The end of the American dream, a Jewish future?

In a thoughtful, heartfelt and well-written article appearing in the on-line Jewish-American periodical Tablet, Ebb Tide in the Golden Country, All is not as it was for Jews in America, Rich Cohen describes a bleak picture for Jews in the United States. Much of what he writes carries the weight of one mourning the passage, and generally his impressions agree with my own views regarding the future of Jews in the United States and, by extension, the remnants of our Diaspora. But in the end he seems to hesitate, reluctant to arrive at what should be his conclusion due, possibly, to a weakness regarding Diaspora history for two-thousand years or, more likely, reluctance to arrive at that conclusion.

In his article Rich Cohen focuses almost entirely on the “American-Jewish experience” and, beyond nodding at the fact that we Jews numbered greater in the first century than our world-wide numbers today, he underestimates at 100-million the numbers of Jews who would be alive today but for two-millennia victimization at the hands of our western hosts. Mr. Cohen is also far more nostalgic than I regarding our history in “der Goldene Medina” (from which his title derives), glosses over the years of the Great Migration of the late nineteenth century to present:

“Anti-Semitism still existed of course, but, in America, it became socially unacceptable. It retreated to the bedrooms and parlors, where it was expressed in the way of certain mystery religions, in secret, behind closed doors, so quietly you might think it had vanished…

“What changed? Well, for starters, there are just fewer of us in proportion to the whole. Whereas Jews once constituted five percent of America, and as much as forty percent of New York, those numbers have shrunk. We’re perhaps thirteen percent of New York and around two percent of the nation. In this sense, American Jews are living with the results of their success. This is indeed the promised land. It’s where Jews fulfilled the dream which, for many, has been to stop being Jews and become part of the imagined whole… There was prejudice, of course, snide remarks and closed gates, quotas at Ivy League schools and white-shoe firms. But in the end, there was something useful even in the hatred. It forced you to think and adapt, stay smart, sober, sane.”

Yet throughout his article he maintains what I read as a sense of longing for our disappearing past, blemishes and all; he maintains still the hope of America, the uniqueness of America: the glimmer of that fading dream, “the Golden Country” of our grandparents fleeing Old Country pogroms. And the danger of his thinking, that point at which he and I fully diverge, is contained in his faith transcending fact:

“Unlike Germany or England, there is no host population in America… The Constitution was set up as a series of checks against any such majority forming… built into the founding documents of the country.

Because even as he clings desperately to the dimming memory of his “Golden Country” of yore Cohen holds also to the categories by which our hosts of yore condemned us to Auschwitz, “race.” There is “no single race“ as “host population in America” to single out American Jews as victim because the single disguising attribute of “the Jews” never was “race,” whatever that pseudo-biological word might refer to. No, what distinguishes “Jew” of whatever shade of religiousity or other self-identity from our neighbors is, as always has been, “religion.” And nearly all Americans, by that standard are, as Germany in the 1930’s, Christian. Our distinguishing characteristic over the past two thousand years of the Diaspora; our “Otherness” is and always was being Jewish, “the Jews.”

Under Hitler Germany’s contribution to seeking a final solution the West’s traditional Jewish Problem involved borrowing “race” from American Eugenics, an update of past religious persecution. In fact the idea of “Jewish blood” itself was first introduced by the Spanish Inquisition: “mala sangre,”  (“bad blood”) was used to justify burning Catholics descended from Jewish roots, converts referred to as Marranos (“pigs), charged as “heretics” simply on the basis of blood line.

What relevance this to the present? Mr. Cohen describes American Jews as having so successfully benefited from life in the United States as today, “living with the results of their success. This is indeed the promised land. It’s where Jews fulfilled the dream which, for many, has been to stop being Jews and become part of the imagined whole.” The “dream” he speaks of is the desire to escape two thousand years history of discrimination/persecution. As Herzl famously observed, “If these (our Christian hosts) were to leave us in peace for a period of two generation” we would have voluntarily disappeared. Instead, the Holocaust!

The “dream” of assimilation represented by Mr. Cohen’s is itself illusory in having failed repeatedly throughout history to provide protection, security. The legal “emancipation” of Jews in the 19th century opened the doors of assimilation across the West and Germany’s Jews were furthest along this path. Until, that is, the advent of Third Reich and the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. According to Nuremberg a Christian with a single Jewish grandparent was classified “mischlinge,” half-breed.

But what has that to do with American Jews today? While it is true that antisemitism in the past has often been less “physical” than in Europe still do the same stereotypes that characterized Jews throughout history exist also here. The idea, the possibility of “the Holocaust” was inconceivable before the conditions that energized those stereotypes arose, provided the conditions for a “final” solution to the West’s two-thousand year Jewish Problem. And when conditions again arise will the next locus for exterminationist antisemitism be a repeat of seventy years ago? That we cannot know. What is likely is that when social stress rises to levels experienced in Germany leading up to the election of Hitler’s Nazi Party that legal niceties as the Weimar constitution will offer no obstacle; American “guarantees” such as the Constitution and Bill of Rights will not hold back the torrent. And as for providing a legal framework providing for the next “final” solution, it already exists as precedent  and model in Nuremberg.

History may not “repeat” but Today is the product of its past. Before Hitler German Jews were as proud of their fatherland as are American Jews today in their homeland. And as German Jewry before the Third Reich described their homeland “exceptional,” so too do American Jews today.