My friend and colleague Adam Garfinkle, the founding editor of The American Interest, thinks that America’s Jews are finished. “The American Jewish golden age . . . is over, folks.” he wrote in Tablet. What triggered the despair?
For one, two first-term Democratic Congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, gained instant notoriety by trundling out ancient anti-Jewish tropes that seemed to be dead and buried, Tlaib accused two anti-BDS Senators of dual loyalty: “They forgot what country they represent.”
Tlaib was quickly upstaged by Omar who delivered more of the mean-spirited stuff, though wrapped in coded language. Her target was “the political influence that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Say “hello” to Jewish treachery. How did the Jews do it? By making money talk—all those “Benjamins,” tons of $100 bills. Why did they score so well? Because, as Omar had tweeted in 2012, “Israel has hypnotized the world.” It all added up to a CliffsNotes version of The Protocol of the Elders of Zion.
Still, what’s the big deal? These congressional novices, two out of 435, have enjoyed their days in the sun; since then, attention has shifted, as befits the Age of Tweets. Yet American Jews were not reassured as they watched a far larger drama unfold: the convulsions of the Democratic Party in the aftermath of Omar. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a few party stalwarts had condemned Omar’s “hurtful comments” as “deeply offensive.” In the end, the divided Dems could only agree on a one-size-fits-all resolution. Dutifully, it did denounce anti-Semitism, but also “Islamophobia, racism and other forms of bigotry.”
Add the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch. Throughout the West, a new dynamic is working its way through the political spectrum. In the past 120 years, anti-Semitism used to be a project of the Right, uniting clericalists, chauvinists, fascists, and Nazis. Today, the scourge has traveled to the Left, as most vividly demonstrated by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The common denominator is an obsessive aversion to Israel, but if you poke long enough, you unearth anti-Jewish tropes running from dual loyalty via subversion by Jewish money to global conspiracy.
So American (and British) Jews are rightly unsettled. As Garfinkle notes, “Jews are rapidly and irreversibly becoming homeless.” Do not ignore, however, that 70 percent of Jews still vote Democratic.
Where their saint FDR once reigned, hostility to Israel and coded Jew-bashing has moved from the kooky to the tolerable, intimidating the Party’s grandees as the tortured reaction to Tlaib/Omar shows. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren have defended Omar, with the “Bern” disingenuously claiming that her critics were “stifling” debate—though the dispute was raging untrammeled through the land. Beyond Capitol Hill, deadly violence has flared. A French specialty—murderous attacks on Jews—has come to America: In Pittsburgh, a Jew hater massacred five congregants during Shabbat services, and in California another gunman murdered one and injured several.
Is this just a series of coincidences? Adam Garfinkle, sees not happenstance, but a gloomy pattern. “As a politically homeless, smaller, and less influential community,” he wrote in an earlier piece for The American Interest, “the future of American Jewry is grim. . . . The main trend lines are not reversible. That is why the tweets of Ilham Omar resonate so loudly in their heads.”
Is the love affair between Jews and America over? It Can’t Happen Here, pronounced Sinclair Lewis’ semi-satirical novel of 1935, but it did, spawning dictatorship and civil war, labor camps and torture chambers. Yet in the final pages, the democratic resistance is getting the upper hand. In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Nazi fan Charles Lindbergh is elected President; Jews are arrested and deported to the “heartland.” But Roth keeps the faith. In the end, the good America triumphs over anti-Semitism and fascism, Made in U.S.A.
Why won’t it happen here, whereas evil triumphed from Portugal to Poland after World War I? The simplest and most compelling answer is this: America is different. Just a few numbers for starters. In a 19-country opinion survey (2015), the ADL measured anti-Semitism by calculating an index score for each nation. In the West, Greece comes out on top with a score of 67. Next in line is Romania with 47. Hungary is third with 40. France gets 17 and Germany 16. The U.S. ranges way down with a score of 10. According to a recent Pew poll, a substantial majority of Americans—64 percent—say they have a favorable opinion of the Israeli people.
Such numbers suggest that America is the great exception, hardly a candidate for real-life dystopias in the way of Sinclair Lewis. Indeed, American exceptionalism—the genuine, not the self-congratulatory version—is at the core of the Jewish-American love affair. It comes in three parts.
First, go back to 1654. Long before the birth of the Republic, a band of Jews escaping from the Inquisition sailed from Recife, Brazil, to Nieuw Amsterdam, known as New York today. Peter Stuyvesant, the administrator, refused asylum to this “deceitful race” of “usurers” and “blasphemers.” Back home, the Dutch West India Company was not swayed, overruling Stuyvesant in the name of religious freedom. He obeyed, but fired off an angry letter: “Giving [the Jews] liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists.” Nor could he stomach Quakers.
Thus, a unique tradition struck roots in American soil. Let’s call it “equal-opportunity racism,” which, ironically, was a blessing for the Jews. For once, they were not singled out as Christ killers and bloodsuckers. Suddenly, they found themselves in good Christian company. For the Dutch Reformed Church, Lutherans were the real enemies. So were Catholics; allegedly beholden to the Pope, they were tainted as traitors.
All the way into the 20th century, “Papists” were suspected of harboring dual loyalties, a role normally reserved for the Jews. But in America, where bigotry was “universalized,” Jews were not evil incarnate, being only one outsider group in a country peopled by immigrants and minorities. Irish hated Italians, and both hated Poles, while WASPS despised everybody of different ancestry, faith, and color. Mutual contempt among a myriad denomination was a God-sent for the Jews; in contrast to Europe, they were merely one target among many, pace the KKK and the Know-Nothings.
Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State” defines a second American exception. Where faith was married to power, as it was in Europe, dissidents and “heretics” ended up at the stake. Jews were ghettoized, slain, or expelled. But in the United States, the First Amendment became the law of the land. The state could favor no religion, nor establish one; every church was on its own. Never before had Jews enjoyed as much safety and equality as they did in the novus ordo seclorum. No wonder that they flocked to these shores by the millions. America was the Goldene Medineh, the Land of Gold.
Third, no nation is as “Jewish” as the United States. Unlike Europe’s Christians, the Puritans fell in love with the Hebrew Bible. They saw themselves as re-enacting Israel’s struggle against Pharaoh. Their flight across the sea was like the Exodus, and what they found in the New World was another Promised Land, bequeathed to them by a covenant with God. Puritanism as such no longer exists, but in the United States, it has exerted a lasting influence on the American creed, shaping religion, politics and culture.
John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, impressed upon his flock: “If we keep this covenant we shall find that the God of Israel is among us.“ Cotton Mather called the Jews God’s “beloved people.” Yet Luther wanted to “set fire to their synagogues.” The settlers saw themselves as “Christian Israel.” They incorporated Jewish law into the early American corpus. They named their children Abraham and Sarah. They would build a “cittie uppon a hill,” a new Jerusalem. America is dotted with biblical place names like Jerusalem, Shiloh, Zion, Canaan, and Goshen. There is no Shiloh anywhere in Europe.
Transcending the headlines, the moral of this tale should be reassuring. The American-Jewish love affair is not one-sided, nor based on the fleeting convergence of interests. Indeed, interests have regularly clashed, especially with regard to Israel. It began with Harry S. Truman (who at first would not recognize Israel), continued with Dwight Eisenhower (who refused arms to the fledgling Jewish state) and ran all the way to Barack Obama (who tried to make nice to the Islamic world). Nixon coolly ignored Israel’s horrifying losses in the Yom Kippur War, initially holding back resupplies in order to soften up the Golda Meir government for the coming peace talks with Egypt. George W. Bush refused to deliver America’s biggest bunker-busters, capable of cracking Iran’s hardened nuclear sites. If those “Benjamins” really bought illicit influence, as Omar fantasizes, why did the United States and Israel regularly go mano a mano?
The real story is not about Jewish cash or the hidden hand of Jewish power. It about affinity and kinship without any parallel in the Western world. Of course, the past never guarantees the future. But 350 years of continuity spell out a heartening message. The tie is more deeply embedded in American culture than the recurrent flare-ups of anti-Semitism since the birth of the Republic.
If it does happen here, to pick up on Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth, America would have to stop being what it has become. Such a transformation will require a lot more than anti-Jewish and anti-Israel tweets or BDS campaigns on campus. Rooted in American history, the relationship is part and parcel of the American creed. It all started in 1654 when that band of Brazilian Jews found a haven in New Amsterdam. By that time, Jews had been expelled from England, Spain, Austria and Germany. Greater New York now harbors two million of them.