Even In a State of Ferment and Flux

January 1, 2001
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Dear President Bush,

The election was close – so close that, as of this writing nearly one month after Election Day, I still don’t know to whom I am addressing this letter. But it wasn’t much of a contest in the Jewish community; polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of American Jews supported the Gore-Lieberman ticket. This would appear to confirm some long- and widely held perceptions about the political proclivities and policy preferences of Jews in the United States.

Election results and conventional wisdom notwithstanding, American Jewry is not quite the monolith we are often portrayed as being. To be sure, there is an essential unity that binds all Jews together. And there is a clear consensus among American Jews on several issues of across-the-board political concern – most notably the importance of America reaffirming and strengthening its longstanding special relationship with Israel and the need to promote a domestic climate of tolerance and equal opportunity. Beyond those essential points, though, the Jewish community in the United States is in a state of ferment and flux, and it is important that you, as our next president, be sensitive to that reality.

Much of that ferment and flux emerges from a historical conundrum that lies at the heart of the contemporary American Jewish experience. Our parents and grandparents, for the most part, emigrated to this country in the early and mid-1900s, escaping the ghettos and pogroms and concentration camps of a genocidally hostile Europe. They came, yearning to breathe free and partake of the American dream. Yet they frequently encountered resistance, rebuffed in their efforts to live in certain neighborhoods, join certain country clubs, attend certain universities, find employment with certain firms.

Thus was established American Jewish Priority Number One: to find ways and means, through the operation of law and the influence of culture, to break down all barriers that prevented Jewish assimilation into the great American mainstream. Slowly but surely, those efforts succeeded. Anti-Semitism in this country has not disappeared entirely, but it has surely faded into the murky shadows. Jews have been accepted in virtually every nook and cranny of American society – even in the once unimaginable position of running for Vice President of the United States.

Jews in this country have done such a marvelous job of assimilating into the broader culture that they are in danger of fading into demographic oblivion. The time has come, therefore, to acknowledge and develop strategies to achieve a new Priority Number One: ensuring Jewish continuity.

Thus, where parents once rushed to enroll their children in non-denominational public and private schools to ensure that their sons and daughters would mingle with other children, be accepted by other children, and ultimately become largely indistinguishable from other children, now there is a growing groundswell of parents enrolling their children in Jewish schools. They want to ensure that their sons and daughters will mingle with other Jews, learn about their unique culture and history, and ultimately take pride in their religious identity.

The shifting sociological pendulum in the American Jewish community may prove to have profound implications in the areas of politics and public policy as well. As Jews increasingly acknowledge the importance of Jewish schools, they are more receptive to governmental policies designed to promote educational choice. As Jews increasingly explore their religious roots, they begin to modify their embrace of social liberalism. As Jews increasingly recognize the potential dark side of the American melting pot and the corrosive effect of a popular culture that unites Americans around our nation’s lowest common denominator, they start to wonder whether free speech is in fact incompatible with responsible regulation.

Senator Lieberman is a good example of the transitional thinking that is taking place in certain parts of the Jewish community. His support for school vouchers, his strong stance on issues of personal morality, his criticism of the violence and smut that dominate so much of the entertainment industry, his open embrace of and appeal for religious values in public life attest to an emerging trend within American Jewry that is beginning to make its mark on the national scene.

Tap into that trend, Mr. President. Seek out Jewish partners as you invite religious communities to help meet the needs of the needy through programs of “charitable choice.” Enlist Jewish support for policies that expand parental options in education. Solicit Jewish assistance in your efforts to elevate the level of American culture and public life.

In short, Mr. President, look beyond some of the old stereotypes of who we are and what we think. You may be in for a surprise.

David Zwiebel
Executive Vice President for Government and Public Affairs
Agudath Israel of America

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