Zotero, Paper Machines, and fun with words

For my project I am using Zotero and Paper Machines to analyze the American Jewish Yearbook (hereafter AJYB) for the years 1939 until 1981. During that period of publication, the AJYB was owned by the American Jewish Committee, one of the largest Jewish organizations in the United States, and thus provides a very good indication of the direction of that American Jewish leadership is trying to push the community. The AJYB began publication in 1899 and was intended to bring the diverse communities of American Jewry together. There was a concern that Jews further out in the hinterlands would not maintain their Judaism if they were not connected to the wider Jewish world. For this reason, the publication attempted to de-centralize itself from a focus on larger cities with substantially more Jews, and instead focused on American Jews overall. From its earliest publication, the AJYB had the purpose of situating American Jews in the wider Jewish world. Because of its intended purpose of chronicling matters of importance to the Jewish community both at home and abroad, because of this, a digital analysis of it is a great asset to larger work on American Jews in the twentieth century. This study focuses on the AJYB in the years 1939 until 1981. This was done in an attempt to discover the changing American Jewish relationship with Israel, and how the civil rights movement altered, or did not alter, that relationship.

The results of this project reveal just how much American Jews were concerned with international affairs. All of the Paper Machines methods reveal different parts of essentially the same story: the centrality of external events and actors on American Jewry’s perception of itself. The Holocaust, Israel, and the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union dominated the discourse on the pages of the AJYB. The fact that these places and events are featured so prominently in sections that deal with American Jewry demonstrate both the international character of American Jews, and the attempts by American Jews to deal with their position as both Americans, generally liberal ones, who were focused on American issues, and as Jews who were concerned with the plight of their co-religionists across the world.

Dunnings-log Word Cloud

Dunnings multiple word clouds

The program that offered the best general narrative history of American Jews in the postwar was a Dunnings-log likelihood word cloud. Using a word cloud filtered with the titles of sections as stop words and Dunnings-log likelihood, which helps to show over-represented words in comparison to the other pieces of data, I was able to create a rough sketch of how the topics that were discussed by American Jews changed over time. To someone familiar with American Jewish history, the topics revealed by the Dunnings-log likelihood do not come as a surprise. The earliest years in the study were dominated by a mix of words relating to both domestic and international threats to American Jews such as “German government” and “Father Coughlin” as well as significant political figures and institutions such as “President Roosevelt” and “British government”. These words reveal an American Jewish community that was concerned with the plight of European Jews, but was also focused on American interests.

As the Second World War waged at full force, and American Jews began to better, if still not fully, understand the existential threats faced by European Jewry. Jewish leaders began to organize efforts to alleviate the suffering of their co-religionists in Europe. This included linking their efforts with Zionism and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, a proposition that had hitherto been received largely with indifference on the part of American Jews. These findings are generally in line with the existing historiography with Historian Arthur Goren arguing, “American Jews confronted the enormity of the destruction of European Jewry and the urgent need to resettle and rehabilitate the one-third that had survived. This task merged almost immediately with the struggle for Jewish statehood in Palestine. Linking the solution of the problem of the survivors with the attainment of statehood created a unity of purpose on a scale unprecedented in the modern history of the Jews.” (Arthur A. Goren A Golden Decade: 1945-1955 in The American Jewish Experience edited by Jonathan Sarna New York: Holmes and Meier publishing 1997 p.296)

The results from the word cloud largely conformed to the link posited by Goren, although words relating to Zionism and European Jews begin several years before the time period discussed in his work. There is the added challenge that some of the words that come up in the word cloud do not explicitly reference Zionism or the Holocaust, but the implicit tie is clear if you have the historical background. For example, one of the words from the 1942-1943 AJYB “San Francisco” likely references the Biltmore Conference that took place in May 1942. The conference united American Zionist factions, that had previously been fighting and established Zionism as a dominate part of American Jewish discourse. In his work The Emergence of American Zionism Mark Raider describes the conference as an event that “epitomized the progress that American Zionism as a whole had taken since 1917.” (Mark Raider The Emergence of American Zionism New York: NYU Press 1998 p. 207) In addition, the same year features the words “Dr. Silver” likely a reference to Dr. Abba Hillel Silver, a prominent American Zionist leader. These words reveal one of the main challenges when working with word clouds, which is that they are most effective when one already has a background in the subject. It is easier for someone with experience to use these types of tools because there is an element of subtly to language and some words have connections or meanings that are decidedly implicit. The rest of the 1940s in this word cloud is largely dominated by words and phrases relating to European Jews and the aftermath of the Holocaust such as ‘Displaced Persons’, which, in the Jewish context referred to Holocaust survivors who were not able to return to their homes in Europe.

The words in the 1950s re-focus the American Jewish experience to the United States and center largely on the civil rights movement and gains made by African Americans. Issues such as school desegregation and Supreme Court decisions relating to African Americans dominate the word clouds. This is largely in line with the historiography that centers American Jews as part of the broader civil rights coalition and allied with African Americans. While this thesis has come under some scrutiny as of late, it still largely holds in the historiography. Cheryl Greenberg puts it best when she describes the alliance as “a cold war liberal attempt to end discrimination based on race or religion using the institutions of civil society: courts, legislatures, media, public schools and voluntary organizations.” (Cheryl Lynn Greenberg Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century New York: Princeton University Press 2006 p.115) The words featured in the word clouds for this time period generally feature words centering on government and liberal efforts to end discrimination such as ‘de facto segregation’ and ‘supreme court’.

Where the word cloud gets interesting from a historiographical perspective is in the mid-1960s. In particular, the word cloud for the 1963 issue features the phrase ‘intermarriage rate’ and the 1964 edition the phrase ‘negro antisemtism’. This is extremely telling and extremely important for understanding the American Jewish relationship with civil rights. By the late 1960s, the civil rights coalition was fracturing along ethnic lines, ultimately causing the rise of a unique brand of Jewish conservatism that centered on the projection of American power and the defense of the state of Israel in the form of neoconservatism. Like nearly all forms of conservatism, neoconservatism was based on a fear of losing position in society. In my larger dissertation argument, I argue that American Jews are concerned with rates of assimilation and intermarriage that are so high that they are potentially unsustainable to continued Jewish life in America. This is why the leaders of institutions such as the American Jewish Committee work to over emphasize this idea of antisemitism in the civil rights coalition. This connection from one year to the next would seem to indicate a correlation between the two topics.

The final decade covered in the analysis, the 1970s sees a return to a focus on foreign policy, with issues related to Israel and Palestine dominating the word cloud, with the exception of one, “Andrew Young” who was an African American ambassador whose tenure was cut short after he met with leaders from the Palestine Liberation Organization, a move that vilified by American Jewish organizations and lead ultimately to Young’s resignation. In short, if one were to look at how American Jews viewed themselves via this word cloud analysis of the AJYB, one would surmise that their fate was closely tied to the fate of Israel. Although this word cloud was by far the most straight forward in terms of telling a pretty standard narrative of 20th century American Jewish history, it nonetheless helps to reveal some of the subtleties within that standard narrative and allows for an exploration of many of the external factors that influenced American Jewry.

Large Word Cloud

large word cloud

Perhaps the most interesting result came from a tif filtered large word cloud. This word cloud showed the most used words in the corpus of what I was looking at. Because the sections of the AJYB that I looked at were centered on the United States, I expected to find references to mainly to domestic issues. Instead, I discovered that the largest word in the word cloud is ‘Israel’. This is very telling and, given that so many other words including ‘Palestine’ and ‘Zionism’ that are also related to Israel are also in the cloud, the centrality of Israel to the writers, editors, and presumably readers of the AJYB cannot be ignored. While this one publication obviously does not speak for the entire Jewish community, it does reveal larger trends in the American Jewish trend toward looking to Israel as a source of ethnic and religious identity.

Present in the large word cloud are words and phrases relating to domestic issues such as the push for civil rights such as ‘federal’, ‘teachers’, and ‘housing’. The prominence of these two themes can be seen throughout this project. This speaks to the duality that defined American Jewry in the postwar. They were at once emphasizing their American identity, but also concerning themselves with the wider Jewish world. As with the Dunnings-log word cloud, there are many words that can be put into context by someone with experience in the subject that might be missed by someone who does not work extensively in it. Some of the words in the cloud can be seen as ambiguous, unless one knows the context of their likely use and can connect them with larger trends.

Phrase Nets

http://maevekane.net/emorgenson/antisemitism%20phrase%20net

As part of my work, I also created multiple phrase nets. Paper Machines allows one to make custom phrase nets, as well as allowing one to use the standard ones that the program has set up. Phrase nets allow one to see how words and phrases are connected in a given text. In this study, I used both the standard phrase nets (x equals y, x the y) and I made my own using terms that were pertinent to my research, such as ‘Israel’ and ‘antisemitism’. All of the phrase nets revealed something interesting, but perhaps the most useful was the phrase net that I ran was for the term ‘antisemitism’. That net was much smaller than the others, but the words that it connected to were very telling. The two largest words were ‘combat’ and ‘negro’. While I was certainly expecting to find references to African Americans in a phrase net such as this, I also expected to find references to right wing antisemitism in the United States and abroad, or words such as ‘Egypt’, ‘PLO’, or ‘Arab’ in reference to Israel. In my research, I also took into account the fact that the word ‘antisemitism’ has changed over the decades. While the meaning has stayed the same, the physical construction of the word has undergone a change. Anti-Semitism is the original spelling, and antisemitism is much more modern, which could potentially skew the results. With this in mind, I also ran the phrase ‘anti-Semitism’ and the top word on that phrase net was ‘Soviet’. This was certainly not surprising, as there were several attempts made over the last half of the twentieth century to alleviate the sufferings of Jews in the Soviet Union.

Another phrase net using the term ‘civil rights’ reveal the intricacies of the civil rights movement, with words such as ‘federal’ and ‘state’ mixing with words describing the impact of legislation such as ‘major’ and ‘historic’. This phrase net was less valuable than I had hoped for, as it did not really say anything about relations between African Americans and Jews, but instead emphasized government legislation. In addition, A phrase net centered on the word ‘Israel’ was also less helpful than anticipated, especially considering how central Israel seems to be to American Jews based on the various word clouds. Most of the words linked to ‘Israel’ were organizations, such as the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) or dates such as 1967. Significantly, the word ‘American’ did appear as well as ‘United’, although United could possibly be referring to the UJA and not the United States

Topic Modeling

Finally, I ran multiple topic models that gave me graphs of a change over time in word usage in the AJYB. What I was most surprised about was the domination of words relating to Israel in the topic model. Nearly every three-word phrase in some of the topic models related in some way to Israel or Palestine, certainly much more so than any other country, including the United States. What makes the topic models most interesting is that they show a strong change over time by their word use and combination of words surrounding Israel. For example, the graph shows a very prominent use of the term ‘Palestine’ early in the sample study, alongside the words ‘war’ and ‘committee’. This is a reference Palestine’s place as a refuge for European Jews during the Holocaust. As a bookend to this, the words ‘president’, ‘Carter’ and ‘Israel’ become more pronounced at the end of the graph. This is likely because of President Carter’s negotiations for a major peace treaty between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. While this combination of words is to be expected in a section focusing specifically on Israel, it is very notable that they appear in parts of the publication that are focused on the United Stats, especially since the AJYB’s stated goal is write on Jewish communities and not on political leaders.

Conclusions

In some ways the programs ran on the AJYB confirmed my suspicions about the place of Israel in American Jewish discourse. The American Jewish relationship with Israel is highly touted and Jews on both the left and right have strong opinions on the state. Author Jo-Ann Mort writing in Dissent magazine in the Spring 2011 issue summed the relationship up succulently when she wrote: “It [Israel] is my home away from home, but it is also my home, the place where I feel a deep sense of connection even in the midst of a jumble of its own contradictions and my own, too. Were I to lose that “home,” the place for which I fight and keep my Jewish soul, I would finally be homeless.” (Dissent magazine vol.58 no.2 Spring 2011 p.25) This centrality of Israel to American Jewish identity can be seen in the digital analysis. One thing that is surprisingly absent, and should be noted however, is explicit references to the Holocaust. This could be because of the way that it was spoken about euphemistically, with phrases like ‘the death of the six million’ used to describe the events, or because it is hidden or implied in discussions about threats to Israel’s safety and concerns about demographics which in the discourse can sometimes emphasize a concern that high levels of assimilation might grant Adolf Hitler a posthumous victory vis-à-vis the end of Jews in the world.

One of the largest continuing controversies in the American Jewish studies historiography centers on the Holocaust and Peter Novick’s 1999 work The Holocaust in American Life which centers the event as defining American Jewish identity. That there have been large numbers of studies concerning American Jews and the Holocaust, and in my own work, I have come across references to the Holocaust extensively makes it seem odd that it is not discussed more in the AJYB. This could be because the AJYB was focused on stories that offer a breadth of knowledge and not an analysis of why events were happening, or it could be that other sections, such as ones discussing Israel have more references to the Holocaust.

Bibliography
-Jonathan Sarna ed. The American Jewish Experience New York: Holmes and Meier publishing 1997
-Mark Raider The Emergence of American Zionism New York: NYU Press 1998
-Cheryl Lynn Greenberg Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century New York: Princeton University Press 2006
-Peter Novick The Holocaust in American Life. New York: Mariner Books 2000.

One thought on “Zotero, Paper Machines, and fun with words

  • April 4, 2016 at 4:34 pm
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    This is really difficult to read on a screen without clear paragraph breaks. Please add an additional return between your paragraphs so it’s easier to read.

    Reply

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