When I first read about President Donald Trump’s Executive Order that would effectively, if not explicitly, define the Jewish people as a nationality, I thought of someone, a fictional person actually, who harkens back to a very different time and place: Tevye, the tragic-comic milkman at the center of Fiddler on the Roof, a masterpiece of popular culture.
Last week, I saw the Yiddish version that is playing in New York City for just a few more weeks, and I saw the play with new eyes. I have always understood the move to America by Tevye, Golde, and their two youngest daughters (the original Yiddish stories feature even more daughters) as a happy ending. Yes, they surely missed their other daughters, their neighbors, the place they had lived their lives. I imagined that Tevye and Golde and, even more so, Beilke and Teibel, reveled in the safety and abundance of America. My imaginings were likely shaped by my paternal grandparents’ immigrant experience. The first time my family watched the movie version, when I was about eight, my bubby said to me, “Anatevka was colorful compared to our shtetl. It was a terrible place.”
Last week, as the play wrapped up, I no longer presumed a happy ending for those lantzmen heading across the Atlantic. Some of the uncertainty and fear that they felt in Anatevka now permeates my own experience and that of other Jews. The Anti-Defamation League reports that antisemitic incidents in the United States are up by an astounding 99 percent since 2015, with equal statistics around the world. Every day, the headlines of Jewish papers—and sometimes mainstream papers—recount stories of harassment, defacement of Jewish public spaces and violence against Jews. The internet is a harrowing place for publicly identified Jews, especially ones who take any kind of stand on almost any issue. And the atmosphere on many campuses for Jewish students is fraught with anti-Israel sentiment, which is sometimes conflated into anti-Jewish agitation.
To move from generalities to specifics, this morning, it is finally clear that the deadly attack in Jersey City was fueled by antisemitism.
And, in spite of this, I am keenly aware that I live in an era of unprecedented freedom, with extraordinary access and power. I spend most of my time working to create generative Jewish experiences and open up Jewish wisdom to nourish and sustain Jews and the people who love us. As the president of Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement, I am adamant that we Jews proactively create our own experiences and define our own identities—and not let anyone else define them for us.
For this reason, I am apprehensive about the draft Executive Order the Trump Administration proposes to issue to combat antisemitism by treating Jewishness as if it were a race, color or nationality for purposes of the anti-discrimination protections codified in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and with a special focus on college campuses. I am heartened and deeply appreciative of the administration’s impulse to address rising antisemitism, most especially the Department of Homeland Security’s increasing emphasis on combating white nationalism. But this legal strategy is profoundly problematic. It inserts the U.S. government into the question — are Jews a religion or a nation? — that has placed Jews in uncomfortable positions at least since Napoleon’s time.
Reconstructionists understand Judaism to be the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Religion is extremely important, but note in this definition that is an adjective, a modifier, rather than a noun. The nouns in our definition are “civilization” and “people,” both of which connote a tremendous amount of diversity, in practice and self-understanding, and across time. One can be deeply culturally Jewish but not believe in God or ever attend synagogue. One can attend synagogue regularly and not believe in God: Judaism is much more about community building and behavior than professing any kind of doctrinal belief. Religion alone, or either nationality or nationalism alone, or culture alone simply does not adequately capture the experience of what it means to be a Jew.
Reconstructionists solved this complex understanding of Jewish identity by bringing to speech the concept of peoplehood in the 1940s. Drawing on cultural pluralism and the emerging sociological concept of ethnicity, one early Reconstructionist leader, Samuel Dinin, explained: “Peoplehood connotes more than a religion; it connotes a common language, a common literature, historic memories, common hopes and aspirations, a link with a land, as well as a common religion.” Peoplehood moves beyond religion or territory and is animated by the idea that Jews around the world share both a past and a future together and are bound up in each others’ well-being. Peoplehood also makes space for Jews to be members of the Jewish people and citizens of their home nations with no conflict in loyalty.
Reconstructionist Jews strongly believe that no authority — inside the Jewish community or outside of it— can limit a definition of who is a Jew or what it means to be Jewish. Efforts by the federal government, however well-intentioned, to regulate speech on campus and define Judaism challenge the First Amendment on the grounds of freedom of speech and separation of church and state. We urge effective action against rising antisemitism that includes appropriate investment in security measures and protection of healthy discourse. This executive order is not the way.
First and foremost, we strongly urge the president and the members of his administration to avoid antisemitic stereotypes and to ostracize white supremacists. Rhetoric and behavior can be as important as legal ones in shaping culture.
The image of a fiddler on the roof was nowhere to be found in Sholom Aleichem’s original stories about Tevye. The creators of the musical borrowed the image and even the title from Marc Chagall’s paintings of European Jewish life. The merged worked resonated because the fiddler eloquently symbolized the precarious balance of life for Jews in the waning days of Tsarist Russia. It would be a great exaggeration to say that most American Jews are as perilously close to falling off a ledge as our forebears were. And yet, the ground on which we stand is nowhere near as sturdy as it was even a few years ago.