Joyous New York youngsters join hand in Palestinian folk dance as the Zionist flag waves from Jewish Agency Building at 16 E. 66th St. in honor of the proclamation of the new State of Israel, May 16, 1948.(Photo: Anthony Calvacca/New York Post Archives /NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
How cosmically lucky the American Jewish community is, blessedly sited at the intersection point of two forms of chosenness, two forms of exceptionalism. A perfect storm of mazel, one might say: American Enlightenment universalism and Jewish particularism matched up like peas in a pod. Our serendipitous good fortune is invoked routinely for any number of purposes. Here is how the Tikvah Fund advertised a March 26 lecture by Ruth Wisse on Irving Kristol: “[H]e felt twice blessed, as a Jew and an American, and cheerfully shored up the best of both traditions …”
This self-serving celebration of conjunction has always been an exaggeration, fully credible only insofar as the celebrants didn’t push too far into the details. But it no longer much matters because the bottom is falling out of the very basis of the exaggeration. Whatever American Jewish “golden age” there may have been is over, folks. And it’s over for a small number of entwined reasons that are as easy to grasp analytically as they are hard to take on board emotionally.
One of those reasons is that American Jews are rapidly and irreversibly becoming politically homeless. They are losing their “natural” political hearth in the Democratic Party. Partisan political support for Israel has shifted sharply to an increasingly white-populist GOP—a party the vast majority of American Jews will never feel at home in. That shift was probably accelerated by some shrewd if shortsighted political maneuvering a few years back, when the Israeli prime minister, at the invitation of Republican leaders, blindsided the president of the United States from the rostrum of the Congress. But it was happening anyway, pushed by the Democrats and pulled by the Republicans.
That is one meaning of the recent Ilhan Omar affair. The Democratic old guard couldn’t even squeeze a pathetic symbolic anti-Semitism resolution out of the House. Imagine what it won’t be able to do when something that really matters happens. Whoever missed this episode can count on many similarly manufactured such episodes in the future to make the point crystal clear.
In due course, the dilemma of political homelessness will split the American Jewish community into three quarrelling pieces: loud but relatively small numbers of leftist, anti-Zionist secular Jews who will fawn like Hannah Arendt’s parvenus over Democrats who openly loathe Israel and indulge in anti-Semitic tropes; even smaller numbers of right-oriented Jews, many religious but many not, who will essentially beg or try to bribe the Republicans for their favor; and a far larger clot of confused Jews who will either become fuzzily apolitical or, perhaps, seek out third-party alternatives that may be waiting in the wings.
This split, or shattering, of the American Jewish community’s once-solid partisan alignments and influence will accelerate a deeper and more important demographic trend, which has been decades in the making: The disappearance of Jews. With intermarriage rates now reportedly at around 72% for non-Orthodox American Jews, the writing is on the wall, and it doesn’t say “Mene, mene tikel upharsin.” It says, “You’re screwed, and you did it to yourselves.”
How so? It’s simple, as these things go. Most American Jews have long had trouble believing in the standard-issue rabbinic God, which, after all, comes to us as a semifinished product of medieval times. Few such products thrive amid the tailwinds of the Enlightenment zeitgeist, so this stuttering propensity to disbelief is no surprise if we’re in a mood for a little honesty.
Halachic Jews, by the way, are not spared this problem. It just expresses itself in a different (and sometimes the same) way. The dissonance between needing to believe and being privately unable to do so creates all sorts of private theological creativity, but also many private tensions. Religious communities are only sustainable because, of the three great balms that organized religion provides its members—community, intellectual energy, and spiritual life—the first two most often overawe the third.
How have most American Jews adapted to their belief-deficit? Jacob Neusner summed it up a long time ago: The State of Israel became the new god and the Holocaust the new liturgy.
This shift to a politicized form of Judaism, Rabbi Neusner warned, would not be transmissible across generations. But it seemed to most lay leaders and ordinary folk at the time that it was no less transmissible than older versions of Judaism, which obligated time-consuming and probably marginalizing levels of Jewish education that most families were not up for amid all the pleasures and distractions of the consumer age. Ask a clingingly educated American Jew to prize traditional virtues like self-discipline and patience, for himself and his children, over the hyperindividualist culture of narcissistic self-gratification? Fat chance.
Neusner did not predict what the “spiritual” consequences of a post-Labor Party Israel might be here in America, because he didn’t need to: An idol is an idol is an idol. And he might have referred to just one generation instead of generations, because that has been closer to the norm of failed transmission he predicted. But even he didn’t know that it would happen so fast.
Rabbi Neusner might also have mentioned that, in the American context, there was nothing exclusive to Jews in the cultural disintegration he foresaw. E. Digby Baltzell, the man who invented the acronym WASP, and who of course was one, told me on a spring day back in 1970 that “the worst thing that has happened to American society in the 20th century is the transmission of the energies of religion into politics, to the detriment of both.” He was right. I still don’t know if professor Baltzell understood that right there on the Penn campus we were standing in the epicenter of a then still-young Fourth Great Awakening, seeing as how its cultural appurtenances were not explicitly “churched” as earlier ones were. But probably he did.
In any event, Baltzell unerringly described American Jewish trajectories, nonhalachic and halachic alike. Just as the nonhalachic majority of American Jews alchemized rabbinic Judaism into a form of sacred Zionist politics, so did most modern Orthodox Jews—especially after the June 1967 war. If the nonhalachic majority of American Jews became diaspora auxiliaries of the Labor Party (Ma’arach) during the 1960s and ’70s, the minority of modern Orthodox American Jews became auxiliaries of the National Religious Party (Mafdal). Thus did Ben-Gurion and Avraham Yitzhak Kook join arms, in a manner of speaking, not just in the old Promised Land, but also in the new Promised Land.
This is where things get uncomfortable. It did not seem especially risky at the time to export traditional rabbinic Jewish attitudes into books, their accompanying midotwith them, or to escrow those attitudes and midot in black-hat domains, while all the pulse-raising action turned toward the political. It seemed, rather, irresistible to do anything else.
But the risks were only hiding. It is now de rigueur to scold those of our adversaries who, we typically claim, mask their anti-Semitism in anti-Zionism. But what do we expect them to do, when we are the ones who engineered and marketed the conflation of the two for purposes of our own?
Whatever American Jewish ‘golden age’ there may have been is over, folks.
As the shine comes off the Zionist apple, religious Jews in America retain the option to seek solace in the abiding rituals of their faith communities—or to leave America for Israel. But most nonhalachic Jews lack such options, because ritual for them has long since become ceremony—performative displays for the sake of others rather than inward acts for the sake of self. And few will emigrate to a place that is no longer shiny. That is why, of the three shards of American Jewry sketched above, it is the third group of confused, politically homeless Jews who are most likely to contribute to the downward-tilted demographic “event” at hand.
Many American Jewish leaders ignore or misunderstand what is happening because it is hard to admit that they and those they purport to represent are in big trouble. The most common example of confirmation bias at work is the reflex to blame anti-Semitism for rampant assimilation. Abraham Foxman once wrote a book with this argument as its main thesis. But no: This trouble is mainly self-inflicted, and the history of Jewish diasporas tells us how unsurprising this is. Far more Jews stopped being Jews for internal reasons of choice than for external reasons of coercion, from Visigothic Spain to 19th-century Germany and many times and places in between. Indeed, anti-Semitism, short of mass murder at least, has generally had the effect of stiffening individual Jewish backbones and helping Jewish communities to better cohere.
Not unsurprisingly, the experience of recent centuries and Zionist historiography has warped appreciation of this historical reality. But American Jews are rarely taught this history, or any history, and even if they were most would simply assume that it doesn’t apply to them, because America is different.
Well, yes it is, and no it isn’t. Both assertions bear some truth, but oddly enough, they both point to the same conclusion: The future of American Jewry is grim.
How is America different as far as Jews are concerned? Three ways matter most.
First, the United States evinces an unusual form of nationalism best described as civic nationalism. There are hearth cultural roots and associated bloodlines here, of course; but the United States is an immigrant society tethered more tightly to an abstract concept of the public realm than is the case in typical ethnic nationalisms. The American concept of the public realm is derived from the Enlightenment, as embodied and conveyed in social form through Anglo-American Protestantism. That concept of citizenship has been generally broad, expandable, and ultimately quite inclusive: That has been useful for Jews.
Second, an historically remarkable feature of Anglo-American Protestantism has been its Judeophilic orientation. That has been useful too, notwithstanding its occasional passive-aggressive character toward real extant Jews.
And third, America has been different for Jews because while the most prominent “other” in Europe for purposes of social and political scapegoating and identity maintenance were Jews, the most prominent “other” for those purposes here have been African Americans. Blacks have taken in the neck the brunt of what the “worse angels” of the American personality have dished out. In doing so, they have served as a deflector shield of sorts for Jews. Jews of course did not create this circumstance, but they have benefited from it all the same.
American Jews also benefited enormously from the anti-discrimination laws of the desegregation epoch. Those laws, written to protect blacks, destroyed most of the quotas and glass ceilings that had hemmed in Jewish professional mobility.
As a more abstract form of the genre, civic nationalism is more fragile than its standard ethnic-based counterparts. It needs to be liberal to endure as a democracy at all, and liberalism is an historically acquired taste. That makes the American way in such matters more vulnerable to shocks.
So what happens, then, when the Enlightenment predicates on which American civic nationalism depends erode? What happens when Anglo-American Protestantism shrinks dramatically as a shaping force in American culture? And what happens when nativist impulses latch onto not only racial but ethnic/immigrant populations to generate xenophobic backlashes that are themselves pre- or anti-Enlightenment in character? We are bound to find out, because all three of those things are happening.
So how is America not different as far as Jews are concerned? Again, three ways matter most.
First, in politics we always live on volcanic soil. Normal times may be disrupted, a little or a lot, for a range of reasons always more clearly understood in retrospect than when they are occurring. When all hell breaks lose, minorities become vulnerable to the harvest of fear, which is hatred and, sometimes, violence.
This is true everywhere, because it is baked into human social nature. No society is eternally immune from such dynamics. We’ve had a good run here for a good long while, and we exaggerate the perturbations of, say, the late 1960s or the “malaise” of the late 1970s. These were almost imperceptible irritants compared to Civil War and Reconstruction, to Bleeding Kansas before that, and before that to the Know-Nothings, New England’s threat to secede from the Union during the War of 1812, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and more. If what is truly normal in American history over its longer haul returns, we’re in for some genuine nastiness.
Second, Jews have a way of punching beyond their weight. When you tell a typical gentile that the Jewish population of the United States today is around or a bit less than 2%, they are liable to think you are joking. As Benjamin Disraeli, evidently in a sardonic mood, once quipped, Jews “can do everything but fail.” His remark is of a kind with one attributed to Goethe: “Energy is the basis of everything. Every Jew, no matter how insignificant, is engaged in some decisive and immediate pursuit of a goal. It is the most perpetual people of the earth.” The point of both remarks is that Jews stick out, in professional life, in academia, in business, in the entertainment industry, even in sports—mostly owning teams, not playing on them. Minorities who stick out raise their profiles beyond any capacity to control them in unstuck times. We’ve done it again in America.
Third, we insist on maintaining our particularism even as we chase down majority tastes and protections. There is nearly always enough wiggle room to get away with this balancing act. That was true in Babylonian times, Achaemenid times, Hellenistic times, Roman times, and many more recent times. In America the wiggle room has usually been wide enough to drive a semitruck through it. But there are always limits, and fraught times always force choices as limits impinge. They may be about to impinge, which illustrates the obvious fact that no matter how influential Jews may become in a society, punching beyond their demographic weight, 2% of any population will never be able to shape the larger variance of social and political developments on a national scale. In America as elsewhere historically, Jews are ultimately a dependent variable.
Put all this together and what does it mean? No one knows for sure, but here is my intuition.
Acute social divisions in the country are making political violence more likely, and that violence is bound eventually to target Jewish institutions and individual Jews. At some point extremists will run out of rhetorical shock bars to climb on social media, and see their only next step as moving from the virtual world to the real one. That has already begun, of course, in Pittsburgh. Its growth will change everything, even if Jews are only one of many groups targeted by xenophobic loners and gangs.
There is disturbing irony looming here. It could be that in a decade or two, or perhaps sooner, risen anti-Semitism will be taken by American Jews as a fact in being, and so pointed backwards in time will seem to validate claims that anti-Semitism caused the massive assimilation of which they are the clinging remnant. These validations will be wrong. They will also be for all practical purposes irrefutable in the moment. This is already irritating, and it hasn’t even happened yet.
Meanwhile, too, Jewish political clout is likely to diminish and, more importantly, become more diffuse. That will cause its net influence to decline and be so perceived. It will diminish most rapidly on the left side of the political spectrum, which has until now been the most convivial “home” for the vast majority of American Jews. But as already mooted in passing, it cannot be easily reconstituted on the right side of the political spectrum, because most American Jews do not share the political values enthroned there. And even those who do may have to compete inside the party with the white ethnonationalist forces that are rising on the right, and which will surely match, if not exceed, the current intensity of “tribalism” on the left.
As Jews find themselves homeless in both political parties, left-of-center Jews will become ever more alienated from Israel, because they seem unable to understand (or credit) the existence of liberal forms of nationalism. This assumes that liberal nationalism remains alive and well in Israel, which of course is not assured. Either way, to the extent they remain involved in politics, the Israel portfolio will decline in relative significance. This is already a well-advanced phenomenon, as the nontrivial number of American Jews rallying behind Ilhan Omar clearly shows. Support for Israel will become a liability even for mainstream politicians within the Democratic Party. Arguably, it already is.
No one will fight for a community that is divided among itself and in the throes of demographic collapse. Thanks to the continuing steep decline of Jewish education and experience among nonhalachic American Jews, the assimilation/intermarriage data suggests that within two to three generations (18 x 3=54 years) the number of Americans professing to be Jews will be on the order of a third to a quarter of what it is today.
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That means that Orthodox Jews—modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox or Haredi—will make up increasingly larger percentages of the whole American Jewish community; even so, significant numbers of that community may emigrate to Israel, depending on conditions there, as their alienation from “progressive,” post-Enlightenment American culture reaches a point of no return. Those who remain will become more insular and perceived as cultish within the American cultural mainstream, beyond what is already the case.
Israel, meanwhile, will be fine. Many forms of Orthodoxy will thrive there, and many forms of secular Jewish civilization in the making will thrive there as well. Israel is already the largest and most vibrant Jewish society on earth. But the American Jewish community’s “golden age” will be gone, and most of the American Jewish community will disappear with it. There will be periodic hopeful revivals, and they will all fail.
It could be that one day, if anti-Semitism fails to produce enough pluck and staying power in American Jewry, a final remnant of secularists will build museums to “the way we were.” (Forgive me, Barbra.) We are good at museums, so they will doubtless be very nice museums. But the urge to build a museum carries with it its own conclusion about the subject of the exhibits. When the ribbons are cut during the inauguration ceremonies, the story of American Jewry, in all its color and moments of glory, will really and truly be over.