Alan Silverstein

Only In America: July 4th – The USA and Its Jews

The late Harry Golden wrote a best-seller, which made famous for Jewish immigrants and their offspring the phrase “Only In America.”

As America celebrates Independence Day, it is fitting similarly to reflect about the blessings of the USA for its Jews.

A cluster of Jews first settled permanently in what became the United States in September 1654. Twenty three Jews fleeing from oppression at the hands of the Inquisition in Roman Catholic Portuguese Recife, Brazil. They arrived in the Protestant Dutch port of New Amsterdam, [10 years later becoming the British New York].

As noted by Robert Rifkind, when he chaired the 350th commemoration of the 1654 milestone:

“The entire destiny of the Jews has been forever changed by that migration. Consider what would have happened if there had been no migration to America by so many European Jews in the decades before Nazi genocide against our people. In addition to the many millions more we would have lost during the Shoa – so many others would have grown up under persecution behind the Iron Curtain.”

When I have visited the remnants of Jewish communities in Prague, Budapest, Poland, and so forth, I thought: “There, but by the grace of God go I.”

We should approach July 4th with an Attitude of Gratitude. Let us count the ways!

  1. The unique philo-Semitic nature of American culture.

For centuries under Islam, we were viewed as Dhimmi, i.e., second-class human beings. We were kept in a subservient, submissive and downtrodden condition.

For Christendom, we were viewed as deicide, killers of God. We were seen as outcasts; wandering Jews meriting persecution and periodic expulsion. Medieval European statue art depicts “Mother Ecclesia” [Church] resplendent towering over a blind “Synagoga” [Jewry] bent over and in despair.

Not so in America! From its origins, this country affirmed and embraced its Jews. Only in America did a nation’s founders identify themselves not against but with the people of Israel.

The Puritans of New England linked Jewish and Anglo-Saxon destinies. They saw themselves as the modern-day embodiment of God’s people portrayed in Hebrew Scripture. They referred to their new land as Canaan, their cities as Bethlehem, and so forth. Knowledge of Hebrew became a sign of erudition at institutions of higher learning within Colonial America.

Hebrew Bible symbolism was shared. To the rebelling colonists, the tyrant King George was likened to a modern-day Pharaoh. Benjamin Franklin proposed a National Seal symbolizing the New Republic. It depicted a heroic Moses lifting his wand to divide the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s chariots were drowning in the waters.

In similar fashion, President George Washington wrote, in an August 17, 1790, letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, RI: “The US is not a Christian nation, any more than it is a Jewish nation or Mohammedan nation.” “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants.”

  1. Separation of Church and State within a God-infused society

American civic life affirms the importance of religion but does not endorse any specific denomination.

The Democratic Party Platform Preamble affirms that “We honor the central place of faith in the lives of our people… we believe that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith.” This refers not to any particular religion, but to religion as such. So, too, GOP President Ike Eisenhower stated: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith – and I don’t care which specific faith it is.”

As De Tocqueville (1835) observed nearly 170 years ago:

“State religions may serve the interests of political power but they are always sooner or later fatal for the church…Religion has flourished in America in contrast to modern day Europe, precisely because it has been separated from government – with its corruption and self-interest and power politics.”

In an environment wonderful for Judaism, the USA has emerged as the most consistently God-infused democracy in the world. Time magazine surveys have shown that “in the USA 19 out of 20 people say they believe in God and nearly two thirds call religion very important in their lives.”

This approach to faith has created excellent conditions for Judaism and Jews to thrive. As Alan Dershewitz has observed: “The separation of church and star has been the single most important reason for the success of the American Jewish community.”

  1. Cultural Pluralism is a benefit to American Jews

Are immigrants to the USA expected to blend in, e.g., to relinquish all previous distinguishing characteristics? No!

Israel Zangwell’s “Melting Pot” is indeed one image of America, but it applies only to civics. We should learn the English language and ways to function in our land, melting into one civic polity.

Yet equally dominant is an American ethos espoused by Horace Kallen. The USA affirms not just a Melting Pot but also “Cultural Pluralism.” As Kallen noted “America has believed that each [religious, ethnic, cultural] group has something of peculiar value which it can contribute.”

What we should seek is to fulfill the image of an American orchestral symphony with each group playing its “instrument” to the finest quality. Each heritage should add luster to the glory of the USA.

In other words, preserving Judaism is good for America. Conversely, the failure of American Judaism would rob this great country of one of the pillars upon which it rests.

  1. Pursuing the “American Dream” is a gift to American Jews.

Elie Wiesel wrote a column in a July 4th edition of the New York Post: “The day I received my American citizenship was a turning point in my life. I had ceased to be stateless. Until then, unprotected by any government and unwanted by any society, the Jew in me was overcome by a feeling of pride mixed with gratitude.”

In America, we found merit based advancement, free and open economic and social opportunities are great blessings to us all.

More than a decade ago, LA Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was asked whether Tamir Goodman, the Shomer Shabbat Orthodox Jewish basketball whiz [“the Jewish Michael Jordan”] could be a future NBA prospect. “If he is good enough, US pro sports will find a way to accommodate him – the same way it adjusted to the needs of Akeem Oleijewan’s observance of Ramadan. Enabling people the freedom to sustain their diverse religious beliefs – that is what America is all about. Just as long as your jump shots keeping going into the hoop!”

In the USA, opportunities for advancement are limitless. The only meaningful constraints are those of energy and talent. Every occupation and almost every position in American society is now open to us.

A dozen of 50 Senators are Jewish. More than two dozen Jews are members of Congress. Jews are leaders in corporate America. Jews are Presidents of major universities and hospitals. Jews serve on the US Supreme Court, and are leaders in popular cultural, arts and so forth.

Joe Lieberman’s campaign for national office resonated with voters in part because of the authenticity of his identifiably Jewish message. He almost became Vice President save for a few hanging “chads.”

  1. In America, the Memory of the Holocaust is treated with respect.

The US Holocaust Memorial and Museum is located at the center of America’s National Public Square. Its inscription reads: “In memory of those who were consumed in the Holocaust. May their memory serve as a blessing – and a warning!”

This centrality of the Shoa to American civic life reminds us of the unique role played by the US military in the liberation of death camps.

Again citing Elie Wiesel: “I cannot forget a day that remains alive in my memory forever: April 11, 1945. That day I encountered the first American soldiers in the Buchenwald concentration camp. I remember them well. Bewildered, disbelieving, they walked around the place, hell on earth, where our destiny had been played out. They looked at us, just liberated by them, and did not know what to say. The American soldiers wept and wept with rage and sadness. And we received their tears as if they were heart-rending offerings from a wounded and generous humanity. Ever since that encounter, I cannot repress my emotion before the flag and the uniform – anything that represents American heroism in battle.”

The US Holocaust Museum and Memorial bares America’s soul. It affirms that our country could have done more to save our martyrs and must do more to prevent future barbarity. The Museum teaches that evils are committed not only by Perpetrators but by Bystanders as well. it was the Board of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that called upon Secretary of State Colin Powell to label the Islamists mass massacres in the Sudan as “genocide” and to take appropriate action.

Learning not to be indifferent to evil led America to speak out against the Soviet oppression of human rights. Thus, the Reagan administration linked arms reduction negotiations to human rights and emigration.

Natan Sharansky recalled … “in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, [seeing] on the front page of Pravda that Reagan had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire” “Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s so-called “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic [Our spirits were revived]. … The leader of the free world had spoken the truth to the entire world – a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”

  1. Jewish voluntarism, community service, and philanthropy are reinforced by American values.

In USA, there is a tradition of the stewardship of wealth.

This creates the expectation that successful people “will give back” to the community. They should donate money and volunteer time to schools, colleges, hospitals, churches/synagogues, museums, and the arts.

While Jewish sources abound in terms of Tzedakah and addressing communal needs, we cannot assume Jews in every land affirm these commitments to the same degree. Why? Because in the USA, the American value system reinforces Jewish sources in a manner that has made many of us into exemplary joiners and philanthropists.

  1. America’s Strong Support for the State of Israel

Israel experiences double standards and sustained opposition from most nations around the globe. The most significant exception is the USA.

As Social Commentator, William Bennett wrote, “the essential American kinship with Israel is based upon an understanding, almost religious in nature, that to our two nations above all others has been entrusted the fate of liberty in the world. … I myself am one of the tens of millions of Americans who have seen in the founding and flourishing of the Jewish state the hand of the same beneficent God who attended our own founding and has guided our fortunes until now.”

We live in partisan times. Many Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, disapprove of the overall approach of President Trump. Many also are uneasy with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s close alignment with the Trump Administration. Nevertheless, support for the State of Israel among American Jews and Americans-at-large remains strong.

The most recent Gallup poll, for example, indicates that 74% of Americans have “a favorable view” of Israel; e.g., 83% among Republicans, 72% among Independents, and 64% among Democrats. Concerned with lower [although still 64%] numbers among Democrats, pollster Mark Mellman conducted an additional survey and found that when asked; “do you support the State of Israel?” 91% of Democrats answered in the affirmative,” albeit in varying ways:

32% support Israel and also support the policies of Israel’s current government.

35% support Israel and are critical of some of those policies.

24% support Israel and are critical of many of those policies.

Aware of this strong grassroots message, US foreign aid and Capitol Hill alignment with Israel remains firm.

In sum, on July 4, let us take time to express our gratitude to America.

Let us be grateful to the USA for:

Its philo-Semitic heritage and culture

Its separation of an official church and state

Its cultural pluralism!

Its amazing array of opportunities for personal advancement and success

Its role as Israel’s greatest friend on the world scene

Its willingness to come to grips with integrity to the implications of the Shoa

Its high standards of tzedakah and voluntarism

Harry Golden was correct — Only In America!

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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