What Can American Jews Do?

The direct target of anti-Jewish politics may be the Jews, but the more consequential damage is to the land of Lincoln. What can Jews do to help?

A Jewish World War II veteran celebrates his 104th birthday with friends and family, April 30, 2022 in Burlington, Vermont. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.

A Jewish World War II veteran celebrates his 104th birthday with friends and family, April 30, 2022 in Burlington, Vermont. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.

Ruth R. Wisse
COLUMN
Sept. 21 2022
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

Last month in Mosaic I wrote about Jews who were giving up on America and moving to Israel because they saw the “handwriting on the wall”: auguries that this country was failing to fulfill its promise and could no longer protect its Jews. As strongly as I share the draw of Israel for those inspired to undertake aliyah, I wrote that, as equal partners in this great experiment, we Jewish citizens bear our share of responsibility—no more and no less—for the republic whose benefits we reap. Among the predictably thoughtful responses to my argument by readers of Mosaic, some agreed with me that we do indeed have to join the fight “to keep America, America.”

I’d like to return to the same issue now from another angle, and to ask whether Jews have any special responsibility as Jews to lands of settlement where they are accorded the equal rights of citizens. The question is pertinent because, more so than other U.S. citizens, Jews are ill-advised to take their good fortune simply for granted. Our badly scarred history in other people’s lands has made us a thermometer for how wisely a majority can coexist with its minorities and harness their skills for the greater good.

In our case, America’s exceptionalism has been manifested in its exceptional ability to house Judaism and Jews. This record is all the more impressive when compared with the fate of the Jews in Europe, the cradle of Western civilization. Yet guarantees that American Jews have so far enjoyed are now being threatened by cadres in powerful institutions, especially the media and the academy, that embrace and promote ideological concoctions with disturbing anti-Jewish effects.

Though the fatality rate from the present disease of anti-Semitism is nowhere near so great as from fentanyl, and though facile comparisons with Nazi Germany are (to say the least) ill-advised, no polity can sustain the spread of poisonous ideas without eventually confronting them and defeating them head-on—or else succumbing to them. The direct target of anti-Jewish politics may be the Jews, but the more consequential damage is to the health of the land of Lincoln. The question is: what, if anything, could Jews have done or still do to help maintain American exceptionalism?

 

Democracies that readily accept Jews as individuals have not always tolerated the presence of a Jewish people. The French Revolution famously dedicated itself to liberty, equality, and fraternity, promising everything to Jews as individuals but refusing them everything as a distinctive nation. By contrast, America’s founders and foundational documents conspicuously allowed religious and ethnic groups to maintain their distinctiveness. Free to be you and me—and also to be the union of all of us. The debate over whether Jews are a people, a nation, an ethnic group, or a religious civilization matters only to those who oppose separateness in any of its forms and who historically have seized upon that separateness, however mild, as a weapon against Jews as such.

What the French opposed in the name of nationalism the Soviets banned in the name of internationalism. The founders of the Soviet Union prided themselves on outlawing discrimination against Jews as individuals—even as they systematically undertook to uproot and erase Jewish civilization in the land. By the logic of Communism, the fact that they were already “without a country” obliged Jews themselves to lead the way from “bourgeois” and “capitalist” particularism into a classless world community. There was to be no “reactionary” return to peoplehood. Jews were punished for attending synagogue, for circumcising their male children, and for such serious crimes as studying Hebrew or wanting to resettle in the Land of Israel.

The fusion in Jewishness of religion, ethnicity, and nationhood was abhorrent to Marxism and remains so to all universalist movements and creeds. By contrast, the pluralistic ethos of the United States accepted and accepts Jews with all facets of their Jewishness intact. The American spirit finds expression in a confident Jewry; a confident Jewry confirms American exceptionalism.

But though America can protect the Jews, it cannot be expected to protect their Judaism. The surest sign of an America in retreat would be a Jewish community in retreat from its own Jewish heritage. What the Jews owe this country therefore begins with what we owe ourselves.

 

SAPIR, a new journal exploring the future of the American Jewish community, devotes its latest issue to Jewish education, asking how come “the freest, wealthiest, and, secularly, the most educated Jewish community in history is also, by many measures, the most Jewishly illiterate”?

The question may be an overgeneralization, but it highlights a real, failed opportunity that has become more critical in the current political climate. Among possible answers to it, one might speculate that America made it so easy to be a Jew that many assumed being a Jew required no effort. As a result, many Jews retained the label without resupplying the content, or gradually replaced the content with something other than Jewishness. Serious Jewish education, along with full-scale religious practice, was left to the traditionalist sector, while the majority of Jewish children were left culturally disinherited, ignorant, and, if ever they should need to respond to a war against them, reliant on communal defense agencies often staffed by professionals who unfortunately were themselves no better acquainted with Jewish sources.  

Being a Jew in the sense I’m using it here actually requires a good deal of effort. Since receiving the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish people has held itself accountable, in one way or another, to that standard of divine judgment. The Hebrew Bible contains the commandments, the laws and rituals, the prescribed fasts and feasts, as well as the founding history of the Jewish people, the basis of its faith and the spur to its imagination. How else but through sustained study and explication of that source, duly transmitted and interpreted by learned authorities, could the scattered Jews, largely lacking the assorted institutions of sovereign national life, have remained a people? In serious communities, that has entailed education from cradle to grave.

Direct access to the Torah comes through Hebrew. Jewish literacy begins with the language in which the Bible is composed. One might have thought that, if not the Torah, at least the rebirth of a sovereign Israel and the flowering of Israeli-Hebrew culture—including its popular songs—would have inspired American Jews to master their national language. But today even children of Israelis living in New York or Los Angeles trend to English. Indifference to Hebrew has been both symptom and reinforcement of the failure to make American Jewry learnedly confident.

Only knowledge can build confidence, and only confident Jewries could have informed their fellow Americans about who they were and why it mattered. To take one salient example: one of the most important things that Jews could have contributed to America was a full understanding of how they were shaped by their experience of slavery—and their experience of liberation therefrom.

Jews do not simply recall their exodus from Egypt, they relive and rehearse it annually to impress it as forcefully as possible on the consciousness of each new generation. Passover indelibly reminds us that liberated slaves are a hopeless rabble, and become a worthy people only through painstaking, never-ending self-discipline. No Jewish family worth its saltwater observes the festival without asking how the ostensible celebration of freedom came to be marked by so much ritual, preparation, recitation of biblical texts and post-biblical commentary, pedagogy, and discipline. Thus is one taught that freedom requires so much more effort than slavery.

This Jewish response to slavery is hugely relevant to the development and improvement of civilization at large, and study of it might have helped inform an America struggling to overcome its own experience of that cursed institution. Today, some descendants of both the victims and the victimizers favor radical and instantaneous gestures of reparation through social or economic redistribution, or both. Some politicians exploit that fantasy. But the lesson of Passover is that the blessing of freedom and the lasting benefits of independence can accrue only from the assumption of responsibilities. As the indispensable Thomas Sowell has so tirelessly taught, every bit as important as helping to undo the evils of the past is bearing truthful witness to how its effects can be overcome. Liberal condescension is no substitute for honest encouragement.

When “Passover” is reduced to an ecumenical meal, without the reenactment of what it takes to return as a free people to Zion, it betrays the purpose of the festival and the message of Jewish survival. Understandably, Jews who don’t take on their own Jewish responsibilities are not equipped to counsel others on assuming theirs.

 

Worse than a deficiency, the paucity of Jewish education was a vacuum waiting to be filled. In its absence, many Jews began to call for “Holocaust education” as an American priority. At the very time that Jews had undertaken a new Exodus to reclaim their national homeland, and had learned to defend it as the refuge that might once have saved many others, American Jews chose to teach instead the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews of Europe.

But Holocaust education is the antithesis of Jewish education. I am well aware that survivors needed to reveal what the Germans tried to conceal; I teach Yiddish literature as a way of securing whatever possible of the Jewish worlds they extinguished. But commemorating the dead by way of documenting Nazi atrocities is not a wholesome curriculum either for Jews who are ignorant of their own teachings or for the rest of America that knows nothing of our common biblical roots. One can be born American or Jewish, but neither democracy nor Judaism is biologically transmitted. It is dangerous to introduce a subject like “the Holocaust” before Americans and Jews are fully educated in their foundational history and texts.

Worse still, the project of Holocaust education began in the 1970s, just as open anti-Semitism, which in America had almost disappeared after the Nazi defeat, was reappearing in the form of hatred and demonization of the Jewish state—most glaringly, in the infamous 1975 resolution of the United Nations declaring Zionism a species of racism and racial discrimination. There’s little need to document how rabidly the disease has spread in our own time. This month, a Milwaukee newspaper reported that Jewish students at the University of Wisconsin were greeted on the first day of classes with sidewalk messages calling them “racists” and “genocidal” with “blood on their hands.” While quick to condemn this anti-Semitism by name, the campus administration announced that it would make no effort to seek out and punish the perpetrators: its “robust commitment to free speech,” the administration announced, “can be difficult and uncomfortable at times,” but there could be no doubt that those who committed the acts in question “represent[ed] free speech”—which, the administrators begged to remind us, “is a core value at UW.”

The proof of American freedom was once to be located in the presence of a thriving Jewish community; now, evidently, it is confirmed by attacks on that same community.

Jews must ask the chilling question: is it coincidence or causality that the rise of anti-Jewish politics in America overlaps with the foregrounding of “Holocaust education,” with its not so hidden message that it’s always open season on the defenseless Jews? A sober and honest people must ask whether it has not been teaching the very wrong thing and sending the very wrong message. The Holocaust is an appropriate subject for study only by those who have learned to the point of understanding how a community of slaves transformed themselves into one of the world’s most resilient nations.

 

In the waning days of World War II, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that Jews continue to exist only in reaction to the phenomenon that others—especially their enemies—see them as Jews; indeed, were it not for the anti-Semite, driven by an irrational but insatiable hatred, both Jews and “Jewishness” would cease to exist. Since in principle Sartre himself was in favor of their existence—even though he could see no special grounds for their presence on earth, let alone any sign of a higher purpose or calling—he could only encourage them somehow to remain Jews in defiance of the palpably overweening might of the anti-Semites. This was an existentialist’s conception. Is it the form of Jewish existence to which American Jews will consign themselves?

The war against the Jews remains, as it has always been, a war of ideas against the Torah’s civilizing laws. Those laws and the way of life they generated are part of the foundation of this country. Sartre to the contrary notwithstanding, Jews are not defined by others’ enmity but by their own God-inspired moral strength. Yet when the enmity increases, it brings our weakness, in the form of generations deprived of even elementary knowledge about their Jewishness, into sharper relief.

American Jews owe America what they owe themselves: to live and flourish as a people within the republic, enriching its diversity, enshrining its pluralism, substantiating its exceptional ability to encourage the individual freedom of citizens and Jewish distinctiveness within the greater whole. That is the base we need to build if we are to join with others who are already actively dedicated to undoing the intersectional campaign that is degrading America.

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