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Jewish Respectability Politics

Sun, December 17, 4:45 to 6:15pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Chinatown Room

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


The phrase "respectability politics," first used by historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in RIGHTEOUS DISCONTENT (1993), refers to strategies within black scholarly, religious, activist and political discourse regarding how to best advocate for black community interests within the context of society's anti-black racism. The concept suggests that members of a marginalized group must hold each other to higher behavioral standards than those expected of the group in power in order to demand equal rights, or even improved treatment.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, has criticized "politics of respectability" by suggesting that such appeals treat the acknowledgment of black humanity as conditional, contributing to racist systems in which rights are recognized only to the extent that African Americans meet an arbitrary, and often shifting, standard of behavior.

This interdisciplinary panel considers this concept within a Jewish context. We hope to demonstrate how a respectability politics framework might reveal nuances about how intra-Jewish conversations about nation, culture, race, religious tradition and practice, etc., transpire, both contemporarily and historically. Our papers consider how these intra-Jewish conversations function within broader diasporic contexts, as well as within Israel, engaging questions of power dynamics and resistance, the privileging of some class interests over others within Jewish communities, and the costs of certain forms of community protective politics.

Eli Bromberg’s paper departs from a literary vantage point, considering the manuscript revisions to Henry Roth’s mid-1990s autobiographical novel MERCY OF A RUDE STREAM, a novel which famously implicated Roth’s likely sexual relationship with his sister. Naomi Taub also takes a literary approach, considering the Yiddish concepts of RISHES and RISHUS (malice and permission) as a form of Jewish respectability politics which Taub applies to post-Civil Rights era American Jewish literature, especially literature of the suburbs. Orit Avishai addresses the politics of respectability within the contemporary Orthodox LGBTQ movement in Israel, utilizing a sociological approach to consider how the movement navigates strategies, activism, and disagreement within the context of its positionality in both secular LGBTQ and Orthodox Jewish communities.

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