O’Connell directed an anti-Semitic slur at Disraeli in the House of Commons, Disraeli replied:
Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.
Three things to note about this:
1. The Wade-Benjamin exchange took place in the 1850s, and the O’Connell-Disraeli exchange in 1835. So Benjamin was using his memory, not his imagination.
2. Wade’s line is truly a fine one, but shouldn’t it be “an Egyptian in Israelite’s clothing”? After all, Wade’s point is that Judah Benjamin’s exterior is that of a Jew, but his substance is that of an Egyptian: i.e., a slavemaster.
3. While Disraeli’s riposte is perfect — replying to one ethic insult with an ethnic boast and another, better ethnic insult — Benjamin’s is pointless. Wade wasn’t denigrating Benjamin’s Jewishness, he was rebuking Benjamin for his failure to live up to it. (How could a slaveowner and a defender of slavery preside at a Seder table and read the answer to the Four Questions, which starts Avodim hayyinu: “We were slaves”?) If someone says “You’re a disgrace to your ancestors,” the response “Well, your ancestors kept pigs” is pretty lame.
I find all this especially annoying because while Judah Benjamin was really and truly Jewish, Disraeli wasn’t: his parents had been Jewish, but they converted and had him baptized when he was thirteen and he remained a devout, and even a somewhat bigoted, Anglican, though flamboyantly proud of his ethnic background. Eugene notes that Benjamin was not a Jew for other Jews to be proud of, but goes on to note that he doesn’t much believe in taking pride or shame from the doings of fellow Jews.
That’s an interesting point, and one on which my emotional reactions don’t square especially well with my principles. If you believe that everyone should be judged on his or her own merits and not on those of ancestors or co-ethnics, then logically that ought to apply to yourself as well as others.
But in fact I take pride in the Jewish over-representation among great scientists, and shame in the Jewish over-representation among white-collar and political crooks. (My first reaction to the Abramoff story was: “Damn! Why did it have to be a Jew, and a Russian Jew at that?”)
Despite that strong emotional response, I have to agree that on one level it’s irrational to be proud or ashamed in that way, for the same reason it would be wrong to think less of an individual of some other ethnicity because of bad behavior by his co-ethnics.
On another level, though, it’s not such a bad thing, and not irrational at all. Those who bear any identifiable label — Jews, Americans, professors, graduates of Haverford College, liberals, Angelenos, you name it — are judged by other people in part on the basis of that label. If Jews have a reputation, for example, for being smart and diligent, that will help Jews get jobs. The technical term is “statistical discrimination.” Under some circumstances it’s illegal, but it’s also damned near inevitable. So while it may be silly for me to take pride in the fact that Einstein was Jewish, the fact that Einstein was Jewish almost certainly has real benefits for me. Similarly, the fact that Abramoff is Jewish probably has some costs for me, whether I cringe internally about it or not.
This effect is what economists call “reputational externality”: if we’re part of the same group as seen by others, your behavior reflects on me and mine on you, for good or ill.
Given that I’m part of a group that has a group reputation, then, reputational externality gives me a substantive reason to care about the behavior (or at least the behavior visible to outsiders) of the other members of my group. Someone who behaves badly provides what is called, in Yiddish, a shanda fur die goyim: a scandal that non-members of the group can use against its members.
The desire not to provide such a scandal can be a powerful motivator of good behavior. Moreover, someone who is part of a group whose members are sensitive to the reputational externality needs to worry that, if he behaves badly, he will suffer the cold shoulder from fellow group members. (I can hear my father’s voice, grumbling about a crooked Baltimore Jewish politician of my childhood: “They ought to sew the bastard’s foreskin back on!”) By contrast, a group that fails to administer such informal sanctions to erring members in effect licenses them to behave badly, at some cost to the group as a whole.
So consciousness of reputational externality is part of group-level social capital: the capacity of a group to elicit its members to contribute to public goods for that group. And apparently irrational ethnic pride and shame might well be important mechanisms for maintaining awareness of reputational externality. If being proud of Einstein and ashamed of Judah Benjamin encourages Jews to treat Abramoff not merely as a crook but as a traitor to the tribe, I’m all for it.
Of course, that works only insofar as historical vicarious pride and shame translates into contemporaneous vicarious pride and shame, and in turn into behavior that rewards and punishes group members for providing positive or negative reputational externalities. That might not be true; at least, it might not be true under some circumstances.
How, for example, do you say shanda fur die goyim in Ebonic? For those concerned about improving the circumstances of African-Americans, that ought to be a central question.
Update Here’s a slight sop to Jewish pride: Benjamin was born and died a Jew, but he converted to Catholicism early in his career and reconverted only on his deathbed.