In his March 9, 2019 New York Times op-ed, Is Anti-Semitism Exceptional?, Ross Douthat argued that anti-Semitism had been marginalized in post World War II America largely due to the special warmth of philo-Semitic feeling and admiration for Jews. He attributes this triumph of philo-Semitism to “Holocaust remembrance, affection for Israel, and a distinctive pride in the scope of their [Jews] success.”
Post-World War II Jews, Douthat argued, have held a “signal and elevated” place in the American experience. The Omar controversy and the attendant embroilment is an assault leveled on that notion. An offensive directed at the suggestion that Jews hold some sort of special place in the American experience. Who are you kidding, so this current hostile assertion goes, Jews are just another white privilege oppressor group who need to be knocked down a peg or two, and don’t give me your stale “philo-Semitic” arguments. Boo-hoo.
Douthat certainly gets this part right. America, or at a minimum the Democratic Party and the American left, is angrily tossing away its warmth for things Jewish from Israel to bagels and lox. And add to that a seemingly frantic hate for Woody Allen.
I do not quibble with Douthat’s conclusion that the American Left, large portions of the Democratic Party, and major elements of the mainstream media are basically saying the Holocaust is old news. We’re no longer going to jump every time Jews ring that bell. It’s just one terrible thing that happened, so was Rwanda, and dozens of other awful tragedies. If there’s moral authority today it’s with the oppressed minority groups who suffer.
I don’t disagree with his conclusion, but, in making his argument, Douthat misses a larger historical context about what is being tossed in the historical trash can. His context is philo-Semitism post World War II, post Holocaust, as if sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust created American philo-Semitism. [As an important aside, he also risks falling into the trap of assuming Zionism just popped up as a response to the Holocaust which it most assuredly did not.]
America’s love affair with Jews and things Jewish – call it philo-Semitism if you want – began much earlier in the Twentieth Century.
The confluence of the early Twentieth Century American experience and the Jewish immigrant experience created an explosion of brilliance that continues to inspire. Lowbrow or highbrow American cultural life was, well, not just enhanced, but created anew, reinvented.
One prism through which we can glimpse this American love affair with things Jewish is the popularity of cultural icons like Gertrude Berg’s The Goldbergs radio show throughout the 1930s and 40s. During the 1920’s, Americans rushed to laugh at Molly Picon’s Yiddish accent. And so many Yiddish phrases have ended up in common American usage.
When George Gershwin pulled from the American Black experience and melded it with Jewish musical themes we get – not Jewish, not Black, but profoundly American music. Jack Benny was an American comic genius beloved by American audiences but his timing was oh so Jewish. Bernard Malamud wrote maybe the best ever novel about an American baseball player but it’s also a very Jewish book.
With the advent of television, American came to a halt on Tuesday nights . . . glued to the little box laughing at the screwball shtick of Milton Berle.
That junction of Jewish and American brought us Louis Brandeis and jurists who helped shape our American constitutional thinking. A Jewish sensibility was evident.
Estée Lauder and Bess Meyerson and Pauline Kael and Betty Friedan and Beverly Sills. Jewish women of accomplishment excited America.
On a personal level I am resigned to it. The days when Jack Paar had Fat Jackie Leonard or Oscar Levant on are rare YouTube grabs. The golden days of Jewish American prominence may be on the wane. But we should be mindful about what it is that’s being tossed on the historical trash heap.
Here’s just a small taste of what we lose. Oy Gevalt.
Fanny Brice, Mike Nichols, George and Ira Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny, Al Jolson, Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill, Jerry Lewis, Irwin Shaw, Susan Sontag, the Marx Brothers, Sid Caesar, Grace Paley, S.J.Perelman, Milton Berle, Irving Howe, Garson Kanin, Danny Kaye, Ed Wynn, Harold Arlen, Burt Bacharach, Abe Fortas, Felix Frankfurter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Dorothy Parker, Ayn Rand, Stephen Sondheim, Phil Spector, Jule Styne, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Pollack, George Cukor, Marty Glickman, Allen Funt, Cecil B. DeMille, Stanley Donen, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Murray the K, Walter Winchell, Stan Getz, Phil Silvers, Mel Allen, Morley Safer, Howard Cosell, Marv Albert, Dinah Shore, Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Jonas Salk, Irving Berlin, Nathan Lewin, Stanley Mosk, Philip Roth, Neil Simon, Saul Bellow, Edna Ferber, William Wyler, Joseph Heller, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Harold Robbins, J.D. Salinger, Maurice Sendak, Leon Uris, Carl Sagan, Bill Stern, Mel Blanc, Nathanael West, Herman Wouk.