If you’ve read my previous columns, you know I believe in the centrality of Israel in Jewish civilization, that in the past few decades, Israel has transformed from being a project of world Jewry into becoming its beating heart, and that the future of Jewish creativity, confidence and influence are going to happen primarily in Hebrew and in the Jewish homeland.
But what if I didn’t believe that? What if I believed, as many still do, that the Diaspora’s future is to be found — if it is not to wither away — in the inherent strengths and unique energies of the Diaspora itself? That American Judaism should offer a compelling alternative to Zion, rather than accept the latter’s eventual supremacy? What would that look like?
This question was posed to me by my editor at the Forward over a bowl of soup in Lower Manhattan a few weeks ago. Here is my answer.
About 15 years ago, I was just starting out as an Israel-based writer and editor, and I paid a visit to Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine and one of American Christianity’s foremost public intellectuals. We spoke of various magazines and trends at the time, and I kept noticing his tendency to use the word “Jewish” in ways I hadn’t considered. The phrase “the Jewish press” kept coming up, and it took me awhile to understand that he wasn’t referring to the Brooklyn-based tabloid by that name, or to the more benign local or national publications such as the Forward. He was referring to what American Jews tend to call the “secular” media: The New York Times, Time magazine. And so on.
Jewish press? My first instinct, of course, was to be offended. But getting offended is often the best way to miss a vital learning opportunity, and he was a gracious host. So I thought the following: If I were a Christian of strong and outspoken faith, I could very well understand coming to a similar conclusion. After all, there are places in America in which a Christian is comfortable speaking and writing about faith. And then there is the “secular” sphere, where he or she really can’t. And it happens that every time you look at the mastheads or rolling credits in the secular world, you see a highly disproportionate number of Jewish names. How can a faithful Christian be blamed for seeing it as somehow, well, Jewish?
Fast-forward to 2013. Vice President Joe Biden gives a lengthy address marking Jewish Heritage Month, in which he goes far indeed.
“The truth is,” he revealed in his revelatory Joe Biden way, “that Jewish heritage, Jewish culture, Jewish values are such an essential part of who we are that it’s fair to say that Jewish heritage is American heritage….” Then he upped the ante. “No group has had such an outsized influence per capita as all of you standing before me.” Speaking of such progressive causes as civil rights and same-sex marriage, Biden added this zinger: “Think behind of all that, I bet you 85% of those changes, whether it’s in Hollywood or social media, are a consequence of Jewish leaders in the industry. The influence is immense; the influence is immense. And, I might add, it is all to the good,” he said.
Yes, you might add that. Because without that, it reads remarkably like an American Jew’s nightmare speech.
Most Jews, of course, are fully aware of the facts cited by the vice president. But they would never talk that way in public. You don’t hear Jack Lew or Joe Lieberman — deeply identifying, observant Jews — talking like that. Not in public. Maybe in synagogue.
That’s because the fundamental survival strategy for Jews in the past century has been based on very deliberately not saying the things that Biden said straight out — the things that Neuhaus took for granted. The glaring, gutsy, but obviously true proposition that The New York Times, Hollywood and a huge part of the secular public sphere in America are not just a Jewish creation, but also a Jewish achievement.
I can already hear the ruffling feathers. Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld and all the others don’t consider themselves acting on behalf of some Jewish people, so why call it Jewish? The simple answers: 1) Jews don’t mind “owning” Einstein and Hank Greenberg, so why not Seinfeld and Groucho Marx? And 2) if Biden and Neuhaus say it, why shouldn’t Jews themselves?
This latter point, however, needs some unpacking. In the past century, Jews in America have built a magnificent liberal, progressive, secular public space in the middle of the most religious country in all of Christendom. They have made a place where Jews could function in total equality and, together with Catholics like Biden, muster their considerable educational habits to help their children succeed. It is no surprise that today the Supreme Court, which is the citadel protecting that secular sphere, is all Catholics and Jews.
But there’s one big difference between Catholics and Jews. For while Catholics for centuries had a lot of countries of their own, even empires, and therefore a highly honed sense of sovereign pride, Jews were everywhere the permanent minority, and they developed a fear-wracked instinct to hide their Jewishness whenever they really succeeded — that famous Haskala line of being a “Jew in the home and a human being when you go out.”
Zionism, of course, was one answer, offered by people who believed that only a state of their own would give Jews the tools they really needed to survive. Yet the fact remains that while Catholics in America descend mainly of people from Catholic countries, like Italy and Ireland, Jews in America are not descendants of Israelis — quite nearly the opposite: descendants of people who chose against the Zionist answer to the Jewish question. Obviously, support for Israel has long eclipsed the anti-Zionism that prevailed among Jews a century ago, but it hasn’t fully erased the deep-seated fears of brutal anti-Semitism, expulsion and even extinction that have always set the contours of Diaspora life.
Much of American Jewry still lives under the belief that the key to their long-term survival is to succeed as Americans rather than as Jews, to take all the incredible things Jews have done and not call them Jewish.
Except, of course, when they’re talking to their kids. Few Jewish parents will hesitate to take pride in Jewish successes — or blanch at Jewish failings — in the presence of their children. I’m sure the bit about Jewish Nobel laureates is well known to most Jews who have heard it from their parents. It’s not like there are any non-Jews out there who have failed to notice Jewish success. Some nefarious; others, like Biden, quite praiseful. So why shouldn’t Jews own up to it in public, as well? Why not talk like Joe Biden, after all?
American Jewry is in free fall, with Jewish knowledge and identification plummeting, and with the traditional denominations failing to attract. Might it have some connection to the fact that Jewish leaders and bodies consistently refuse to take credit for the astonishing achievements of our people? That while non-Jews stand back and either admire or seethe at the Jews’ “immense” influence in America, a Jewish kid growing up in the United States is taught to think twice before saying, “Yes, we built that”?
The alternative, I suggest, is what I call “Own-It Judaism.”
Hollywood? Yeah, we built that. The New York Times? Network television? Yup, ours, too. Facebook? Google? Yo. Big chunks of the popular music industry? Of course. In culture, in letters, in politics, of course in finance and banking, we’ve been there in numbers, pouring our best talents to make the country a better and more prosperous place not just for Jews, but also for African Americans, for Catholics, for gay men and lesbians, and for all other minorities. And, yes, it has been one of the most impressive Jewish achievements in history — the building of America as a thriving, progressive, tolerant land. Secular America is nothing less than one of the Jewish people’s crowning achievements. As a people.
Maybe if Jewish leaders would just own it, taking real sovereign pride, their own kids would be much more interested in keeping alive the flame of Jewish identity.
But then again, what do I know? I am, after all, in the Israeli-centered camp, and this was just a thought experiment.
David Hazony is the editor of The Tower Magazine and is a contributing editor at the Forward.