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America and the Jews: Different, or the Same?

In 2004, a commemorative medal marking the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in North America quoted, on one side, from George Washington's letter assuring the Jews of Newport, R.I. of their rightful place in the fledgling republic of the United States; the reverse side portrayed huddled masses of Jews yearning to breathe free; around the outer edge, in Hebrew and English, ran the biblical passage, "proclaim liberty throughout the land."

Relevant Links
My Heroes  Barry A. Kosmin, Jewish Identity and Religious Commitment. Asked to name their Jewish heroes, teens in a mid-90s survey named personalities from the Bible, Israel, the Holocaust, and their families. The only American public figure? Sandy Koufax.

This same message—of, in brief, the perfect fit that exists between America and the Jews—has been ubiquitous for well over a century in American Jewish culture. So the historian Beth Wenger demonstrates in her wide-ranging new book, History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage. Marshalling evidence from war monuments to children's school books, from official pronouncements to "civic performances" on Jewish and American holidays, Wenger deftly sketches the main elements of what she calls "the central myths of American Jewish culture."  

The first element is that "America is different."  The U.S., in this telling, has provided opportunities never enjoyed elsewhere, making it possible for Jews to attain unprecedented heights, both occupational and social. Second, exposure to the American environment created a historically new kind of Jew—a belief that, as Wenger notes, would compete with the Zionist notion of creating a new Jew in the land of Israel.  Third, not only do American and Jewish values converge, but influential shapers of the American ethos were inspired by ideas imbibed from the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish texts. According to Wenger, some of her students at the University of Pennsylvania continue to assert with perfect certitude that Judaism is itself the source of American democratic ideals.

It is on the basis of such assumptions, Wenger argues, that American Jews constructed a self-confident narrative both about American "exceptionalism" and about their own "at-homeness" in America. Having arrived on these shores at the earliest stages of the national experiment, and having sacrificed blood and treasure in the country's wars, surely American Jews had every right to feel a strong sense of belonging, of being accepted as equals, and of participating in a truly exceptional historical experience.

To this "cult of synthesis"—the historian Jonathan Sarna's term for "the belief that Judaism and Americanism reinforce one another"—Wenger brings a creditable degree of skepticism.  For one thing, she points out, the very fervency with which Jews proclaim their belongingness may hint at an underlying uncertainty or insecurity. After all, it is not as if American Jews have been immune to housing and job discrimination, social barriers, quotas at universities, anti-Semitic demagoguery, and at times physical violence: symptoms of a more complicated reality that the protestations are designed to deny or obscure.  

More importantly, while acknowledging, as any fair-minded observer must, just how generous America has been to its Jews, Wenger reminds her readers that Jews in other lands, too, including France, Germany, England, and even Poland, have constructed similar narratives about their rootedness in their respective native lands and have pointed, with justice, to the successes achieved by their coreligionists (if nowhere so broadly or on anything like the same scale as in America). In respect of such national mythmaking, one might even say, American Jews have been remarkably unexceptional.

All of this is a welcome corrective. But a question that naturally flows from Wenger's analysis, though one she leaves unexamined, concerns the possible costs exacted by this mythmaking. Have American Jews, as a group, paid a price for blurring the lines between the cultural assumptions of their own religious and civilizational heritage and the values of their American environment? Has Judaism itself been falsified in the bid to reconcile its distinctive worldview with those values?

In considering the past, such questions may be of only academic interest; but in our own time they have assumed critical importance. Even as individual American Jews encounter few, if any, barriers to their socio-economic advancement, Jewish group existence has become highly insecure. The problem is not a lack of "at-homeness"; to the contrary, in the minds of American Jews, American and Jewish values have "coalesced" (the word is Sylvia Barack Fishman's) into so seamless a whole that many no longer see a point in maintaining a distinctive collective existence. And indeed, if Judaism's norms are so perfectly convergent with America's, why bother to remain Jewish?

Significant numbers of today's American Jews have already made up their minds on this issue, and are voting with their feet. Meanwhile, as that 2004 commemorative medal suggests, the official community continues doggedly to promote the cult of synthesis—without even appearing to notice how obsolescent its original assumptions have become. For, on both the American and the Jewish side, many of today's regnant cultural values diverge rather markedly from those of the past.

To take but one example from Wenger's study, there was a time when American Jewish leaders chose their heroes and communal role models from the ranks of figures like Haym Solomon, a financier of the American Revolution. They may have overstated Solomon's contributions to the war effort, but at least he was an engaged and observant Jew. Today's public honors are more routinely bestowed on successful individuals in finance, or industry, or the arts whose personal lives are bereft of Jewish content.

Is this the road to Jewish group survival? In light of what is at stake, one wonders who is prepared to undertake the urgent task of constructing a more honest and more challenging story about the place of Jews and Judaism in America, a story of gratitude, patriotism, and compatibility, but also of difference, dissent, and distinctiveness.

Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of A People Divided, among other books, and the editor most recently of Learning and Community (Brandeis).

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Independent Patriot on October 13, 2010 at 11:38 am (Reply)
While in the annals of Jewish history the acceptance of the Jewish people into the society is unique, their experience here in the United States is really not unlike the history of any other immigrant group. All persons came to the US looking for acceptance and a chance at a better future. None who came here were part of the ruling and governing classes, but were the disenfranchised of the world. All who came here created a new and better reality for themselves an their posterity.

Now as far a Haym Solomon is concerned, I prefer to consider his contribution to the American Revolution immensely important as my children through their father are direct descendants and it is a fact of immense pride in this home.I think Haym would be proud that his actions created a legacy in his descendants for both their American and Jewish heritages. Although our Jewish practice, while not orthodox (as lamented by the author), and relying heavily on the historical and ethnic continuum of our people,there is still quite a love and understanding of Eretz Israel, Am Israel and Tanach Israel, and we are quite the proud Jewish-Americans.
mark cline on October 13, 2010 at 12:06 pm (Reply)
I agree, and say that the Solomon brothers during the American Revolution raised approximately 1 million dollars for food, gunpowder, and cannons to defeat the British. The Americans were eating their boiled shoe leather, when worldwide Jewish people saved Americans from sure defeat.

Secularly, it is a debt of honor, that cannot be repaid, or ignored. We must stand by the Jewish people, and support them.

I am grateful to the Jewish people, and constantly and continuously pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and await the Annoited One, the Messiah.

Respectfully submitted, Mark Emerson Cline, Stilwell, OK USA
Jacob Arnon on October 13, 2010 at 10:06 pm (Reply)
America is different from Europe, radically different.

However, we tend to view our contribution differently from the way most American non-Jews view it. They celebrate our contribution as individuals and not as Jews. We stress their Jewishness.

It’s as if the nationality of Jews is not recognized by the majority. This is not true of say the Irish, the Poles, the Italians and other nationalities. We are seen as a religion and nothing but a religion. This is too bad, since many of the eminent Jewish contributors to this country saw themselves as Jews and not merely as Americans of the “Jewish faith.”
Jon Davies on October 14, 2010 at 6:57 pm (Reply)
There has been far more social and political antisemitism in US than in England. America is not exceptional. England is not Europe. In 1939-41 Britain stood alone against the Nazis. Where was America?
Why should British Jews rejoice in the Jews' role in the American revolt against George III?
In what sense was Jewish support for Yankee doodle worldwide? Were they volunteering and cheering in the shtetlach or indeed in London?
Jacob Arnon on October 14, 2010 at 10:29 pm (Reply)
The 18th century is not the same as the 20 ot the 21st century. I doubt that the common man in Eastern Europe even knew of the existence of the British colonies much less their rebellion against Great Britain.

The enlightened Jews in Europe once they learned of the US Constitution (in the broad sense) did view it favorably.
Paramjit Singh Ajrawat on February 25, 2012 at 11:12 pm (Reply)
As a Sikh-American immigrant, a community leader, and a graduate of Yeshiva University, I want to thank the Jewish community for their efforts and struggle to make the United States a better place for minorities to live. I know a lot about Jewish Holocaust and am a staunch supporter of the state of Israel and its security. I hope we all can all work together to make this a better world.
Thanks, Dr.P.S. Ajrawat
Empress Trudy on July 3, 2012 at 9:02 am (Reply)
In my state, NC, Jews were not permitted to vote, hold public office or own real estate until 3 years AFTER the ratification of the 13, 14, 15th amendments to the Constitution, granting those same rights to blacks and all freed slaves. So the short answer is that the relationship between Jews and America has ALWAYS been shaped by those Jews' willingness to ignore discrimination and bigotry where it suited them.
Dovid Eliezrie on July 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm (Reply)
Comparing the American Jewish experience to the Eurpean one is not tenable. In Europe there were periods of safety and even acceptance. America clearly is different, truly a "Medina shel Chessed-a country of kindness" to quote the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

A Jew can live as a Jew to the fullest and still be a respected citizen. Nor do we have to give up our religious identity to succeed. Maybe the most intriguing indicator was President Obama's choice of Jack Lew, a Shabbat observant Jew as his chief of staff. While some supported hs appointment, and others not, yet issue was his positions, not that on Shabbat he does not take calls and walks to Shul. The was barely a mention of this issue in the media.

America was the first country in history to give Jews full protections and rights by ratifying the Bill of Rights. Something we should ponder with great appreciation as we babecue our kosher hot dogs on July 4th.
Eric in Portland on July 4, 2012 at 2:47 am (Reply)
America is not perfect...not in the past and not now.
Judaism is not perfect...not in the past and not now.
America has been - and will continue to be - a great place for Jews to live.
Jews have been - and will continue to be - great members of the American family.
The rest is commentary.

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