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 than to America) said, whatever they privately thought, that they were willing to vote for a Jew for president of the United States. Underneath the rhetoric of these seemingly contradictory attitudes, two conclusions were apparent: America had become a place in which people and communities now admitted they had conflicting loyalties; Jews were therefore “entitled” to be a one-issue lobby.
In domestic policy, too, Jews behaved like everybody else in making bargains in their own interest. The most lasting arrangement was with the blacks. Jews were well aware that there was more anti-Semitism among blacks than among whites in America, as well as greater support for Arab and other nations hostile to Israel, but the large Jewish organizations chose for the most part to play down or ignore such sentiment. Jews in Congress were consistent and nearly unanimous in voting for social programs that would benefit blacks; the black caucus was equally consistent and almost equally unanimous in voting for aid to Israel. During the election campaign of 1984, when Jesse Jackson was reported to have made some intemperate remarks about Jews, he pulled back, visibly, from questioning the compact that Jews and blacks had made in Congress.
Such enlightened self-interest was basic to the commitment of Jewish voters to the Democratic party. Most of them remained liberals and many did so because they feared social disorder. In the 1970s, the group of writers publishing in Commentary told American Jews that their interests had changed. They were now among the richest groups in America; they should be voting their pocketbooks, for lower taxes and for decreased social spending. But most American Jews did not do so. In every presidential election Jews were clearly and sometimes overwhelmingly on the side of the Democrats. In 1968, almost 90 percent of the Jewish vote went to Hubert Humphrey; in the next several elections, Jews voted two to one against the Republicans. In the land-slide election of 1984, when Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale, Jews were the only white group to vote Democratic. In 1988 George Bush received less than 30 percent of the Jewish vote.
There was also, in this commitment to the welfare state, an echo of the commandment to “do justice and love mercy,” and to protect the weak, “for you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.” Even some Jewish Republicans believed in social welfare. During the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968, in the midst of the battle between Jewish teachers and blacks over teaching jobs and control of the schools in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville district in Brooklyn, Max Fisher, who was then both president of the United Jewish Appeal and a leading Republican, insisted that Jews had to continue to support the programs of aid for blacks. “If Jews truly believe that advancing social justice is a Jewish obligation,” he said in 1968, “there can be no lingering doubts that helping people in the inner city…does represent a genuine Jewish commitment.” The pragmatic and materialistic Jewish community of the 1970s did not want to be just another collection of well-to-do Americans with ethnic memories. The social conscience that was central to Jewish religious tradition was still alive among them.
Moreover, in white America, anti-Semitism was disappearing as an effective force. Jewish college students in the 1930s were barred by anti-Semitism from many careers; by the 1970s, this was no longer true. A 1988 survey of Jewish students at Dartmouth College found not a single respondent who thought that being Jewish made any difference to his or her future. Other studies showed that very few people, less than one in ten, continued to believe that “Jews had too much power” in America. Other Americans still thought of Jews as Jews, but they were equally likely to think of them as businessmen, physicians, or college roommates.
Even when they admitted to themselves that anti-Semitism was now a negligible force, many Jews kept worrying whether the American tolerance of the 1970s and 1980s would last. One could interpret the rise of Jews in America as a matter of economics. Throughout their history in America, Jews had progressed when the economy was expanding. “German Jews” had done well in the South and on the frontier. “Russian Jews” had broken out of poverty during the boom years after the Second World War. In some future depression would Jews again suffer from discrimination as they had in the Thirties? Few believed that this would happen.
The economic boom in America of the 1970s and 1980s was less important for Jews than were the fundamental changes in civic attitudes. A majority in the Supreme Court excluded prayer from public schools and crèches during Christmas from the lawns of public buildings. These decisions reaffirmed that America was not a “Christian country,” a point Jews had been arguing since the 1840s when they had protested the invocation of the Trinity in a Thanksgiving proclamation by the governor of South Carolina. During the 1970s and 1980s, “born-again” Christians led a counterattack to permit prayers in the public schools and, in general, to increase the Christian flavor of public life; but Jews were prominent among the forces that resisted this attempt to re-Christianize America. Most American Jews refused to compromise with the Christian fundamentalists even when, partly for their own theological reasons, the fundamentalists became strong partisans of Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s Israel.
Jews in America believed they were nearer than ever to the kind of society that Jews had last experienced in the third century, under the Romans, when Rome had ceased insisting that its culture and state religion must dominate civil life, and had not yet been dominated by Christianity. Rome’s “golden age,” however, did not last much longer than a century. Will such an age last longer in America? There is some reason for hope that it will, for ecumenical political structures appear at the moment to be growing stronger, not weaker. Western Europe is moving toward arrangements that have some affinity with those of third-century Rome; it is organizing itself as a single economic market, and looking toward the possibility of becoming a “United States of Europe.” The difference from the past is already apparent in the status of Jews in Western Europe. Because an increasing number of Muslims from North Africa and Turkey, Buddhists from Indochina, and political refugees from the Communist world now live permanently in Western Europe, Jews are far from being the only persisting religious or ethnic minority.
America and the West are still essentially Christian, and many Jews would be sorry to see the end of Christianity’s dominance. Christians are supposed to have a special reason for protecting Jews: orthodox Christian theology requires that Jews be present to witness at the Second Coming, and to be converted by it. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, this special relationship was becoming a less and less important concern for Jews. In US foreign policy, Communists and Arabs were more important than Christians, whether as opponents or as forces with whom negotiations must take place. At home in America, most Jews opposed the entire domestic program of activist Christians, including their effort to outlaw abortion. In the 1970s and 1980s many Jews no longer wanted the neutral public life that was their traditional goal; they wanted a post-Christian American society. This seemed to them to be the logical conclusion to the end of the social dominance of the descendants of Christian colonial America.
American Jews had thus very nearly achieved their dreams of equality and influence, and they believed on the whole that their future was secure. But at the same time they tried to construct an equally lasting bargain with their own Jewishness. They invoked anti-Semitism at a time when it was essentially irrelevant, and in their daily lives they preached and practiced the need for close Jewish ties at a time when Jews were associating more and more with anyone they pleased. By the mid-1980s, it was beginning to be clear that the use of such techniques to preserve Jewish identity would fail.
During the 1970s, after a generation in which the subject of the Holocaust was avoided, it was suddenly evoked, studied, and made central to Jewish identity. There were many reasons for this, among them the previous neglect of Holocaust history, but one reason was the need to retain the memory of anti-Semitism. Young Jews in college were the most likely to believe that their generation was safe, and that they now had the opportunity to blend into the American scene. In the many new centers of Jewish studies being founded in the 1970s, both in universities and outside them, the Holocaust was the subject that was most commonly taught. Young Jews were being exhorted to live a contradiction: they should happily accept the liberal America that Jews had helped to make, but they should at the same time remain in some sense outsiders, fearful of what might happen to them. The teaching was that Jews were, ultimately, alone, and that this more than half-hidden isolation was at the core of their “Jewishness.”
By 1975, when interest in the Holocaust was reaching its height, Lucy Dawidowicz published The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945, which was based on a clear, “Jewish” thesis—that
Hitler’s idea about the Jews was at the center of his mental world. They shaped his world view and his political ambitions, the matrix of his ideology and the ineradicable core of his Nationalist Socialist doctrine.
Dawidowicz’s version of the Holocaust was used to confer grandeur on the role of the contemporary Jew as the persecuted combatant who had to continue the fight for survival.
The new emphasis on the shattering memories of the Holocaust seemed to say to American Jews, in an essentially optimistic time, that being Jewish is to know that life itself is a matter of tragedy, suffering, and murderous hatred. The state of Israel, the center of Jewish hope and triumph, was seen as being in constant danger from Arab enemies. Jews were called upon to rally to Israel in the name of the slogan “Never Again.” They were to consider themselves as part of an “army” united not only in the camaraderie of combat but also in the observance of rituals, such as the Passover Seder or the lighting of Hanukkah candles, which expressed good feelings about other Jews. Jewishness in America was thus to grow stronger not as a religion but as the binding force of an ethnic community. America’s Jews would define themselves by fighting their enemies and clinging to one another.
In the 1980s some Jewish sociologists, led by Calvin Goldscheider, praised this development. Their basic contention was that American Jews had “transformed” themselves into a vital ethnic group appropriate to America. They insisted that American Judaism had become a stable part of the American scene and was continuing, unweakened, in the third and fourth generations. That is, American Jews were not assimilating. On the contrary, some of these sociologists maintained, the rate of intermarriage had leveled off at about 30 percent, and American Jews were observing the festivals of Passover, Hanukkah, and Yom Kippur as fervently as ever. And this generation had added to its observances a new passion for Israel.
But the optimistic belief that the Jewish community remained intact was unfounded. Rates of intermarriage, the single most sensitive indicator of the stability of the Jewish community, continued to rise in the 1980s. Even Goldscheider was becoming less confident about the future. In 1987 (together with a collaborator, Sidney Goldstein), he published, in mimeographed form, a demographic survey of Jews in Rhode Island, which showed the rate of intermarriage there was 14 percent in the 1960s, rising to 27 percent in the 1970s—and rising again in the 1980s.
Among the couples married between 1980 and 1987, 38 percent intermarried. These data do not suggest as some other studies have that the rate of intermarriage has plateaued. Indeed, there have been increases in every decade since 1960.
In Boston the overall percentage of intermarriage over the past fifty years rose steadily from 7 percent in 1965 to 13 percent in 1975 and 18 percent in 1985; in San Francisco in the mid-1980s the rate of intermarriage was 40 percent.
The “transformationists” made much of the fact that many young Jews said that they observed the High Holidays as much as their parents and even as their grandparents had. But can a Seder or Passover be considered the same when it is observed with all the prescribed rituals as when it is little more than an elaborate family dinner? Does the currently most widely observed of all Jewish holidays, the very minor festival of Hanukkah, represent a rebirth of piety or is it simply a substitute for Christmas?
In the 1980s, even the extent of Jewish commitment to Israel was becoming less intense. In 1973, when Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur Day in Egypt, American Jews seemed less concerned than they had been in June 1967. Contributions were just as heavy as they had been in June 1967, but there were fewer volunteers among the young. Some American Jews had already begun to question Israel’s policies. In 1973, a few hundred American Jews formed an organization named Breira (“alternative”) which urged that Israel should negotiate a peace settlement on the basis of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Breira was effectively “excommunicated”; it was blackballed as an organization by every Jewish group that it tried to join. Nonetheless, for the first time since the euphoria after the June 1967 war the government of Israel was under attack on the most sensitive of issues, its policy toward the Palestinians.
In June 1977, when Menachem Begin took office as prime minister, he insisted that he had been elected to put into practice the ideology of the Likud party that the Land of Israel west of the Jordan River was indivisible. But the leaders of the American Jewish organizations wanted to believe that Begin was only a hard bargainer, a pragmatic politician in the American mold, who was announcing these ideological propositions in order to negotiate from strength. When Israel went to war in Lebanon in 1982, the majority of American Jews insisted that Israel’s move was only an incursion to clean out terrorists from southern Lebanon; any criticism of Israel’s actions or motives was ascribed to biased reporting in the press and on television. But the war in Lebanon was the first in all of Israel’s history that was not followed by huge donations from American Jews. They seemed to be uneasy about this attempt to end by invasion and the bombardment of West Beirut any need to negotiate with the Palestinians.
When the State of Israel was first established, as early as 1949, several observers predicted that Israeli and American Jews would move apart. The cause would not be some definable quarrel, such as Israel’s demand that Jews should move to Israel, or disaffection in America with specific Israeli policies, domestic or foreign. Rather, Israelis and American Jews were fashioning two different cultures. Forty years later, Steven M. Cohen, a young sociologist, concluded, what any visitor to Israel could see,
that Israel and American Jewry have been parting company politically, culturally and religiously…. The possibilities for Jewish living in Israel are really very different from those in the Diaspora.
And yet statistics tell us that nearly all American Jews, at least nine out of ten, are still devoted to Israel. They are—but less intensely than in earlier years. They continue to contribute to Israel and to let such aggressive organizations as AIPAC lobby for hardline policies in Washington; but they are less inclined to visit Israel or to endorse its occupation policies when they reply to polls.* The situation is similar to the commitment of the third and fourth generations to a Passover Seder or to fasting on Yom Kippur. Some attention is paid to these observances, but the commitments are relatively loose ones. Neither love of Judaism nor love of Israel can rest for very long on such unfirm ground.
Yet it should have been clear that the historical experience of Jews in America would not produce more cohesive and lasting Jewish allegiances and institutions. American Jews often talk of the “Jewish community” but, like most other immigrants, they came to the US as individuals, not as part of communities. There was no Jewish equivalent of a “Mayflower Compact” until after the Second World War, when organized groups of Orthodox Jews settled in the United States. The ancestors of most American Jews did not come to the United States to create a base for a rebirth of their religion or to become a second front for Israel. They came to succeed—in American business and professional life. Their Jewish commitments, including their relations with other Jews, were bounded by this sense of themselves. The problem is that Jews kept trying to convince themselves that they had come to America for some higher good than their own success; they wanted to believe that they were united by something much stronger than fear and memory.
Disillusionment was growing in the 1980s, along with disappointment at the shallowness of the seemingly busy life of American Jewish communities. Ethnic memories, some warm and some angry, could not stop the erosion of Jewishness even at a time when Jews had become powerful and accepted. Ethnic identity is, in America, a matter of choice. It has recurrently been a mix of sentiment and surface decoration. When Armenians move out of their neighborhood in Fresno, California, or Jews leave Borough Park in Brooklyn, or when young people from various ethnic groups go to college, most associate with people who are not of their own background. In America after a few generations, ethnic identities can be forgotten. Or they are remembered in Saint Patrick’s Day parades or Steuben Day observances. Those who march do not necessarily feel they must support one political position or another having to do with their original homelands.
Jewish ethnicity has had a stronger hold than most others because Jews had been more alien for centuries, as non-Christians, than virtually any other European minority. In fact, most American Jews have been out of the ghetto for only seventy years or less, and the form of assimilation has changed. American society no longer forces people to assimilate into a dominant culture. It is possible for people to allow their Jewishness to fade without making a decision to be anything else. The drift of life in contemporary America is toward free association. The older generation of Jews still finds most of its friends among other Jews; the young, so they say in all the polls of the 1980s, do not. They remain “proud to be Jews” but they are less and less likely to lead their lives within a largely Jewish world dominated by organizations and the activities they devise to keep their members busy.
After nearly four centuries, the momentum of Jewish experience in America is essentially spent. Strong ethnic identity will no doubt last for several more generations, but it will depend more and more on evoking the past. But a community can hardly survive on memory; it lives only because of what it affirms, believes, and practices.
During the 1970s some American Jews were becoming uncomfortable and even despairing. A few of the young people who had participated in the political movements of the 1960s were demanding that the organized Jewish community be less pragmatic and more spiritual, but most American Jews ignored such demands. Ninety percent of young people continued to receive their Jewish education during a few hours a week of supplementary schooling, essentially a training for bar or bat mitzvah. The Reform movement created few day schools. The Conservative group organized no more than sixty, in which they educated fewer than 10 percent of the children of Conservative families.
Nonetheless, even in the midst of “business as usual” the question of religion was troubling for conventional American Jews. The leaders of the Jewish establishment, those who ran the national organizations and the local fund-raising drives, congratulated themselves that their institutions were the true “synagogues” of American Jews—but they did not quite convince themselves. In 1983 Jonathan Woocher, a sociologist who had praised Jewish activism, particularly in local and national organizations, as the “civil religion” of American Jews, studied the “Jewishness” of the leaders of the Jewish establishment. One of his findings seemed astonishing: two out of three insisted that the Jews were God’s “chosen people.” Such an assertion did not fit with the usual rhetoric about ethnic pluralism that was being used by virtually all the large Jewish organizations. In America, an ethnic group that asserts it is “chosen” by God will seem chauvinistic, or worse. In a secular democratic society, only a religion can use this term and only to describe believers who are committed to spiritual lives. Perhaps the people whom Jonathan Woocher interviewed were troubled by a desire to be commanded by God, and wanted to be freed of the burden of devising new forms of Jewish togetherness.
Many Jews who cared about being Jewish sensed that they had to turn to religion if Judaism was to remain a vital force—yet most did not know how to begin. They were not heirs to a religious past. Most of their ancestors who had come to America had brought with them little learning in the Bible and Talmud, and they passed on still less of the tradition to their descendants. Judaism in America, at its most religious, had emphasized the tangible rituals, the practices and not the learning that had accumulated for three thousand years. Thus a community that was uniquely “American”—that is, a pragmatic and not intellectual or spiritual group, even in religious matters—knew only that it ought to become “more observant.”
The most observant sector, the ultra-Orthodox, who had arrived in recent decades, had no more than 200,000 adherents. Ultra-Orthodoxy was attractive because of its claims to authority and certainty, but the rationale of that authority could not be accepted by most Jews. The intellectual basis of this orthodoxy was unabashed religious fundamentalism. From his headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the rebbe of Lubavitch, the most prominent leader of the Orthodox revival, defended the faith by asserting that the world is in its fifty-eighth century since creation, the date given in Jewish sources. The rebbe insisted that all the scientific evidence to the contrary, from dinosaurs to atomic clocks, was planted by God in the universe, in His act of creation, to test men’s faith. Most Jews could not accept such fundamentalism. They still had to confront the question: Can Judaism as a religion be renewed? What does Judaism say to modern men and women?
American Jews are largely the descendants of not very learned, poor immigrants, but I believe that most of them sense that being Jewish is somehow connected to moral responsibility and to the inner life of the spirit. They still worry about the poor, and they still think that they are somehow “chosen,” perhaps to suffer. Some embers of the classic Jewish faith remain, but they seem to be dying among most American Jews. The evidence suggests that these Jews will continue, with growing unhappiness, to bet their future as Jews on what they know, their sense of being firmly part of an ethnic group, that is, on their decision to spend much of their free time seeing other Jews and taking part in some kinds of organized Jewish life. But Jewish experience through the centuries has often been surprising and unpredictable. The need for some spiritual revival is clear but the theological ground on which it would take place is not discernible. If it does not happen, American Jewish history will soon end, and become a part of American memory as a whole.
When Asser Levy and the other refugees from Recife arrived as the first Jews in New Amsterdam in 1654, they did not know that the fundamental questions of meaning were then being asked in Amsterdam by Baruch de Spinoza (who contributed that year to a fund for the relief of Levy and other stranded Jews). Spinoza insisted that by the light of reason, Jews had only two choices, either to assimilate to the majority or to reestablish their national state in the land of their ancestors. But Levy chose both to come to America, and to remain a Jew. He fought to join the New Amsterdam militia as an equal. That fight is over. Three and a half centuries after the oblique encounter between Levy and Spinoza, the question of faith remains. It will be answered, if at all, not by politicians and bureaucrats, but by men and women who hear voices—even, perhaps, in America.
November 23, 1989