I occasionally pick up The Jerusalem Post at the famous out-of-town newspaper kiosk on Harvard Square (for ongoing news about the Middle East I rely on its very informative sister publication The Jerusalem Report). In the current international edition my attention was immediately grabbed by a big advertisement on the very first page of the paper. The headline of the ad reads “Jews in America… Wake Up! Anti-Semitism is Raising its Ugly Head Once Again”.
The rest of the ad is worth quoting in full: “Do not ignore the warning signs! The U.S. economy worsens… countless neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups are spreading their venomous message on the internet …with public demonstrations… calling for violence against Jews… and praising Hitler as a ‘true hero’!…..They mean what they say… and they mean you!!! Unlike the dark days of the Holocaust… with gratitude to G-D, blessed be He… there is now a Jewish homeland that awaits you! Come home to Israel before it’s too late!”
The ad is signed by Shuva (Return) – The Israel Emergency Aliyah Movement, with contact numbers in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, New York. Googling the website of this organization one finds a long list of alleged anti-Semitic incidents in the United States. Rather interestingly, one also finds a link to Yesha, the settlers’ movement in the Palestinian territories (the name is an acronym for the Hebrew names “Judea-Samaria-Gaza”). I have not tried to find out more about Shuva. But the ad, and its placement on the first page of the major English-language newspaper in Israel, throws light on the issue of Jewish identity in America.
I cannot evaluate the the list of incidents posted on the website. The Anti-Defamation League, which makes it its business to keep track of anti-Semitism, has indeed recorded a recent upswing (much of it, I would think, related to sympathy with the Palestinian cause). But very clearly the alarmism promoted by Shuva gives a very distorted picture of the situation of Jews in America. It is not only that it flies in the face of ordinary, everyday experience of American society – by any measure the most open and friendly to Jews of any society in the world. Indeed, the same Anti-Defamation League in October 2009 published the results of a study showing that anti-Semitic attitudes had fallen to the lowest level ever since it started to collect data on the subject. But what I want to reflect upon here is the place of anti-Semitism (exaggerated or not) in the definition of Jewish identity in America.
There is an intrinsic tension between destiny and choice in that definition. In traditional Judaism to be a Jew is a destiny grounded in God’s covenant with the people of Israel – the individual does not choose to enter into this covenant, but is bound to it by the fact of birth. The Jews have not chosen God; He has chosen them. This, incidentally, is why the term “conversion”, as applied to a Gentile who wants to identify with Judaism, is a rather misleading application of an essentially Christian concept to a tradition where it doesn’t really fit. A Gentile who succeeds in this project of identity change is not so much “converted” as naturalized — like, say, a foreigner who becomes a citizen of another country. The Biblical prototype of such a Gentile is Ruth, the Moabite woman who became the wife of the Israelite Boaz. (Let us not dwell on the fact. somewhat embarrassing to a modern reader, that Boaz purchased the woman as part of a real-estate transaction.) Be this as it may, Jewish identity as destined was taken for granted through much of history. It was certainly taken for granted in the shtetl culture of eastern Europe, from which came the bulk of Jewish immigrants to America. They created replicas of the shtetl in compact Jewish communities, such as those on the Lower East Side of New York. Being Jewish could plausibly be taken for granted in such a situation. But as more and more Jews entered the mainstream of American society a world of choices opened up to them. Willy-nilly they became part of the turbulent pluralism of this society. Of course they could choose to belong to a traditional Jewish community that continued to affirm the destiny of belonging to the people of the Covenant – but, paradoxically, this affirmation of destiny is itself chosen, no longer to be taken for granted. The individual can certainly choose what kind of Judaism to affiliate with – America has produced the historically unparalleled phenomenon of a whole emporium of Jewish denominations (a profoundly American term). The individual can also choose to be a secular Jew, or choose any number of non-Jewish religious affiliations (not only Christian ones – a surprising number of American Buddhists are of Jewish origin), or for that matter choose to be religiously unaffiliated and ethnically vague. And all these choices are protected by law, understood as rights by the larger culture (“it’s a free country!”), and solemnly legitimated by the democratic ideology of the American republic.
The definition of Jewish identity in religious terms fits quite easily in American pluralistic culture, though what this means in terms of an assumed destiny will obviously vary along the spectrum of Jewish denominations, from ultra-Orthodox to Reform. The tension between destiny and choice will persist throughout the spectrum, though destiny will be more plausible in, say, a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn as against a Reform synagogue in a Midwestern town where Jews are a small minority. Jewish identity as destiny is also affirmed by reference to the Holocaust and to the state of Israel. There are problems with both references. While remembrance of the Holocaust can be seen as a moral duty (I agree with this), the very horror of these events can have the opposite effect – namely, the effect of wanting to have nothing to do with it. Ruth Wisse, who teaches Yiddish literature at Harvard, expressed her uneasiness with the spread of Holocaust studies in American academia by questioning whether young people should relate to Jewish history by focusing on its most terrible period. As to grounding Jewish identity in solidarity with the state of Israel, the taken-for-granted character of this identity will be most plausibly maintained to the degree that Israel conforms to the idealistic aspirations of the Zionist vision. Many American Jews have had difficulties with this vision in the decades since the triumphant Israeli victory in the 1967 war.
It seems to me that the assertion, that anti-Semitism is inexorable and ubiquitous, occupies a strategic place in any effort to make Jewish identity a matter of destiny rather than choice. If even in America a recurrence of Nazi-like anti-Semitism is likely or unavoidable, Jewish identity is indeed a matter of destiny from which there is no escape. The recurrent reference to Nazism underlines this point: When Nazi law defined Jewishness as a matter of race – that is, as a congenital and ipso facto unavoidable condition – the liberal self-definition of “Germans of Jewish faith” could now be seen as an illusion. The assertion of resurgent anti-Semitism in America implies that the liberal faith in American democracy is an illusion too: Jews should think of America in 2011 as a reprise of Germany in 1932. (Whether emigration to Israel is the most logical consequence of this view may be questioned: arguably Israel today is the most dangerous place to be in for Jews. If so, this is a tragic paradox, given that, as the realization of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist dream, the state of Israel was established to provide a place of safety for Jews fleeing from anti-Semitic persecution.)
It is always perilous to anchor an identity in a definition of the situation which goes against the empirical realities. It seems to me that Jewish identity, whether understood in religious or ethnic terms, should not deny the choices made possible by American pluralism – and indeed should affirm the value of freedom by which these choices are legitimated. The long history of Judaism and of Jewish culture provides ample resources for making plausible a choice for Jewish identity. To see America today through the lens of Germany in the 1930s is a delusion – a thoroughly counter-productive one.
Could this change? Of course it could. Every catastrophe is possible. But it would be extremely foolish to pretend that a possible catastrophe is now happening or is about to happen, and even more foolish to act on the pretense. Put differently, hypochondria is not a good method of health care.
Quite a few years ago I was on a panel with a prominent American rabbi. I don’t recall what the panel was about. All I recall is a brief exchange I had with the rabbi. He said that he was telling his children that the Holocaust could happen in America. He turned to me and asked whether I thought that he was paranoid. I replied that, on the contrary, he was not paranoid enough. He could only imagine being killed because he is a Jew. Depending on circumstances, he might be killed because he is an American, or a bourgeois, or white. I did not add that he might well be doing psychological damage to his children. I don’t remember whether or how he responded.