Commentary Magazine, October 2021
As the Jewish-American love affair over? This is the question U.S. Jews are nervously asking—even sober souls not given to hysteria. The evidence is piling up: murder from Pittsburgh to Jersey City, Jews assaulted in West Hollywood and Times Square, vandalized synagogues, the BDS movement, ostracized Jewish college students, the ever-unfriendlier mainstream media. Add anti-Zionism, that veiled cousin of anti-Semitism, and the mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and inevitably, the memories of 20th-century fascism well up. Yet I still believe that “it can’t happen here,” unlike Sinclair Lewis, who used the phrase in bitter irony as the title of his 1935 novel about the attempted destruction of democracy in the United States.
That destruction does not happen in Lewis’s novel, nor does it in Philip Roth’s counter-historical tale of a Depression-era Charles Lindbergh presidency, The Plot Against America. In both dystopias, the good America triumphs over anti-Semitism and homegrown totalitarianism. Back in the present and in the real world, Donald Trump proved not even a pale copy of Mussolini despite the efforts of his enemies to liken him to the fascists of old, and his assault on norms as a return to the days of the Weimar Republic. The Weimar analogy betrays ignorance of the real thing. Weimar was 14 years old when it fell to Nazis and Communists; the U.S. Constitution has defied all attacks for 234 years. The Great Depression spawned Hitler in Europe; over here, it brought forth FDR.
So, amid justified fear, let’s first lay out the good news. America, I will still argue, is different; hence,
three cheers for the country’s genuine, not self-hyping exceptionalism. Why did Jews do so well in this “blessed
plot,” to crib from the Bard? How did the “tired, huddled masses” make it from the Lower East Side to Scarsdale? How did their offspring move from the cheder to Columbia and into the highest reaches of government? Think Cabinet members such as Henry Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger plus a slew of Supreme Court judges from Brandeis to Breyer. Hollywood is another towering symbol of Jewish achievement, though I will concede that the transgressive humor of Groucho Marx and Mel Brooks would not make it in today’s hyper-woke times. Recall the self-ironical black sheriff in Blazing Saddles who turns racial stereotypes into belly laughs. Today, that would be a “micro-aggression.”
Jews also flourished in the Kaiser’s Germany and continued to thrive in the doomed Weimar Republic. One-third of Germany’s Nobel Prizes went to Jews. But it ended in the Shoah. Meanwhile, America remained the “Land of Gold” it had been in the Jewish imagination on the far side of the Atlantic. This is no fluke of history; it is integral to the American experience. Before we get to today’s darker parts, let’s look at the three pillars of the Jewish-American house—a palace, actually.1 It has no analogue in the 2,000 years after the destruction of the Temple. There was no such sustained Golden Age anywhere.
Chapter 1 began in 1654, more than a century before the Founding. Escaping from the Inquisition almost 400 years ago, 23 Jews from Brazil’s Recife arrived in New Amsterdam, now better known as New York. “Take us in, please,” they pleaded. In response, Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant insisted on driving off this “deceitful race” of “usurers” and “blasphemers.” Back home in Holland, where its Jewish brethren had offered support and succor for its efforts, the Dutch West India Company was not impressed by Stuyvesant’s bigotry. It overruled him in the name of religious freedom. He buckled but fired off an angry letter: “Giving [the Jews] liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists.” Take in one set of miscreants, and the floodgates will never close.
Thus, the first pillar of American exceptionalism was born; dankjewel, Mijnheer (thank you, sir). Call it “equal-opportunity racism,” and a wondrous blessing it was for the Israelites. For once, they were not singled out as Christ killers and corrupters of the righteous. Here, they were suddenly the equals of at least some Christians, if only as targets of revulsion. For the Dutch Reformed Church, Lutherans were the real enemies. So were Catholics as the fifth column of the Pope. Quakers were also infra dig.
Indeed, all the way into the 20th century, “Papists,” especially Irish, were tainted with split loyalty; so the Jews had company. It wasn’t until 1960 that a Catholic, John Kennedy, could make it into the White House. Ironically, there was comfort to be found in bigotry, because it was inflicted all around. Jews were not the only outsiders. Irish hated Italians, and both despised Poles, while WASPs loathed everybody of different faith and origin. Mutual contempt was God-sent; suddenly, Jews had no particular “advantage” in the market of vilification. The Klan and the Know-Nothings were equal-opportunity racists, too, going after Blacks, Jews, and Catholics.
The second pillar was Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State,” which was duly enshrined in the First Amendment. For the Jews, it delivered a sturdy shelter. The state could not promote any religion. In the Old Country, though, Church and State had been one—a tight alliance of altar and throne. So the wrong belief could bring in the executioner. Jews were ghettoized, slain, or expelled. Judenrein was not just a 20th-century invention. Yet in the United States, the no-establishment clause was the foundational law. Every house of worship was on its own, and none was granted a state privilege. America was a free market for religions. Unable to compel, everybody had to compete. Like no other place on earth, the U.S. became the land of “supply-side religion,” which explains the limitless spread of denominations. Never before had Jews enjoyed so much safety and freedom.
The third pillar of exceptionalism is no less wondrous. No Christian-majority nation is as “Jewish” as the United States. Unlike Europe’s Christians, the Puritans returned to the Hebrew Bible, unearthing their faith’s roots in the Torah. “The God of Israel is among us,” orated John Winthrop when he and fellow Pilgrims set out on their ocean voyage on the Arbella in 1630. They were reenacting Israel’s battle against Pharaoh. Their flight was like the Exodus, and in the New World, they found the Promised Land 2.0, bequeathed to them under a covenant with the Almighty.
For Cotton Mather, the most important early American thinker, the Jews were God’s “beloved people.” Martin Luther had wanted to “set fire to the synagogues of the devil’s children.” For the Puritans, America was the home of “Christian Israel.” Jewish law entered into the early American corpus. Children were christened Abraham and Sarah. The Puritans would build a “Cittie uppon a Hill,” the New Jerusalem. America is dotted with biblical place names like Zion and, how apropos, New Canaan. Europe has no such towns. So savor this bizarre twist. America- and Jew-haters around the world are perversely right when they denounce the U.S. as a “Jewish” country.
Why worry, then, and mull aliyah to Israel? This rosy Jewish-American story has not ended, but the darker passages are multiplying. Let’s run the gamut from politics to culture.
American Jews, who voted 77 percent for Joe Biden, are nonetheless in the process of losing their political home of a hundred years, the Democratic Party. For their forefathers, FDR stood right next to Moses, while Republicans occupied an impenetrable WASP redoubt. “Redlining” was then used against both blacks and Jews.
The cracks became visible in 2008, the year of Barack Obama’s first victory. Even during the transition from his election to his presidency, Obama began to intimate that he was ready to turn away from Israel and tilt toward Iran, the country that has trumpeted the Jewish state’s obliteration since the Khomeinist revolution of 1979. They don’t mean it metaphorically.
Now, though Joe Biden and his Jewish secretary of state, Tony Blinken, are sympathetic to Israel, they are back on Obama’s road to Tehran. This isn’t even good realpolitik. It is not in America’s interest to legitimize a grasping theocracy that has been making a living off anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism while expanding via Iraq and Syria all the way to the Mediterranean. At the end of the road to propitiation lurks Iranian hegemony over the most critical strategic arena at the junction of Europe, Asia, and Africa. “It’s the elephant path of history,” Moshe Dayan once quipped.
And at home, Jews are rightly troubled. Among the most patriotic ethnicities in the Union, their emotional and political support for their Israeli kin now comes with a rising price. Haven’t Jews always been charged with “dual loyalty”? In the past, love of America and Israel were the same. Should Jews concerned with Israel’s condition and the embrace of anti-Semitic politicians in the “Squad” now bite their tongues or defect to a GOP still in thrall to Trumpism? The trap is yawning.
One of the most powerful men in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, is a sort of bellwether who shows how the winds are changing. Schumer was the member in Congress with the largest population of Jewish constituents in the country, but these days you hear no ringing pro-Israel oratory from him or his landsman colleague, Representative Jerry Nadler, in a party trickling into the anti-Israel camp. To the ancient charge of dual loyalty and misbegotten riches, add in our day Jewish “whiteness” in a party dominated by the Woke who depict Israel as a stronghold of colonialism and racism. What an irony! Historically tainted as an alien race, Jews are now fingered as members of the Supremacy. They are losing their home in FDR Land or looking at eviction if they don’t behave.
Black people make up a constituency far larger and even more committed to the Democratic Party than the Jews. The civil-rights alliance between the two ethnicities broke down long ago—think not Martin Luther King, but Louis Farrakhan. Now it’s open enmity toward Jews on the part of the activist avant-garde. “Intersectionality” makes for a bizarre syllogism. Jews are white (oppressors), Arabs are POCs (victims), and Israel-cum–American Jewry is the common enemy.
Another crumbling base is the university, a natural habitat of Jews in 20th-century America. In a post-agrarian economy, knowledge capital was attracting ever-higher demand and fetching ever-higher returns. So it was far easier for Jews to break down barriers in the thought industry than in Big Banking and business. Eventually, achievement trumped ancestry, and excellence beat embedded WASP social standing. With discrimination waning, the post–World War II dispensation was good for the Jews and good for the country, especially because it came with an extra bonus: thousands of brilliant Jewish thinkers and scientists escaping from Hitler, then from Stalin. Jews drove the rise of the postwar U.S. university. A nice set-up if you can keep it.
This Jewish Garden of Eden is now wilting, outside the hard sciences. Relentlessly spreading “critical race theory” and identity studies, “safe spaces” and “microaggression,” promote activism, not analytical acumen and dispassionate research. Nor does equity-as-equal-outcome favor equal opportunity, the very idea that made Jewish achievement in America possible, as it ought to be for Asian Americans now. Neither does it favor excellence springing from ambition, talent, and the free competition of ideas.
With their culture of learning, questioning, and gainsaying, Jews are taking a hit. In the Age of Woke, achievement is not praiseworthy but proof of privilege and injustice. This ideology is harming the American university. Sixteen of them still make the world’s top 20, but gifted Jews are absconding from academia. In the recent past, the proportion of Jewish students in the Ivy League has shrunk significantly.2 In my own field, political science (practically an American discipline), Jewish graduate-school applications are dwindling. Jews now find their careers elsewhere, from information technology to the investment industry.
Finally, there is the war within—with a growing number of Jewish voices in the anti-Zionist chorus. This is an old and not just American story. The more anti-Semitism, the more numerous the Jews moving outside the community. “Be nice to me,” they are saying; “I am not one of them.” This is “human, all too human,” to borrow from Nietzsche. As a bitter joke had it, über-German Jews in the Weimar Republic distributed posters screaming “Out With Us!” Please don’t hold us responsible for those bearded Jews piling in from the Pale.
Today, in the age of Critical Theory (a French import originally invented in Germany), it makes good sense to evade the charge of “Whiteness,” aka irremediable racism. It makes even better sense to be on the right side of the culture war when the class claiming cultural hegemony dominates the market: schools, universities, publishing houses, foundations, media, and the arts. Add Big Business and public bureaucracies. This is where income, writing contracts, and status are parceled out to certified bien pensants.
George W.’s dictum has been appropriated by the cultural left: “You are either with us or against us.” And so Jews must choose. Not so long ago, they did not have to, resting comfortably in a land where they could be both social-justice warriors and keepers of their ancient intellectual traditions. They could celebrate real diversity and defy prepackaged thinking. They could root for both America and the Jewish state. Then mayor of New York, Ed Koch scored a good laugh against a reporter waving the dual-loyalty flag, wisecracking: “If Israel ever attacks us, Jews will fight for America.” That comfort zone is shrinking, and laughter would be counterrevolutionary.
The German-Jewish thinker Gershom Scholem gave this melancholy answer many decades ago: “The love affair between Jews and Germans has basically remained one-sided.” Time to pawn the engagement ring in the U.S. as well? The correct answer remains no. For starters, we should not expect the three pillars of the American creed to crumble, as fearsome as the news from the culture war may be. We are talking 400 years as against 20. Culture and history do not change as quickly as cellphone generations. Ever since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, enforced Goodthink has regularly rolled over the country, and yet the creed had proved stronger. Its seeds were planted back in the 1600s when Peter Stuyvesant lost. So too the Know-Nothings and the KKK, Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin, the Jew-baiting Detroit radio priest.
Since the early 18th century, four Great Awakenings have swept America. They share with today’s Great Awokening foundational religious features. You are diehard sinners, and you must repent and make amends for your evil past—in the most recent case, colonialism, slavery, and “white supremacy.” Take a knee and go with the new gospel. This wave is in full swing, but waves do recede. So Jews and a myriad liberal cohorts might take a deep breath. Frenzy does consume itself. But as the song goes: “Don’t know where, don’t know when.”
Historical analogies prove nothing, but data may. It is true that the refurbished left is scaling the “commanding heights” of the culture, to borrow from Lenin, scooping up victories from the classroom to the board room. But the hoi polloi won’t take the brew of enforced enlightenment even after two decades of agitation. In that period, “total favorable opinion of Israel” actually rose from 62 to 72 percent. Is Israel an ally and/or friend? Up slightly from 60 to 62. U.S. support for Israel? Adding “about right” and “too little” yields between 60 and 77 percent. According to Gallup, the ratio of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian sympathizers remains roughly 2 to 1. How attached are you to Israel? Even two-thirds of younger Jews (18–40) affirm such a bond. In short, the love affair is not exactly one-sided, say these reassuring numbers.
The number of Jews seeking asylum on the other side of the lineup is growing, and the adversaries of the Jewish state have the stronger battalions among the so-called elite. All true, but continuity since 1654 is not nothing, especially given the long-term stability of opinion as reflected in the polls in spite of recurrent waves of anti-Semitism. Certainly, this trend contrasts sharply with Europe whence, by 1654, Jews had been expelled from England, Spain, and Germany. The Golden Age of German Jewry was over after a few decades, lasting from Bismarck to the Third Reich. The three pillars of Jew-friendly American exceptionalism were not built on sand, and they hold up the larger American creed across all faiths. What started out with a few Brazilian Jews in New Amsterdam has now expanded to more than 7 million Jews in America. Meanwhile, the Jewish population in Britain, France, and Germany is shrinking.
If it does “happen here,” to recall Sinclair Lewis, America will have to betray what it has become. Anti-Semitic tweets, inflammatory oratory, and BDS campaigns are not enough for a victorious “Plot Against America.” Do furrow your brow, but don’t pack your bags, as Jews in France are doing.
1 I first wrote about these three pillars in an article titled “Why It Won’t Happen Here,” in the American Interest in 2019.
2 For some numbers, see Shira Telushkin, “The Vanishing Ivy League Jew,” Tablet,
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