Years ago I visited an immigrant-built, century-old beautiful synagogue in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania. The most striking feature was the large wooden American eagle with its wings extended astride the Aron Kodesh – the ark that holds the synagogue’s Torah scrolls. The message was, “Yes, we are Jews, but we are first and foremost proud Americans.”
The debate, “Are we Jews or American’s first” was the underlying issue in the controversy or the new executive order against antisemitism recently signed by President Donald Trump. Mainstream Jewish groups expressed support, the Jewish Left erupted in protest, with one prominent Reform rabbi telling The New York Times that she fears that “yellow stars are next.”
The freedoms America provided were unique. Historically, Jews were considered second- or third-class citizens – if citizens at all. The US was the first country to codify its constitution with the freedom to practice religion, including Judaism.
Many Jews didn’t overtly express their religious identity, fearing it would spark antisemitism and put those rights at risk. Centuries of pogroms, expulsions and discrimination implanted a deep sense of anxiety in Jews, who wonder if it can all happen again here. The recent rise of antisemitic events only fuels that anxiety. To quote the famous Jewish theologian Jackie Mason, “You don’t want to be too Jewish.”
This uneasiness caused the immigrants in Mt. Carmel to erect the eagle over the ark. It inspired the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the seminal statement by the Reform movement which assures America, “We do not see ourselves as a nation, but as a religious community.” The same document claimed America as the new Zion and abandoned aspirations for a Jewish renewal in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. With time, many liberal Jews were open to supporting Israel. Yet, Jews on the Left still find discomfort with Jewish nationalism; it animates their opposition to what they see are the strident policies of Israel.
Discomfort over Jewish nationhood is a cause of tension between some American Jews and Israel. The recent Jewish People Policy Institute study explains the pillars of identity for most Israelis as a mix of Judaism and nationalism. The old Mapai Party dream of a state with secular nationalism replacing Judaism is fading. At a recent conference in Jerusalem on US and Israeli Jewry this became clear.
LIOR SCHLEIEN, host of the popular satirical show Gav Ha’Uma, unequivocally labeled himself a “secular, Ashkenazi Tel Avivi” who thought politicians had sold out to the religious parties. Moderator Ravit Hecht of Haaretz challenged him, asking if he would perform a brit-milah and circumcise a theoretical son of his. Emphatically he said yes. Hecht challenged him. “How could a true secular Tel Avivian like yourself perform this religious ritual?” Schleien first tried rationalizing his beliefs. Not having a real answer, he responded with a crude joke.
Even the most secular Jew in Israel is struggling with his religious identity. Zionism, which started partly as a rejection of religion, has created a new paradigm: a Jew who keeps kosher at home, is fiercely patriotic to modern Israel, and goes to the beach on Shabbat afternoon. Even for strong secularists like Schleien, religion is ubiquitous. Love it or hate it, it’s part of life.
In the US Judaism is not automatic – most don’t have a religious relative to complain about. Judaism is the synagogue they might occasionally step into. It’s a choice to be made. The Orthodox and traditionalists still retain the idea of nationhood, of Am Yisrael. In the Jewish Left this ideal has been replaced with a new Jewish universalism, Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world.”
Orthodox Jews tend by be more at ease than there liberal brethren. This is reflected in levels of synagogue security. The most protected tend to be more liberal. The Orthodox, while being careful, have lower levels. As one Reform rabbi told me when I visited his office and queried him on the tall gates and armed guard checking my car for bombs, “What can I do? My congregants are a bunch of nervous liberal LA Jews.”
This concern about being “too Jewish” was at the core of the battles over the public menorah lightings by Chabad in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Jewish groups, led by the American Jewish Congress, launched court challenges to block them, claiming they endangered American Jews by breaching the separation of church and state.
This was camouflage for the real reason, opposition to expressing a proud Jewish identity without fear. Prof. Arthur Hertzberg was head of the AJC at the time. Decades later he summed up the battle in a conversation we had in his house.
“We thought that you should be a citizen on the street and a Jew at home. The Rebbe’s view was that by being a Jew on the street you would also be a Jew a home. And it turned out that the Rebbe was right and we were wrong.”
This debate resurfaced over the executive order. Yes, Jews are a nation and have been for millennia. We are also a religion. We can be both proud Jews and proud Americans. We don’t need to assure others with an American eagle over the Holy Ark. America’s blessing is religious freedom that allows us to flourish. When American Jews feel confident in expressing their nationhood and religion, it emboldens the bond with Jews, in Israel and worldwide. When we act with self-respect others will only respect us more.
The writer is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County.