Keeping the “tribe” without the “tribalism”

Posted on January 27th, 2014 by

What do political scientist Norm Ornstein, the Pew Study and the American Civil War have to do with one another?  I can’t speak to their relationships in the real world, but I would like to share some thoughts about they have started to link up in my mind.

Ornstein, author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, has been speaking recently about a phenomenon he calls “tribalism”.  There are many aspects to his analysis, but at its core he defines the situation as one where people start to care more about who is making the argument than about the content of the argument.  Politicians switch positions on issues depending on which party or which leader has made the proposal.  Tribalism makes compromise nearly impossible – because while it’s conceivable to find middle ground on an issue there is no middle ground on identity.

It has occurred to me that this type of tribalism is a feature of the modern world that is by no means restricted to Washington.  The Pew Study is the most recent effort to slice and dice the American Jewish community and discern its subgroups.  I am aware of the controversy over the methodologies of the studies but I don’t think anyone would deny that differences within our community sometimes impede our collective well-being.  There are real disagreements about matters of policy, but I am often struck by the fact that the fiercest struggles are matters of identity.  At a recent forum it happened that a panel was introduced only by their names.  About midway through the policy discussion, a clearly distressed audience member raised her hand and said “we all have prejudices, tell us something about who you are so we will know your prejudices.”  The single item I found most striking in the Pew Study was that when the questions weren’t about labels or rituals, but instead about values – there was a surprising level of commonality across all groups.  I manage a museum, so I have a vested interest in the preservation of the inanimate objects we imbue with meaning (what flags we fly, how we dress, what we use to worship), but I find myself wondering whether we sometimes put so much value in the distinctive aspects of our material culture that we lose sight of the human bonds that tie us all together.

And this takes me to the topic of the Civil War.  When Ornstein was recently asked if this is the worst state that Congress has ever been in, he conceded that it was worse in the years immediately prior to the Civil War…but added, who wants to use that as a standard of comparison?  Our current exhibit points out that the war not only divided the Union but exacerbated divisions within the Jewish community.  As “who” became more important than “what”, factions became irreconcilable.  In many cases people stopped talking to their neighbors and shut themselves off from alternate points of view.  In the echo chambers that emerged, progressively more radical solutions started to seem normal.  Families and congregations were split forever.

I think that identity is a basic human need, and that museums like JMM perform a public service by expanding understanding of elements of both our common identity and of the distinctive sub-segments of the Jewish experience.  However, I hope we always keep in mind that identity should not be a wall but a window, something that draws us into new worlds and helps us reexamine our own assumptions.

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.

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Looking for Cohens in All the Wrong Places

Posted on December 23rd, 2013 by

Last week Joseph Abell, our professional researcher, shared some of his adventures in pursuit of the life of Mendes Cohen, defender of Fort McHenry.  But even amateur detectives, like me, can get in on the hunt:

It was a cold morning early this November.  I woke up and realized that this would probably be the last day I could really see fall foliage in all its glory.  After making my way through morning chores, I pointed the car towards Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia…my absolutely favorite autumn view.

The autumn view

The autumn view

On the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the town, an image flashed through my mind – a rather odd connection.  Just before I had left work for the weekend, I had been perusing a genealogical chart of the Cohen family.  Israel Cohen, the founder of the clan arrived in America on September 21, 1787 (four days after the completion of the US Constitution).  In addition to Mendes, Israel had eight sons and one daughter.  In the middle of the chart I had glimpsed the childhood deaths of two of Mendes’ great-nephews:  Solomon Etting Cohen and Benjamin Denny Cohen.  It now occurred to me that the place of death was listed as “Harper’s Ferry”.  I decided that as long as I was here I would go the ranger station and ask if anyone had knowledge of a Cohen family living in Harper’s Ferry in the 1840’s.

Now this was my tenth or eleventh trip to Harper’s Ferry so I knew that the ranger station was across the street from the 1850s clothing store.  I had never paid much attention to the name on the store, “Phillip Frankel”, but in light of my current search it took on a new meaning.  The Cohens it was clear weren’t the only Jews in historic Harper’s Ferry.  The ranger had no information on the Cohens but directed me over to the bookstore where he said there was a guide to regional cemeteries.  I opened up the guide – I found the Cohen Boys were buried at Harper’s Cemetery up the hill.  But another listing sparked my curiosity…there was a Ella Harper Cohen buried at the cemetery in nearby Shepherdstown, WV.  The date of death was 1920.  Was it just a coincidence that there was another Cohen in the neighborhood?  After all, it’s a pretty common name.

Now I was hooked.  The clerk in the bookstore said that if I wanted to find out more about the Cohens, I might try the Jefferson County (WV) Historical Society.  The organization was housed in the library in Charles Town just 15 minutes up the road.  It was past 3:30 – I might just make it before the library closed.  What started as a casual search that afternoon became an obsession.  I caught the shuttle bus back to my car and made a bee line for Charles Town.  I ran towards the library and went through the open door.  But I was too late, the library had already shut its doors – but off to the side I noticed an opening to something called the Jefferson County Museum and one docent was still inside preparing for end of day.  I told him my whole story.  He searched a database and found obituaries for the kids and for Ella Harper Cohen.

It appeared that the children had died within weeks of each other.  He speculated that this was probably the result of an epidemic that swept the town in 1847.  Diseases like Typhus were still a problem in this part of the country then.

Ella Harper Cohen, known as Sally, was the wife of Benjamin I. Cohen, a first cousin to the boys.  She had her body shipped back from Portland, OR to West Virginia when she died.  With a little more on-line research at the National Archives, I was able to determine that Sally was a direct descendant of Richard Harper – the man who created the ferry.  She converted to Judaism in 1876 and married Benjamin in Portland in 1881 in a ceremony officiated by a rabbi.  Their marriage lasted 34 years until Benjamin passed away.  This new data raised so many more questions than it answered.  How did this Jewish boy from Baltimore meet and fall in love with this girl with roots in Harper’s Ferry?  What pushed/pulled them out to Portland, OR?  Why did she send her body back to a home she hadn’t lived near in at least forty years?

That’s the great thing about exploring history, every mystery you unwrap leads to another one to be revealed.

We have not yet found any living descendants of Israel Cohen and his ten children.  The last name on the genealogical chart passes away in the 1990s.  If any reader of this blog post has a clue to a descendant we might have missed I invite you to contact us.

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more post by Marvin, click here. 


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John F. Kennedy and the Jewish Community

Posted on November 22nd, 2013 by

That November day, the one we can’t forget, was exceptionally pleasant in Chicago with temperatures in the 60s.  Most of us at Caldwell Elementary went home everyday for lunch, so by 12:45 we were walking back to the building.  Some of us had heard the breaking news, others had not.  On the corner – even as fifth-graders -we began to ask questions that have endured for fifty years – “how could this have happened?”, “what does this mean?”.

This week it seems that every night brings another documentary or drama on the life of President Kennedy and the tragedy of that November.  It is hard to imagine that there is much to add.

But I thought that this might be a moment to reflect on the special relationship between John F. Kennedy and the Jewish community…a relationship that is all the more unusual for the fact that Kennedy’s father was an active proponent of the appeasement of Hitler and widely reviled among Jews as being overtly anti-Semitic.

Anti-Defamation League Award Dinner for President John F. Kennedy, seated at the main table, in Washington, D.C. January 31, 1963. Photo by Cecil Stoughton.

Anti-Defamation League Award Dinner for President John F. Kennedy, seated at the main table, in Washington, D.C. January 31, 1963. Photo by Cecil Stoughton.

It’s estimated that JFK won about 80% of the Jewish vote in the 1960 election.  He had worked hard to cultivate support of the community on both domestic and international issues.  He expressed empathy with the Jewish struggle for a political voice in America which he equated with the Irish American struggle for full political acceptance.

For example, when he was still a US Senator in 1957, here’s how he introduced then Connecticut governor, Abraham Ribicoff to the Massachusetts Democratic Convention:

Exactly one hundred years ago, in the political campaign of 1856, a new element was introduced into American politics – a secret party – secret because its members were instructed to reply, whenever they were asked about the party’s policies, “I know nothing”. But the objectives of the Know-Nothing Party, as it was called, were not secret – it was an anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant organization. It was the party of bigotry and intolerance of the American people. The Democratic Party, I am proud to say, met that challenge head-on – declaring in its convention platform its unending opposition to secret parties and religious and national intolerance, as not “in unison with the spirit of enlightened freedom which distinguishes the American system of popular government.”

Leaving aside the odd reference to the Democratic Party of 1856 as a model of enlightened freedom (the party nominates James Buchanan and it’s platform opposes all “agitation” against slavery and the enforcement of the fugitive slave law), Kennedy clearly sees Jews and Catholics as having common cause in a society where anti-immigrant forces have continually sought to undermine their success.  As president, Kennedy would make some very prominent appointments of Jewish Americans, including former Governor Ribicoff as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and Arthur Goldberg as Justice of the Supreme Court.

Kennedy was also seen as an early and strong supporter of the state of Israel.  I found this photo online of a very young Congressman Kennedy with Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. taken in Jerusalem in 1951.  While Richard Nixon, was the first President to visit Israel while in office, JFK is the first US President to have visited Israel before taking office.

David Ben-Gurion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., and Congressman John Kennedy. It was taken in Ben-Gurion's Jerusalem home in early October 1951.

David Ben-Gurion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., and Congressman John Kennedy. It was taken in Ben-Gurion’s Jerusalem home in early October 1951.

In November 1956, Senator Kennedy came to Baltimore to speak to the annual banquet of the Histadrut Zionist Organization.  His remarks laid out an agenda for more active US involvement in the Middle East:

The future of the Middle East is far from clear. But it is clear, in my opinion, that its future will be based upon the interrelation of these seven factors — its strategic position, its oil, increase in Communist influence, economic and social problems, Arab nationalism, Egypt and Israel. No nation can neglect or forget any of these seven factors in formulating future policies in the Middle East — particularly the United States. There was a time, not so long ago, when our primary concerns abroad were with Europe and the Far East. Even last summer, at the time our policies in Suez were established, the Middle East was not looked upon as one of our primary interests. But now, I hope and I am sure, that view has changed.

As president, Kennedy would substantially increase the scope of America’s support for Israel’s defense.

Fifty years after that unforgettable November day, there has been a lot of revisionism.  It has become fashionable to downgrade the importance of the Kennedy administration and to put more attention on his frailties, as a human being and a leader.  Looking back from the 21st century that’s not hard to do.  But when you remember the reasons why so many people embraced this young president – when you remember what a departure he represented from the world of the 1940s and 1950s – then perhaps the high regard for JFK by the people who actually lived through that era is understandable.

Civil War cropped 1 A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more post by Marvin, click here. 


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