Who is Making American Jews Disappear?
Fears often mask wishes, just as wishes can mask fears.
This ironic psychic process is in full bloom in recent
punditry about "the future of the Jews." The fear, vexing
such politically diverse Jewish writers as Elliot Abrams
(Faith or Fear) and Alan Dershowitz (The Vanishing
American Jew) is that America's Jews are assimilating
in such large numbers and to such a great degree as to
jeopardize the future viability of the American Jewish
community. The wish their fears mask is that Jews who
are becoming assimilated shape up or ship out so to speak
-- mend their ways or stop insisting on a Jewish identity
they won't back with deeds of commitment.
The facts behind the fears are plain for all to see.
The masses of America's Jews, third and fourth generation
descendants of immigrants have embraced the American
dream of social equality, democracy, individualism and
the pursuit of private happiness too passionately. This
embrace of the American value system has resulted in
widespread interfaith marriage, a decline in synagogue
affiliation, a general disinterest in Jewish religious
education and related process of disaffiliation with
the formal institutions of the Jewish community. The
conclusion that the vast and growing numbers of unaffiliated
Jews are doomed to cultural extinction is by no means
Throughout the United States there are tens of thousands
of interfaith families whose Jewish partners have attracted
their spouses and children to a wide variety of Jewish
social and religious participation. Approximately forty
percent of such families worship in synagogues on the
High Holidays. Many have sought inclusion in the Jewish
community only to be turned away by acts of insensitivity.
Current concerns about "the Jewish future" are an ironic
recasting of the "Jewish Question" born of modernity
in the late eighteenth century. "The Jewish Question,"
generally posed by genteel anti-Semites, worried about
the unity of the body politic. How was the Jew -- the
eternal outsider of Christendom, the believer in chosenness
by God -- to fit into an egalitarian society. By contrast,
the present-day "Jewish Question" is posed by Jews anxious
about their own collective future. How can a population
of Jews who have fully integrated into modern American
society, they ponder, sustain Judaism and Jewish community.
The fear animating the contemporary "Jewish Question"
was perhaps best exemplified by the cover of a recent
issue of New York magazine: it depicts the Star-of-David
built of sand, that is seriously eroding, one end being
wind-blown or tide-washed away as a child's sand castle
at the end of a summer's day.
"The Jewish Question" of the Enlightenment era masked
(just barely) a desire to exclude Jews from civil society
(i.e. liberty, equality, fraternity). The anti-Jewish
fear was that the "foreignness " of Jews would destroy
the harmony of an otherwise homogeneous society. Oddly,
the contemporary variant of the "Jewish Question" also
masks (just barely) the desire to exclude from an otherwise
religiously monolithic community those Jews whose ideas
about religion (e.g. atheists), family life (e.g. those
in interfaith marriages or homosexual relationships),
culture and the role of the State of Israel differ sharply
from those held by rabbis and other communal leaders
of the Jewish "establishment."
Anxious about the future of some mythical collective,
self-chosen guardians of the faith insist that only
those Jews will "survive" -- an amazing word about Jews
in the twentieth century -- who adhere to creeds and
practices rooted in the Torah, or at least devote themselves
to a lifetime of study thereof. What makes this seemingly
objective forecast of the Jewish future borderline anti-Semitic
is that it would negate the legitimacy of individual
Jews defining their private and collective destiny in
the light of their own reason and life experiences.
If defenders of Jewish "continuity" insist that Jews
who do not pray to God cannot be Jewish, are they any
less anti-Semitic than Baptist leaders who claims God
doesn't hear the prayers of Jews? If defenders of Jewish
"continuity" insist that charitable funds be withheld
from Jewish communal agencies that provide non-denominational
recreational services that include large numbers of
Jews who are married to Christians, are they any less
anti-Semitic than the leaders of all white country clubs
of yesteryear who excluded Jews ? These Jewish continuity
enthusiasts convey a profound disdain for the masses
of America's Jews who differ from norms, values and
ideals espoused by an idealistic minority.
To protect the Jewish future, argue the pundits, the
community must teach as well as discipline its young
men and women to avoid interfaith marriage at all costs;
teach as well as discipline its young women to bear
more babies; teach as well as discipline its children
to avoid all social contact (other than the economic
and political) with non-Jews; and teach as well as discipline
its families to ever greater piety and communal responsibility
expressed through affiliation and philanthropy.
Disregarding the obvious fact that such a prescription
for "Jewish continuity" will be acceptable to only a
minority of Jews, and would be disastrous for the masses
of American Jews if it were adopted, some of its champions
have gone so far as to sign a petition (circulated by
the American Jewish Committee) that would, in effect,
progressively read out of the community those who will
not be subject to collective discipline.
Why those who most loudly purport to be concerned
about the Jewish future are so ready to lead out of
the community the millions of Jews who do not belong
to synagogues, do not send their children to Hebrew
schools, and who do not restrict their marriage choice
to fellow Jews or members of the opposite sex is at
least puzzling. Perhaps, the answer to the puzzle is
that, at its root, the contemporary "Jewish Question"
as its precursor is really asking: who is making these