Robert Aronson
Immediate Past Chair of HIAS, the agency of the American Jewish community serving forcibly displaced individuals in Israel and globally.

Straddling a Nation and a Peoplehood in Unsettled Times

As a septuagenarian American Jew belonging to the Baby Boomer class of 1949, my life in the United States has largely unfolded in a manner beyond the most fervent prayers of my forbears for I have been able to coalesce without fear or duplicity my being Jewish with my full participation in American communal life. But as I enter my dotage years and my focus turns more outward to my impact on family, friends, and community, I find myself questioning whether my coexisting identities as an American and a Jew now need to be revised into two separate spheres that still coexist but in a more measured and wary manner.

I was born in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, which was a time when our nation, appalled by the Nazi genocide and our own refusal to intervene to prevent this humanitarian disaster, discarded its crypto-scientific immigration policy of eugenics that regarded Jews and other non-Northern European populations as genetically inferior, embraced humanitarian rescue as a legitimate national objective, and perceived Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish people but as a vibrant social experiment and political miracle founded on principles of social justice, gender equality, and illimitable optimism. One by one, the barriers to Jewish integration into American society began to crumble – restrictions in higher education, housing, professional access and advancement, and public displays of religious symbology.

Yet, my parents in my early childhood opted to move to Skokie, Illinois, which remains one of the nation’s main urban Jewish enclaves – an evocation of the shtetl experience of their parents –that would ultimately become emblematic of Jewish solidarity when it mounted a community-wide resistance to the American Nazi Party’s march in 1978. But for me, living in a predominantly Jewish suburb provided security, good schools, two-parent households, and an overabundance of delis – all of which imbued me with confidence that I was living in a pluralistic and tolerant nation.

I have maintained an easy-going comfort with being Jewish in America. I waltz in and out of Jewish religious observance but remain steadfast in my self-identification as a Jew. I have not felt a conflict between my identity as a Jew and an American and have resisted seeing flashpoints of conflict between these two formative influences. I am civicly active but bring a publicly expressed Judaic sensibility to my contributions to the common good. I have stumbled during my life on isolated instances of antisemitism that I have had the luxury of dismissing as ignorant bigotry rooted in an anachronistic era.

My illusions of safety and security have been progressively challenged although not shattered by repeated synagogue attacks, the growing movement embracing “replacement theory,” and the seepage of antisemitism into the political and social mainstream. The American Jewish reality currently includes pervasive security precautions at Jewish synagogues and institutions; the fission of concern at Jewish communal gatherings from the presence of an unknown figure; the antisemitic vitriol that now appears on social media; the explosion of antisemitic hatred permeating our college campuses under the sanctimonious assertions that they represent freedom of expression; the appearance of swastikas and vandalism recurrently targeted at Jews; the ignorance and/or outright denial within the general society of the Holocaust and, more broadly, the episodes of persecution that mark the Jewish historical experience; the jingoism rather than moral leadership of those in leadership positions to recognize the root causes of this pathology; the alarming increase in the FBI statistics on antisemitic incidents.

But the October 7 massacre and its aftermath have allowed simmering antisemitic hatred to burst into mainstream thought, abetted by political philosophies espoused by the extremist left and right wings that have provided intellectual cover allowing virulent prejudice toward Jews to become more acceptable. The alt-right perceives Jews as a threat to white nationalism, destabilizers of social tranquility through our promotion of diversity, liberalism, and robust civil liberties, and a conniving people intent on seizing control of the nation and, indeed, the world. The alt-left perceives Jews as a privileged people who oppress the marginalized, Hamas as a liberation movement rather than a genocidal, murderous cabal, and Israel as a colonial power. While the logic of their pathways diverges significantly, they nevertheless reach the same conclusion that Jews deserve to be vilified.

Most immediately, I have now three infant grandchildren and am acutely aware of the role I will have in their lives, running from an involved corporeal figure who ultimately will be transmogrified into an ingested whisper within their souls. I can neither predict the America in which they will live nor my legacy in their lives. But my one fervent hope is that they will find value from their Jewish identities, will live in a tolerant society that will enable them to engage with the rich and broad diversity of the nation, and will have the courage and strength to confront adversity as it arises.

I most likely have the option to ride out the current antisemitic storm buried in my suburban bubble. But this is no time to curl into the safety of self-indulgence. Rather, this is a period to shed my easy-going, unexamined relationship between my twin identities as an American and a Jew and to become an activist on the ongoing journey of Jews through history. Hillel’s admonition seems clearly relevant to my present experience: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And it not now, when?”

I have become visible and affirming as a Jew who no longer makes excuses for antisemitic and anti-Zionist bombast. I am reversing my disinclination to inject my voice on issues of Judaic importance within governmental bodies, social organizations, and academic institutions. I engage unflinchingly in discussions with others on the conduct of Israel, its contributions to global betterment, and the necessity of its existence as a Jewish state. But I am not willing to tolerate those who fail to recognize the barbarity of Hamas’ actions, ignore its genocidal credo, or support the obliteration of Jews. I believe deeply in the power of words and thoughts. I love the cacophony of freedom of expression but renounce bigoted hate speech that, if unchecked, carries enormous implications to the safety and welfare of others. I continue to believe that Jews share meaningful common interests with a broad and diverse range of the American population, but that this relationship requires an ongoing engagement and mutual education.

My ancestors immigrated believing that America was not just a country, but an idea that provided a rich foundation for a better life as Jews. I have heretofore accepted this notion as an article of faith. But I know that I can no longer put my Jewish identity on autopilot and assume that it will fit neatly into the American mosaic. Rather, in this existing period of polarization and rancor, I have an obligation to fight proudly, assertively, and vocally for my ongoing place at the table of the American experience.

About the Author
Robert Aronson is a retired immigration attorney and the immediate past chair of HIAS, the agency of the American Jewish community providing safety and protection to the forcibly displaced in Israel and globally. At present, he serves on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
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