What Future for American Jews?

After the Six Day War in 1967, Jews in America were freer, and more powerful, than Jews had ever been before in the Diaspora. Yet, at the same time, the Jewish community was eroding. Those who had grown up in the 1930s remembered Hitler and Father Coughlin, but their children had much less sense of themselves as being imperiled or embattled as Jews. Some worked for Jewish causes, such as fighting for the rights of Soviet Jews or rallying to support Israel. Those who took part in the “student struggle for Soviet Jewry” or in organizations that supported Israel may have felt both virtuous and important, but many of them and their parents suspected that American Jews would eventually run out of causes. They would have to face the question of what it meant to be a Jew. American Jews no longer felt that their progress was being blocked by Gentiles, but they did not quite know what to do with themselves.

Jews could be bolder than they had ever been because America itself was different. There was no longer a stable, self-confident American majority. The oldest American WASP population, many of whose members felt that they had been defeated in the election of 1960, was losing its sense of dominance. Many minorities were emphasizing their differences: some blacks were taking to wearing dashikis; Orthodox Jews were insisting on wearing skullcaps on college campuses. Though this clash of cultures had been a cliché of American plays and movies since the beginning of the century, the tone was now different. Young people in dashikis and skullcaps were saying that there were no longer arbiters in America to decide what was proper.

America, moreover, was becoming less Western European and Judeo-Christian. Asians and Muslims were arriving in large numbers. The time was coming when a Buddhist priest and a Muslim imam might be included with the ministers, rabbis, and Catholic priests at the most sacred event in American political life, the inauguration of a president. For the first time in American history, Jews were no longer to be the only non-Christian minority present.

In this untidy country, Jews had become a noticeable and accepted part of the political landscape. In their support of Israel they were asserting Jewish interests with an almost total lack of concern with what the Gentiles, or the government in Washington, might think. In the America of the 1970s, the pro-Israel lobby was like the lobby of big business or labor, or the farm interest, or the China lobby: each was defending a “special interest.”

In 1981, 50 percent of Americans polled believed that in the event of a confrontation between Israel and the United States, American Jews would side with Israel. Six years later, in answer to the same question, a large majority thought that American Jews would support American policy. These opinions were expressed during the years when very nearly nine out of ten Americans (including some of those who thought Jews were closer to Israel …

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Letters

The Jews in America March 15, 1990