“Everywhere around the world
They’re coming to America
Every time that flag’s unfurled
They’re coming to America
Got a dream to take them there
They’re coming to America
Got a dream they’ve come to share
They’re coming to America.”
— Neil Diamond, America
The words of the song express the hopes and dreams of all immigrants –- or at least we think they do. Some of us. Some of us don’t. Some of us have a different idea of what the dream is, of what America is, and of what we ought to do about it. We are facing that conflict square in the face right now.
The disestablishment clause of the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” And yet there are those today who would assert that America is an English-speaking, God-fearing, fully assimilated, homogenized, unified, white Christian country and that those who believe otherwise are wrong, or worse.
Is that the America immigrants hope to come to, the dream they’ve come to share? Or is America a multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual, pluralistic, heterogeneous, disparate and divided country with nothing in common except diversity? Are we “One Nation, Under God” or are we even “One Nation”? What happened to the Unum in E Pluribus Unum? What does the Unum represent today? What’s in the melting pot? Is it beef stew, jambalaya, cholent, goulash, gumbo, bamia or pot-au-feu?
And is it good for the Jews? Which Jews? Where are the Jews? Or, in the unforgettable words of right-wing polemicist Ann Coulter, “Oh God, not the Jews again.”
It’s a funny time to be Jewish. Bernie Sanders, a Jew who is not very Jewish, ran for president and nobody made a big deal about his religion (or lack thereof). Jared Kushner is an Orthodox Jew and some people (mostly Jews) make an issue about his religion, but not in a really bad way. Anti-semitism is on the rise, but seems to be limited to bomb scares at JCCs and swastikas on signs or subways, not the kinds of attacks or rampant hatred seen in the past.
Muslims have replaced Jews as the religious minority white nationalists hate the most, and even as the Israeli-Palestinian situation makes no progress toward resolution, Jews in the U.S. are in the forefront of those standing up for Muslims, even vowing to register as Muslims if a registry is established. The staunchest supporters of Israel today are not Jews, certainly not liberal Jews – they are Evangelical Christians.
So is America a Christian country or not? Did the Jewish immigrants who came here in the 20th century accept the antidisestablishmentarian argument that America is a Christian nation? Are Jews today distinguishable from other Americans or have they been swallowed up by the fulfillment of the dreams that brought them to this country in the first place? The statistics would indicate that such is the case. With a 50% intermarriage rate, by the middle of the 21st century most Jews will either be haredim or indistinguishable from the majority Christian population.
It’s interesting to contrast the experience of Muslim immigrants in the 21st century with that of the 20th century Jewish immigrants. Immigrant Muslims have contributed tremendously to the cultural fabric of the United States and have been successful professionally and economically, despite facing significant hostility, harassment, threats and acts of violence. What is unique about Muslim Americans, however, is that, by and large, they have not tried to eradicate their religious and cultural heritage in order to fit in to the American model.
This is quite different from the Jewish immigrant experience. Jews came to America and immediately threw off the trappings of their former lives. They changed their names, had plastic surgery to “fix” their noses, deliberately ate trayf and married out. They did their utmost to become “real” (i.e, white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian) Americans. And by and large, they succeeded. As they climbed the ladders of success and gained entry into the professions, the arts, the business world, they increasingly turned away from their religion and their ancestry with nary a backwards glance and with little regret. They sent their children to public schools which, despite efforts to deny it, really taught that America is a Christian country, in which Halloween, Christmas and Easter are American holidays and in which being different – in color, religion, language, heritage, ethnicity or gender – was not really acceptable and was best altered or at least hidden.
It took a long time -– maybe too long — for Jews to realize that being different, being Jewish, was not something to be ashamed of but something to be proud of. It took a long time –- maybe too long -– for Jews to wake up to the fact that being American did not have to mean being Keene instead of Cohen or Lawrence instead of Lebowitz. Just as bagels became mainstream and chicken soup became the penicillin for everyone’s soul, Jews became not only acceptable, but desirable. A nice Jewish boy was suddenly good marital material (viz., Chelsea Clinton, Ivanka Trump) and Ralph Lauren (formerly Lipschitz) became the epitome of classic WASP taste.
But what happened to the Jews in the meantime? Regrettably, they disappeared. The Pew Report tells us that “the percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%.” Most American Jews today identify as such by virtue of their sense of humor. They have opted for the myth of the melting pot, which really means Christian, Eurocentric, white America. Soon the majority of American Jews will be replaced by those ultra-Orthodox who reject not only Christianity but all things modern and secular, who will be poor, who will be insular, but who will be Jewish.
Is this the inevitable fate of immigrants to America? In three or four generations will they lose their connections to their heritage, their peoplehood, their faith? Will this be good for America or bad? The framers of the Constitution wrote the disestablishment clause because they did not want America to be a Christian country, God-fearing Christians though they were. The Jews who came to America wanted to assimilate. Now – without some significant committed educational effort – they have assimilated themselves out of existence.
Let us hope that Muslim Americans hold fast to their faith, that they do not change their names, their noses, or their beliefs. Let us hope that they teach their children Arabic and the Koran and their heritage and their values. America should not be a melting pot in which everything becomes homogenized and individual faiths and heritages are lost. It should be a quilt made of lots of different, colorful and amazingly diverse colors, affiliations, patterns, stories, histories/herstories, foods, languages and faiths. There is a profound, idealistic Unum that unites us – a belief in democracy, fairness, equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – that derives from the very Pluribus that makes us unique as a nation.
As Muslims outstrip Jews as America’s largest religious minority, perhaps they will find a lesson in the Jewish experience. And perhaps we Jews can learn something from them as well.