In the 2000s I would have arguments with some Indian American friends about the ethnic trajectory of Indian Americans in terms of their similarity American Jews, where I staked out the position that the analogy was superficial (e.g., on the Sepia Mutiny blog). To understand why the analogy doesn’t work, you need to know the history of American Jews first. Though Judaism in the United States goes back to small Sephardic communities along the eastern seaboard before the Amerian Revolution, to understand the Jewish community in the 20th and 21st centuries one needs to focus on the two Ashkenazi migrations from Central and Eastern Europe that occurred in the 75 years between 1850 and 1925.
The first wave was the “German Jews”, most of whom were Bavarian peddlers. Many of them scattered across the country, starting general stores and the like. Though numerically a very small migration, they founded many Jewish American institutions. There is a reason that the headquarters of Reform Judaism, which is of German origin, is in Cincinnati. This reflects the migration of German Jews along routes of commerce in the 19th century.
The second wave, and the much larger one, is the migration stream that issued out of the expanded Russian Empire, in particular Lithuania and Galicia. These are who the German Jews referred to as the “Ostjuden”, the Eastern Jews. This was a term applied in Germany to Jews from Poland and further east as well. The Ostjuden were often destitute. Those that fled the early 20th century pogroms may have had nothing but the clothes on their backs. In fact, in all likelihood, the richer and more assimilated Jews were the ones who remained in Europe.
America was the destination for the more marginalized.
Though the German Jews looked down their noses at these newcomers, who packed themselves in neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side, the fact was that the gap between the two is relatively recent. The vast majority of German Jews descended from migrants who arrived from the east in Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries, where they created a new identity that attempted to balance a German national identification with the Jewish religion (e.g., “Germans of the Mosaic Faith”). These were the people who spearheaded the “Jewish Enlightenment,” the Haskalah. In the United States, the Reform movement rejected Jewish peoplehood (before accepting it again in the late 20th century).
The German Jews and Ostjuden are fundamentally the same people, the Ashkenazi Jews who flourished in and expanded rapidly in Poland and Lithuania between 1500 and 1750. Genetically Ashkenazi Jews are all relatively closely related and form a distinct and clear ethno-genetic cluster, subject to a population bottleneck in the centuries before 1500. The genetic data reinforces the assertion that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans come out of the same history and the same cultural-matrix in Europe. Once in the United States, gentiles saw little difference between German Jews and Eastern European Jews, so the community coalesced together, with some differences of religious liberalism and secularism.*
I review this to emphasize that just saying “Indians are the new Jews” assumes a lot and brackets many different things into the two classes. Though to outsiders Indians seem relatively coherent (Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minaj look the same, right?), Indians are not nearly as culturally coherent and cohesive as Jews. Genetically, Ashkenazi Jewish genealogies tend to coalesce 500-1,000 years ago. Indian genealogies for different communities coalesce 2 to 4 thousand years ago. Jewish Americans arrived in the United States with a common language, Yiddish. Only the more assimilated Jews were only fluent in the national vernacular. Indian Americans share one language, English, which is the same as that of the nation to which they migrated. The overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans in the 20th century remained Jewish if they were religious. A minority of Indian Americans are Muslim or Christian, and even among Hindus religion and caste distinctions are important enough there are North Indian and South Indian temples. Sikhs are overrepresented amongst the migrants. Jewish Americans tended to create their common American culture in a few large urban areas, in particular New York City. Though Edison and Cupertino have large Indian communities, the size and concentration of these communities are not analogous to Jews in terms of magnitude.
In short, Indian Americans don’t have what it takes to create a coherent catchall ethnic group similar to Amerian Jews except for the fact that outsiders perceive themselves as a singular group. I don’t think that “push” is ultimately that strong.
I’m writing this post in part because a reader asked what I thought of a post on another weblog, Lessons In Identity. The author makes an observation that Indian Americans seem politically savvy and are prominent in areas such as social justice liberalism and the hard Left. He also makes an analogy to the cohesiveness of the American Jewish communities, suggesting this is the model that Indians are taking.
Let me quote a bit to illustrate where the author goes right and wrong:
It turns out that there is one group that plays identity politics as well as Jews and that is South Asians. They stick together wherever they find themselves. So much so they were able to elbow the Jews out of the Amsterdam diamond market. That is a remarkable feat, given the history and nature of the diamond market. In the United States, they are taking over the wholesale jewelry business. They are doing it on the power of informal agreements among co-ethnics.
The difference between Yang and Harris is South Asians are very tribal, while East Asians are not very tribal. We see this in genetics and marriage patterns. India is a beef stew of various tribes, castes and ethnic groups. China, in contrast, is dominated by Han Chinese. East Asia tends toward mono-ethnic societies. Put another way, the biology of South Asia reinforces and encourages extreme identity politics, while East Asian biology tends to encourage uniformity and conformity.
In America, the East Asians that come here are the least ethnocentric of their kind, so they look to quickly assimilate. They name their kids Bob and Sally, take up golf and join the local Christian church. High caste Indians move here and name their kids Sinjar and Amala. They have a tandoor clay oven installed in their house and they find a local Hindu temple to join. In Asia, South Asians are as tribal as Jews are in the West, while East Asians are about as tribal as white people.
Not sure that the author realizes the implicit contradiction in what he’s saying. Indians are very tribal and riven by identity politics conflicts, but that’s why they are not as cohesive as you might think in the Diaspora. South Asians didn’t elbow out Ashkenazi Jews in the Antwerp diamond market, Palanpuri Jains did. That is a very small community from a particular city in the Indian state of Gujurat. If I showed up and wanted to enter the diamond trade I wouldn’t have any luck because I’m not part of this ethnic group. If I was a Hindu Patel, from the same state, I wouldn’t have any luck. If I was a Jain from Rajasthan, just to the north, I wouldn’t have any luck (though they might be more friendly to me if I was a Jain or a fellow Guju).
This goes to the idea of installing a tandoor oven. That’s Punjabi. Though there are some Punjabi Hindus in the United States, most are Sikh, so most would go to a gurdwara. The vast majority of Indians wouldn’t install a tandoor because that’s not their traditional cooking. In contrast, “Jewish food” is a thing because Eastern European Jews did have a common cuisine that derived from local availability and Jewish dietary regulations. Most Indian cuisine is unpalatable and barbaric because it lacks mustard oil.
I have heard of this idea that Indians in Silicon Valley engage in preferential hiring of other “Indians.” First, talking to friends in the area and industry they’re skeptical of the ubiquity of this, at least to any great extent beyond what happens when you have a bunch of Harvard tech-bros who start a company together. So you imagine that a bunch of Indian guys who went to the same IIT at the same time might start a firm together. Second, Indian jatis are so diverse and variegated that it’s hard to imagine someone staffing their whole company with fellow Iyers or even Patidars. This is really what would be ethnic nepotism.
Mind you, there is some affinity between Indians and brown people general. We are of the “same civilization,” look broadly similar, and enjoy similar (if different) foods, music, and other aspects of cultural production. In the USA we have similar experiences if we grew up here because other Americans view us as interchangeable. But these are fundamentally weak ties, unlike the sort that emerge through long and difficult shared history, such as black Americans and Jewish Americans have. The most strongly vigorous pan-Indian Indian Americans are the most assimilated and whitewashed. The most strident about being Indian, as opposed to a Guju Patel, is also the most likely to marry someone who is not Indian.
This leaves us with a mystery. What’s going on with loud and proud South Asian Americans on the American scene? It’s a thing. And Indian Americans tend to be on the Left. I don’t think this requires a deep understanding of Indians as a collective group. Some facts
1) Indian Americans are well-educated (selective migration), and well-educated Americans are trending Democratic
2) Indian Americans are nonwhite and usually not Christian (Christian Indian Americans are much more likely to be Republican and not just the famous ones)
3) Indian Americans are loud and have strong verbal skills (East Asians have strong verbal skills on tests, but for individual or cultural reasons they are not so loquacious extemporaneously in spoken conversation)
These three factors alone can explain their prominent position within the modern American Left and Democratic party politics. In other words, it’s individual characteristics and pan-cultural traits. Compared to East Asians Indians are louder and more aggressive, though North Indians more so than South Indians, and Punjabis more than everyone else.
* The emergence of very large Haredi communities in the USA is a function of the last half of the 20th century as religious Jewish leaders who survived the Holocaust finally left Europe, and the communities which coalesced around them exhibited very high fertility and residential segregation.