Most American Jews have always believed America to be special among diaspora countries, fundamentally unlike Europe or the Middle East, where Jews lived for centuries before our grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to flee for their lives.
That was before the Pittsburgh shooting that left 11 Jews dead.
Now, against a backdrop of increasingly emboldened white nationalism in American public life, we Jews find ourselves asking, were we right to believe in American Jewish exceptionalism? If so, why? What prevents this country from becoming Poland or Iraq or Germany or Spain, all other places Jews found safety and prosperity before it all went horribly wrong?
It’s a question I struggle with, as a Jew, as an American and as a student of history. To try and grapple with it, I reached out to ten Jewish voices of my generation (ages 25-40) from a variety of backgrounds.
Their answers, reflected below, show young American Jews responding to a difficult moment in ways both profoundly different and strikingly similar:
My passport is currently expired, and I’ve been putting off going to the bureau to get a new one, with the half-sacred, talismanic belief that if I don’t have a passport, I won’t need to flee.
Magical thinking aside, there’s a hart-like dash in my blood, a genetic sensitivity to hate’s poison, that makes me wonder daily whether it’s time to run yet. After all, it was the hatred of Jews that means my mother has no aunts or uncles, that my grandfather woke in the night and screamed, Police!, and herded his kids out to the backyard of their brownstone in Borough Park, about twice a week. He and my grandmother came over in 1948, and for all their Harvard-educated grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren, I am beginning to fear that it was only ever a way-station.
Jewish history is filled with golden ages chased by bloody ones. The long view of this cycle – in which Jews gain enough success to be treated as patsies for those with real power – means viewing any country as a way-station on the long, grim path to survival.
I think of the slim birches in Galicia that hid my grandparents and these days I wonder where I’ll hide when the day comes, and I pledge, again, to get my paperwork in order.
Karol Markowicz, Columnist in New York
When I meet someone who was born in Russia like I was, we shorthand to calling ourselves Russian. “You’re Russian? I’m Russian too.” But if I tell my mother about this person, she’ll ask, “Is she Russian or Russian-speaking?”
What she’s asking is if this person is Jewish. There’s a distinction, because while I was born in Russia, and my family as far back as anyone can trace was born in Russia or Belarus or Ukraine, none of us were ever Russian or Belarusian or Ukrainian. We were Jews; we were different; we were other.
Have Jews been welcome elsewhere? Of course we have. But have we ever been allowed to fully immerse as we have been in America? No, we haven’t.
That doesn’t mean anti-Semitism doesn’t or won’t exist here. But the scariest part of anti-Semitic violence is often the nonplussed reaction of the country where it happens.
The outraged American reaction after Pittsburgh shows how America is different. We get to be Jews here, but we get to be Americans too.
David Schraub, Lecturer in Law, University of California-Berkeley
In the television series Futurama, the character Fry, upon waking up in the year 3000, is told that there is an upcoming election for President of the World. He’s indifferent. “What do we care? We live in America.” When informed that America is part of the world, he replies “Wow — I have been gone a long time.”
America is part of the world, and the trends of the world — including on anti-Semitism — do not bypass us forever. The relatively brief period where America has given Jews some respite from overwhelming anti-Semitic prejudice is not historically exceptional, and there is no reason to believe America will eternally be immune to global anti-Semitic currents.
Indeed, it is already evident that we’re not.
But anti-Semitism is not immutable, either. The only way to guarantee America will permanently serve as a haven for Jews is if that status becomes unexceptional, an entire world where anti-Semitism, not its absence, is the exception.
That future can still be written. And it remains possible that America — as part of the world — has a special role to play in bringing it about.
Nylah Burton, Forward Columnist
After enduring two years of insanity from the highest levels of American government, I feel neither prepared nor qualified to answer this question. In early 2016, I would never have imagined that Nazis would be in office. And yet, here we are.
It is impossible to divorce the rising levels of American anti-Semitism from our current administration. It seems to me that much is reliant upon the election that looms in 2020. Will white nationalists lash out at Jewish people, like one did in Pittsburgh, if they lose seats of power? Will they be further emboldened if they win and keep those seats of power?
I am fearful of both outcomes – what will happen if racist conservatives win elections and what will happen if they lose. I can’t predict the future, and the future terrifies me.
But I do know that if we are politically stagnant, or if we vote for terrible people, that all is lost anyway.
We must rely on fierce political engagement, solidarity with other marginalized groups, and hope.
I grew up in what conservatives often refer to as “real America,” an agricultural hotspot in the Heartland of Illinois, where I’m almost certain there were more cows than Jews.
Being a university town, it wasn’t entirely devoid of diversity, but overall, the atmosphere wasn’t favorable to minorities.
I was first assaulted for being a ‘Christkiller’ at age six and condemned often to the eternal fires of hell. My classmates assumed I was rich (though, to be fair, they were also convinced that I permed my naturally curly hair). In middle school, I became more aware of the Klan, specifically which kids had affiliated parents. I lied to one of them once and said I was Christian, convinced that if I didn’t, he would find out where I lived and burn a cross on my lawn.
The concept of America as a safe haven for Jews has always been foreign to me. The day after Trump was elected, I turned to my husband and said, “We have to leave.”
Eight months later, we moved to Britain.
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, Forward Life Editor
Last week, I realized, in looking back at my family history, that I am the first in the past century that did not have to flee my place of residence due to anti-Semitism. From shtetl to Soviet city to Vienna and Rome to the embrace of JFK airport, my heritage is encapsulated by a worn, Russian suitcase, filled with books and hopes.
“Would I be next?” I thought.
I am concerned about the normalization of racist, anti-democratic rhetoric; I cannot recognize many of my own “countrymen,” even people who are close to me, who support or overlook this toxicity.
I still believe in American exceptionalism, and particularly, in its exceptionalism towards the Jewish community here. This country has been an unprecedented medinah shel chessed. At the moment, I believe and pray that the United States of America as we know it will stay the course and survive.
But, following in the age-old Diaspora way — I’ve still packed my proverbial suitcase. As an Orthodox Jew and a Zionist, I believe that our galut [exile] is divinely ordained, a journey from country to country. So I’ve always had a packed suitcase.
Last week, I merely gave it a good dusting.
Elad Nehorai, co-founder of Hevria, Forward Columnist
The questions themselves reveal a weakness in the Jewish world that is more urgent than any rise in hate.
Anti-Semitism has, in fact, been the main conduit through which most Americans access their Jewish identities. When asked what defines their Judaism, the top choice uniting Jews is the Holocaust.
And so the call of “Never Again” has defined us: We are surviving for our ancestors.
Ironically, this is why we are unprepared for the rise of anti-Semitism. It has directly led to historic lows of engagement with Jewish life.
In order to survive this moment, we must re-discover our Judaism in a context outside of simply surviving.
For if we have nothing to fight for, there is no reason to fight.
What we really need is a Jewish renaissance. The more our Judaism is alive and vibrant, the more equipped we will be to weather whatever comes.
Our Torah and history teaches that it is the Jews who have something to fight for who survive. It is those who cling to acceptance who disappear.
Rabbi Leah Doberne-Schor, Rabbi, Beth Israel Congregation (Florence, South Carolina)
In 1841, when Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim of Charleston, South Carolina rebuilt its sanctuary, the community changed their menorah. The typical Diaspora menorah left one candle unlit as a sign of mourning. The members of KKBE lit all seven candles, marking America as their “happy land.”
Many American synagogues now have complete menoras, indicating that in America, we have been privileged to enjoy unparalleled religious liberty, safety and inclusion. However, we hold that ideal in conflict with painful experiences.
Our hearts were breaking after last week’s tragedy. We wonder how to protect our community from anti-Semitic attacks. Yet our hearts also hurt with each hateful attack against communities essential to America – African-American, Latino, Native-American, immigrant, differently-abled, GLBTQ and others.
I thought of this when I noticed the fully lit menorah in the overflowing sanctuary where the Columbia, South Carolina community held its memorial service. Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of Rev. Pinckney of Charleston’s Mother Emanuel, kindled its memorial candle. I felt how we are connected, Jews with so many other communities, by our shared work towards our nation’s promise of justice and liberty.
We light a menorah not because we are happy, but because here we can fully engage in the very American, very Jewish pursuit of building together in love.
Bethany Mandel, Forward Columnist
In the week following the massacre in Pittsburgh, Americans have stood by the Jewish community in big ways and small. The Mourner’s Kaddish made its way onto the cover of a local paper and on the NBC Nightly News. Locally, we had Catholic friends drop a babka off on our doorstep on the day of the shooting, and the next week, a vigil held by the Catholic Churches in town formed a procession to our synagogue, where members of the two faith traditions mingled for over an hour in the dark on the steps outside.
The slaughter in Pittsburgh came just before the anniversary of Kristallnacht. It’s hard not to see a similarity between the two events, which took place decades and thousands of miles apart.
But the United States, while never perfect on the issue of anti-Semitism, isn’t becoming Europe of 1945, or even Europe of the present day.
Jews slaughtered in their houses of worship are mourned, and those responsible for vandalism, assaults and Pittsburgh are prosecuted, their crimes loudly condemned by the government and society. These crimes unfortunately do take place, but it is clear they do not represent who we are as a nation.
Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, Georgetown University
Is America different? The notion of American exceptionalism is dangerous if we take it as a foregone conclusion, if we hear the promise of America as a story that demands nothing of us.
In Jewish terms, I believe we must treat the ongoing work of fashioning pluralist society as a chovah, an obligation, a commitment that is required of us.
The promise of America is this: This isn’t simply a Jewish burden, but a duty incumbent on all of us as Americans.
The highest values of this country call us to build a society that uproots racism and resists hatred, a country where we flourish in all our vivid particularity.
In the days that come, let us redouble our commitment to fashioning an American story of solidarity — not just for Jews, but for all of us in the crosshairs: for immigrants and refugees, for communities of color, for queer and trans people, for disability communities, for women, for people living in poverty.
Together, we can write a different ending to this story.
Together, we rise.
Our community is very good at trauma - but we also have an impressive tendency towards hope. It’s hard to imagine how Jews could have survived this long if we didn’t persist in the belief that tomorrow can be made better than today, and certainly an improvement over so many terrible yesterdays.
These contributor responses reflect the usefulness of both these capacities - of trauma and of hope - and highlight the different ways the always diverse and contentious American Jewish world relates to America and the American historical moment.
I suppose I still want to believe in American Jewish exceptionalism. The truth is that I really like this country, not just as a place to live or as a convenient location where my friends and colleagues are and in which I happen to speak the language. I believe in the American ideal. And of course, so much of what I love about America is quintessentially Jewish too.
The way in which we pick up the best parts of every culture that comes here and make it a part of ourselves is something that should be very familiar to Jews of any background, who belong to a culture, religion and people that has been shaped by and still carries with it the influences of countless cultures over millennia. Amos Oz once wrote that when Jews “met up with European humanism during the last few centuries… my forefathers recognized in it certain astounding genetic similarities, because Western humanism has Jewish genes as well.”
When I think about the many ways that Jews shaped modern day America, I realize that I feel the same way about America. The best parts of this country have some Jewish genes. The Pittsburgh shooter rebelled against this, hating not only us but the essence of his own nation too.
I don’t know if the exceptionalism of the American Jewish experience - or of the American one - will survive. But after hearing many different points of view, I believe it exists. And I believe it is still worth fighting for.
Ari Ne’eman is a writer and activist living in Silver Spring, Maryland. He works in the disability rights movement and is an active member of a Conservative Jewish Congregation in Washington, DC.