Again Today, American Jews Face ‘Times That Try Our Souls’
I was taught in graduate school that the US was “the exceptional nation” by virtue of a stable, democratic political system, a dynamic economy offering expanded opportunity from one generation to the next, and a pluralist social order in which diverse minorities could breathe free of majority tyranny. Our original sins were dispossession of native peoples, enslavement, and racism. Yet America’s founding documents at least offered hope for a measure of healing and reconciliation.
The upheavals of the 1960s greatly shook this optimistic consensus view. Now, a more insidious force is at work: a gradual but seemingly unstoppable political and ideological polarization threatening, during the Trump era, to burst America’s “melting pot” wide open.
Nobody has of yet offered convincing, comprehensive explanations of this, but a number of factors have been identified: increasing inequality, declining mobility, interminable Mideast wars, the breakdown of the mechanisms that once “Americanized” new immigrants, the fragmenting effects of social media, and few worthy successors to “the greatest generation” of political leaders tested by the Depression and the Second World War. Of course, all these causes have interacted in 2020 with the triple shock of pandemic, recession, and racial unrest.
According to one poll prior to the presidential election, 44% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats said there was at least “a little” justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election. These percentages are frightening and unprecedented in modern times.
American Jews growing up after World War II were the beneficiaries of what seemed the best of times as barriers fell and opportunities beckoned. But that was then, and this is now — in 2019 the American Jewish community experienced the highest level of incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism since the ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. These attacks come from both the far-left and far-right, and our whirlwind may have already begun with right-wing attacks on temples in Pittsburgh and Poway, and left-wing assaults on neighborhoods in New Jersey, Monsey, and Brooklyn.
No wonder then that evidence is accumulating that worried American Jews — in small but increasing numbers — are considering not only aliyah to Israel, but relocating to Canada or obtaining EU passports from countries giving special consideration to the descendants of Holocaust survivors.
What should American Jews do, short of packing their suitcases, in this new century? As always, the first two prongs of Hillel’s three-pronged challenge come to mind. If we are not for ourselves — and are unable to overcome our internal differences — no one is going to save us. If we are for ourselves alone — and fail to reinforce old alliances and forge new ones in a fast-changing country — our isolation will result in irrelevance or worse.
The time is now to reject the counsels of cynicism, and the lures of extremisms of all sorts. Moderation may be unfashionable, but it takes courage; and after this election, it is more necessary than ever. Giving up hope means giving up on the future.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).