Making Our Story Matter

by Avi Herring

In a recent course I attended at NYU Wagner’s School of Public Service, we were each asked to prepare a pitch to a hypothetical potential employer, where we explained what inspired us to pursue a career in public service. I briefly explained how I was passionate in helping re-imagine a vibrant American Jewish future and how I hoped to devote my life to achieving it. In his response to my pitch, the teacher asked a question I was not expecting. “You spoke clearly and seem to be very passionate,” he said, “but there’s something I don’t understand: what’s the problem you are trying to address?” He was asking, in a somewhat cryptic way, why a group of mostly upper middle-class, fully integrated, citizens merited attention like Malaria-ridden countries in Africa or the inner-city school system in the United States.

My first reaction was to spout what I learned while touring the gas chambers of Auschwitz. “Barely 60 years after the Holocaust, the event that gave birth to the word ‘genocide’,” I wanted to say, “you have the gall to ask me why I should devote my time to strengthening the Jewish community?”

While I fundamentally disagree with the previous line of reasoning, it was the first thought to enter my mind. The reason it did, I suspect, is that depicting one’s group as the “victim-under-constant duress” is both a powerful identity builder for one’s group and an effective argument against outsiders who question the group’s legitimacy.

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The story a group tells about itself is one of the fundamental building blocks of group identity. Indeed, our current place in the Jewish calendar, between Purim and Passover, illustrates two of the most powerful narratives in Jewish history. When we read the Megillah, we recall a time when vicious Jew-hatred almost destroyed a vibrant Diaspora Jewish community. In contrast, the Passover story is one of freedom and self- determination. At the Passover Seder we spend little time recalling our suffering and much more celebrating our own freedom – debating, discussing and engaging as only free people can do. In a sense, Purim is the Jewish “fear narrative,” based on a negative, foreboding feeling of vulnerability, while Passover is the “empowerment narrative,” a positive, forward-looking vision for what Jewish freedom can look like.

These two holidays, and their two respective narratives, represent where we have been, and where we should be going, as an American Jewish community.

During the second half of the 20th century, the Jewish people had a powerful fear narrative that was entirely appropriate for its time. As the narrative goes, millennia of anti-Judaism, and then a shorter period of anti-Semitism, culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust, which compels every Jew to say “never again.” As a result, Jews must support the State of Israel against its enemies, remain vigilant against anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world, and more recently, guard against assimilation and intermarriage among American Jews. Iterations of this fear narrative, adapted to Israeli and American Jewish audiences, were effective at mobilizing Jews to respond, at least philanthropically, to support the Jewish collective.

While effective several decades ago, the fear narrative simply does not match most American Jews’ understanding of their own situations today. As Charles Silberman wrote a generation ago in his classic book, A Certain People, the social anti-Semitism that once existed in America has almost completely disappeared. Jews have ascended to the highest positions in political and professional careers, join the most exclusive country clubs, and are one of the highest-performing economic groups in the United States. While many Jews have still experienced an anti-Semitic incident, anti-Semitism in no way dominates their lives. Additionally, an exclusive focus on the fear of intermarriage and assimilation obscures the vibrancy and creativity that also abound in American Jewish life.

At the same time, though Israel is still under threat and recent upheaval in the Middle East certainly presents serious challenges, it is a regional economic and military superpower that bears little resemblance to its precarious position in the 1950s.

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There have been two main responses to the decreasing salience of the fear narrative among American Jews. The first – best exemplified by traditional Jewish defense organizations and the current right-wing Israeli government – has been to ratchet up the fear narrative in an effort to persuade American Jews of its relevance. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, on a number of occasions, likened Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler and compared the international community’s failure to impose harsher sanctions on Iran to Neville Chamberlain’s abandonment of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Even more recently, this Purim around one hundred people gathered at the United Nations to read the Megillah in public, comparing Ahmadinejad to Haman the Agagite.

At home in America, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2009 survey on anti-Semitism found that 12% of Americans hold views of Jews that are “unquestionably anti- Semitic,” the lowest such percentage ever recorded. Even among those classified as anti- Semitic, the very questions used to measure anti-Semitism have debatable validity. For example, are Americans who believe Jews have too much power necessarily anti-Semitic, or do they simply believe that the over-representation of Jews in positions of power is detrimental to building an inclusive and democratic society? The larger point is that many powerful individuals and organizations in the Jewish community continue propagating the same fear narrative even though the situation on the ground has changed and many American Jews find that narrative much less salient.

The other response – and it is here I see much greater promise – is to rediscover different versions of the empowerment narrative, the most famous of which we will soon celebrate at our Passover Seders. The two main narratives that have emerged from the empowerment framework reflect the inherent tension in Jewish life, as Andrew Silow-Caroll recently wrote in eJewish Philanthropy, between the particularistic and universal. On the particularistic side, Jewish thinkers have attempted to breathe new life into the concept of Jewish peoplehood, which was assumed throughout much of Jewish history but was not a raison d’etre of the Jewish community until recently. The general idea, in broad terms, proposes that Jewish collective association throughout history has produced remarkably meaningful and creative understandings of human life, and Jews today should continue that tradition of richness and creativity.

On the more universal side, the narrative of “tikkun olam” suggests that the prophetic voice in Judaism compels Jews to right the world’s wrongs, including those that are outside the Jewish community. Finally, there are also attempts to combine the particularistic and universal. For example, the American Jewish World Service and Hazon focus on international development and food justice, respectively, but they do so with a major focus on intensive Jewish learning and Jewish collective action.

The question remains as to whether these narratives, which are positive and somewhat more complicated than the fear narrative, can be effective builders of Jewish collective identity. In attempting to rediscover and reinvent positive Jewish narratives of empowerment, two points are clear to me. First, unlike the fear narrative which dominated the Jewish communal agenda in the latter half of the 20th century, the 21st century will not see one Jewish narrative, but many.

Second, attempts to re-imagine the Jewish narrative will be much more successful than attempts to exaggerate the fear narrative. While remaining aware of the potential for anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, we must also candidly acknowledge that fear, while a powerful identity builder in the short term, will not lead to sustainable expressions of Jewish identity in this century.

Avi Herring is a student in NYU graduate dual-degree program between the Wagner School of Public Service and the Skirball Department of Jewish Studies.