While Joe Biden is notorious for his gaffes, his recent comments in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month should not be designated as such ... despite the outcry from some critics claiming otherwise.
First, let's take a look at what he said:
“The truth is that Jewish heritage, Jewish culture, Jewish values are such an essential part of who we are that it’s fair to say that Jewish heritage is American heritage. The Jewish people have contributed greatly to America. No group has had such an outsized influence per capita as all of you standing before you, and all of those who went before me and all of those who went before you.”
Normally a paragraph like this would be considered innocuous, even a tad generic. After all, it is a longstanding tradition for politicians of both parties to lavish praise not only on the concept of American demographic pluralism, but on the specific ethnic groups who make our diversity possible in the first place (whether this rhetoric is followed up by substantive action is an entirely different matter). Had Biden made a comparable statement about any other religious community or nationality, it is doubtful his remarks would have received any meaningful attention.
Unfortunately, the claim that Jews have had an "outsized influence per capita" in shaping America and the world has long been a potent fuel for anti-Semitism. One need only look at the ongoing popularity of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion — a hoax churned out more than a hundred years ago by Tsarist Russia which purported to chronicle a meeting of powerful Jews discussing their plot for global domination — to fully appreciate this fact. Indeed, a recent State Department report documenting a worldwide increase in conspiratorial anti-Semitism (e.g., official Holocaust denial by the Iranian government, President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt supporting an imam's public prayer for "Allah" to "destroy the Jews and their supporters," the reciting of the "Protocols" by a member of the Greek parliament) prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to name a special envoy to specifically address this problem. Yet does that mean that Biden said anything wrong?
Certainly his remarks weren't factually erroneous. It is true, as Biden pointed out, that Jews "make up 11% of the seats in the United States Congress" (despite being less than 2% of the American population) and "one-third of all Nobel laureates" (despite comprising less than 0.2% of the world population). Likewise, Biden was correct in observing that "you can’t talk about the Civil Rights movement in this country without talking about Jewish freedom riders and Jack Greenberg," that "you can’t talk about the women’s movement without talking about Betty Friedan," and that "you can't talk about the recognition of ... rights in the Constitution without looking at incredible jurists" on the Supreme Court like Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter.
While it is hardly a coincidence that Biden's party affiliation accounts for his emphasis on Jews' historic proclivity toward liberalism (Jews have voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1924, with 74% identifying as liberal or moderate today and, excepting in the year of Jimmy Carter's defeat, between 64 and 80% voting Democratic in every presidential election over the past 40 years), he did not overlook non-political achievements as well. By the time he had finished extolling everything from the contributions of Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan in American science to the influence of George Gershwin and Bob Dylan in American music, his only notable factual error had been one almost born of his well-known penchant for hyperbole — i.e., his statement that "85% of those changes" in Hollywood and social media that had led to gay rights had been "a consequence of Jewish leaders in the industry" (although it is true that Jews have also been disproportionately supportive of gay rights). His overall thesis, on the other hand, was entirely sound. After listening to his recitation of the facts of American Jewish history, it would be hard to argue that “Jewish heritage has shaped who we are – all of us, us, me — as much or more than any other factor in the last 223 years."
Then why have Biden's comments provoked such consternation?
Simply put, it is because America's obsession with political correctness is rooted more in insecurity than conviction. Even the shrillest avowed non-bigot will, as a rule, become uncomfortable when confronted with facts which seem to support bigoted worldviews. Because the disproportionate Jewish influence in politics, science, art, business, and academia seems to confirm anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, non-bigots who can't think of an argument to account for that reality instead opt to ignore it. When asked to justify this decision, they usually do so by arguing that they're merely trying to avoid playing into the hands of anti-Semites. However, given that anyone so inclined to feel this way about Jews will no doubt already be aware of these or similar statistics, that explanation doesn't hold much water.
More significant, though, is that it misses the point entirely. For one thing, the notion that Jews should be expected to defend themselves for their achievements is in itself implicitly anti-Semitic, operating as it does on the presumption that a Jewish conspiracy might exist and as such needs to be disproved. What's more, these arguments diminish the various qualities that have contributed to Jewish success, such as the Jewish culture's emphasis on education and hard work, its ability to maintain a cohesive communal identity after five millennia, and the moral premium it places on providing tangible charity and socioeconomic uplift for the less fortunate (as Diego Rivera once put it, "My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.")
The worst part, though, is that these arguments are fundamentally un-American. To explain why, I turn to one of America's last libertarian presidents. As Grover Cleveland explained during a Thanksgiving Day speech in 1905, only two years after the Protocols of the Elders of Zion became a worldwide hit, Jews should be proud that "the toleration and equal opportunity accorded [them] have been abundantly repaid." His closing words are the perfect conclusion for this piece:
"I know that human prejudice, especially that growing out of race or religion, is cruelly inveterate and lasting, but wherever in the world prejudice against the Jews still exists, there can be no place for it among the people of the United States, unless they are heedless of good faith, recreant of the underlying principles of their free government, and insensible to every pledge involved in our boasted equality of citizenship."
PS: In the name of full disclosure, I myself am Jewish.