About Covenant
Previous Issues
Letters to the Editor
Contact Us

Volume 1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
Article 2/9

American Jews Between Best and Worst of Times
By Alexander H. Joffe


In a series of essays published during the 1920s and 1930s the famed Jewish historian Salo Baron decried the "Lachyrmose" version of Jewish history, the perception that over two millennia Jewish experience was an endless traverse through a vale of tears, characterized by massacres, pogroms, expulsions and false promises. With that he announced a new approach to Jewish history, if not exactly celebratory then more balanced. More than apologetics, previously an honorable feature of religious and then historical writing, it sought to honestly balance the good with the bad, Jewish achievement with Jewish failure, and as important, to situate Jewish history within its broader contexts, that is, the histories of other peoples and places. The successes inherent in sheer survival as a people was a kind of baseline, while the triumphs of politics and culture filigreed what had previously been seen as a long grey march through history. However, the timing of Baron's pronouncements, on the verge of the inconceivable disaster about to befall Jews, was ironic.

Baron today is mostly forgotten but the mindsets that he identified are still with us and serve as the touchstones for viewing not only the Jewish past but the present and future. History as lamentation or celebration? Thinking about the Jewish present and future in America gravitates between these two poles. According to some American Jews are living in a new Golden Age, secure, vital, and creative as ever, while others warn we face unprecedented threats from without and inescapable decay from within. Each side decries the other as unrealistic, even deluded. And pointedly, each attempts to influence the community as a whole and its immense network of institutions, to shift resources toward priorities that flow from contrasting perceptions. Nowhere is the dichotomy more evident than the suddenly controversial choice between providing resources to Israel or keeping them at home.

Best of times or (impending) worst of times? Such assessments have been made many times, and few predictions are fulfilled. But the early years of a new and thus far terrible century are a reasonable time to engage in the exercise again.

Where are We?

Some facts are difficult to contest. For whatever reasons, and through whatever ironic logic we may discern in history, it is undeniable that the Christian foundation of the United State, a project to create a new Israel, had as one of its side benefits the sheltering of the old Israel, perhaps half of the world's Jews. Unprecedented freedom, prosperity and security, unimagined political, economic and social success, and magnificent contributions have been made in every conceivable field.

And yet, thanks in part to the very freedoms enjoyed, Jews are on the brink. Half marry outside the religion, fewer identify with Israel, and young people in particular are alienated from both institutions and theology, preferring to celebrate their Judaism as a culture, something to be voluntarily consumed, rather than felt as relationship between God and a people. This is of course not new, much less unique to America. Much the above description could be applied, for example, to German and French Jewry in the 19th century.

Writing in 2006 sociologist Jack Wertheimer decried the lessening of American Jews' sense of "peoplehood," the sense of uniqueness and shared destiny, and pointed to the practical consequences, including the fact that two-thirds of American Jewish philanthropy is addressed to non-Jewish causes. A young New York writer, Jason Gitlin, sees things precisely the opposite: "American Jews' liberty ... has allowed Jews to connect with the interpretation of Judaism with which they most clearly identify. Increasingly, however, the next generation has combined this tradition with a spirit of inclusiveness that transcends such boundaries, encouraging Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and all Jews in between to learn, pray, and socialize together in a way that respects and draws communal unity from such differences. Certainly, this trend is strengthening, not weakening, the community and owes some inspiration to American society's inclusive nature."

Who is correct? Is the glass half full or half empty? One way to examine the Jewish present and future in America is to focus on the community's core concerns. Three matters consume American Jews, antisemitism, demography, and Israel.

Antisemitism and its Many Faces

Recent statistics indicate that the number of physical attacks on Jews in France approach the level of Germany in the 1930s, with up to a dozen assaults a day. Nothing like this even remotely exists in the United States. At the same time the recent murder of a woman at a Jewish Community Center in Seattle by a Muslim American angry about the Lebanon War is among the latest indications that anti-Jewish violence is present and perhaps growing in America. While antisemitic sentiments may have dropped in recent years, the number of violent attacks on Jews has grown. The accusation that American Jewish leaders deploy the term antisemitism periodically in order to renew a siege mentality and to defend Israel from its critics is an old one but a simple glance at lists of violent incidents suggests that the threat is real.

The nature, or rather location, of antisemitism, however, has changed and this has hindered a clearer understanding of the problem. Antisemitism in the United States has now largely migrated from the right to the left. Rather than being an artifact of the populist and patrician right, stereotypical Klansmen and country club members, it is now deeply held by the left and by Muslims, from university elites to non-governmental organizations. Much of this new antisemitism has been focused on Israel and its Jewish supporters, usurping the language of antiracism and human rights to single out Israel as the greatest threat to the globe, and its supporters as blind and tribal. University professors, liberal churches, and non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International all stand at the forefront of antizionism. Most would deny vociferously that they have anything against Jews, only Jewish politics and the Jewish state, which like the United States, oppresses Muslims.

The underlying causes for this are reductionisms familiar to Marxists and antisemites alike, the simple-minded Third Worldism born of post-colonial guilt and championing of the latest underdog, a carefully hidden racism toward the downtrodden, a fair smattering of self-loathing, utopianism, and the like. One recent measure of the growing intellectual legitimacy of such discourse is the infamous study of the "Israel Lobby" by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, of the University of Chicago and Harvard respectively. And of course, saying such things, long the monopoly of Lyndon LaRouche and other conspiracists, is depicted as an act of great courage. That such attitudes appear widespread throughout the web-based "netroots" of the Democratic Party" is another source for concern.

But gradually this rhetoric of "antizionism" is yielding to traditional Judeaophobia, where Jews are reviled for their greediness and tribalism, as well as for efforts to conceal their identity through assimilation. For intellectuals and a shockingly large portion of the American left (say from The Nation out to Counterpunch), the retention of Jewish identity and the existence of a Jewish state are global problems. Here the situation in the United States is superficially similar to that of Europe. But in Europe political elites share these sentiments as well, whether through conviction or response to the antisemitism of the populace, Muslim and others. Official Europe is by and large profoundly anti-zionist and insensitive to Jewish concerns, least of all Israel. Precisely the opposite exists in the United States, a condition often attributed to the "Israel Lobby" and Jewish money. Politicians of both political parties, but Republicans vastly more strongly than Democrats, are frankly sympathetic to Israel and Jewish concerns. This is in part a function of Christian politicians responding to Christian voters for whom Jews and Israel are favorable concepts. And it is only at very local levels that Israel boycott and divestment efforts have shown discernable success, and these mostly temporary. But antisemitism of the intellectuals and the left, cannot be dismissed are mere fringe movements. By finding common cause with Muslims, in particular American Muslims flexing political muscle and Arab potentates anxious to buy more influence, these attitudes are rapidly being amplified and finding political expression, especially from senior Democrats.

Overall antisemitism in the United States is a different creature than elsewhere. But the example of Canada shows that European style antisemitic politics and violence are not far away. Polls in Quebec indicate a narrow majority thinks Israel was to blame for the Lebanon War, while a large minority thinks 9/11 was an official US government plot. The Israel boycott organized by Ontario's public transport workers' union, and more ominously, the attempted firebombing of a Jewish school in Montreal, show that Canadian politics and culture are open to dangerous trends not yet fully developed further to the south. A short analysis would see Canada's official multiculturalism, post-Christian culture, pacifism (of recent vintage) and statism as contributing factors. Dechristianized, ethnicially partitioned, with a declining national culture and rigidly entrenched ideocracies (media, political and intellectual/university elites), Canada is destined for European style woes generally, and its Jews are along for the ride.

In short, it appears ironic that American Jews are protected from European-style anti-Semitism in part because of American Christianity and healthy and long-standing public disdain for politicians, intellectuals, and the media. This is a far cry from situations in earlier phases of Jewish history, where a prince or king took some an enlightened stance toward the Jews, while the population remained implacably opposed to the Jews. Keeping anti-Semitism as a front-burner issue is an important task for communal institutions, most of which have failed miserably at contending with its new anti-Zionist rhetoric and left-Muslim orientation. Mainstream American Jewish leadership has, by and large, thought of itself as being something "of the left," despite frequent accusations that Jews are "neo-cons." Realistically assessing the sources of American anti-Semitism is required, and some younger leaders have begun that process, while others have gone in the opposite direction to embrace the view that being too closely associated with Israel is part of the problem.

But the undeniable success of Jews in America advertises the Jewish presence and, however exotic Jews may still be in some places, they are visible, with strong institutions that serve as deterrent and counterbalances to antisemitism. But these are contingent not only on success but on numbers.

Demography and the Art of Counting Down

No subject exercises American Jews more than demography. There are approximately 5.2 million Jews in the United States. American Jews are older than non-Jewish Americans, they marry and have children later, and their birthrates are falling toward replacement rate. Intermarriage has reached fifty percent of the community and the children of intermarried Jews rarely marry Jews themselves. Self-affiliation among children of intermarried Jews is even lower than it is for children with two Jewish parents.

Among the most contentious issues within all institutional streams of Judaism is how to contact and attract the spouses and children of intermarriage. It is the bemused exercise of many to examine the Sunday wedding announcements in The New York Times for the latest intermarriages, but more substantively, the question of how, or for some even whether, to welcome spouses into Jewish communities has become an object of desperation. Much of the effort toward what is euphemistically called "Jewish continuity" is at best outreach and at worst marketing.

Some, however, believe the demographic data are offset by other realities. Jewish day schools across the United States are packed, as are yeshivot and Hebrew schools, along with adult education courses. There is revival of Jewish culture, as seen in the ever-expanding numbers of books on broadly construed "Jewish" themes, and interest in themes as varied as Jewish history and Jewish cuisine. Indeed, in the American marketplace Jewish is an identifiable brand, in a society where culture is a commodity to be consumed by individuals mixing their interests and identities. A large percentage of young Jews opt to express themselves in cultural ways, through the things they read or eat, and their associations with cultural rather than religious or communal institutions. An observer examining these scenes alone could conclude honestly that this is a Golden Era for Jewish expression and pluralism, not unlike, say, the vanished Jewish civilization of Vienna or Prague or Warsaw. But the bottom line remains babies. Only Orthodox American Jews, modern and ultra-orthodox, have babies and in numbers that far outstrip both other Jews and the general population. In the long term they will become the American Jewish majority of a shrunken community.

Demographic issues also translate into real and potential power within the political system of the United States. One does not have to resort to fantasies of the Israel Lobby to perceive correctly that American Jews have been deeply and passionately involved in the American political system, out of conviction that the democratic system is both right and just and that it offers the greatest protections to Jews and their interests. The same may be said of other ethnic lobbies. But smaller numbers of voters and increasing competition means smaller voices and less power. Leveraging numbers, money, alliances and intellect has been the classic approach of organized American communities, including Jews, but as those variables change, so will the results. During the 20th century American Jews voted overwhelming with the Democratic Party, out of belief in its values, leadership, and alliances with other ethnic minorities. The paradox expressed long ago by Milton Himmelfarb, that Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans, remains largely true in the 21st century. It must be asked whether rational self-interest or residual ideology are better approaches to exercising shrinking power.

There is another element to incorporate in analyses of both demography and politics. The contested statistics of various community surveys notwithstanding, it is clear that in religious terms Orthodox is becoming more conservative, while the Conservative and Reform movements are shrinking. This is partially a function of the Conservative movement's inability to continue squaring the circle of rationalism and spirituality, and the Reform movement's success at in effect turning Jews into Unitarians. But the larger American context must also be considered. The United States is undergoing another Great Awakening, as evangelicized Protestantism proclaiming God's love for the New Israel sweeps away, or sweeps the floor with, liberal denominations who believe that if there was a Jesus at all, he would either drive a hybrid car or perhaps join the Sandinistas. The same conservative trend is, in effect, happening to Orthodox Jews. Believers are replacing non-believers in general, and the wildly successful modern Orthodox movement is being gradually haridized, in terms of practice and belief. A new core of educated Jews (and Christians) is developing to carry traditions onward, who are gradually becoming less worldy.

In demographic terms it appears that Orthodox groups who believe passionately in family are growing at the expense of those who believe less strongly. The community may well shrink in absolute numbers but the center of gravity will shift, and this will be reflected in control of institutions and ultimately in political terms. Neo-Orthodox Jews do not vote like Puerto Ricans, but rather like evangelical Christians. It should also be noted that in this broader context Republicans control districts with the highest rates of marriage and numbers of children while Democrats control those with the most unmarried people. It is not incorrect to call Republicans the party with the most children, and family-oriented Jews will, sooner or later, awaken to that fact.

These convergences may in the coming years shelter and redefine American Jewish political power and survival. It may also condition changes in the third area of concern, Israel.

Israel among the Nations

Nowhere have the changes in the American Jewish community been seen more starkly than in the relationship with Israel. Poll after poll shows that for young people Israel is no longer a central part of their Jewish identities. This is a paradoxical finding given the huge resources invested in Jewish education (and we may legitimately wonder what exactly is being taught about Israel in yeshivot, day schools and Hebrew schools), as well as the plethora of Israel programs.

Part of the problem is that social justice focus of Reform and Conservative Judaism, coupled with the politically correct and post-national atmosphere of universities in particular, have conditioned young people to distance themselves from Israel and exclusively Jewish concerns as too "parochial." Jewish nationalism, especially when expressed by non politically correct Israelis, can be a source of alienation for gentle young American Jews, brought up to feel that the nation is the source of the world's problems and that too much ethnic difference is an affront to carefully engineered "diversity." Darfur and global warming can seem more compelling, both as objects of charity and social movements. The elision of Judaism and social justice upbringings that stress slogans such as "Not in My Name" and "Never Again" as universals without Jewish content, and an upper middle class atmosphere of painful tolerance and forced understanding, the flip side of which is white post-colonial guilt, all create the proverbial perfect storm. Israel--and it is important to stress, many other explicitly Jewish causes and causes that have some element of Jewish self-interest--are sacrificed.

At best for many young Jews Israel is seen as a success that no longer requires Diaspora help, much less devotion, and indeed, it can be difficult to argue with this. At worst Israel is simply a, or even the, human rights abuser. Witness the involvement of Jews in the Israel boycott movement, or at a lesser extreme, the criticism of Israel's conduct during the Lebanon War offered by young Reform Jews. Israel's "aggressiveness" in its own defense violates the frankly Christian spirit of many young Jews, who wish to keep turning the other cheek. Many put their faith in transnational progressivism, global citizenship under unelected international government and non-governmental organizations with the goals of ethnic diversity and communal autonomy, the rectification of under-representation and inequality, and the equivalence of all narratives. To some extent this type of socialist utopianism is seen as the highest realization of Judaism, rather than a return to the Ottoman millet system of imperial domination and communal autonomy. At the opposite of the spectrum, both spiritual and perhaps political, is the continuing stream of American Jews going to Israel to study in yeshivot.

Clearly Israel's place has changed but the problem is largely a result of a crisis in the American Jewish mainstream, of which the children are the symptoms and the parents the cause. Israel is a victim of its own, and American Jews' success. Substituting Israel for God, to put it bluntly, as the object of devotion, and the introduction of culture as an autonomous object of admiration was wholly logical in the context of the American Jewish 20th century. These approaches evolved naturally as American Jews came to grips with modernity, their own sense of place, and tried comprehend the Holocaust and its aftermath. There was also a pure sense of altruism, helping Israel was helping other Jews.

But as a secular religion all these features seem fated to erode over time. "Americanism" could not be sustained as American Jews succeeded beyond all expectation and became fully "white." Jewish success had to be explained away, lest medieval stereotypes for evoked, and an institutionalized outer directedness was required. And as successful, almost quintessential whites, came guilt. The selective misreading of Biblical Prophets and their putative message of "social justice" long promulgated by Reform Judaism in particular fit the times and became the "religious" foundation for a whole swath of American Jews. Judaism was redefined as and reduced to social justice, with prepackaged slogans, an approach that also fit the assimilationist traditions of the Reform movement. Culture as a competitor for religion was also less demanding, less particular, since one could enjoy lox with white bread or at a greater extreme, place a menorah under the Christmas tree.

But while the first generations of post-war American Jews may have shared a sense of klal Israel, they managed to outer-direct their grandchildren to such an extent that concern for other Jews, as opposed to hurricane victims, is selfishness par excellence. And, again by design, the Holocaust has been so thoroughly universalized as an abstract symbol of human suffering, that Jews under 40 rarely see it as anything uniquely Jewish. The America Jewish fetish of building institutions and naming them after the donors also reached a frantic and necromantic level with whole university departments being dedicated to Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Organized expeditions to Auschwitz comprise the Grand Tour for young Jews. Given the results seen among young Jews we may fairly ask about the message being received. Is it an appreciation that Europe is a vast graveyard for Jews and others, or that Jewish civilization there was the pinnacle of human achievement in every field, or that Jewish survival, and the humanity of civilized societies, are fragile things?

The motives again were pure, remembrance and commemoration, but the effect was a cult of the dead that did living Judaism no favor. Cultural Judaism may see Yiddish culture as a rallying point, but genocide is even less of a basis for a religion than bagels and klezmer. From all this and more, an attachment to Israel suffers.

At the same time it is important to consider the extreme right of American Jewry, for whom Israel is seen as divinely ordained and maintained, or even part of an unfolding messianic plan. Ironically these positions recall, as least rhetorically, Israel's earliest secular Jewish supporters. But the activist God (described elsewhere in this issue by Menachem Kellner) must be propitiated by quotidian politics that are bound to disappoint. Talk of withdrawal from territory, even Gaza, can provoke angry denunciation, not from political or strategic standpoints, but rather because it appears to defy the divine order. For the furthest right of American Jews Israel runs the risk of transgressing God's will (the criticism long made by radicals like Neturei Carta). As the Orthodox wing of American Judaism becomes more literal and less worldly, the place of Israel (populated by Israelis rather than Jews) may ironically erode as well.

From the left and the right, therefore, Israel will suffer. Addressing this requires a renewed but realistic focus on Israel, as a brilliant facet of Jewish existence but not the end point for Jewish history. Doing so, however, explicitly states that the Diaspora will and should continue to exist, thereby contradicting a central tenet of most Zionist ideology. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the success of Zionism and consider a new Jewish ideology for the 21st century.

The Future of Jews in America

What should American Jews expect in the 21st century? Whatever the probabilities, individual Jews and the community as a whole have the potential for making conscious choices that will shape the future in ways other than those described here. And in the main, the American Jewish community has been anything but passive with respect to its own fortunes and fate. The future has not yet been written.

The American Jewish community twenty or certainly fifty years from now will almost certainly be smaller, poorer, less educated, politically weaker, more threatened from without if perhaps more united from within, and less able to aid Israel. It will also be more demonstrably Jewish, with better levels of Jewish learning and practice. America as a whole will be larger, more socially fragmented even as it becomes more urbanized, with popular and political culture more overtly Christian, and with much larger and less assimilated Hispanic populations. America may also be less American, in the sense of a common, shared culture, with the Constitution as its foundation.

Jewish life in America may be able to continue in the absence of American culture, but not if Constitutionalism declines. Above everything else the color-blind ideals of America and the legal guarantees of equal protection have both permitted Jews to become Americans and lose their Judaism, to shelter themselves in closed communities, and everything in between. Changes to this, whether de jure or by dramatic changes in custom, will remove those protections. Being at the forefront of defending a common concept of America and its Constitution as unique and valuable should be a high communal priority.

The destiny of American Jews, and at a certain ominous level, klal Israel, is tied intimately to the destiny of America, as a concept and as a reality. As the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, Jews are at the forefront of the consumer-driven approach to identity that threatens to dilute Jewishness and Americanism to zero, and opposite trends of ethnic separatism that puts up physical and emotional barriers against modernity and fellow citizens. If American Jews, and perhaps America itself, are to survive, a radical center must again be established. For Jews this will entail a new balance between reason and faith, between the in-group, the nation, and the world, and perhaps as importantly, between the responsibilities toward Jews and toward the rest of humanity.

None of the above argues in favor of any American political party or organized Jewish tradition, although it must frankly be admitted that conservative approaches to both may be the future. Precisely the opposite is required, both political parties and all streams of Judaism must be brought toward a new center. Respecting the various threats to Jews and to America is a necessary starting point. But to those concerned about Jewish continuity and pluralism, and the Jewish contribution to America, a monolithic future is far from reassuring. Jewish success in America came about through full embrace of pluralism, with its many risks. Disengagement and other-worldiness are not viable survival strategies in a century of globalization, no matter the vast levels of retribalization taking place all around us. For American Jews of all persuasions what is required is a renewed dedication to one another, and an honest debate over what America means.

America has been called the 'indispensable nation' and the argument can be made that Jews are indispensable to America. Perhaps now is the time to reconsider what that could mean in a century that teeters uncertainly between the best of times and the worst of times.

About the Author
Alexander H. Joffe is co-editor of Covenant and director of research for The David Project of Boston, Massachusetts. An archaeologist and historian, he has written widely on the ancient Near East, arms control and international security, and cultural politics.

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2006

Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya - P.O. Box 167, Herzliya, 46150, Israel
Email: covenant@idc.ac.il - Phone: + 972-9-960-2736 - Fax: + 972-9-952-7236
© 2007 All rights reserved