Jews pay the price of an American success in US

A Community of fate: The Diaspora; The gulf between the Orthodox and the secular grows ever wider, writes David Usborne
Click to follow
The Independent Online
New York - To a casual - and Gentile - observer it seemed impressive: 55,000 Jews marching up Fifth Avenue, giant flags bearing the Star of David held aloft, to mark the annual celebration of Israel Day. But to Jewish leaders it was desultory. Only a single float rolled by and the spectators were barely one-deep.

This was two weeks ago andthe weather was unseasonably chilly. But the uncharacteristically flat atmosphere of this year's parade suggested something more: an odd listlessness among America's Jewry, born of a paradoxical mix of, on the one hand, complacency and, on the other, a new sense of insecurity about being Jewish today in the United States.

If complacency is the culprit, finding the reasons is not hard. Three- and-a-half centuries after the first of their forefathers arrived in the New World - to meet the rabid anti-Semitism of the then Governor of New Amsterdam (later named New York), Peter Stuyvesant - Jews in America in the 1990s have achieved astonishing success and societal security.

Consider the superlatives. America still has the largest number of Jews of any country in the world - 5.8 million, compared with Israel's 4.6 million. It is the most wealthy and most educated of any Jewish community worldwide. And its contributions to American cultural, business and political life far outstrip its less than 3 per cent share of the whole population.

In their book, Jews and the New American Scene, Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab offer an astonishing catalogue of Jewish achievements in the US. Jews, they assert, account for: 26 per cent of reporters, editors and executives of the major print and broadcast media; 59 per cent of the writers, producers and directors of the 50 top-grossing films; 40 per cent of the top lawyers in New York and Washington; 13 per cent of American business executives under 40. They contend that between a quarter and a third of political contributions to the major parties are from Jews.

Meanwhile, those things that have unified Jews in the US, as elsewhere in the Diaspora - notably the commitment to Israel's right to exist and the battle against anti-Semitism - have arguably waned in urgency to the point of irrelevancy. Peace with its Arab neighbours is at least in sight now for Israel. And even though it may be that the ascendancy of Jews to so many positions of influence risks triggering a new anti-Semitic backlash, the case that Jews are held back in American society has become hard to argue.

Even in politics that is true. There are 40 Jews in Congress, while President Bill Clinton has named high-profile Jews to his cabinet and chosen Jews for both appointments he has made to the Supreme Court. Perhaps only the Presidency itself remains subliminally beyond reach for American Jews. The only ethnic Jew ever to have been nominated was Barry Goldwater in 1964 - and his grandfather had fled anyway into the Episcopalian Church.

So what ails American Jewry? Barry Shrage, the president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, puts his finger on it. "Anti-Semitism is gigantically less of a threat to Jewish people in America than assimilation is," he said last week. After striving for centuries to help their own fit in with the rest of the US, many Jewish leaders worry now that the process has been taken too far. It is time now for American Jews - those not among the 7 per cent who remain Orthodox - to learn how to be Jewish again.

So strong has been the tide of assimilation and secularism, that only a quarter of American Jews, according to recent studies, remain active in worship and observation of Jewish holidays and observances. Notes Mr Shrage: "This is the most successful, the most literate and the richest Jewish community in the history of the world. Ask most American Jews about Plato and about Shakespeare and they will be able to talk about them. But how many can name the five books of the Hebrew Bible? Very few."

In a recent essay in New York magazine, Philip Weiss lingers on the one statistic, produced five years ago by the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), that has most petrified the Jewish leadership. Whereas only about 8 per cent of American Jews married outside their religion before 1965, roughly half became spliced to non-Jews between 1985 to 1990. "How many Jews will be left if the trends I exemplify continue?" Mr Weiss asked. "Some have argued that the American Jewish community faces extinction in the next century."

Meanwhile as mainstream US Jewry forsakes tradition for modernity, so the gulf between it and conservative Jews, who are most visibly represented by the Hassidic communities in New York, only widens. Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish journal, Tikkun, warned recently of a "civil war" erupting between the two sides. The friction has been exacerbated by the exposure of a violent underbelly to the conservative community in New York that spawned Baruch Goldstein, the doctor who gunned down 29 Muslim men at prayer in a Hebron Mosque, and which cheered Yigal Amir, the Jewish assassin of Yitzhak Rabin.

"The Jewish civil war, fought between secularists, assimilationists, and worshippers of the competitive market, on the one hand, and ultra- nationalists and religious messianists on the other, is likely to grow more intense in the coming decades," Mr Lerner concluded.

But neither Mr Shrage nor Mr Lerner are fatalistic about the prospects for American Jews. Rather, they argue that the new circumstances they find themselves in, where they need no longer define themselves by their commitment to a free Israel or their stand against anti-Semitism, offers a chance for a rebirth of Jewish life and pride. Mr Lerner calls it "Jewish Renewal", a movement to harness Jewish religious teaching to promote new understanding between conservative and secular Jews and between Jews and non-Jews.

Mr Shrage believes that in a country where people are increasingly searching for some meaning to their lives, the tide towards Jewish secularism is already turning. "People are becoming uncomfortable with that. There is a grassroots movement to engage in Jewish learning and culture," he insists. "With all our learning and our culture, we should be able to develop a new, non-fundamental Judaism that can be deeply rooted in past history but also engaged in the modern world. That is the formidable challenge."