The Costly Paradox of American Jewish Success

August 9, 2021 | Samuel Goldman
About the author: Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science and executive director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at the George Washington University.

Over the past century and a half, Jews have achieved incredible success in the U.S., finding their way into almost every area that was once the province of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) elite. Yet, notes Samuel Goldman, this upward mobility “came at a cost.”

Jews moved smoothly into positions opened to meritocratic competition, but gradually lost the vitality that fueled their success. Despite their decline into social invisibility, WASPs won by losing, as institutions including Harvard, the Federal Reserve, and the judiciary achieved ever greater influence over American life. American Jews lost by winning, taking over the reins of power but giving up their distinctive identity.

On the whole . . . Jews were better integrated in American life than anywhere else in the Western world. Jews responded in kind. . . . An almost religious commitment in America as the first true home Jews could claim in 200 years fueled an extraordinary record of creativity. American literature, cinema, music, and scholarship are unimaginable without Jewish contributions.

Goldman sees some of this tension highlighted in Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus, a fictional and satirical treatment of the very real sojourn at an American university of the Israeli medievalist Benzion Netanyahu, the father of the former Israeli prime minister:

Zionists like Netanyahu argued that [American Jews were on] a road to national death, whether by the gentle method of assimilation or the unimaginable threat of murder.

The Netanyahus lampoons this argument as fanatical, paranoid, and vaguely malevolent. What the satire reveals, though, is Benzion wasn’t totally wrong about the American Jews who ended up joining and ultimately displacing WASPs in their academic and other bastions. The WASPs faded from the scene but established a framework for cultural influence and social mobility that continues to exist today. Jews have flourished within that framework, but lost the characteristics that once made us so energetic and interesting.

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