Is American Jewish Exceptionalism Coming to an End?
“America is Different” so proclaimed Ben Halpern in the title of the opening chapter of his book, “The American Jew.” Halpern’s proposition was simple; America is a singularly exceptional experience in Jewish history. In America, Jews became citizens at the founding of the republic without a Jewish question nor a long, excruciating emancipation process. There were no court Jews, Dreyfus trials, Nuremberg Laws, Dhimmitude, or pogroms. A country unburdened by a long legacy of monarchism, theocracy, or medieval antisemitism, America offered Jews an experience they did not have since medieval Spain or better yet, antiquity. However, with the steady rise of American antisemitism visible in the public space, American Jews are rightfully pondering, is the age of American Jewish exceptionalism coming to an end?
No one can argue there is something very distinct about the American Jewish experience compared to many other points and places in Jewish history. American Jews have had, by large, a positive experience in the United States. Without the struggle for emancipation, nor the struggle to keep it, American Jews have achieved unparalleled levels of freedoms, success, and prosperity so much so that their impact on American politics, life, culture, history, and character disproportionately outweighs the demographic reality. The distinctiveness Jews brought to America is still celebrated daily in American art, film, and humor. American Jewish exceptionalism and the primacy of the American experience in Jewish history are so powerful that underneath the statue of liberty one can find the words of Emma Lazarus, a proud American Jew, engraved in stone,
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
For Jews “..crossing the Atlantic was emancipating.” wrote American Jewish historian Oscar Handlin. American assertion on individual liberty gave Jews a sense of unprecedented freedom, which in turn allowed the American Jewish community to become the unique historical pinnacle of Jewish life it is. Safe from the old world style vicissitudes of national moods and tempers of monarchs, American Jews were able to achieve tremendous success in the most lucrative and vital industries of the American economy. The casual American jokes about the Jewishness of Hollywood or finance are not entirely unfounded. A fifth of the enrolled students in Ivy League schools is Jews. In short, Jews did exceptionally well in America. However, recent events have American Jews asking themselves if this freedom will continue with the rise in antisemitism?
In the past few years, the steadily rising tide of antisemitism in American public life started to trouble the calm waters of the American Jewish life. Vile antisemitism is not a new phenomenon for American Jewry -- but the unashamed public display of antisemitism in the US today is what many American Jews find deeply disconcerting. Never in American history did so many events cluster together to create the current situation: a rise in American white supremacist antisemitism resulted in the most horrifying antisemitic attacks in America in recent memory; an enigmatic preacher celebrated and honored by politicians, including a former president, calling Jews termites; brutal and malicious nationwide anti-Israel campaign threatening to alienate Israeli businesses and Israeli academics. Sitting members of Congress touting dual loyalty blood libels against Jews on Twitter; a bakery in Berkeley putting up a mural of a terrorist who murdered Jews; a city hailed as a second Jerusalem, Brooklyn, becoming a site of frequent violent assaults against Jews; major American journalistic institutes publishing antisemitic cartoons; and finally, viciously hostile academic establishments in which Jews are afraid they are no longer welcome. Those are not mere anecdotes, but the early symptoms of a disease Jews know all too well. In 2018 alone, the ADL reported that antisemitic assaults more than doubled.
Across the Atlantic, a more frightening story is taking place. It is no secret this generation might be witnessing the final chapter of Jewish life in Europe. The plight of French Jews, the government warnings to German Jews and the Labour party attacks on British Jews are constructing a picture for European Jewry that looks an awful lot like the final scenes of European Jewish life -- not to mention the horrific display of completely psychotic Jew-hatred in Poland and Belgium. Jews in America are taking notes. What is happening across the Atlantic only amplifies the fears brewing in many American Jews. With an eye on Europe and another on the US home, American Jews are wondering, is it the beginning of the end of American Jewish exceptionalism?
While the question is legitimate, the answer is clear. America remains exceptional, not only for Jews but for all the people who inhabit it.t is this very American exceptionalism which has and will crush any serpent intruding in the garden. American history is an upward climbing line of constant changes and times of uncertainty, and this era is no different. American Jews have earned their place in American life and American fairness, justice, and decency will ensure they maintain that place. American Jewish exceptionalism is an intrinsic part of the American spirit which despite trying times, is not going away anytime soon.
Just recently, a hyper-polarized US Congress overwhelmingly, with 398 votes, passed an anti-BDS resolution making it clear the American people stand with American Jews and the people of Israel against the racist and antisemitic movement to boycott, divestment, and sanction the only Jewish state. Additionally, the US Commission on Civil Rights and the US Department of State have both adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism as the working definition. Moreover, the US government recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. All of these should be comforting signs the American traditional political establishment has most certainly not abandoned Jews. It is clear they are flirting with antisemites, like the Democratic party with Islamists or the Republican administration with white supremacists, yet it is also clear that in the time of action, American politicians will still uphold America’s promise. Many of America’s politicians might be brutal unprincipled pragmatists. However, the majority understand the vitality of American Jews to America.
Nevertheless, one should also be vigilant against the unpredictability of history. The two anti-Israel congresswomen are the ghost of Christmas yet to come warning of us if what the future might look like if we fail to act and correct course. Antisemitism is a social neurosis antagonized by group-maintained paranoia. After sufficient aggravation, it might turn into psychosis with no future possibility of therapy. The time to act is now. The cure for social neurosis is education and exposure. Part of America’s exceptionalism is our complete guarantee of freedoms of expression which is the primary self-correcting mechanism for any sociopolitical malfunction or failure. This freedom should be constantly utilized to ensure the noise we make will not go unnoticed. America is not Europe, and the history of American Jews bears no resemblance to the history of European Jews in the past, nor will it bear any resemblance to the future.
The future of American Jewish exceptionalism, like all future, maybe uncertain but not at all irredeemable. It is safe to assume it will largely depend on the political future of the US in general. What gave birth to the American Jewish exceptionalism in the first place was the success of applying the principles of liberal democracy with a rule of law and constitutionally protected freedoms from the government. Those principles are the bedrock of the environment which enabled American Jewry to thrive and for American Jewish life to flourish. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to uphold those principles and to ensure that they retain their sanctity in American life. American Jews need not shy away from claiming and taking ownership over their exceptionalism, but ought to instead assert their well-earned place in America, as well as their right to defend it.
The fates of both American Jews and Israel are more intertwined than most people think. The reason Israel has a special relationship it has with American Jewry is that it too is exceptional. In the vastitude of Jewish history, Israeli Jewish exceptionalism is only comparable in liberty and prosperity to the American one. Israeli and American Jews have significantly more in common with each other than they have with the European experience or the experience of Jews who lived in Arab states. This semblance of experiences, the distinguished self-image, and the high self-esteem naturally and inherently make for a strong bond. This bond of mutual respect is also of mutual destiny. Besides, Israel is a benefactor of American Jewish exceptionalism just as American Jews are. The fight to squash the nefarious enemies of the Jewish people is both American Jews’ and Israel’s, and it is a fight to protect the very exceptionalism they enjoy.