Joshua Davidson

From Jewish-American to American Jew: A Response to Franklin Foer

I have been forwarded many articles, but none more than a recent essay in The Atlantic. In “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending,” journalist Franklin Foer argues that the social liberalism most American Jews, Democrat and Republican, supported over the country’s two and a half centuries – a liberalism we hoped would open opportunities for us by putting to rest discrimination in all its forms – ultimately failed to defeat antisemitism and now has collapsed altogether. The twentieth century saw great advancement of Jews’ acceptance in America. But as the twenty-first century dawned, old prejudices rose again and old canards shape-shifted into new threats.

While the months since October 7 have thrown these dangers into sharp relief, anti-Jewish hatred was well on the rise long before the onslaught of antisemitism that followed Hamas’s barbaric attack on Israel. Anti-Zionism was already rampant on college campuses manipulated by forces on the left to alienate and bully Jewish students. A rise in nativist politics, which Foer links to the 2016 presidential campaign, unleashed rhetorical and physical assaults by white nationalists and replacement theorists like Robert Bowers who murdered eleven at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Decades ago, academics at prominent universities were already demonizing Israel as a colonialist, apartheid state; delegitimizing it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people; and claiming Jews close to the presidency were bending American foreign policy to Jewish interests, a calumny more recently echoed by Ilhan Omar and other progressives in Congress. And in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the Madoff Ponzi scheme, the myth of the Jewish banker running and bleeding the economy awakened to new receptivity.

But even with all these dark realities, Foer’s conclusion that our time in the sun is setting needs to be contested, if only for our own hope in brighter days.

Foer profiles educator and philosopher Horace Kallen. Born in Silesia in 1882, Kallen immigrated to the United States to attend Harvard. Pressed to assimilate for the full advantages of being American, he refused. Kallen maintained that America, at its best, was a mixing of cultures and ethnicities. The hyphen in Jewish-American, Irish-American, Italian-American was what gave the country its creativity and drive, he argued. Our own Strauses and Lehmans are proof. From their ranks rose leaders in commerce and government. And the synagogues they and others constructed signaled their Jewish pride in helping build America.

These temples of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Americanized Judaism and assisted the Jewish community’s integration into American life. We went (not all, but most of us) from being European Jews with our Jewishness our inescapable, defining quality, to becoming Jewish-Americans. We did not forfeit our Judaism, but it did shift from being our primary to our modifying characteristic, as in our desire to “make it” here, we placed the liberal universalism America represented ahead of our particularistic Jewish concerns, believing “liberty and justice for all” would be enough to protect and sustain us.

In Western Europe, too, emancipated Jews were encouraged to set Jewish peoplehood aside in favor of their new national identities. But events would soon prove that acculturation into Europe’s supposedly enlightened societies could not defeat the hatred of Jews that quartered there. At the turn of the century, Alfred Dreyfus, a loyal French officer, and by most accounts an assimilated Jew, was framed as scapegoat for another man’s crime and convicted of treason. That trial convinced one journalist covering it, Theodore Herzl, that neither assimilation nor liberalism, alone or in combination, would guarantee Jews safety.

Herzl’s solution was to establish a sovereign Jewish state. And the fact of Israel’s existence gives us power over our people’s destiny we never possessed before.

But modern Zionism is not only an expression of Jewish nationalism. It is also an assertion of the Jewish people’s right to survive and thrive independent of any other nations’ liberal largesse, and a declaration that while Jews should continue to support a universalistic agenda, we simultaneously, independently need to guard our own self-interests and advocate a more particularistic approach to certain societal concerns.

Consider just one: free speech. Liberalism prioritizes freedom of expression as a cornerstone of democracy. But that First Amendment right cannot justify the intimidation of Jews on college campuses we have witnessed since October 7.  Supported by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting any form of discrimination, including harassment, based on national origin, color or race at institutions receiving federal funds, Jews and Jewish groups around the country have filed complaints against schools tolerating anti-Jewish hostility. In a similar vein, a purist approach to free speech would decry a ban of TikTok. But given TikTok’s dissemination of antisemitic propaganda, Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America are supporting the congressional bill that could trigger the ban.

Make no mistake: we should continue to fight for the liberties and ideals we believe in, including free speech. But we can no longer assume with certainty they will protect our Jewish interests.

Gathered in Pittsburgh in 1885, the Central Conference of American Rabbis proclaimed: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.”  In 1935, in defiance of his predecessors, the rabbinic giant Abba Hillel Silver countered: “It is the total program of Jewish life and destiny which the religious leaders of our people should stress…the religious and moral values, the universal concepts, the mandate of mission, as well as the Jewish people itself.”

Silver’s predecessors had erred, strategically and historically. Jews had never been only a religious community. Sociologist Emile Durkheim recognized that religion emerges out of the “collective effervescence” of a group already linked in close association. From our origins in the cradle of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, we were first, and have always been, a people.

And we know this to be true. Otherwise, recent events in Israel would not pain us as they do. Otherwise, we would not have experienced this almost tribal instinct to circle the wagons that has given us such strength these past months. Even those of us who are generations removed from the tight-knit communities of the shtetl – even those who have chosen Judaism on their own – understand in our guts that Judaism is about Jews. The events of the last months have not just tugged on our collective heartstrings, they have tightened them. The American Jewish community is bound together today in ways it has not been since the Yom Kippur War fifty years ago – Israel’s last existential crisis.

Many who had become Jewish-Americans have returned to being American Jews. And if we can make something of that shift; if we can maintain our universalistic commitments without sacrificing our particularistic concerns, then we can become not just an example of a minority that “made it” in America, but one that celebrates its distinctiveness as an example to every other minority in this country.

Mr. Foer’s article should serve as an admonition, but not an epitaph. The most potent response to those who would do us harm will always be a full-hearted embrace of Jewish activism, Jewish worship, Jewish learning, Jewish celebration, Jewish culture, and Jewish pride.

Shver tsu zain a Yid, “it’s hard to be a Jew,” says the old Yiddish proverb. But I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.
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