In which country, apart from Israel, are Jews the most popular religious denomination? You guessed it: the United States. This remarkable result of a survey carried out in 2006-2007 for , Robert Putnam’s magisterial study of contemporary religion in the United States, is reinforced by the Anti-Defamation League’s finding in 2009 that anti-Semitic attitudes among Americans had fallen to an all-time low. At a time when anti-Semitism has returned with a vengeance elsewhere, this vote of confidence in Jews by their fellow Americans is all the more striking. Yet American exceptionalism in this respect is as old as the republic itself. In 1784 the tiny Jewish community of New York offered thanks to God for political independence and religious liberty: “As Thou hast granted to these thirteen states of America everlasting freedom, so mayest Thou bring us forth once again from bondage into freedom.” Their prayer was answered: having abandoned Europe for fear of persecution or worse, Jews increased as a proportion of the American population to peak at 3.6 per cent in the 1940s. Numbers have been stable at five or six million since the 1960s. The experience of Jewish immigration left an indelible mark on American life and letters, but even after assimilation Jews have made an incomparable contribution to the public life, the economy and the culture of the United States, and to the survival of the State of Israel. As the dominant force in the Diaspora, American Jews deserve serious attention. In Europe they do not often receive it.
Hence this month’s Dialogue between two distinguished representatives: Ruth Wisse, Professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard, and Jack Wertheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The Dialogue was held at the offices of Jewish Ideas Daily, with the help of its editors, Neal Kozodoy and Margot Lurie. This excellent online magazine is yet another product of Kozodoy’s self-effacing journalistic genius. Along with his Library of Jewish Ideas, the Jewish Review of Books and Tablet (not to be confused with the British Catholic weekly of the same name), Jewish Ideas Daily is among many manifestations of new intellectual life in the American Jewish world — a world that has always been marked by intensity and enlightenment, both evident in our Dialogue.
That enlightenment would be impossible without the heat of vigorous debate, as often personal as ideological. For the past half century, the indispensable locus for American Jewish debate has been Commentary. Among Saul Bellow’s recently published letters there is one to Ruth Wisse in 1991, congratulating her on an article about anti-Semitism in Commentary. Bellow insists that he has no feud with Commentary, but belies this by denouncing its then editors for the capital crime of paying him no attention: Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozodoy “have decided that I don’t exist. They review Gore Vidal and they ignore me.” In point of fact, Podhoretz had famously denounced Vidal’s toxic cocktail of champagne socialism and anti-Semitism. However, Commentary had a claim to have discovered Bellow back in 1948. Bellow tells Wisse: “I think all the better of you for being so loyal to Commentary but I don’t believe you’ll ever bring it off — conciliation, I mean.” So the non-feud turns out to be irreconcilable. Bellow admits, “I do read the magazine still.” This rings true. Whatever else they do, American Jews read: voraciously, creatively, and sometimes more in righteous anger than in sorrow.
A much more consequential Jewish feud has been the one between liberals, the by no means silent majority, and their outnumbered but by no means outgunned neoconservative critics. Again, Ruth Wisse was among the first in the field with her Commentary articles that culminated in the feisty polemic If I Am Not For Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews (1992). Nearly two decades later Podhoretz returned to the fray with his equally explosive book Why are Jews Liberals? It is a question well worth puzzling over. Meanwhile, Jack Wertheimer has brought to the realms of religion, education, philanthropy, demography and many other issues the erudition of the historian and the skills of the pathologist. He has been courageous in diagnosing self-delusion, while pointing to strategies and habits of mind that will lead the patient to recovery.
On that recovery, it is safe to say, more depends than the future of American Jewry alone. Americans are not inclined to anti-Semitism, however much Vidal might accuse Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter of “doing more to arouse the essential anti-Semitism of the American people than anyone since Father Coughlin.” But elsewhere in the world anti-Semitism is indeed rampant. Ruth Wisse was surely right in Commentary last year to call on Jews and all “decent human beings”, in the name of “truth and justice and genuine liberalism”, to “reject vigorously the role of defendant at the bar of world opinion and to instigate political, diplomatic, moral, and intellectual countersuits on every front.” That forensic ferocity is a key part of Standpoint‘s mission, too.