American Jews and the Defence of Western Civilisation
Two distinguished US academics, Ruth R. Wisse and Jack Wertheimer, discuss the need to rebuild Jewish life and stand up for Israel with the Editor of Standpoint, Daniel Johnson
Daniel Johnson: Jack, you recently talked about a bipolar model of American Judaism today: a small minority of very active, innovative, creative people, many of them young, are transforming the nature of Jewish life in America, but then a larger group are voting with their feet, not going to synagogue, not participating in the religious life of the community, while still considering themselves to be Jewish. Ruth, how do you see this, looking at it from an academic vantage point at Harvard?
Ruth R. Wisse: My own vantage point is to see things today in relation to the 1930s. I was born in east-central Europe in 1936. So my question is, “How does it stack up today compared to back then?” The American Jewish community seems to me, in every significant respect, much more dynamic, reliable, morally serious and politically effective than it was in the 1930s. I make the comparison because, immediately after the war, everyone believed that the situation of the Jews was bound to improve. By now, most thinking people realise that it might, in every significant way, be worse. The enemies ranged against the Jews are more powerful today in many respects than they were in the 1930s. In the 1930s there was still the idea of an alternative: the State of Israel would perhaps be created and provide a political alternative. Today the alternative is there so there isn’t that new frontier to hope for. Robert Wistrich, one of the world’s leading experts on anti-Semitism, thinks that anti-Semitism is a worse force today than it was back then.
So how does American Jewry today cope with its situation and the situation of the Jews worldwide compared to the 1930s? Back then it was largely an immigrant community, politically disorganised. I don’t think Jews had great experience with how they could work within a democratic framework. I look around today and I am astonished. You have AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], which is an extremely effective political organisation that has carved out a niche for itself by providing members of Congress with reliable information which they would find difficult to get otherwise. You have the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, an umbrella organisation which really does try to bring together the presidents of major Jewish organisations into a political framework that can be effective. You have groups which fight disinformation in the media: the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, HonestReporting. Now there’s a lot of disinformation and bias in the media, and here you have groups that are organised to fight it. You have a UN Watch in Geneva and a UN Watch here in New York. You have tremendous investigative reporting. There are public opinion writers, like Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol.
So I think one is incomparably better placed and better organised and more effective. The only thing is, even if all the Jews in America — every single one — were actively engaged in this type of work, on behalf of truth and on behalf of Israel, it might still not be enough.
Jack Wertheimer: I want to add one note to what Ruth has just said: when it comes to Israel, American Jews have the empathy of the American public. One of the reasons that these organisations have been so effective, and this is where I part company with those so paranoid about the so-called Israel lobby, is that the American people retain a great deal of sympathy for the State of Israel. We know this from survey research that is conducted regularly.
Ruth, your comments dealt very much with the posture, the positioning of the American Jewish community vis-à-vis the wider world, a very important theme and especially important in comparison to Jewish communities in Europe which feel far more besieged. But in the lines you quoted, Daniel, I was referring to internal Jewish cohesiveness and attachment: how well connected are Jews to some aspect of American Jewish life? Here, I want to reflect on a problem. You started talking, Ruth, about the 1930s, when some of the glaring weaknesses of American Jewish politics were revealed. But there were some important lessons American Jews learned from those weaknesses.
In the post-World War II period a remarkable infrastructure of Jewish organisations was created, and a sense of cohesiveness came into existence which might be called “the post-World War II consensus.” This was built on two fundamental pillars. One was an almost wall-to-wall consensus among American Jewish organisations — certainly their leaders — in support of Israel, making the case for Israel as a democracy surrounded by dictatorships, if not by countries that were sympathetic to communism. The other pillar was liberal politics, as understood then. In the post-war era, this primarily meant opposition to discrimination against any Americans. Whether that concern was based entirely on altruism on the part of Jews, or on a hard-headed understanding that Jewish life would be imperilled if discrimination against any American groups were permissible, is secondary to the fact that Jewish organisations were unified in their posture on equality and in opposition to discrimination.
In time, these two consensus positions have begun to erode. We have lost our consensus or even the will to forge consensus positions that would bring about a measure of cohesiveness. We have also lost the spirit of joining and an understanding that Jewish politics is about marshalling our forces to make the case for Jewish need. In part due to the post-war consensus and in large measure due to American mores of the time, joining or as sociologists call it “associationalism” became the norm. People joined synagogues and national membership organisations. Living according to the “American Way,” as President Eisenhower famously put it, meant joining a religious congregation. That sense of connection with an organised Jewish life is not disappearing, but it is eroding in our own time. Membership in national organizations is way down, as is synagogue affiliation.
To be sure, there are important parallels between Jewish patterns and what’s happening on the American scene in general. Ruth has a colleague at Harvard, Robert Putnam, who has famously written on this question, showing that the decline in social capital is not a uniquely Jewish challenge, but it’s certainly one that the American Jewish community must confront. I am struck by the gravitation of some to greater involvement, even as larger numbers are disengaging from Jewish life. We see this bipolar model at work when we measure religious connection, engagement with the State of Israel, involvement in Jewish study, and Jewish giving.
DJ: Liberalism is still a defining characteristic of modern Jewish life, but is there not a contradiction now between liberal politics and support for the State of Israel, a tension that wasn’t there before? And if Jack is right and some of this thick association and vigorous community life is weakening, then won’t that in the long run weaken the ability of Jews to defend themselves against anti-Semites, critics of Israel and so on?
RW: Whatever happens in America, happens in Jewish life. It’s the old Yiddish saying: Wie es sich christelt, so jüdelt es sich (as the Christians go, so go the Jews). American Jewish life is very influenced by what is happening in American life at large and that goes to your question of liberalism.
The period between 1945 — or shall we say 1948 — and 1973 I call the period of grace in Jewish life. One of the reasons being it was a time of muscular liberalism in the United States. One had just fought the war and one knew what the war had been fought over and for and there was a sense that evil in the world meant political evil. The worst forces, the most malevolent political forces, were ranged against the Jews — Jews as representatives of a kind of liberal democracy — and by extension against America. One had come away from this victorious. The fact that Israel could repel those Arab armies made everyone feel that everything was going to be fine in the Middle East and this was a period of rejoicing in the fact that the problems were now over.
I think that lasted until 1973. I’m reminded of it by the book Exodus [Leon Uris, 1958], which I occasionally teach as an example of a bestseller. A bestseller has to strike a chord with the general population; it cannot become a bestseller if it only appeals to one ethnic group. Exodus was an astonishing bestseller and it really satisfied the liberal craving of the American community and of the Jews within that community. If you remember the main plot, Kitty, who is as American as cherry pie and dislikes or feels uncomfortable with Jews as part of that Americanism, falls in love with two aspects of Jewish life simultaneously. One, with this refugee child, Karen, who is a refugee from the Holocaust, whom Kitty wants to adopt. And she falls in love with Ari Ben Canaan, who is a new kind of Jew. She keeps saying, “He is unlike any Jew I know,” and so on. He is strong, he is resourceful, he is masculine, he is attractive, he is Paul Newman.
JW: His name announces it too: Ben Canaan.
RW: Yes, Ben Canaan, which means the son of Canaan. So Uris put together something which is, I think, pretty profound. I don’t think the book is profound as a literary document, but one can return to it reliably as an idea of what that period was like. What happened subsequently is that the Arabs did not come to terms and what seemed to be a temporary war against the Jews became a permanent war against the Jews.
Permanent war is not something that liberals accept. The liberal imagination — now I’m talking about the soft-liberal imagination but perhaps the liberal imagination in general — thinks that all conflict is negotiable. It does not want to make allowances for conflicts that are non-negotiable, and since the Arabs cannot be dissuaded to be other than what they are, then one has to put the pressure on the Jews to yield. To yield because, from the liberal point of view, there has to be a solution, there has to be peace, there has to be a peace process. The pressure on Israel and on the Jews to put pressure on Israel has been growing from that time to this and that’s the main pressure one feels. And it’s why we see the division of which Jack speaks.
Part of the community, as a result of this, grows tougher. It knows it has to develop within itself the resources to withstand this because it becomes more and more serious from year to year. And by the way, I think the alignment between Israel and America stays the same throughout. So the problem of persuading Jews that there is a war out there in which you have to engage is the same problem that there is of convincing Americans there is a real war out there in which you have to engage. So these two things are one.
Here too, Jewish life, in this respect and in others, is going to depend very much on the strength of American liberalism. If American liberalism becomes muscular once again, and speaks in a voice of moral confidence, then you will have a much more confident American Jewry. Alas, if you find a defensiveness on the part of America, and a kind of Obama approach to have a weak America that he presumes is more attractive to others, to not impose ourselves, to not think that Western civilisation is any better than any other civilisation, then it will be very hard for Jews alone to withstand that kind of pressure.
JW: We ought to bear in mind not only the political dimension of liberalism, but also its cultural implications. A colleague about my age who describes herself as a liberal, recently lamented that for the first time in her life she felt that the prevailing culture was against the Jews in America. What she was referring to was not the type of things that you were describing, Ruth, but rather challenges to the very idea that Jews have a right to their own distinctive culture, let alone their own state.
On the question of intermarriage, for example, we see a rising cultural revulsion at Jewish insistence on endogamy as a means of assuring group survival for a small minority. In an era of cultural blending and the glorification of hybridity, it has become ever more difficult for Jews to assert the rightness of their wish to survive as a distinctive group, even as they eagerly participate in the larger society. Needless to say, such distinctiveness in no way infringes upon American patriotism; if anything, patriotism of all sorts is under assault, still another reason for some to reject Israel’s insistence on its own self-defence and the rightness of its cause. In some circles, Jews are questioned about their legitimacy as a group; and it has become fashionable to lump them together with all other whites. The challenges to Jewish distinctiveness are infiltrating the Jewish psyche.
As to the second part of your question about the long-term impact — and this is something that keeps me up at night — my concern is that the American Jewish community is not producing enough of those who are militant and have an understanding of the type of toughness that Ruth was talking about. The prevailing mode is to bow to current cultural fashions, even as those fashions are rapidly fading from the scene.
As an historian I can trace how Jews are often Johnny-come-latelys: just as they finally catch on to the latest fad, the next one has already begun. This was true of the Jewish Enlightenment — no sooner had Jews been bitten by that cultural bug, than Romanticism swept away rationalistic ideals. The Romantics did not value many of the views enlightened Jews were espousing. Ironically, many of the children of Jewish Enlightenment proponents despised Judaism for being cold and rationalistic, something their own parents projected on to Judaism in order to keep up with the times.
Similar generational battles are played out today, with many leaders who should know better leading the flight away from Jewish values to embrace vulgar and transient fashions.
RW: It is interesting that if America remains a religious country, which people feel, oddly, that it will do, then Jews will feel more able to relax and cultivate their Jewish distinctiveness. What one sees in the American temper is in fact the unwillingness to move in one direction only. Let me give the example of abortion. I met a Hungarian academic at a party. He said that he loved coming to America because this is such a morally serious country. I loved that phrase and I asked him where he meant by it. He said he saw that in the debate over abortion. In Hungary, he continued, abortion has been legal since 1953 and nobody ever talks about it. In America it remains a moral conflict and, in fact, there has been a major push-back of American thinking against the idea that abortion has to become ever more accessible and value-free. This is not a country which is going necessarily in the direction of multiculturalism, of anything goes. There is a kind of a push-back and to the extent that it is there, Jews will be able to take advantage of it. I don’t know what’s made me so optimistic today.
JW: Let me speak from the pessimistic side. The great irony is that the overwhelming majority of Jews feel so much more comfortable with failing secularism. They do not feel at all comfortable with more conservative forms of Christianity, even though in some important ways these groups are more accepting of and congruent with many Jewish positions. The disconnect is so stark.
RW: I’ll give you one example from this week. I find myself on a campus, and the Jewish organisation on campus, which is the dominant Jewish organisation on every campus, is Hillel. Hillel is a catch-all. The difficulty with Hillel is that it feels it has to go along the lines that you mentioned, Jack: Hillel has to be all things to all incoming students. Therefore, it cannot say, “This is what Judaism is, it cannot say, “This is our position on Israel,” it cannot say, “This is how we behave.” It doesn’t have one Jewish service: Hillel at Harvard has four or five concurrent services in order to suit everybody.
About ten years ago a Chabad rabbi came and set up a Chabad house at Harvard. Chabad is a movement which when I was growing up was more or less non-existent. One didn’t know what its role was. It felt ultra-Orthodox. Well, Chabad is the product of a very long process and I won’t go into what constitutes Chabad except to say how different the Chabad house is from the Hillel house. It is different in this respect: it is what it is. It celebrates Sabbath the way it celebrates Sabbath, it takes students to Israel the way it takes students to Israel. It does not change. It tells its students to be whatever they want, they can come on Friday night or not come, they can come on Saturday or not come, they can join them for one holiday or two holidays, the students don’t have to change. But it is what it is. It is such a bracing experience to be in that building. This week we had a dinner with 20-odd students and it was fantastic. They were all able to grapple with their doubts and convictions. This is something that doesn’t happen in that looseness of Hillel. Students coming to the university have an option that they didn’t have before.
JW: I would relate this to my previous discussion about the whole question of cultural liberalism because of the pervasiveness of relativism, the terror of being directive, of being coercive. I’ll give you one example. To speak in rabbinical seminaries about the commandment to be fruitful and multipy — what most rabbis consider the first commandment of the Bible — has become verboten. It is not to be spoken about because it will hurt the feelings of some. I’m not making a case for tactlessness but what is accomplished when rabbinical students are never told how much their own tradition values raising children? Some rabbinical students are not married, or have married late, and for whatever reason are childless. Should that make it impermissible to teach that Judaism values procreation?
By contrast, one of the strengths of Chabad is that their people talk about how Judaism can enrich your life, particularly your family life. You’re absolutely right, Ruth, that Chabad accepts people as they are, but at the same time they call a spade a spade in the sense of explaining what Jewish tradition does teach — and how following those teachings leads to a better life.
DJ: Some surveys seem to suggest that many American Jews, when asked to define the most important aspect of their Jewish identity, tend to say either Israel or the Holocaust. You mentioned, Ruth, that Israel was active, dynamic, and robust in being able to defend itself. The Holocaust, it seems, is the opposite: it is the image of the victim. How does this play out in contemporary Jewish culture? One of the things about Israel that seems to be changing is that so many Israelis are apologising almost for existing. That is clearly reflected in Europe, where some of the organisations that seem the most dedicated to fighting Israel and its interests include Jewish members. But here, is it different? The role of the Holocaust in education is obviously crucial, but has it been done well?
RW: We’ve both given this a lot of thought. My feeling is that it’s been a big mistake and a fatal one in many respects. Jews have always been in mourning. The word Khurban, which is the word for the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, is the same word Yiddish uses for the destruction of Jewry during the Holocaust. Jews are good at lamentation. Losing one third of one’s people absolutely required a commemorative coming to terms with grief. However, this was not the story that American Jewry or world Jewry should have chosen to tell the rest of the world, because in the 1940s Jews accomplished, I would say, arguably the greatest human miracle in history. Within the same decade as this tremendous humiliation of the Holocaust, Jews reclaimed their homeland after two millennia. How it was done was astonishing, the ingathering of exiles and all the rest of it.
So, if one were to erect a museum, let us say in Washington D.C., you could have people coming who don’t know anything about the Jews. You need to tell the story like the Passover story: we were slaves in the land of Egypt. You tell the Holocaust story in one-third of this exhibit and then you show how Jews came out of this and how Jews built their country and how strong this is. You show how American Jewry is so strong and how world Jewry united for the construction of the State of Israel and how Russian Jews who had been kept down finally were freed and helped to free themselves and so forth. You tell the story of a robust people.
Unfortunately, I think that the reason that Jews found the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, constructed under the aegis of Jimmy Carter, so compelling was because it is very Christological. In other words, it seems to suggest that there is something redemptive about the story of the Jews being massacred. This is so odd because I don’t think Jews ever felt that. Instead, Judaism believes that the law is your redemption. So if you’re asking about the Holocaust in particular, the story should be transformed to give a sense of a responsible people taking charge of its own fate.
JW: I would respectfully disagree with both assumptions in your question, Daniel. You’re absolutely correct that in the past, meaning from the Sixties through perhaps to some time in the Nineties, two key Jewish educational emphases were the Holocaust and Israel. But that is yesterday’s news. I have no doubt that if you asked American Jews today what they would regard as central features of their Jewish identity the answer would be quite different. Instead, you would hear some variation on what comes under the rubric of tikkun olam — repairing the world.
It’s not that people don’t read about the Holocaust or Israel, but neither of these retains its prior centrality. The Holocaust is far removed from American realities, as is for that matter Israel and its unique blend of challenges and opportunities.
My own view is that the emphasis upon saving the world stems from the bankruptcy of American Jewish life. There is no strong message about belief or Jewish imperatives. Ruth made reference to the law being central. Who talks about the law any more, let alone God? So redemption now comes from activities to save the world. And this, I hasten to add, can be seen across the denominational spectrum. There are Orthodox rabbis who tout tikkun olam as the highest priority. In a study that I conducted, one young Reform rabbi stated: “I don’t care whether you keep the Sabbath, I don’t care whether you keep the dietary laws, I don’t care whether you inter-marry, but if you do not engage in tikkun olam then you are a bad Jew.”
That says it all. I’m not averse to Jews being concerned about their neighbours, let alone the downtrodden of the world. But I don’t think that’s where the battle for Jewish hearts and minds lies, for the simple reason that Jews have a long history of engaging in such causes, and giving generously to non-sectarian efforts. Research on American Jews has shown for decades that across the spectrum Jews give more money to causes outside the Jewish community than inside. It’s the proportions that I’m concerned about, and the proportions are diverting more and more away from concern about Jewish life.
DJ: I was wondering about “inreach”. Isn’t this one of your phrases, as opposed to outreach?
JW: Yes. Inreach and outreach have different connotations. Where should Jewish resources be invested? Should we try to run after every single Jew who may or may not be interested in Jewish life? Or should we try to build as strong a core as possible because that core will serve as a magnet drawing more people into Jewish life? In my previous remarks, I was raising the question of how to balance concern with needs outside the Jewish community with internal Jewish causes. I’ve met Jews who’ve told me, “My Jewish contribution is that I clean up the lakes and rivers of America.” Now I have nothing against environmentalism. Jewish texts and Jewish understanding make clear the responsibility that God has given human beings to be custodians of this world. But that’s very different from saying, “Environmental consciousness is all I must contribute in order to be a good Jew.”
One other point: I don’t pretend to be an authority on Israeli life, but from everything that I have read there is a consensus in Israel, and the consensus is not defensive. Unfortunately some of the most vocal Israelis, those who draw the most attention, break with the consensus. So readers abroad will trot out articles that appear in Ha’aretz, which grandiosely presents itself as the Israeli New York Times to draw conclusion about what Israelis think. Ha’aretz has a minuscule circulation; it’s success stems from its attractiveness to academics and from its editors’ foresight in producing a very fine English language website. People assume that radical positions espoused in its op-ed pieces reflect Israeli thinking. Fortunately, the Israeli public is more balanced and also more realistic in its views. So, no, I don’t think Israelis are defensive. There was a consensus in Israel — a strong consensus — about the Gaza incursion and if Hamas continues with its mischief, there again will be consensus on stopping the rockets and mortars fired from Gaza, a level of bellicosity no country in the world would tolerate.
RW: What you were saying before brings us to a sore point and that is the question of conversion. I’m writing a book about Jewish humour and most of that humour emerges at the end of the 19th century and then in the 20th century. In the European context a lot of it had to do with conversion — the way in which Jews are tempted for a variety of reasons to stop being Jewish and to become something else. Within liberal democracy, as open and welcoming as America is, conversion is not necessary. You don’t have to convert to Christianity. In fact, many people want to marry Jews and they remain whatever they are — sometimes they even convert to Judaism.
But I think that the alternative religion is liberalism. Liberalism now functions as a de-Judaised universalism because Judaism allows you to be a Jew nationally, even if you’re not religiously, or religiously if you’re not nationally. In other words you can say I’m a Jew, I’m a perfectly wonderful Jew, without really being either part of the Jewish people or without practising Judaism in any way — and particularly without living with the negative part of the Commandments.
But for me, Judaism’s strength is its saying no to idolatry. It realises that the containment of evil must occupy at least half of your efforts if you don’t want to descend to an animalistic state. That part of Jewishness is anathema to many people — they would like to maximise the good, “repair the world” and all that. But dealing with evil is what they want to escape from.
So, interestingly enough, I find increasingly that the enemies of Judaism to some extent do come very genuinely from within. People who have no Jewish education particularly and in many cases very tenuous Jewish ties, what they take away from it is this idea: let’s universalise Judaism, let’s do it through ecology or do it through neighbourliness, let’s do it through helping in Rwanda or through Aids research, and genuinely translate their Jewishness into that much less painful form. That begins to erode — what always worries me the most — the moral confidence of a people. The erosion of moral confidence is even more worrisome than the erosion of Jewish institutions, though obviously the two are connected.
JW: On not accepting no for an answer: a prominent American rabbi related to me that Jews he deals with have no concept of limits. When he says, “No, you can’t do that; Jewish law or custom forbids it,” his people are dumbfounded. They have been taught to believe that the purpose of religion is to be therapeutic and accepting: all options are on the table and the role of religion is to help people feel good about themselves. I believe religion does play such a role but Judaism does have “do’s and don’t’s.” This may seem alien to many Jews, but it is central to the Jewish religion. The moral relativism I am describing is also very much part of European societies, not unique to American society. The interesting question is where that relativism stops. Which issues are beyond the pale and which are deemed open to negotiation in Western cultures?
RW: This is why it can sometimes be very confusing. What is rather surprising is that if one started to list all the cultural manifestations of Judaism in America today, you would really be overwhelmed. For example, the presence of Jewish Studies at the various universities, and now websites: Jewish Ideas Daily, Tablet, the Jewish Lives book series and the Next book series, and magazines. It is tremendously rich. But if you look at some of these manifestations of culture — the books that the Jewish Book Council touts, for example — you cannot find the Jewish substance in much of it. The people who are running these cultural institutions have a tremendous investment in Judaism, not lite, but what’s the opposite of lite Judaism?
RW: Serious, right. However, because they want to sell their product, because numbers count, because exposure matters, they find themselves having to add all this other material. It becomes, really, lighter and lighter as it moves into the body politic and into the cultural atmosphere.
JW: So what you’re talking about here is the consumerism which has affected religious life in general in America.
JW: And there are some positive sides of that, in the sense of attunement to what resonates with people. I value that. Let’s not just go through the motions, but let’s try to find something that’s meaningful to people. But at other points things get reduced to the lowest common denominator. Without naming names, a friend of mine, a rabbi of a congregation, speaks about how the latest incarnation of the prayer book is one that offends nobody. Well, if you offend nobody then maybe you’re not saying anything. You know, anyone can feel comfortable there.
DJ: Is there a problem that it’s very much part of the Jewish tradition, as you say, Ruth, to help oppressed minorities, non-Jews, Black Americans, the Civil Rights struggle? Jews played a very important part in all that. Now, we seem to be seeing something rather strange. I’m thinking of the debate over the Ground Zero mosque. Many liberal Jews seem to be identifying with Muslims, claiming that they are now the victims of Islamophobia and we have to stand up for them and defend them, completely ignoring the fact that there is a global jihad going on. Wherever they are in the world, Jews are under attack. Yet here in the United States and in England, there is an enormous identification with the enemy, as it were. I’m not suggesting for a second that all Muslims are enemies but there is something strange about this. Do you think it has something to do with the inability to have a clear sense of right and wrong, or good and evil?
RW: Kenneth Levin, who is a psychoanalyst, applies the battered child syndrome to the battered Jewish people. No other nation has served so faithfully as a no-fail target. Anti-Semitism, as I try to point out repeatedly, is not discrimination and it’s not prejudice. It should be distinguished from these two things. There isn’t much prejudice against Jews in America, and there isn’t really a tremendous amount of discrimination against them any more. And I’ll take discrimination any day. Fine, so there’s discrimination, so I’ll build my own golf club or university.
By contrast, anti-Semitism is the organisation of politics against the Jews and it is undeniably the most successful political ideology of modern times. It is huge and it has become more intense as a result of technological investment in its prosecution. It’s much more widespread today and its major tribune is the United Nations. There’s no other people that comes under attack to that degree, so part of the impulse to get out of harm’s way is also magnified among many Jews. Other people can stop being what they are: if you don’t feel very Italian you don’t have to become anti-Italian. But if you suddenly feel yourself being assaulted as a Jew, you want to find your fellow Jews responsible for the aggression against them.
I find it extremely troubling, but it goes back hundreds of years in Europe and to the beginnings of Jewish time: holding your fellow Jews responsible for the aggression against them. You say, “Oh it’s because you speak with an accent. If only you spoke English properly, no one would be against us, or, “If only you learnt the language of the land.” If you stop being capitalist, Marx told us, if you stop being “middle men”, then they will stop being against the Jews. So in every generation there’s a new way of finding a way of holding oneself responsible. This too is a wonderful liberal trick because if I could find myself responsible for the hatred against me then I’d have solved my problem. All I’d have to do is change or I have to make my fellow Jew change. So if I say, “If they only withdrew from the West Bank,” I have resolved the problem.
Jews have a tremendous investment in finding their fellow Jews responsible for this aggression rather than the frightening aspect of saying, as a Jew I really have to wait for the entire Arab world to reform itself, to become self-accountable, to start developing liberal democracies which really blame themselves or try to find problems with themselves instead of scapegoating. This will never happen. So do I have to live with this pessimistic view of politics all my life? It is asking a lot of people and that’s one of the reasons you see this erosion and you just want to feel that if only we get together with a couple of Muslims and a couple of Jews this is going to begin to blossom into a worldwide universal peace initiative. And you do find Jews cultivating initiatives, problem-solving, conflict resolution and so forth. It’s all part of this same desire, which Jack is right about: ultimately it is a very healthy impulse in itself. It’s only wrong because of the context within which it exists.
JW: On the specific case of the mosque, many Jews were responding as a religious minority with memories of their own victimization. They assumed the mosque confrontation was about religious liberty and discrimination, even though opponents of the mosque generally argued for its relocation, rather than for a ban on the construction of all mosques. The reflex of many American Jews was to recall their own history, which includes prohibitions on the construction of synagogues, period. That’s what Jews identified with, even though it was not the issue under discussion.
DJ: You both mentioned how you’ve reversed roles: Ruth is usually the pessimistic one and Jack the optimist. But can we reach some kind of consensus? Is the story of American Jewish life today a cause for optimism or pessimism for us in Europe?
JW: It’s both. On the pessimistic side are demographic losses. I see a shrinking American Jewish community due to late marriages, low fertility rates and assimilation. But the Jewish community in America can lose half its population and still be the largest outside Israel. We need to do everything possible to prevent such a calamitous development for various reasons. Much will depend on the core of committed Jews, and the way that core can mobilise and energise others. I am heartened by the many sub-populations, among young people particularly, who, thanks to the kind of education they’ve received and the very good values they have absorbed, care deeply about Jewish life. They offer the hope that American Jewish life will be rebuilt on a strong foundation.
RW: America gives Jews the best chance we ever had, and having the State of Israel come into being when there’s a strong America is unbelievably important. I don’t think there’s another point in history where one could have found such an alignment that should make us feel more confident. At the same time, it seems to me that because of the intensity of hostility against the Jews in particular, Jews are the fighting front line of Western civilisation.