Liberal Politic and American Jewish Identity

By Shapiro, Edward S. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Liberal Politic and American Jewish Identity


Shapiro, Edward S., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


It is no secret that American jews are deeply troubled about their future. The sociologist Samuel C. Heilman, for example, ended his 1995 volume, Portrait of American Jews, fearing that Judaism and Jewishness had no future in America. "If I am to be certain that my children and their children will continue to be actively Jewish," he wrote, "then the boat that brought my family here to America in 1950 may still have another trip to make (i.e., to Israel)." There is nothing new about American Jews being pessimistic. Today's fears, however, are quite different from previous periods in which the buzz words were "antisemitism" and "survival." By contrast, the contemporary buzz words are "continuity" and "identity."(1)

Jews now stand at the pinnacle of American life, politically, socially, culturally, and socially. They comprise over 25% of the names on the Forbes magazine annual list of the richest individuals in America. Five of the eight presidents of the Ivy League colleges and universities have Jewish parents, as do ten of the one hundred members of the United States Senate. And this is from a population which today is at best 2.5% of the American population, and probably closer to 2%. When Will Herberg tiffed his 1955 examination of American religious sociology Protestant-Catholic-Jew, he was expressing the common view that Jews and American Judaism had become as much a part of the American mainstream as Protestants and Catholics. The widespread custom of rabbis delivering invocations and benedictions at social and athletic events and the presence of courses in Jewish history and learning in American academia further attest to the fact that Jews are perceived to be an integral part of American culture.

No informed observer of the contemporary American Jewish scene takes domestic antisemitism seriously, although antisemitism in Europe and the Middle East is another story. Alan M. Dershowitz's recent book The Vanishing American Jew notes that the threat today to Jews comes not from antisemitism but from those who would "kill us with kindness - by assimilating us, marrying us, and merging with us out of respect, admiration, and even love."(2)

In the half century since the end of World War II a revolution has occurred in the status of American Jews and in the attitude of American Gentiles toward Jews. Jews no longer are viewed as an exotic segment of the American population, similar to the Amish of Pennsylvania or the Cajuns of southern Louisiana. This revolution has been both a cause and a result of the acculturation and assimilation of American Jews which has been so worrisome to Jewish leaders. The most troubling statistic for American Jews is no longer the annual Anti-Defamation League figures on antisemitic incidents but the skyrocketing intermarriage rate, which the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey put at 52%. Many scholars are skeptical about the 52% figure, but even the most optimistic believe that it exceeds 40%. American Jews have survived antisemitism, but whether they will be able to survive as Jews in the face of this widespread social acceptance by the majority population is another question.

The most disturbing aspect of the high rate of exogamy is not the rate itself but what it says about the capacity and willingness of American Jews to maintain their distinctive institutions and values. Jewish survivalists are befuddled by what to do about intermarriage. They recognize that it results from a development which no one wants to change-the lowering of barriers which previously had limited the interaction of Jews and Gentiles in the university, at work, or in leisure time activities. How can the rate of intermarriage be reversed or at least slowed down without also reducing the economic and social opportunities of Jews, which brings Jews and Gentiles into closer proximity to each other and often leads to intermarriage? In view of the massive movement of American Jews up the social and economic ladder, intermarriage seems to be inevitable, and less a problem for which there is a solution than a condition which Jews will have to learn to live with. …

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