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What I'm Reading: The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Comparative Migrations

When I speak to Jewish audiences about the contemporary politics of immigration, I often lean on the historical parallels between contemporary migrations and Jewish experience of diaspora, in which Jews have so often been the strangers.

Recently, at a forum sponsored by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, I invoked Michael Chabon's wonderful diasporic novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union. In the novel, Chabon imagines that the FDR administration, rather than ignoring the coming storm of the holocaust as it did, granted the Jewish people a lease to land in Sitka, Alaska. As a result, far fewer Jews perished in Europe, and at the time of the novel's setting, the 1970s, Yiddish is a thriving, creolized language, with wonderful specific vernaculars, like the cop talk that graces its pages.

In my talk, I explained that the situation of contemporary migrants from Mexico and Central America is in some ways very much like that of European Jewish refugees from Europe in the late 1930s. While Mexican and Central American migrants flee the economic devastation of free trade, rather than a genocidal regime, their collective survival is nonetheless at stake.

Presented in this way, the parallel generally goes over well. Many in the Jewish community recognize the situation of contemporary migrants as eliciting a specifically Jewish sympathy. As an issue, immigration has progressive currency in contemporary Jewish communities, specifically because it is a diasporic issue: it addresses Jews as wanderers, rather than nationals. So a conversation about migration avoids the third rail of Israel, which has so often, since 1948, divided the Jewish left, Jews from the left.

This is instructive to me as an im/migration historian. When contemporary Jewish communities remember ourselves as migrants and wanderers, we conjure a history easily shared with other communities, not one that rests on our connection with a particularly imagined homeland. Allegiances to the homeland, argues Matthew Frye Jacobson, were part of the constitution of American ethnic identity for Jewish, Polish and Irish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (2002).

The creation of ethnic identities has been of central concern to historians of immigration. But perhaps, as we move towards a transnational history of immigration, it is time to move away from ethnic exceptionalism, towards a comparative history of migration. Such a history recognizes cultural specificity and historical exigency, as well as the diversity within ethnic communities. At the same time, such a history speaks powerfully to our current moment of global transformation and displacement.

Rachel Ida Buff, Associate Professor in History and Coordinator, Comparative Ethnic Studies, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.