To hear associate history professor Ronald Schechter struggle with the question perplexing all post-Enlightenment generations is refreshing. The question, adequately summed up in the 1970s pop song by a band called War, “Why can’t we be friends?” begs to ponder when, if ever, the tens of thousands of distinct peoples of the world truly will celebrate differences while embracing a common humanity.
The question, in essence, inspired Schechter to write the scholarly Obstinate Hebrews, Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815, which received the David H. Pinkney Prize from the Society for French Historical Studies. The prize is given for “the best book in French history by a North American scholar. It also compelled him to translate Nathan the Wise, an 18th-century play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, into contemporary English prose. That book was released earlier this year.
He has studied the question; he cannot solve the problems. “I don’t have a prescription for reducing cultural or ethnic conflict; I don’t have a magic spell,” he said. His reflections refresh, in part, because his scholarly work points toward successes. Yet, there is more—something in the way that he holds onto hope for himself.
French Jews and the Rights of Man
Schechter wrote Obstinate Hebrews for two reasons. First, there is the fact that he is “Jewish living in a society that is not Jewish,” he said. Secondly there is “the larger intellectual problem” of “relationships between minority groups and the dominant culture that seeks to define or to change those groups.”
A premise of the book is that Jews were disproportionately represented in the writings of human “perfectibility” by Enlightenment authors like Montesquieu and Voltaire, then in discussions of “citizenship” during the “Old Regime” and finally in considerations of “emancipation” under Napoleon. The book speculates that Jews, despite their sparse numbers in France, were both familiar enough to the authors and yet “obstinate” enough in safeguarding their differences that they provided an ideal “other” by which the French could evaluate themselves. In the words of Levi-Strauss, Jews were “good to think,” the book explains. Schechter points toward no winners or losers in the exchanges between dominant and minority cultures—what he details is the interplay of a society attempting to become increasingly progressive in its understanding of the “rights of man.”
“Something important did happen in the 18th century, and that’s that people did start looking at others as being like them,” Schechter said. “The ideas that we have rights that come from the fact that we’re human and not because we had a great-grandfather somewhere who did favors for the king was kind of an evolution during this period.”
Extensions of such rights, however, held dangers for minority cultures, including sometimes subtle internal and often obvious external pressures to give up distinctiveness when granted acceptance by the dominant group. In Obstinate Hebrews, Schechter’s analysis of Jewish writings from the period help it step beyond similar histories. The Jewish commentary, as a group, leads him to assert that the Jews neither resisted nor were assimilated into the dominant culture, rather they “appropriated” the dominant culture by representing it as “essentially Jewish.”
Our Present Diversity
Lessons for our times seem painfully apparent. In conversation, Schechter easily extends the simple theme that begins with getting along to contemporary America and France, where ongoing debates about the benefits of a multicultural society demarcate a struggle for diversity. “Can a nation be a nation without some sort of essential agreement about its principles? Can it hold together when everyone is demanding the right to be different?” Those, Schechter suggested, are two of the large issues.
In France and in the United States, despite “inevitable complaints and sometimes violent protest,” he believes there is reason to be optimistic. Both nations, as historical destinations for immigrants, have experienced the benefits of multi-ethnic societies. The United States, with its preponderance of “hybrid identities,” which he suggested are rare in France—Italian-American, Asian-American, Irish-American etc.—may exert less pressure to assimilate, he said, but each nation, he believes, is beyond turning back.
Harder scenarios are easy to invoke: Rwanda; Indonesia; Sudan—the places where terms like ethnic-cleansing and genocide are spawned. Schechter refers to the former Yugoslavia, where individuals from differing groups did business together and even intermarried prior to that nation’s 1989 Civil War. In the aftermath of the ethnic-based atrocities of that conflict, people understandably elect to “stick with their group—people they feel they can trust,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that groups in those situations could ever be friends with each other,” Schechter said, but he remains optimistic. “It might not take that much actually,” he continued. “It might take a half generation of peaceful coexistence, and people will be surprised that they were ever in that situation.”
Although Schechter acknowledges that his being Jewish in the United States does not differentiate him in the same way it would have a Jewish individual in 18th-century France—“I feel very much at home here,” he said—it does keep him alert to contemporary problems of the “other.” In France and in the United States, he can perceive the role of Jewish other being occupied today by Muslims or Arabs: “Certainly the images that one sees in the media present the Muslims and Arabs as a group very different from us,” he said, “and whether that is to dehumanize them and say we have to be afraid of them or to praise them and say they have a great future ahead of them as long as they do what we think is right, there is always the sense that they are presented as more different from us than they actually are.”
Being Jewish also helps him empathize locally. He understands how African-Americans, East Asians or Latin Americans may have difficulty in adjusting not only to their image of what is American but here, on campus, what it means to be a part of the William and Mary community. He is not surprised when one group or another may perceive hostility against it—or worse, he said, “the indifference that may arise if the dominant group becomes merely self-congratulatory, saying to itself, ‘OK, we have our black students, and we’re fulfilling our social obligations to be diverse.’ However, when they get together on a Friday night, if the white students aren’t inviting the black students, there is a severe disconnect,” Schechter insisted.
As a minority, “you can’t get yourself invited,” he said. “In my research I have found that minorities can do more than normally has been supposed in terms of creating an image of themselves that enables them to sustain their self-esteem, but at a certain point it’s up to the dominant culture to do more than talk.”
Until We can be Friends
Will the day come when we truly can be friends? The struggle in the present is for “tolerance”: Schechter envisions a future beyond tolerance. “The alternative is embracing,” he suggested, something “more fruitful than this grudging notion that ‘Hey, I’ll accept your difference.’” He said a true mark of embracing would be when differences actually are celebrated. That, however, seems somewhat distant, and he, in the last line of Obstinate Hebrews, both recognized the separation and suggested a temporary remedy: “As long as distinctions are made one must continue to protest that people are human beings first and something else insofar as they wish to be,” he wrote, “and to insist on their being neither feared nor pitied but respected as equals.”
Schechter said that line was a matter of emphasis. He explained, “I’ve written a book about a group trying to be accepted, and trying to be accepted on its terms, not necessarily according to the terms the dominant group is setting out for it.
“Ultimately what I would like to say is that our common humanity is what defines us. This is the classical problem in the humanities; in the human sciences. It is something that I can’t solve in my book … . It is the question of negotiating this tension between, on the one hand, acceptance of difference and, on the other hand, an appreciation for our sameness.”