In the last decades of the 20th century, American Jews were preoccupied with the question of “who is a Jew?” In some way, this had to do with the growing fissure between Jewish identity in America and Orthodox definitions of Jewishness in Israel. We must remember that Judaism is not an official religion in Israel; Orthodox Judaism is. There is another question, however, that is as least as important: “What is a Jew?” This question is largely the result of two interrelated phenomena: first, that religion is no longer the defining factor of American Jewish identity, and second, that America Jewry has no constructive and vibrant Jewish secularism to substitute for the diminishing influence of religion. Although the term “secular” is a hotly debated issue today, I use it here in a very limited sense. I refer to a theory of Jewish collectivity and identity in the Diaspora that is not founded on a strict formulation of ethnicity, a canon of beliefs, or a set of fixed rituals that express those beliefs. Rather, I employ the term to mean a set of cross-cultural behaviors that cultivate a distinct cultural identity that views itself as an active contributor to a multi-ethnic society.
There are, however, three dogmas of contemporary American Judaism that seem to continue to define “what is a Jew?” These merit consideration: (1) pro-Israelism (as distinct from Zionism); (2) the uniqueness of the Holocaust (as distinct from Holocaust memorialization); and (3) the war against intermarriage. In terms of pro-Israelism, the writer and former editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, citing American Jewish sociologist Nathan Glazer, notes that after 1967, “Israel became the religion of the American Jews.”1 Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, referring to the “commitment to Israel” in America, sarcastically defined it as “the new Jewish mitzvah.” In terms of the uniqueness of the Holocust, the writer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel notes that anyone who compares the Jews’ suffering in the Holocaust to any other form of human suffering — that is, questions the uniqueness of the Holocaust — is “doing a total disservice to Jewish history.”2 Historian Deborah Lipstadt goes further in her Denying the Holocaust to suggest that any “immoral equivalencies” (that is, comparing the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust to any other human suffering) constitutes a form of Holocaust denial.3 Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg takes a different tack by sacralizing the argument to say that denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust constitutes ‘blasphemy.’4 Responding to the uniqueness craze, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, borrowing from sociologist John Cuddihy, called it “a distasteful secular version of chosenness.”5 Regarding intermarriage, some American Jews have described it as a “silent Holocaust” (though comparisons are supposed to be forbidden). On this point, philanthropist Edgar Bronfman recently remarked, “Fear of assimilation and intermarriage [in America] should not replace fear of anti-Semitism.”6
My purpose here is not to question the importance of Zionism, Holocaust memory, or the fight against intermarriage as markers of American Jewish identity. Rather, it is to suggest that particular articulations of these ideas and one’s allegiance to them are too often pre-requisites for membership in good standing in institutional Judaism in America. I write “pro-Israelism” and not Zionism because Zionism is a much more complex multivalent idea than pro-Israelism, which usually amounts simply to the reflexive support of the Jewish state (e.g., J Street is sometimes accused of not being “pro-Israel” because it criticizes Israeli policies). The most recent example of this is the reaction to the Goldstone Report, which sharply criticized Israel’s actions during the 2008–2009 war in the Gaza Strip. An American Jew who takes the Goldstone Report seriously and is concerned by its findings, is considered by some to be a traitor to his people. On January 31, 2010, Alan Dershowitz literally called Justice Richard Goldstone a “traitor to his people and… an evil, evil man.”7 And President Obama’s use of the locution “on the other hand” as a transitional clause between mention of the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering in his Cairo speech was harshly criticized by the American Jewish establishment as “moral equivalency,” an accusation that transgresses the doctrine of the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
What is so troubling is that these three anchors of secular Jewish identity in America have become concretized in dogmatic ways, such that it is arguably no longer sufficient to be a Zionist, believe in and support Holocaust memorialization, and suggest we re-think our attitude toward intermarriage and the gentile members of our Jewish community. Our Zionism has to be defined with a political allegiance; our Holocaust support must include the claim of uniqueness; and intermarriage has to be considered a grave problem. In my mind, this is partly because there is no vibrant, constructive Jewish secularism for Jews to be proud of in America.
Without religion as the center of Jewish identity, Jewishness in America is largely defined either negatively (Holocaust/antisemitism), defensively (pro-Israel), or fearfully (intermarriage). A passionate secularism would enable Jews for whom religion is not a viable option to utilize constructive tools of positive engagement with the world around them as Jews. This may include a revival of the many forms of cultural Zionism that have been mostly eclipsed in America by the muscular pro-Israelism. A new diasporic cultural Zionism, for example, would acknowledge the importance of the State of Israel, but its focus would not be defensive and it would not be founded on Israel as a refuge from antisemitism. Rather, it would affirm and celebrate the Diaspora as a healthy place for vibrant Jewish collective existence. This stance is beginning to emerge on the margins, in the arts, in independent minyanim and centers of spirituality, in social action organizations, and even in the political arena; it is still, though, largely outside the framework of major Jewish institutions. While there are Jews — some young and some veterans of the counterculture who now hold prominent positions in the Jewish community — who have abandoned this “negative trinity” of Holocaust/Israel/intermarriage, the motivations of fear and trepidation run deep in the American Jewish psyche, and much of Jewish self-definition is still founded in some sense on “religion.”
Look at the three anchors I mentioned. The first is a political allegiance to a country we don’t live in; the second is an argument (uniqueness) about an event that affects all of us but that most of us did not experience and sets rigid boundaries as to what the Holocaust “means” and how it should be remembered; and the third is a reality that speaks, in part, to the success and not failure of Jewry in America — integration and acculturation. Jews in America are intermarrying at about the same rate as most other minorities, excluding African-Americans. And many intermarried Jews are not abandoning their Jewish identity — just the opposite.
Zionism, Holocaust memory, and the fear of intermarriage remain dominant ways for Jews to define themselves in contemporary America. While they may still have a role to play, they have largely been turned into dogmas to replace religious dogmas no longer operative, with all the negativity, rigidity, and fearfulness that go along with dogmatic propositions. Moreover, they do not give Jews seeking a more meaningful identity in accord with American values much to work with. Jews are arguably the most successful minority in America. Why are we still so angry, defensive, and afraid?
1 Podhoretz, Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir (HarperCollins, 1980), p.335.
2 Wiesel, Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, Volume Two (Holocaust Library, 1985, p. 146.
3 Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Plume, a division of Penguin Books, 1994
4 Greenberg, “The Dialectics of Power: Reflections in Light of the Holocaust,” in Daniel Landes’s Confronting Omnicide: Jewish Reflections on Weapons of Mass Destruction, p. 19.
5 “The Holocaust and Jewish Survival,” Midstream January 1981, 39.
6 Bronfman, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), p. 24.
7 Haaretz, January 31, 2010.