The SY's and the Ostjuden: Comparing Two Very Different Jewish Groups

October 30, 2007

Zev Chafets’s description of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn fits almost perfectly with the theory and data in A People That Shall Dwell Alone. The SY's (pronounced ess-why), as they call themselves, are a hermetically sealed community that is deeply concerned with preserving its ethnic purity. They immigrated to the U.S. from Syria early in the 20th century and found themselves in a society that tended to break down the walls of separation.

Socializing with outgroup members or marrying them was not really an option in the Middle East where the norm is to form self-segregating groups that marry only among themselves. Disturbed at an increasing tendency to socialize with other Jews and even non-Jews, in 1935 the rabbis created “an iron wall of self-separation around the community.”  At the heart of the wall was an edict against intermarriage: “No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.” 

This effectively cut out the conversion loophole. It reminds us that even though conversion was always a theoretical option in Judaism, it was not really a practical possibility in the Middle Eastern societies where Judaism originated. Social segregation into endogamous groups has always been the norm in the Middle East. As noted in a previous blog, conversion for the Orthodox who control Israeli practices is a grueling process.

The SY's are quite candid on the function of the edict. Jakie Kassin, a community leader, summarized it as follows: “Never accept a convert or a child born of a convert. … Push them away with strong hands from our community. Why? Because we don’t want gentile characteristics.”

It’s refreshing to see such unabashed concern with preserving his own ethnic characteristics from a respected community leader in this day and  age. This is the sort of thing that can get a European-American ostracized and probably unemployed, especially if he or she has a publicly visible role in the media. It’s the sort of thing that The New York Times could be expected to be especially exercised about if such sentiments came from someone like me. But it appears here in The New York Times Magazine as barely more noteworthy than the fact that the SY’s live in Brooklyn.

Even other Jews are not accepted as kosher until their genealogy has been intensely scrutinized: “Any outsider who wants to marry into a Syrian family — even a fellow Jew — is subject to thorough genealogical investigation. That means producing proof, going back at least three generations and attested to by an Orthodox rabbi, of the candidates’ kosher bona fides. This disqualifies the vast majority of American Jews, who have no such proof.” Finding a non-Jew anywhere in the family tree is enough to prevent the marriage.

The SY community is also very collectivist. Businesses are family affairs, and children live close to their parents. Secular education is de-emphasized because it might lead the young away from the community. A young man who returned to the community after going to college notes, “It’s a magical place. …  You come home from school and there are 10 women in the kitchen, your mother and aunts and cousins, cooking special Syrian delicacies. Every celebration is large, full of relatives.” And when he eventually leaves the community by marrying a non-Jew, his parents are unforgiving. He complains “My parents have sacrificed their relationship with me for the sake of the community.”  It’s a “warm and loving community — if you follow the rules.”

Like all collectivist communities, there is a high level of social support and charity to the less prosperous: “Being an SY means never having to say you are hungry.” Social status comes partly by competing to contribute to SY charity. And with collectivism goes high fertility. SY’s “have large families, five or six children. And only a tiny fraction of our kids leave.”

So I certainly could have included the SY in several chapters of A People That Shall Dwell Alone. But I didn’t find anything that would be useful for The Culture of Critique. In fact, it's striking that "traditionally, the SY’s haven’t voted much, largely because of an aversion to showing up on government registries." Say what??? This runs quite contrary to the general Ashkenazi pattern of high rates of political participation. As John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt note in attempting to understand the power of the Israel Lobby, "American Jews are relatively prosperous and well-educated, and have an admirable philanthropic tradition. They give generously to political parties and  have very high rates of political participation" (p. 140).

The SY's have become wealthy but they haven't entered into the power centers of American society. They eschew higher education, and have no role in the elite media. They are not involved in the legal profession, politics, or academic departments of social sciences or humanities. Although they tend to be hawkish on matters related to Israel, they have not been involved in creating the edifice that is the Israel Lobby.

One gets the impression that they want to make money and stay under the radar. This is probably how they survived for centuries in the Middle East. In fact, Jews in traditional societies often hid their wealth and controlled the behavior of other Jews so as not to arouse hostility from the surrounding peoples (see Separation and Its Discontents, Ch. 6).  (The SY's are still peeved about an article appearing last year in The New York Times that disclosed the wealth of the community and its very heady property values.)

In other words, unlike the Ashkenazim, they have not developed an adversarial, competitive stance toward the people and culture of America. One can't imagine them becoming a hostile elite, as Ashkenazi Jews became in the Soviet Union. They have shown no tendencies toward developing a culture of critique that subjected Western culture to what John Murray Cuddihy termed "punitive objectivity. ... the vindictive objectivity of the marginal nonmember." Unlike their Ashkenazi brethren, they had no impact on Western societies in the 20th century. In this regard, they are much more like the Overseas Chinese than their Jewish brothers from Europe.

The Sephardim in Spain also showed signs of developing a hostile, aggressive and adversarial stance toward  the traditional people and culture of Spain before and during the Inquisition. So it's not that this tendency is unique to the Ashkenazim among the Jews. And it is important that even within the Ashkenazim, there is a major distinction between the Ostjuden from Eastern Europe and the Jews of Western Europe and America prior to the massive migration of the Ostjuden to the West beginning in the late nineteenth century.

To understand the origins and the power of the culture of critique, one has to understand this particular Jewish groupthe font and origo of two of the most potent and aggressive 20th-century movements: political radicalism and Zionism. (Pop Quiz: What do political radicalism, Zionism, and neoconservatism have in common? Answer below.) It is not that the Ostjuden are particularly ethnocentric compared to other Jews. They are, if anything, less ethnocentric than the SY's with their obsessions of blood purity and hyper-xenophobia. Indeed, it is obvious that the Ostjuden could never have been so successful in altering the culture and demography of the West had they remained as a hermetically sealed community, shut off from the power centers of the society. 

The Ostjuden, unlike the SY's, have been highly aggressive toward the people and cultures they live among — a trait that is now perhaps most clearly seen in the behavior of Israel vis-á-vis its neighbors and the dispossessed Palestinians. It is a trait that is at the heart of the culture of critique — most egregiously perhaps in the long and successful Jewish campaign to alter the ethnic balance of the United States and other Western societies. It is a trait without which Yuri Slezkine's appropriately named The Jewish Century never would have happened. 

Pop Quiz: What do political radicalism, Zionism, and neoconservatism have in common? Regime change applied to cultures and political orders seen as not conforming to Jewish interests. In other words, the common denominator involves an aggressive, hostile stance toward other peoples and their cultures.