American Jews After Pittsburgh: Where Do We Stand?
By Rabbi Arthur (Avraham Yizhak) Green
There is not much that all of us Jews seem to have in common. We are of the right and left, loving Bibi and despising Bibi, Orthodox and secular, committed to two-state and one-state solutions, and all the rest. So let me try this on for size. We are all (with the exception of the tiny Indian Jewish community) descended from people who lived for 1700 years as despised minorities in Christian and Islamic countries, both traditions built around the belief that ours was outmoded, inferior, and sometimes even demonic. We learned to live with our heads down, always ready for a blow to fall, often responding with understandable enmity.
We Jews in America, as well as in post-war Europe (especially Britain and France) dared to think that was over. We lived in essentially secularized societies, where neither ethnic origins nor religious faith was supposed to cause you pain. We learned to hold our heads high, proud of our many achievements. We in the United States knew this country had a terrible and unresolved racial problem, but we (mostly white-looking) Jews were told, from the ‘70’s on, that we were white after all, something previously denied by many. We were welcomed to live in previously restricted suburbs, break through Ivy League quotas, work in previously excluded “white-shoe” professions, and even to marry into Mayflower families. “It’s over,” we said to ourselves. “Serious anti-Semitism in America is a thing of the past.”
Yes, we knew there were a few kooks still out there. Old stereotypes die slowly in the backwoods, we told ourselves, but we didn’t take them seriously. But then came the deadly combination of Trump, Bannon, and the anonymity of social media posts – and BOOM! – here we are after Pittsburgh. A nice, safe Jewish neighborhood like Squirrel Hill. And suddenly all of us know that it could have happened in Flatbush, Scarsdale, West Orange, Brookline, Lower Merion, West Rogers Park, West LA, or any of a dozen other “safe” places.
At once, an ancestral voice, long repressed, pipes up within me. “How can you trust them?” it says. “Behind every goy lies an anti-semit,” said with just that Yiddish inflection. “How do you know what they’re really thinking?” After all, we’ve had Menahem Begin – and lots of his followers – whispering this in our ear for a long time, hoping it might stir us toward ‘aliyah. We desperately don’t want to believe it. “Some of our best friends,” after all – and, by now, not a few of our spouses and in-laws – are gentiles, people evincing not a shred of anti-Semitism. How do we help them understand this deep Jewish instinctual fear – trained by all those generations of bitter experience – that has been awakened within us?
For the not small percentage of Jews who are at least in part descended from 1930’s refugees, Holocaust survivors, or former Soviet Jewish communities, the reality is even clearer. “You foolish Amerikaner,” they say to descendants of c. 1900 immigrants like myself. “How could you not have known?” For them, the event in Pittsburgh recalls the face on that old small-town Czech-Jewish woman shopkeeper in The Shop on Main Street, in the moment when she realizes what’s happening and calls out the half-forgotten word: “Pogrom?”
Where do we go from here? It is clear to us that we do not want that terrified, xenophobic utterance from the back corner of our brains to dominate our lives. We have come too far for that. This was not a pogrom, after all, but the act of one man, his mind addled by filth spewed by others, but still just a single individual. In contrast to him, we have seen, and need to acknowledge, the many thousands of genuinely caring friends and neighbors, including political leaders, who have come out in what feels like genuine support and empathy.
Pittsburgh forces us to think hard about who we are within American society, and what sort of future we are seeking here. Let me say something very obvious, but hardly mentioned out loud any more: we are a minority group. Two percent of the American population, seeking to maintain a distinct identity, devoting tremendous energy and resources to warding off total assimilation, we hope to survive here in the long run as a distinctive sub-group. Despite our mostly white skin and our mostly high earnings and achievements, we are, like any minority, different, subject to being seen and treated as alien to mainstream America, misunderstood and stereotyped – yes, and occasionally even killed. Understanding that anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism is a disease that has infected Christianity (and even “post-Christian” circles) for many centuries and cannot disappear overnight, we also have a vital need to engage in positive dialogue with members of the majority religious culture here, as well as other minorities, especially Muslims.
A major factor in explaining the surprising success of sometimes hateful populist politics in the United States as well as Europe is the fear that white-skinned Christians of European descent, highly privileged until now, are about to become a minority. Hence the desperate fear of immigrants “overrunning” our countries, bringing with them alien values and cultural forms. Suddenly, so it seems, Jews, especially Jewish liberals, are being depicted as a vanguard of such an “invasion.” But here we are: committed by our Torah, as well as by our legacy of past oppression, to welcoming these “strangers.”
This is a decisive moment. It is time for us to speak up unambiguously for those values, indeed to decide where we stand in American society altogether. We are a highly successful minority, but a minority nonetheless. It is time for us to stand clearly for a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-gendered United States. We should want to be part of the emerging rainbow. We have no place among the builders of walls, among the threatened and fear-mongered white phalanxes that we have seen in Charlottesville and elsewhere. Shame on those Jews who do not understand this.
Like every other stripe in that emerging rainbow, we too have our own vital interests. Our need to survive means that we need to support an America that recognizes diversity in education and celebrates citizens, cultures, and languages of many sorts. We will not be told that we must oppose Israel’s right to exist in order to conform with the views of some other minority voices. We need to be aware of anti-Semitism on the left and in “progressive” circles, as well as on the right. We achieved much in this country as it became more of a background-blind meritocracy. We believe in, and should actively support, aid to presently disadvantaged and historically victimized groups, but we should not give up on ultimately seeking a merit-based standard of achievement.
In voluntarily identifying with the new minority-majority America, we should not see ourselves as turning our backs on the great majority of good white Christian Americans who did so much to create this great country and so many of whom welcomed us to these shores and today welcome others. On the contrary, our in-between status as a now privileged white-skinned group that chooses to identify with minorities should make us ideal bridge-builders between those two Americas. The values for which we so long have stood: ahavat ha-ger (“loving the stranger), tsedek (“justice”), and ?esed (“compassion”) should be the foundation-stones on which that bridge is constructed.
All of this must be seen, as must everything else in world affairs, as taking place in the shadow of the great environmental crisis that is soon to engulf our world, in significant part due to the moral and political failure of this country’s elites. In decades to come, I fear, there will be millions fleeing drowning and starvation. The way we act now, and the America we create, will set the tone for the way we respond to much that lies ahead.
Rabbi Arthur Green is Rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.