The Star and the Stripes

A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews

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Michael N. Barnett
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     2016.
     368 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691165974.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Michael N. Barnett’s The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews is a fascinating and intriguing exploration of Jewish-American understandings of and interactions with the world. It is suggestive more than it is definitive, which in no way lessens its value. Barnett brings to his work not only a deep understanding of the Middle East but also important previous work such as Paternalism Beyond Borders (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and the co-authored Humanitarianism Contested: Where Angels Fear to Tread (with Thomas G. Weiss, Routledge, 2011). In this latest volume, Barnett asks, How do American Jews envision their role in the world? His focus is less upon Jewish governmental officials than it is upon NGOs and several Jewish-American organizations. His coverage is longitudinal, beginning in the mid-19th century and proceeding through the 20th century and, in particular, the more than six decades since the founding of the nation of Israel. The prose is engaging, and the discussion is accessible to non-specialists, as well as to researchers interested in global affairs, political activism and religion.

In some ways, this book is more valuable for the ways in which Barnett frames his subject than in the answers he provides—which even he acknowledges are often speculative and tentative. He argues that Jewish Americans have fluctuated in the focus between what he calls “tribalism” and “cosmopolitanism”—with the latter more frequently winning out—and between the so-called “Jewish problem” (often erupting into anti-Semitism) and the “Jewish question” (are Jews a people apart from the world or a part of the world?). Importantly, while the book contains extensive and complex interrogation of Jewish America’s relationship with Israel—including the varied forms it has taken over the years, Barnett’s principal emphasis is on the community’s dedication to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam: to repair the world through a commitment to peace and justice.

It is important to note the plural terminology in Barnett’s title; this is, he repeatedly emphasizes, about the foreign policies of American Jews and not about some monolithic perspective, even toward Israel or even in any given historical era. Stated simply, there is not ­a Jewish-American worldview or agenda, and there never has been. Further, the author grapples with the question of the extent to which his subjects’ cosmopolitanism is primarily Jewish or American; to what extent does Judaism shape the perspectives and actions of those he writes about, and to what extent are they largely and primarily progressive Americans? Moreover, he notes that as Jews become more assimilated into the larger US society—through intermarriage, changing residential and employment patterns, social interactions, etc.—there is some question as to the ongoing and (especially) future meaning of being “Jewish-American.” But if there is not a singular Jewish-American policy, worldview or agenda, is it possible to characterize the people and ideas he writes about as somehow essentially “Jewish”? Moreover, despite the complexity and intersectionality of Barnett’s understanding of the American Jewish community, he still occasionally lapses into a kind of essentialist framing with phrases like “Jewish liminality” (250-251).  One is left to wonder, to what extent is it possible to employ usages such as “Jewish identity” or “Jewish perspective”? Are they helpful, or even meaningful?

Furthermore, it would have been helpful had Barnett provided more information on how he chose the Jewish groups to focus on—or not. There is no mention, for example, of Chabad, and only one fleeting reference to J-Street. Birthright is absent, as is Bend the Arc, so the exclusions are neither generational nor particularly ideological. While the author has every right to select the groups he wants to include, this reader would have appreciated more insight into how and why he made his selections.

In the end, The Star and the Stripes is an important book that redirects and reframes a number of discourses, and should be of interest to scholars of religion, diaspora, global affairs, humanitarianism, and NGOs, including but not limited to those who are primarily concerned with Judaism. Although it is not the final word on its subject, it no doubt will help to shape both further research and understanding for some time to come.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Margaret Susan Thompson is Associate Professor in the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael N. Barnett is the University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at George Washington University. His many books include Empire of Humanity and Dialogues in Arab Politics.

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