The Jerusalem Post
 

Window on Israel

Decrease text sizeDecrease text size
Increase text sizeIncrease text size
American Jews, then and now

 A youtube came to my mailbox that has provoked some thoughts about what has happened to the Jews of America. I'm one of them, with my own twists and turns that reflect some of what has happened, in all kinds of ways, to many more.


The clip shows a lecture, well crafted and delivered, by a high school senior, who we are likely to hear from again.

It deals with Arthur Sulzberger and his New York Times of the 1940s, his elitist and assimilationist style of Reform Judaism, that downplayed the Holocaust. The Times reported the details of what was happening in Europe, but typically in the inner pages, often without headlines, and mixed with material that detracted from the tragedy of the Jews. The lecture includes insights in the character of Sulzberger, who saw himself as the scion of the national newspaper, contributing to the war effort as defined by the Roosevelt administration. He described himself as different in culture and religion from the Jewish masses, especially those of Eastern Europe who found themselves in misfortune, through no fault of his, .

The lecture deals also with the Roosevelt administration, and its failure to do what it could to provide refuge, destroy the death camps or the rail lines to them..

This is an impressive and persuasive report. But what the lecturer lacks is historical perspective. She comes close, but misses it. While dealing with  FDR's avoidance of the Jewish issue, she does not credit for his concern not to make the war a war for the Jews.
 
What's not apparent in this talk is the strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the US of the 1930s and 1940s, along with the isolationism that almost kept the US from aiding the British before Pearl Harbor.
 
This lecturer does not accuse FDR of being an anti-Semite for his failure to do more for the Jews, but it is not uncommon to hear that accusation.
 
This young woman is a Jew of the 21st century, speaking clearly about historical reality, but not yet ready to be a historian. She has the capacity to learn that a historian can view a distant era in its term, or her own. 
 
My generation, finishing high school in the 1950s, applied to colleges that had Jewish quotas. 
 
The Reform Judaism of Sulzberger and many other congregations of his generation was concerned with fitting in to the American mainstream, with something between a mild disinterest in the Jews of Europe and Palestine, anti-Zionism, and overt opposition to any recruitment of American Jews for migration to Palestine. I recall attending Reform services that resembled the Protestant rituals, except for the absence of Jesus, that I was required to attend while a student at Wesleyan University. In recent contacts with Reform congregations, I  have met rabbis who had part of their education in Israel, a greater use of Hebrew, rituals bearing some resemblance to Orthodox traditions, as well as faces and skin colors more American than "Jewish," whatever that has become.
 
The Jews of the 1940s read those articles in the New York Times. Some protested against the events of Europe and demanded action from American authorities, but most did not.
 
The young lecturer's criticism of what the government and American Jews did not do in the 1940s is a good example of what has happened since then to American Jewry. Like her, Jews have become more critical of their American surroundings, active politically, and expect to be given respect as individuals as well as Jews. They have not encountered restaurants, country clubs, or neighborhoods closed to Jews, or colleges whose admissions officers include "Jew spotters"  seeking to decipher from applicants' name and residence whether their papers should be put in one pile or another.
 
It is easier to identify the elements that have contributed to the changes than to describe exactly how each has had an influence. The Holocaust  and Israel's War of Independence did not make Reform Jews into activists for aliyah. They remained concerned primarily with assimilation, but turned away from overt anti-Zionism. 
 
The upsurge in population and the maturation of the baby boomers along with the civil rights movement provided a new population, with freshly educated teachers, a cause that attracted Jews, and urged them to assert their own rights as well as others'. 
 
The increase in intermarriage came at about the same time, and reflected the exit of Jews from ghetto-like neighborhoods and traditional families, and their acceptance as social equals by non-Jews.
 
Another change, consistent with the cultural history of Jews, and not altogether absent from earlier generations of Jewish leftists, was the development of an outspoken criticism of the Jewish establishment and the policies of the Israeli government. It became apparent not too long after the euphoria of 1967.
 
Contemporary critics may insist that they are not anti-Zionist. Their style is to tell  American Jews and Israelis, either explicitly or by implication, how they must save Israel from itself. However, the extremists among them join enthusiastically with the Palestinian led movement to boycott Israeli institutions and individuals.
 
A turn to leftist activism is not the only route taken by American Jews since the 1940s. There is also an assertive Jewish nationalism, linked with Orthodoxy and aggressive postures of defense both for American communities and Israel. Most explicit and extreme was the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League, still heavily American but now vocal around Hebron as well as Brooklyn..
 
Also apparent are Jews who are assertively ultra-Orthodox and concerned to concentrate and control neighborhoods or entire towns. They appear in and near several large cities, sometimes clashing with liberal Jews and non-Jews on issues of closing businesses on the Sabbath, and reducing the budgets of the public schools to help them support their own private schools. 
 
Here and there have been problems associated with stringing an eruv around a largely Orthodox neighborhood, and residents wanting a mezzuzah in a co-op.that insists on uniform front doors. 
 
The New York Times remains a newspaper largely Jewish by virtue of its readership and much of its staff, although its ownership and management is not as narrow as that of the 1940s.
 
Yet it remains more American than Jewish, and attracts criticism for being anti-Israel.  Neither Thomas Friedman nor Roger Cohen will admit to being anti-Israel. Both have written what must be done to improve or preserve Israel for the sake of both Jews and Arabs, and in keeping with the policy of the United States. 
 
The trendy leftism of both puts them out of step with many Israelis and the center of gravity in all Israeli governments since 1967. They may not be copies of Arthur Sulzberger. They fit well within the current American Jewry. However, they are closer to Sulzberger than to Benyamin Netanyahu, Naftali Benet, Avigdor Lieberman, and maybe even Tzipi Livni..
 
 
Average: 4.3 (6 votes)
 
   
About Us | Advertise with Us | Subscribe | Contact Us | RSS
 
All rights reserved © The Jerusalem Post 1995 - 2010
Powered by: TANAGRA Ltd.