The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Centuryby Alan M. Dershowitz
In this urgent book, Alan M. Dershowitz shows why American Jews are in danger of disappearing - and what must be done now to create a renewed sense of Jewish identity for the next century. In previous times, the threats to Jewish survival were external - the virulent consequences of anti-Semitism. Now, however, in late-twentieth-century America, the danger has shifted. Jews today are more secure, more accepted, more assimilated, and more successful than ever before. They've dived into the melting pot - and they've achieved the American Dream. And that, according to Dershowitz, is precisely the problem. More than 50 percent of Jews will marry non-Jews, and their children will most often be raised as non-Jews. Which means, in the view of Dershowitz, that American Jews will vanish as a distinct cultural group sometime in the next century - unless they act now. Speaking to concerned Jews everywhere, Dershowitz calls for a new Jewish identity that focuses on the positive - the 3,500-year-old legacy of Jewish culture, values, and traditions. Dershowitz shows how this new Jewish identity can compete in America's open environment of opportunity and choice - and offers concrete proposals on how to instill it in the younger generation.
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The Vanishing American JewIn Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century
By Alan M. Dershowitz
Touchstone BooksCopyright © 1998 Alan M. Dershowitz
All right reserved.
The "Jewish Question" for the Twenty-first Century: Can We Survive Our Success?
THE GOOD NEWS is that American Jews--as individuals--have never been more secure, more accepted, more affluent, and less victimized by discrimination or anti-Semitism. The bad news is that American Jews--as a people--have never been in greater danger of disappearing through assimilation, intermarriage, and low birthrates. The even worse news is that our very success as individuals contributes to our vulnerability as a people. The even better news is that we can overcome this new threat to the continuity of American Jewish life and emerge with a more positive Judaism for the twenty-first century--a Judaism that is less dependent on our enemies for its continuity, and that rests more securely on the considerable, but largely untapped, strengths of our own heritage.
American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality. As the result of skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, as well as "the lowest birth rate of any religious orethnic community in the United States," the era of enormous Jewish influence on American life may soon be coming to an end. Although Jews make up just over 2 percent of the population of the United States--approximately 5.5 million out of 262 million--many Americans mistakenly believe that we constitute a full 20 percent of the American people, because of our disproportionate visibility, influence, and accomplishments. But our numbers may soon be reduced to the point where our impact on American life will necessarily become marginalized. One Harvard study predicts that if current demographic trends continue, the American Jewish community is likely to number less than 1 million and conceivably as few as 10,000 by the time the United States celebrates its tricentennial in 2076. Other projections suggest that early in the next century, American Jewish life as we know it will be a shadow of its current, vibrant self--consisting primarily of isolated pockets of ultra-Orthodox Hasidim.
Jews have faced dangers in the past, but this time we may be unprepared to confront the newest threat to our survival as a people, because its principal cause is our own success as individuals. Our long history of victimization has prepared us to defend against those who would destroy us out of hatred; indeed, our history has forged a Jewish identity far too dependent on persecution and victimization by our enemies. But today's most serious threats come not from those who would persecute us, but from those who would, without any malice, kill us with kindness--by assimilating us, marrying us, and merging with us out of respect, admiration, and even love. The continuity of the most influential Jewish community in history is at imminent risk, unless we do something dramatic now to confront the quickly changing dangers.
This book is a call to action for all who refuse to accept our demographic demise as inevitable. It is a demand for a new Jewish state of mind capable of challenging the conventional wisdom that Judaism is more adaptive to persecution and discrimination than it is to an open, free, and welcoming society--that Jews paradoxically need enemies in order to survive, that anti-Semitism is what has kept Judaism alive. This age-old perspective on Jewish survival is illustrated by two tragic stories involving respected rabbinical leaders.
The first story takes place in 1812, when Napoleon was battling the czar for control of the Pale of Settlement (the western part of czarist Russia), where millions of Jews were forced to live in crowded poverty and under persecution and discrimination as second-class subjects. A victory for Napoleon held the promise of prosperity, first-class citizenship, freedom of movement, and an end to discrimination and persecution. A victory for the czar would keep the Jews impoverished and miserable. The great Hasidic rabbi Shneur Zalman--the founder of the Lubavitch dynasty--stood up in his synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah to offer a prayer to God asking help for the leader whose victory would be good for the Jews. Everyone expected him to pray for Napoleon. But he prayed for the czar to defeat Napoleon. In explaining his counterintuitive choice, he said: "Should Bonaparte win, the wealth of the Jews will be increased and their [civic] position will be raised. At the same time their hearts will be estranged from our Heavenly Father. Should however our Czar Alexander win, the Jewish hearts will draw nearer to our Heavenly Father, though the poverty of Israel may become greater and his position lower."
This remarkable story is all too typical of how so many Jewish leaders throughout our history have reasoned about Jewish survival. Without tsuris--troubles--we will cease to be Jewish. We need to be persecuted, impoverished, discriminated against, hated, and victimized in order for us to retain our Jewishness. The "chosen people" must be denied choices if Judaism is to survive. If Jews are given freedom, opportunity, and choice, they will choose to assimilate and disappear.
The story recurs, with even more tragic consequences, on the eve of the Holocaust. Another great Eastern European rabbi, Elchanan Wasserman--the dean of the Rabbinical College in Baranowitz, Poland--was invited to bring his entire student body and faculty to Yeshiva College in New York or to the Beis Medrish Letorah in Chicago, both distinguished Orthodox rabbinical colleges. He declined the invitations because "they are both places of spiritual danger, for they are run in a spirit of freethinking." The great rabbi reasoned, "What would one gain to escape physical danger in order to then confront spiritual danger?" Rabbi Wasserman, his family, his students, and their teachers remained in Poland, where they were murdered by the Nazis.
I call the approach taken by these rabbis the Tsuris Theory of Jewish Survival. Under this theory, the Jews need external troubles to stay Jewish. Nor has this fearful, negative perspective on Jewish survival been limited to ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Many Jewish leaders, both religious and secular, have argued that Jews need enemies--that without anti-Semitism, Judaism cannot survive. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism and a secular Jew, believed that "our enemies have made us one ... It is only pressure that forces us back to the parent stem." In a prediction that reflects an approach to the survival of Judaism strikingly similar to that of the founder of the Lubavitch Hasidim, Herzl warned that if our "Christian hosts were to leave us in peace ... for two generations," the Jewish people would "merge entirely into surrounding races." Albert Einstein agreed: "It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our existence as a race; that at any rate is my belief." Jean-Paul Sartre, a non-Jew, went even further, arguing that the "sole tie that binds [the Jewish people together] is the hostility and disdain of the societies which surround them." He believed that "it is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew."
If the Tsuris Theory of Jewish identity, survival, and unity is true, then Jews are doomed to live precariously on a pendulum perennially swinging in a wide arc between the extremes of persecution and assimilation. As the pendulum swings away from the Scylla of persecution, it inevitably moves toward the Charybdis of assimilation. In this reactive view, Jews have little power over their ultimate destiny. Our enemies always call the shots, either by persecuting us, in which case we fight back and remain Jewish, or by leaving us alone, in which case we assimilate. The only other alternative--the one proposed by Herzl--is for all Jews to move to Israel, where they control their own destiny. But most Jews will continue to ignore that option, certainly if our "hosts" continue to leave us in peace in our adopted homelands. In this respect, aliyah (emigration) to Israel has also been largely determined by our external enemies, since most Jews who have moved to the Jewish homeland have done so in reaction to anti-Semitism and persecution in their native countries.
Historically, therefore, there has been some descriptive truth to this pendulum view of persecution alternating with assimilation. Jews have retained their Jewish identity, at least in part, because of tsuris. Our enemies herded us into ghettos, created pales of settlement, discriminated against us, excluded us from certain livelihoods while pressing us into others. We stuck together and remained Jews, resisting as best we could the persecution by our enemies.
But there is more--much more--to Jewish identity than collective self-defense. There is something important that is worth defending. After all, until anti-Semitism changed from religious bigotry to "racial" bigotry--roughly near the end of the nineteenth century--persecuted Jews generally had the option of conversion. Unlike Hitler, our religiously inspired persecutors--the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, Martin Luther, and the pogromists--did distinguish between Jews who converted to Christianity and Jews who did not. Indeed, it was precisely their religious mission to convert the Jews, by whatever methods it took.
Many Jews did convert--some at knifepoint, others to advance themselves. The story about Professor Daniel Chwolson illustrates the latter phenomenon. Chwolson, a Russian intellectual of the nineteenth century, had converted from Judaism to Russian Orthodoxy as a young man, but he continued to fight against anti-Semitism. This led a Jewish friend to ask him why he had converted: "Out of conviction," the great man said. "What conviction?" his Jewish friend inquired. Chwolson responded: "Out of a firm conviction that it would be far better to be a professor in St. Petersburg than a Hebrew school teacher in Shklop." Yet despite the material advantages of conversion, most Jews resisted it. Clearly, those Jews--who sacrificed so much--remained Jewish not only in reaction to their enemies. More than our fabled "stiff-neckedness" was involved. There are substantive principles that Jews have been so stubborn about--that we have been willing to fight and even die for. For Jews who define their Jewishness in theological terms, it is easy to find that principle: It is God's will. For the large number of Jews who are skeptical about being God's "chosen people," the principle is more elusive, but it is palpable to most of us, though difficult to articulate. It is a disturbing reality, however, that for a great many Jews, their Jewish identity has been forged and nurtured by our external enemies who have defined us as victims of their persecution.
Now, after two millennia of persecution and victimization, we may well be moving into a new era of Jewish life during which we will not be persecuted or victimized. If this comes to pass, we will need to refocus our attention on defining the positive qualities of Jewish" life that ought to make us want to remain Jews without "help" from our enemies. We must become positively Jewish instead of merely reacting to our enemies.
If Herzl's and Sartre's entirely negative view of the reason for Jewish survival were to persist even as we enter this new era of equality and acceptance, then Judaism would not deserve to endure. If Jewish life cannot thrive in an open environment of opportunity, choice, freethinking, affluence, success, and first-class status--if we really do need tsuris, czars, pogroms, poverty, insularity, closed minds, and anti-Semitism to keep us Jewish--then Jewish life as we know it will not, and should not, survive the first half of the twenty-first century. We have been persecuted long enough. The time has come to welcome the end of our victimization without fear that it will mean the end of our existence as a people. We must no longer pray for the czar's victory out of fear that the end of our collective tsuris and the success of individual Jews will mean the failure of Judaism.
I believe that Jewish life can thrive in the next century, not despite the end of institutional anti-Semitism, the end of Jewish persecution, and the end of Jewish victimization, but because of these positive developments. The ultimate good news may be that the denouement of negative Judaism--Jewish identification based largely on circling the wagons to fend off our enemies--compels us to refocus on a more positive and enduring Jewish identification, which will be more suitable to our current situation and the one we will likely be facing in the twenty-first century, when Jews will have the unconstrained choice whether to remain Jewish or to assimilate. We may be entering a true Jewish golden age, during which we will prove, once and for all, that Jews do not need enemies to survive. To the contrary: We can thrive best in an open society where we freely choose to be Jews because of the positive virtues of our 3,500-year-old civilization.
I say we may be entering this golden age; there are no guarantees. Many Jews believe that the end is near, because increasing rates of assimilation and intermarriage are propelling us toward a demographic Armageddon. A recent apocalyptic article in a Jewish journal concluded that "Kaddish time" is fast approaching for the American Jewish community. (Kaddish is the prayer for the dead.) But reports of the death of Judaism may be premature--if we can change the way we think, and act, about Jewish survival. If we refuse to change, if we accept the current demographic trends as intractable, then Jewish life in America may indeed be doomed.
The challenge is to move the Jewish state of mind beyond its past obsession with victimization, pain, and problems and point it in a new, more positive direction, capable of thriving in an open society. For unless we do, we may become the generation that witnesses the beginning of the end of one of the most influential civilizations in the history of our planet--a unique source of so much goodness, compassion, morality, creativity, and intelligence over the past several millennia. The demise of Jewish life as we have come to know it would be a tragedy not only for the Jewish people collectively, but also for most of us individually--and for the world at large.
The thesis of this book is that the long epoch of Jewish persecution is finally coming to an end and that a new age of internal dangers to the Jewish people is on the horizon. Institutional anti-Semitism is on its last legs as governments, churches, universities, and businesses embrace Jews. No Jew today needs to convert in order to become a professor, a banker, or a corporate CEO. Although anti-Semitism persists in many quarters, today's overt anti-Semites--the skinheads, militias, Holocaust deniers, and Farrakhan followers--have become marginalized. They continue to constitute a nuisance and pose a potential threat, but they do not have a significant day-to-day impact on the lives of most Jews, as anti-Semites in previous generations did. Today's marginalized anti-Semites do not decide which jobs we can hold, which universities we can attend, which neighborhoods we can live in, which clubs we can join, or even whom we can date and marry. We no longer look up to anti-Semites as the elites in our society who determine our fate. We look down on anti-Semites as the dregs of our society who make lots of noise but little difference.
As Jews and Israel become more secure against external threats, the internal threats are beginning to grow, as graphically illustrated by the recent assassination of an Israeli prime minister by a Jew, the growing conflict between fundamentalist Jews and more acculturated Jews, the increasing trends toward intermarriage and assimilation, and the decline of Jewish literacy.
For thousands of years, Jews have been embattled. Surrounded by enemies seeking to convert us, remove us, even exterminate us, we have developed collective defense mechanisms highly adaptive to combating persecution by anti-Semites. But we have not developed effective means of defending the Jewish future against our own actions and inactions. This is our urgent new challenge--to defend the Jewish future against voluntary self-destruction--and we must face it squarely, if we are to prevent the fulfillment of Isaiah's dire prophecy "Your destroyers will come from your own ranks."
We must take control of our own destiny by changing the nature of Jewish life in fundamental ways. The survival of the Jewish people is too important--to us and to the world at large--to be left in the hands of those ultra-Orthodox rabbis who would rather face Armageddon than change the religious status quo. Just as Jews of the past changed the nature of Jewish life in order to adapt to external necessities and to survive the ravages of their external enemies, so, too, must today's Jews change the nature of Jewish life to adapt to new internal necessities and to survive the demographic challenges of intermarriage, assimilation, low birthrates, and the breakdown of neighborhoods and communities.
A hundred years ago, Theodor Herzl identified the "Jewish question" of the twentieth century as the literal survival of Jews in the face of external enemies committed to our physical annihilation--Jew-haters in every nation where Jews lived as a minority. His solution--the creation of a secular Jewish state--was to change the nature of Jewish life in dramatic and unanticipated ways. A hundred years later, the "Jewish question" of the twenty-first century is survival in the face of our internal challenges. Herzl also anticipated that this new "Jewish question" might arise if and when our Christian hosts were to leave us in peace. This is now coming to pass. The solution to this Jewish question also requires the creation of yet another Jewish state: a new Jewish state of mind!
This book continues where Chutzpah (1991) left off, in exploring the larger issue of being Jewish today. In the concluding paragraphs of that book I issued the following challenge:
We have learned--painfully and with difficulty--how to fight others. Can we develop Jewish techniques for defending against our own success?
Pogo once said: "We have [met] the enemy and he is us!" As Jews, we have not yet been given the luxury of seeing ourselves as the enemy. There are still too many external enemies who challenge the very physical survival of the Jewish people in Israel and throughout the world. But as we become stronger in the face of our external enemies, we must prepare to confront ourselves.
In confronting ourselves, we must face the reality that the generation of Jews I wrote about in Chutzpah--those of us who remember the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and the mortal threats to its survival, the movements to save Soviet, Syrian, and Ethiopian Jewry, the struggle against institutional anti-Semitism--is aging. Our children, who have no actual memory of embattled Judaism fighting for the life, liberty, and equality of endangered Jews, are now the crossroads generation that will determine what Jewish life in America and around the world will be in the coming century. It is to that younger generation of Jews, as well as to their parents, that I address this volume.
The last decade of the twentieth century has witnessed the end of state-sponsored and church-supported anti-Semitism. The fall of the Soviet Union, a nation that, since the time of Stalin, had been a major source of international anti-Semitism, had a domino effect on ending the state sponsorship of this oldest of bigotries. Other nations within the Soviet sphere of influence stopped espousing anti-Semitism as a matter of government policy. Even most Arab and Islamic countries dropped their overtly anti-Semitic policies. As a result, the United Nations has changed its tone, condemning anti-Semitism and reducing somewhat its pro-Arab and anti-Israel bias. Equally important, the Catholic church--the single institution most responsible for the persecution of Jews over the past two millennia--approved diplomatic relations with Israel, thus annulling its entrenched view that Jewish "homelessness ... was the Divine judgment against Jews" for rejecting Jesus. The American Lutheran Church explicitly rejected Martin Luther's anti-Semitic teachings.
Bill Clinton's presidency marked the end of discrimination against Jews in the upper echelons of government. For the first time in American history, the fact that an aspirant for high appointive office was a Jew became irrelevant in his or her selection. President Clinton--our first president who grew up in an age when anti-Semitism was unacceptable--selected several Jewish cabinet members, two Jewish Supreme Court justices, numerous Jewish ambassadors and other high-level executive and judicial officials. Nor, apparently, was Jewishness a bar to election to the United States Congress, which has ten Jewish senators and more than two dozen Jewish representatives, several from states with tiny Jewish populations. Though we have still not had a Jew at the top of either party's ticket, it is fair to say that in today's America, a Jew can aspire to any office, any job, and any social status.
The wealth of individual Jews grew perceptibly during this decade, with 25 percent of America's richest people being of Jewish background. (If only earned, as distinguished from inherited, wealth is counted, the percentage would be even higher.) An American Leadership study in 1971-72 found that Jews represented more than 10 percent of America's top "movers and shakers in business," a higher percentage than any other ethnic group. Jews' per capita income is nearly double that of non-Jews. Twice the percentage of Jews as non-Jews earn more than $50,000 a year. And twice the percentage of non-Jews as Jews earn less than $20,000. Jewish charitable giving has increased along with Jewish wealth. Jews are now among the largest contributors to universities, museums, hospitals, symphonies, opera, and other charities. "In 1991, the United Jewish Appeal raised more money than any other charity in America, including the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Catholic Charities and the American Cancer Society." Yet only one-tenth of Jewish philanthropists limit their giving to Jewish charities alone, while one-fourth give only to non-Jewish causes.
A Jew today can live in any neighborhood, even those that were formerly "restricted." Jews live alongside white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the most "exclusive" neighborhoods throughout the country--Grosse Pointe, Greenwich, Fifth Avenue, Beacon Hill. And they have been welcomed into the "best" families, including the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Cuomos, and Rockefellers. Economically, socially, and politically, we have become the new WASPs, as a perusal of the sponsor list of any major charitable or cultural event will show. Indeed, terms such as "J.A.S.P." (Jewish Anglo-Saxon Protestant) and "W.A.S.H." (White Anglo-Saxon Hebrew) have become current in some circles to denote the full social acceptance that Jews increasingly enjoy.
Of America's Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, nearly 40 percent have been Jews. Of America's 200 most influential intellectuals, half are full Jews, and 76 percent have at least one Jewish parent. Jews attend Ivy League colleges at ten times their presence in the general population. It is no wonder that so many non-Jews believe that we constitute so much higher a percentage of the American population than we actually do. Jews today are equal in virtually every way that matters. What could not have been said even at the end of the 1980s can be said today: American Jews are part of the American mainstream; we are truly victims no more.
Yet despite these enormous gains, many older Jews do not seem to be able to give up their anachronistic status as victims. A recent book on the American Jewish community notes: "[A]bout a third [of affiliated Jews in San Francisco said] that Jewish candidates could not be elected to Congress from San Francisco. Yet three out of four Congressional representatives ... were, in fact, well identified Jews at the time the poll was conducted. And they had been elected by a population that was about 95 percent non-Jewish."
Nor is this misperception limited to California. According to journalist J.J. Goldberg, "[T]he percentage of Jews who tell pollsters that anti-Semitism is a 'serious problem' in America nearly doubled during the course of the 1980s, from 45 percent in 1983 to almost 85 percent in 1990." Yet by every objective assessment, the problem was less serious in 1990 than it was in 1983, and the trend has clearly been in the direction of improvement.
When I speak to older Jewish audiences, I am often accused, sometimes stridently, of minimizing anti-Semitism and am told that it is worse than ever. Social scientists call this dramatic disparity between the reality of declining anti-Semitism and the widespread belief that it is increasing a "perception gap" between what is actually happening and Jewish "sensibilities." Some of the Jews who believe this are similar in this respect to some feminists and black activists I know, who insist that the plight of women and blacks is worse than it ever was. These good and decent people, whose identities are so tied up with their victimization, are incapable of accepting the good news that their situation is improving. It is not even a matter of perceiving the glass as half full or half empty. They see the glass as broken, even though it is intact and quickly filling up. As the sociologist Marshall Sklare puts it: "American Jews respond more readily to bad news than to good news."
I am reminded of the story of the two Jews reading their newspapers over a cup of coffee in a late-nineteenth-century Viennese cafe. Kurt is reading the liberal Yiddish-language newspaper and shaking his head from side to side, uttering soft moans of "Oy vey" and "Vey is meir." Shmulie is reading the right-wing, anti-Semitic German-language tabloid and smiling. Kurt, noticing what Shmulie is reading, shouts at his friend, "Why are you reading that garbage?" Shmulie responds, "When I used to take your newspaper, all I would ever read about was Dreyfus being falsely accused, the Jews of Russia being subjected to pogroms, anti-Semitic laws being enacted all over Europe, and the grinding poverty of the Jews in the Holy Land. Now, ever since I take this paper, I read about how the Jews control the banks, the press, the arts; how Jews hold all political power behind the scenes; and how we will soon take over the world. Wouldn't you rather read such good news than such bad news?"
With some of today's older Jews, it is exactly the opposite: they refuse to read the good news, even when it is demonstrably true. They insist on focusing on the "oys" rather than the joys of Judaism, as Rabbi Moshe Waldoks put it. This is understandable, in light of the long history of persecution. Like an individual victim of a violent crime who sees his assailant around every corner, the Jewish people have been traumatized by our unrelenting victimization at the hands of Jew-haters. It is impossible for anyone who did not personally experience the Holocaust, or the other repeated assaults on Jewish life throughout our history, to comprehend what it must have been like to be victimized by unrelenting persecution based on primitive Jew-hating. We continue to see anti-Semitism even where it has ceased to exist, or we exaggerate it where it continues to exist in marginalized form. Indeed, some Jewish newspapers refuse to print, and some Jewish organizations refuse to acknowledge, the good news, lest they risk alienating their readerships or losing their membership. For example, in November of 1996 I saw a fundraising letter from a Jewish organization which claimed that "anti-Semitism ... appears to be growing more robust, more strident, more vicious--and more 'respectable.'" Well-intentioned as this organization is, it seeks support by exaggerating the threats we currently face and by comparing them to those we faced during the Holocaust.
My students, my children, my friends' children--our next generation--understand our new status: they do not want to be regarded as victims. They do not feel persecuted, discriminated against, or powerless. They want to read the new good news, not the old bad news. A 1988 poll of Jewish students at Dartmouth College made the point compellingly: When asked whether they believed that their Jewishness would in any way hamper their future success, not a single student answered in the affirmative. That is the current reality, and it is different from the reality my parents faced--and even from the reality many of my generation perceived when we were in college or beginning our careers. The coming generation of Jewish adults will not remain Jews because of our enemies or because of our perceived status as victims. They crave a more positive, affirmative, contemporary, and relevant Jewish identity. Unless we move beyond victimization and toward a new Jewish state of mind, many of them will abandon Judaism as not relevant to their current concerns.
If we are to counteract this trend, we must understand the dynamics of contemporary assimilation and not confuse them with past episodes of assimilation, which were based largely on the perceived need to escape from the "burdens" of Jewish identification. Today, there are no burdens from which to escape. Being Jewish is easy, at least in relation to external burdens. Jews today assimilate not because Christianity or Islam is "better" or "easier," but because Jewish life does not have a strong enough positive appeal to offset the inertial drift toward the common denominator. Jews do not convert to Christianity; they "convert" to mainstream Americanism, which is the American "religion" closest to Judaism. They see no reason not to follow their heart in marriage, their convenience in neighborhoods, their economic opportunities in jobs, their educational advantages in schools, their conscience in philosophy, and their preferences in lifestyle. Most Jews who assimilate do not feel that they are giving up anything by abandoning a Jewishness they know little about. They associate the Judaism they are abandoning with inconvenient rituals and rules that have no meaning to them. As one young woman remembers her Jewishness: "An old man saying no."
We must recognize that many of the factors which have fueled current assimilation and intermarriage are positive developments for individual Jews: acceptance, wealth, opportunity. Most Jews do not want to impede these developments. Indeed, they want to encourage them. For that reason, we must accept the reality that many Jews will continue to marry non-Jews, but we should not regard it as inevitable that these marriages will necessarily lead to total assimilation. We can take positive steps to stem that tide--but it will take a change in attitude toward mixed marriages, and indeed toward the tribalism that has understandably characterized Jewish attitudes toward outsiders for so much of our history.
Why is this book different from other books about the Jewish future? Because its author does not have a religious or political agenda. This book is not a commercial for any particular brand of Judaism or Zionism. It does not begin with a priori assumptions about God, the survival of the Jewish people, the superiority of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist Judaism, or the essential conservativism or liberalism of Judaism. I am neither a rabbi, a Jewish fund-raiser, a member of a Jewish studies faculty, an officer of any Jewish organization, nor an advocate for any particular Israeli party. Though I am essentially a secular Jew, I do belong to Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist congregations. Most of my family members are modern Orthodox, and a few are ultra-Orthodox. Some are completely secular. I have generally positive feelings about all Jewish denominations, as I do about the numerous Jewish political, educational, and philanthropic organizations to which I belong and contribute. I have no personal stake in any particular solution to the problem of Jewish survival. I just want American Jewish life to move from strength to strength. I love my Judaism and I feel passionately about its survival, but I do not believe in survival merely for survival's sake. Judaism should not be seen as a patient about to die a natural death, who is kept alive artificially on a respirator for as long as possible without regard to the quality of life. Our goal should be a self-sustaining Judaism that can thrive in the kind of open society in which most Jews want to spend their lives. I strongly believe that it is essential--both for Jews and for America--that the mainstream American Jewish community flourish. It would be a tragedy if the only forms of Judaism the made it past the twenty-first century were insular, ultra-Orthodox Judaism and Israeli Zionism. I hope that they, too, will continue to prosper, but I believe that a more diverse Jewish life has even more to contribute. If I have a bias, it is in favor of an eclectic, tolerant many-branched menorah that is inclusive of all who wish to safeguard and share the future of the Jewish people.
I also bring to this book a unique perspective informed by my experiences growing out of the publication of Chutzpah five years ago. Since that time, I have spoken to well over 100,000 Jews in nearly every city with a significant Jewish population, not only in this country but throughout the world. The talk is usually preceded by a social hour and followed by a question period. I estimate that I have been asked more than a thousand questions by concerned Jews. I have received more than ten thousand letters and phone calls from Jewish men, women, and children. I have also been teaching young students, many of them Jewish, for a third of a century. I have served as faculty adviser to the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association, have been an active participant in Hillel, and have spoken to Jewish student groups at many colleges and universities around the world. Over these years, I have discussed virtually every Jewish issue--from God to intermarriage to Israel to anti-Semitism to Jewish feminism--with thousands of students. These questions, letters, calls, and discussions have given me an extraordinary window into the fears, hopes, and beliefs of a wide assortment of Jews. It has been quite an education. I think I understand what is on the minds and in the souls of many Jews, of all ages, and I try to address myself to these concerns in this book. I also have a unique window into the mind of the anti-Semite, since I continue to receive hundreds of anti-Semitic letters and calls each year, some quite lengthy and revealing.
Though I care deeply about the survival of the Jewish people, I do not believe that survival is assured by any biblical imperative or divine promise. I approach the issue of Jewish survival as I would any other important empirical challenge: with an open mind ready and willing to accept any pragmatic solution, or combination of solutions, that will work. I am committed to doing whatever is in my power to help ensure the Jewish future. I know that many Jews feel the same way.
I agree neither with those theologians who believe that Jewish survival is assured because God promised it nor with those demographers who believe that Jewish disappearance is inevitable because of forces beyond our control. I believe that our future as a people is largely in our own hands, and I want to help define and defend the new Jewish state of mind.
In the first chapter of this book, I focus on what is probably the most whispered-about subject among American Jews today: intermarriage and how to cope with this growing reality. I try to bring this controversial subject out of the closet in all its dimensions. I do not moan and groan and wring my hands. I do not present a religious agenda. I explore the issue from both a demographic and a personal perspective, in an effort to understand it and deal with it instructively and realistically. My analysis and conclusions will be controversial and will, I hope, stimulate a debate within the Jewish community and beyond. My goal is to ask all the hard questions, and to provide a wide variety of responses in addition to my own. I know that many readers will disagree with me, but I hope they will not be able to ignore the challenges I pose.
In chapters 2, 3, and 4, I develop my thesis that the nature of anti-Semitism is changing in fundamental and important ways: Mainstream anti-Semitism--as traditionally practiced by churches, states, corporations, universities, and other elite institutions--is coming to an end; today's Jew-haters are largely marginalized and powerless. This change means that although anti-Semitism persists and must continue to be monitored, it has far less daily impact on the lives of American Jews than in the past. Thus we must define our Jewish identity in different and more positive ways than we did the past.
In chapters 5, 6, and 7, I explore the most frequently proposed solutions to the problem of assimilation. To those who are sure that return to religion is Judaism's only salvation, I say, Get as many to return as you can. Maybe you are right. But we cannot rely exclusively on your solution, because maybe you are wrong. Maybe not enough Jews will become religious. Maybe religion--at least as currently defined and practiced--is not the wave of the future for most young intellectuals. Maybe there is a strand of Judaism that can survive and thrive without exclusive dependence on theology and ritual. After all, the Yiddish secularism that flourished between the beginning of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) and the Second World War was an authentic Jewish culture, which was destroyed by external forces. Political Zionism, which grew largely out of that culture, remains an authentic Jewish civilization of enormous importance to the survival of Judaism. Today's influential American Jewish community is largely secular.
To those who look to Israel as Judaism's sole salvation, I say, Keep trying to get Jews from throughout the Diaspora to make aliyah. Maybe you are right. But we cannot count on Zionism and aliyah alone, because maybe you are wrong. Maybe most Jews will want to remain where they and their families have established a comfortable home. Maybe they will not come to Israel. Maybe Israel will not endure forever as a Jewish state. Maybe it will "normalize"--as Theodor Herzl put it--and become like most other states, which began as religious but became secular and multicultural over time.
To those who believe that an emphasis on Jewish ethics will be enough to transmit the essence of Judaism to our children, I say, Maybe you are right. Certainly many Jews, especially secular Jews, agree with you and hope you are right. But beyond broad generalities, it is difficult to distill from the highly diverse Jewish sources a few programmatic essences that are easily transmittable from generation to generation, without living the kind of Jewish lives that our grandparents lived.
To those who say that Jewish fund-raising, charity, and defense organizations are the answer, I say, Work on, raise money, build buildings, elect officers, bestow honors, monitor anti-Semitism, support Israel. But do not count on it to ensure the Jewish future, because maybe the next generation will not be as attracted to these institutions as the post-Holocaust generation was.
To those who say that Jewish education is the key to Jewish survival, I say, You are undoubtedly right. Whatever the essence or essences of Judaism may be, they are in large part, at least, to be discovered and rediscovered in our books, in our history, and in our approach to learning. But we cannot count on all Jews, so many of whom are busy with their successful careers, to become Jewishly educated, especially since Jewish education today is controlled almost entirely by the religious component of Jewish life and has been one of the great failures of the American Jewish community.
In the final chapter, I propose a series of steps that I believe we must take in order to safeguard the Jewish future. We must change the nature of American Jewish life in fundamental ways if we are to survive the new threats to our continuity as a people. These changes must make us more adaptive to the reality that we can no longer define ourselves--and our children--by reference to our past victimization and persecution. We must adopt a new, more positive, Jewish identity based on a 3,500-year-old tradition of education, scholarship, learning, creativity, justice, and compassion. But first we must figure out a way to make this diverse library of Jewish knowledge accessible and useful to generations of Jews who are abysmally ignorant of their remarkable tradition. The famed "Yiddisher cup" (khop)---Jewish head--is only half full: the typical Jewish college graduate is extraordinarily well educated about general subjects, but goes through life with a kindergarten understanding of Judaism. We must begin to fill the Yiddisher cup with the kind of useful Jewish knowledge that will assure both our success and our survival. To do this, we will have to loosen the monopolistic hold that rabbis now have over Jewish education, so that we can begin to compete effectively in the marketplace of ideas for the minds and hearts of our Jewish youth. Unless we begin to make use of our competitive advantage--as teachers, communicators, scholars, advocates, and strategists--we will lose our children and grandchildren to the seductive drift toward assimilation and away from Jewishness. The fundamental changes we must make will require a reordering of our priorities away from an almost exclusive focus on defending Jews against external enemies and toward new ways of defending ourselves and our children against self-destruction through assimilation. We will have to educate our children differently, allocate our charitable giving differently, select our leaders differently--even define our very Jewishness differently. Jewish life will have to become less tribal, more open, more accepting of outsiders, and less defensive.
When I describe some of the multiple roads we must take if we are to maximize our chances for survival, I think of a variation of the old story of the rabbinical judge who, after hearing a wife's complaints about her husband, says, "My daughter, you are right," and, after hearing the husband's complaints, says, "My son, you are right." When his student observes, "Rabbi, they can't both be right," he replies, "My son, you are right." Under my variation, the rabbi responds to his student, "No, you are wrong. They can both be right." To the differing and sometimes inconsistent approaches to Jewish survival, I would say, "You may all be right. Don't you dare tell each other that you are wrong. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth about the Jewish future. Everything that may work must be tried."
At the end of the last century, Theodor Herzl called for a new Jewish state. As we approach the close of this cataclysmic century, I believe we need a new Jewish state of mind if we are to define and ensure the Jewish future, not only for our sake but for the sake of all humankind.
Excerpted from The Vanishing American Jew by Alan M. Dershowitz Copyright © 1998 by Alan M. Dershowitz. Excerpted by permission.
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Although this book was written more than 20 years ago, it is still very relevant to the issues Jewish communities are facing today. In general, I think Dershowitz makes a compelling argument for the need for liberal Jews to begin educating themselves about their own heritage and for the investment of significantly greater resources into secular, thoughtful Jewish education. I think Dershowitz slightly missed the boat on two levels however. First, and this was clearly purposeful, the book is definitely off-putting to those with an Ultra-Orthodox bent. Dershowitz's opinion is that movements like Chabad are fundamentally different from other Jewish movements, and it would be difficult for liberal Jews to find common ground with the Ultra-Orthodox. At the very least, this is a difficult message to swallow, and, in my opinion, there are many Jews in both camps who would like to work together to preserve some form of Judaism in the twenty-first century. Second, Dershowitz's message is very cognitive and educational, which, while crucial, misses something of the emotional, community, connected element that is necessary for anyone to want to learn about Judaism in the first place. However, overall, this is a book worth reading for people interested in getting ideas for modern Jewish continuity.
As a Hispanic and a Protestant, this book was an eye opener not only in regard to the issue of Jewish assimilation, but also to the Jewish world itself and Judaism. At first the chapter on the Christian Right caught my attention. I began to read that fine chapter. Then I traveled to other parts and - before I knew it - I had read the entire book and enjoyed it a great deal. Perhaps the greatest and most moral theme of this fine work is that of cultural assimilation and the questions which it poses not only to the minority which seeks to assimilate, but also to the often imposing majority. If anything, as a Christian, Professor Dershowtitz's book has changed my view on my faith and how it relates to others. That is, I challenge the notion that it is 'Christian' to take away what is Jewish about Jews and - by whatever means - force them to assimilate. It is hardly Christian, nor is it civil or moral. Self destination is the key here. The Jewish people and their traditions are fine and should - nay must - be preserved. This only strenghthened my previous belief here. The point of reference to the Christian Right is also vital. I most readily agreed with Dershowitz's analysis of the problem. The Christian Right - while not outwardly racist or antisemetic (though it is blatantly anti-gay and prejudiced) - does pose a threat to diversity and Jewishness. This movement abhors religious liberty for minorities in regard to church/state separation, it directly contradicts the centrist view of politics by straying to the far-right and it challenges traditional notions of 'Americanism' by posing the view that there is an 'original American' (mostly protestant and right wing white Christian - yeah right). Once again, those views are not only not Christian, but immoral and lack civility. This traditional right wing resistence greatly explains Jewish regard for civil liberties. This is indeed a fine work. I challenge all persons to read