White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics by Joshua M. Zeitz ’02 PhD (Chapel Hill).

Once upon a time there was the New Deal, which brought together such disparate groups as liberal Jews, devout Catholics, white Southerners, and urban blacks in the same political coalition. Later, and much to the regret of liberals, there was Richard Nixon’s New Republican Majority, which split blacks from whites in the South and Jews from other white ethnics in the North. The cause of the change was race. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he alienated Southern whites. When Nixon cleverly endorsed affirmative action, he won over Northern white ethnics by forcing their unions to admit blacks.

04.30532.white.jpg Joshua Zeitz’s engaging book challenges this conventional wisdom. He doesn’t say the split did not happen; it just happened earlier than is commonly thought and race was not the original wedge between Jews and Catholics. They were going their separate ways even before the New Deal went out of business, and religion, not race, was the reason.

The great strength of Zeitz’s book is that he brings to life what it meant to be either Jewish or Catholic in the 1940s and 1950s. Although he focuses on New York City, everything he says rings true with my own Jewish upbringing in Philadelphia. We thought we were the smart kids and the Irish and Italians the dummies. They thought we were not tough enough: too weak to defend ourselves in the neighborhood, and too weak to defend the country against the Communists. Much the same, it would seem, was going on in Brooklyn and Queens. Although people lived in generally segregated communities, there were enough Catholics in or near the Jewish ones, and vice versa, to encourage mutual suspicion. No one could have anticipated that the Second Vatican Council would promote reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.

Nor could I have ever anticipated that I would eventually teach at a Catholic university—and love doing so. If Zeitz does a terrific job describing my old Jewish neighborhood, he does an even better one characterizing the world occupied by the Irish and Italian parents and grandparents of the students I now teach. They belonged to tight-knit social clubs, worked in jobs requiring uniforms, and attended parochial schools emphasizing discipline and faith. There was, in the United States, a Catholic ethic of solidarity that rivaled the Protestant (and Jewish) ethic of individualism. When that ethic was strong it included voting Democratic. No wonder the Democratic Party was strong as well in those days.

What divided Jews from Catholics was not religion per se but the political attitudes reflected by those religions. Zeitz tells the story of May Quinn, a Catholic teacher accused of racism and anti-Semitism, and documents how Catholics viewed her as a critic of communism and Jews saw her as an incipient fascist. Her case was only one example of the extent to which Jews and Catholics were divided, as more of the former leaned to the left, while more of the latter leaned to the right.

Zeitz challenges the view that Jews reacted to the racial upheavals of the 1960s in more liberal ways than did Catholics. He reminds us that the Jewish response to black activism in New York could be just as parochial as anything produced by ethnic Catholics. For example, Jews interpreted strikes designed to bring black teachers into classrooms dominated by black children as a new and invidious form of anti-Semitism; they feared blacks would displace Jewish teachers. Race brought Jews and Catholics together as much as it divided them.

White Ethnic New York began as Zeitz’s doctoral dissertation at Brown. It is an excellent example of two trends in current historical writing about the United States. One is that, although published by a university press, it is not a scholarly monograph in the usual, and unflattering, sense of that term; the prose is clear and the stories are interesting. The other is that it concentrates on white people and thus makes a contribution to what is called “whiteness studies.” But it does so without the ideological didacticism that too often mars other works in this area.

The United States is unlikely to see anything like the New Deal coalition again. But nor has Karl Rove managed to replace it with a permanent Republican majority. Although more Catholics voted for John F. Kennedy than for John F. Kerry, there is reason to believe that white Catholics will, like independents of all faiths, be looking more favorably upon Democrats in the near future. Jews, meanwhile, despite Republican efforts to woo them, remain reliable Democratic voters. If Jews and Catholics are ever to come together, it is helpful to know what first drove them apart. White Ethnic New York is a central text in that effort.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.