What is the Future of American Jews?

    June 2008            
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The American Jew: The Future of an Illusion

By Saul Goldman

Can the Jewish nation rely upon the American Diaspora as a strategic ally? Will it find a way to strengthen itself and re-orient itself as a Diaspora community or will it further assimilate to the point where American Jews see themselves as merely a religious minority in a new multi-cultural America? Since the 19th century Emancipation, Jews throughout the Diaspora began a cultural/social transformation. Indeed, the very notion of “Diaspora” as opposed to Exile (galut) indicates the manner in which Jews changed the way they see themselves. After the destruction of the Second Commonwealth, Jews saw themselves as defeated and exiled from their land. Galut had a clear political meaning and our liturgy reflected our ambition which was to find our way home and to restore our sovereignty. Perhaps because we were always under gentile scrutiny and our books were censored, the idea of national resurrection was encoded in what would appear, to the censor, a metaphysical notion. Yet, our sages made it clear that our sovereignty, even in exile, existed within the “four cubits” which halacha or Jewish law forged as a polity in exile.

In many respects modern Zionism was merely the translation of these ideas into a 20th century socioeconomic vocabulary. Many Jews, however, chose to opt out of our messianic plan and began to imitate our gentile neighbors by a “spiritualization” of the Biblical program. The more frustrated we became, the more vulnerable we were and the more persecutions we endured, the greater and the more fanciful the image of the hoped for Messiah. In a cultural sense, Judaism morphed from the civilization of the Jewish nation into a religious cult that would eventually find its place in the interfaith community as rabbis became clergy and Jewishness was synonymous with religious observance. After the emergence of Reform Judaism in 19th century Germany under the influence of thinkers like Herman Cohen and Franz Rosenzeig, Jews became Germans or Hungarians or Americans of the “Mosaic persuasion”. Or, that’s what they thought.

About a century ago, Sigmund Freud offered an analysis of religion that would have made a lot of sense to Moses. Indeed, like Moses confronting Aaron’s molten calf, Freud was deeply troubled by the group delusion that passes as socially accepted religious practice. It is the “delusion” that is pertinent to our understanding of political religion. For many individuals attribute to politics the capacity to go far beyond service to the polis; they project onto politics salvation itself. Hence, we often see devotion and belief mixed together as political fervor suppresses reason; especially in those situations where we are confronted by the “cult of personality”. This, of course has its roots in paganism. The Greeks called the process, by which a man becomes a god, apotheosis. It is a combination of the unrestrained hubris of political leaders and the need to believe among the masses. We have seen elements of man-worship in Nazism and in the way many Americans speak Obama’s name with an almost ecstatic intonation. Such fervor toward the new American idol bodes ill for the Jews.

What does it mean to Israel that the Jews of America overwhelmingly supported Obama? More than liberal or conservative fiscal policies, the Obama phenomenon represent what Freud would have called a mass neurosis; a collective suspension of critical thinking based upon history and facts. It tells us that great frustration, anxiety and failure can result in the abandonment of reason. The new generation of American Jews have become like their ancient ancestors approaching Aaron in the midst of the desert. Their leader Moses was away on a lonely mountain and experiencing profound anxiety, they demanded, “make us a god that we may worship (literally enslave ourselves to) him. Erich Fromm would have called this an escape from freedom.

It appears that neither Jewish history nor Jewish philosophy had any effect upon the consciousness of American Jews during the last election. Jews were always skeptical of any messiah. Usually, their skepticism proved to be valid. This is what irritated Christians and Muslims. Implicit in the first statement of the Decalogue was an insight into the ultimate source of freedom; the refusal to worship any other god other than the God who has commanded us to be free. Hence, the Covenant contracted at Sinai was not a document of faith or about “right thinking”. The Torah was about knowing the difference between right and wrongdoing. Rabbi Hiya is said to have summed up the importance of this notion, by quoting God as saying “even if Israel abandons belief in Me, let them keep the Law” (J. Hagigah 1:7). It was that Law as constituted in a dynamic ongoing polemic which preserved Israel for over 30 centuries. It was the law that mitigated between a freedom that would become chaos and an order that could take on the quality of mental oppression.

The Jewish response to Obama seems to be symptomatic of their degree of assimilation. Jews allowed themselves to become mesmerized by his charisma. How else can we explain why the Jews supported him? He campaigned upon the promise of change. Yet, his only credential for facilitating that change was his political inexperience incredulously set forth as a virtue. My assessment is that it was a concession to their desperation. America was once again in a hard place. A six year war against terrorism landed America in the quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan. The economy collapsed due to the inversion of our basic morality. Narcissistic managers and politicians led the country into financial and political chaos.

Against such a foreboding scenario, Jews joined with so many other Americans and rejected reason for hope. They elected an untried and ill-equipped charmer. Beneath this, however, is the deeper problem of the intellectual or mental assimilation of the Jews. Judaism was not faith based ideology; it was performance based. Our social theory was founded upon obligations rather than rights. And now in 21st century America, we have seen the majority of the Jewish community turn on their heels and engage in a desperate attempt to resolve the challenges facing America and the free world in one sweeping act of faith. By doing this, we abandoned our stubborn commitment to equality for a new political program of affirmative action. Actually, Obama extends the “entitlements” not only to Americans but to the Palestinians as well. The two state solution is not based upon a clear headed evaluation that Palestinians have demonstrated their ability to live freely and maintain a cooperative and civil relationship with the Jewish state. It derives from the disproved theory of affirmative action. And because a Palestinian state will be an obvious threat to Israel, one cannot fail to recognize an animus toward the Jewish state.

It is the assimilation of America’s Jewry that challenges a long standing Israeli belief that they need American Jewry as a source of political influence. Further, those institutions that so many Jews tout as “making Jews” like the rabbinate, have actually failed. Over the last three decades, the Jewish population in America has declined by one million people. We have succumbed to intermarriage and assimilation. Yet, Israeli leaders continue to occupy themselves with the myth of the powerful American Jew. At best American Jews have been charitable toward Israeli universities, hospitals and welfare organizations. But, when it came to American foreign policy toward Israel, American Jews were of little value.

Although a few American Jews joined Mahal or smuggled arms to Israel in 1948, they failed to change American policy and Truman embargoed arms to Israel. They could not stand up to Eisenhower and Dulles in 1956 or to persuade Johnson to be more than “neutral in thought and action” in 1967. Indeed, the successive IDF victories in the field were always undermined by American insistence that we return our gains in exchange for meaningless peace initiatives. American Jews were impotent while the St. Louis was ordered back to Europe in 1939. American Jewry was afraid to challenge the US Government while Jonathan Pollard was prosecuted (actually persecuted) on charges of espionage. While Pollard did spy for Israel those who spied for the Soviets, North Korea and China were generally given much lighter sentences. Pollard’s cruel punishment was a warning to American Jews about dual loyalty and American Jewish leaders just rolled over.

Assimilation is not simply a response to anti-Semitism by hiding behind some cultural camouflage. Assimilation is a mental process beginning in the way we understand or perceive our reality. Basically it is the result of hundreds of years of Enlightenment in which Jews were variously accepted and rejected. The French parliamentarian Clermont-Tonnere addressed the transition of the Jew from the ghetto to the citizen when he offered: “to the Jew as an individual everything; to the Jews as a nation nothing”.

As the ghetto walls were broken down so was the collective consciousness of the Jew. Freud treated many patients whose symptoms were the result this collision between Jewishness and assimilation. John Murray Cuddihy described psychoanalysis in its 20th century social context. The Id relentlessly attempting to break through into consciousness was a metaphor for the Yid being repressed so that the Jew can be accepted and enjoy upward mobility. Of course, Freud was adamant that in the end the price one pays for this repression is much too high. It is illness on the one hand and homelessness on the other. The only individual the assimilated Jew fooled was himself; certainly, as the German experience revealed, his Gentile neighbors knew who he was.

Today’s generation of Jewish leaders was educated in duality. I remember how Louis Finklestein, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary used to speak about being a Jew at home and a gentleman on the street. Our identity was hyphenated traumatically. Hence, we were American-Jews or Jewish-Americans. Generations of Jews were educated by Reform and Conservative rabbis who were anti-Zionist or disciples of Buber who promoted an eviscerated cultural Zionism.

In our pluralistic society in which diversity seems to be a norm Jews have redefined themselves as a religious group and that clearly distinguishes them from Israelis and Judaism from Zionism. Anti-Semites, then, are free to attack the Zionist state while embracing Jews. Indeed, apparently devout Jews can weigh in every time an Israeli soldier whacks a terrorist because they like their Gentile compatriots see the human rights violation. The attack on Zionism, however, is an attack upon the core value of Judaism and the very authenticity of the Biblical eschatology. Commenting upon that vision of the end of days, in a discussion recorded in the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin, the sages agreed that we shall know that the Messiah has arrived when Israel is sovereign. So in a subtle but not entirely unconscious manner Christian ideologues continue to promote those circumstances which would undermine Jewish sovereignty. The Pope’s call for a two state solution is one illustration of the strategy to accept Jews as stateless as opposed to Israelis or Jews as sovereign. In other words, the Pope’s vision calls for nothing more than tolerance which clearly implies dependency. Various Popes were tolerant toward the Jews. They were of course succeeded by Popes who initiated pogroms or boycotts of Jewish businesses.

Thomas Friedman once described Israel as a shtetl with an Air Force. His sad but insightful commentary speaks to the essential failure of Zionism to spiritually transform the Jew. This has clearly distorted our self image. While Israel is not a super power, neither is she a weakling. But, we do project a dependency that frightens us and emboldens our enemies. More importantly, we look toward any American Administration, as the medieval shtadlan would look at the local baron, trying to curry favor. No one else in the world behaves that way. Not even Hugo Chavez the dictator of a banana republic! We re-enforce the American attitude that they can dictate policy because the Americans know that we perceive ourselves as weak. Hence, Obama’s policies in the Middle East are based upon human rights theory and Christian/Islamic tolerance which is radically different than equality. Equality is the legal recognition not only of Israel’s right to exist but of her right to pursue her manifest destiny in a peaceful manner and to resolve her conflicts with hostile neighbors using the same methods that all nations employ aimed at achieving a victory that would dictate a peaceful co-existence.

Our invitation to citizenship in the western world was contingent upon abandoning our national vision. Many of the Jews supporting Obama, share the view that a two state solution is good because they are more concerned about abused Palestinians than murdered Israelis. They have become a caricature of moral leadership in such organizations as Rabbis for Human Rights and B’Tzelem, seeking only to chastise Israel. Many of these individuals are rather myopic in their self-anointed prophetic roles. They have forgotten that men like Isaiah, Hosea or Jeremiah not only criticized Israel, they also comforted and encouraged the nation in its darkest hours. Perhaps, someday we will have an adequate understanding of what drives them. Perhaps, Bruno Bettleheim’s theory of “identification with the aggressor” will enhance our understanding of Jews who would undermine Israel’s resolve, encourage desertion by IDF soldiers and proclaim that the Obama administration must mete out to Israel a dose of “tough love”.

Our task as Israelis is to regain perspective. Independence which is the political expression of liberty derives, as John Stuart Mill recognized, from our mental freedom. It is such an insight that prompted Moses to offer the Law to the nation in the desert. This delicate balance between order and chaos maintained Israel throughout its history, enabling Israel to overcome such antinomian threats as Shabbtai Zevi and the more recent incursion of eastern mysticism in the form of “new age” Judaism. Once we regain our orientation, our moral balance so to speak, we can function as a leader in the world and especially as a leader for world Jewry. If the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is to serve its true purpose, it must approach world Jewry confident in the Zionist interpretation of history. But, like Moses, we must consider by-passing those Jews who have succumbed mentally to their own form of bondage. We must seek new “shlichim” in America and arm them with a new curriculum.


from the June 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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