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The Jewish experience in the United States [extract]

In the following excerpt from Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction, David N. Myers explains some of the difficulties the Jewish people have faced over the course of history, as well as modern antisemitism that is still prevalent in the world.

To a great extent, Jews have realized the promise of Washington’s America. They have been much admired, in no small part because of the belief that they are the progenitors of the biblical spirit on which America was built. It was this recognition that prompted Washington’s successor, John Adams, to declare of the Jews in 1808: “They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth.”

Jews have also been admired because of their deep commitment to education, self-improvement, group cohesion, and assistance to others. Of course, that admiration is not universally held. The United States has had its share of xenophobic and antisemitic agitators, including Henry Ford and his fellow Michigander, the vitriolic radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin. And yet, the Jewish experience in the United States is unprecedented in terms of the freedom, degree of integration, and affluence that Jews have achieved. Whereas serious barriers prevented Jews as recently as the 1960s from gaining unfettered access to universities, business opportunities, social clubs, and political office in the United States, these restrictions have almost all vanished. No longer hobbled by social constraints of old, Jews in America seem to be inhabiting a Golden Age with few parallels in their long history. In fact, they were the most admired religious group in America in a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, a remarkable development in light of the history of the idea of the Jew in Gentile eyes.

Two countervailing scenarios can unravel this Golden Age. One is the previously theoretical question of how Jews would survive in a society devoid of antisemitism. Never having confronted it before, it is not clear how they would fare without the negative reinforcement of Jew-hatred, which has been a consistent and consistently preservative force. Especially in the modern period, when traditional forms of Jewish identity rooted in faith and ritual practice have waned somewhat or greatly, antisemitism has often served as a source of cohesion for Jews. Indeed, many Jews have defined and continue to define their identity in terms akin to Sigmund Freud, who, only when he encountered antisemites at the University of Vienna, “was made familiar with the fate of being in the Opposition.”

And yet, the prospect that antisemitism will no longer be a preservative force—because it has been altogether eradicated—is premature. Anti-Jewish expression is following a pattern of historic decline in America, tempered somewhat by the new visibility of the “alt-right,” with its mix of white nationalism and Nazi sympathizing. But the same cannot be said for the rest of the world. The other major center of Jewish life, the State of Israel, was conceived as a safe haven against antisemitism. It has developed a strong military that defends its citizens and, to an extent, Jews around the world. But Israel also stands at the center of a whirling and worsening conflict with the Palestinians that has fanned the flames of antisemitism in various parts of the world. Especially striking is its recurrence in Europe seventy years after the end of the Second World War.

In the face of the seeming decline of antisemitism in one key setting and rising rates in others, Jews again face challenges. From their two main centers, North America and Israel, and in smaller communities around the world, they will need to draw on all of their rich historical experience to make their way in the twenty-first century. That they have not only survived, but also flourished for millennia—prompting Winston Churchill to call them ‘the most formidable and the most remarkable race that has ever appeared in the world’—is the result of an uncanny ability to navigate between the poles of assimilation and antisemitism.

Featured image credit: jewish judaism tallit tradition. Public domain via Pixabay.

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