For American Jews, an identity crisis


Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather before entering Citi Field for a meeting to discuss the risks of using the Internet on May 20, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City. More than 40,000 were expected to attend the rally at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, which organizers said would promote religiously responsible ways to use the Internet.


Mario Tama

The Jewish High Holidays begin Wednesday at sundown. This year's "Days of Awe" bring a somber anniversary. It is 40 years since Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur. It was as close as the Jewish state would ever come to defeat and remains a  trauma for the country.

Much has changed in the last four decades, though the intractable problem of Israel's relationship to the Palestinians remains unsolved. But the biggest change of all is within the global Jewish community.

What does it mean to be Jewish today for the world's 13.4 million Jews? This is not just a question of religion or heritage. It is a social question and a political question. As in all questions about identity, the answer is complicated but what makes this one unique is it has geopolitical consequences for the whole world.

In this series of analysis and commentary, Michael Goldfarb looks at the contemporary meaning of Jewishness in America, Israel and Europe. Goldfarb is a GlobalPost relgion writer and author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance.

LONDON — “Jew!”

The first time I was called a Jew with malicious intent was in the playground of Belmont Hills Elementary School in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It came as a surprise.

Whoever called me a Jew didn't accompany the word with a shove or a punch, but the way the word was bitten off and barked contained enough implicit violence to make it clear that it was a bad thing. I simply didn't know how to respond. 

Before too long I learned I was a "mockey" and a "kike" as well as a "Jew."  And with the help of the adults in my world I learned the working-class Catholic boys calling me names were "Wops" and "Dagos" and "Micks."

Over the next decade, through junior high and high school, the namecalling accompanied by minor fisticuffs continued sporadically. Social exclusion from the Waspy upper echelons of our school was a subtle form of anti-Semitism I also had to get used to.

None of it really hurt too much. If anything, the name-calling and the fights were a benefit. They helped define, along with religious practice and a sense of safety in my family, my clear sense of myself as being Jewish. 

It is one of the sad hallmarks of Jewish identity that difference is marked out by anti-Semitism. 
My first experiences of anti-Semitism took place in the 50s and 60s — not even two decades had passed since the Holocaust. 

The situation today is different. Today, Jewish kids are less likely to grow up experiencing that kind of anti-Semitism

The decline in anti-Semitism is a factor in changing Jewish identity, according to Steven Cohen, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College in New York. Younger Jews today have a high degree of confidence in being Jewish, says Cohen. This confidence is one of the great changes in Jewish identity over the last 80 years.

Cohen says you can trace the timeline of change via Jewish comedians.

"There's Groucho Marx, clearly Jewish but he did not acknowledge it in his act. Then you have Woody Allen, a tortured Jew, Jerry Seinfeld, a proud Jew, and then there's Jon Stewart," he said.

Despite dropping his surname Leibowitz, Stewart shows that he is comfortable with his Jewishness, says Cohen. "There is a confidence, a playfulness in his humor. He is at ease talking about families and Jewish holidays."

In interviews, Robert Putnam, author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, points to Chelsea Clinton’s marriage to a Jewish man. 

"Chelsea Clinton married this Jewish guy — that’s a perfectly normal marriage now,” Putnam told a group at Arizona State University's Center for Social Cohesion. “I assure you 25, 30, 40 years ago that would’ve been unbelievable. Everybody involved would’ve gone ballistic.”  

For an increasing number in the Jewish community, though, intermarriage is a major concern, because when a Jewish man marries outside the faith it means that his children will not be considered Jewish.

This is the other side of the Jewish identity question, not just in America, but all over the world.

The uniqueness of the Jewish community within the Abrahamic tradition is that you have to be born into it. It is a faith and ethno-national identity. It is the ethnic part of the Jewish equation that has been the source of persecution for most of the last few centuries.

In Catholicism and Islam, anyone can take instruction, perform rituals and be welcomed into that faith community. But membership in the Jewish community is genetic. Non-Jews can convert to Judaism, but it is a difficult process.

The American Jewish community is fraying at the edges. Secular, self-identified Jews are marrying out of the community at an alarming rate. Barely one in four Jews under 40 marry within the faith. Most of these young Jews do not join synagogues or take part in Jewish life — beyond family celebrations like Passover. If they have children with a non-Jewish spouse, their children are — strictly speaking — not Jewish.

Yet the Jewish population in America does not appear to be declining. This trend of secular Jews marrying out is countered by a dramatic increase in Jews embracing Orthodoxy, particularly the Chabad movement.

"There are two major trends at work," says Cohen. "The growth of Orthodox Jewry is marked by high birth rates." In fact, the Jewish population of New York is over 1 million again, primarily because Hassidic and Chabad Jews are having huge families. In 2003, one third of the city's Jews identified as Orthodox. Today that figure is 40 percent and rising

This trend is likely to continue, because those who voluntarily turn to Orthodoxy are much more likely to stay on that path, and they "retain their young more successfully," Cohen adds.

This is creating a crisis in the community. For more than a century, Jews have been one of the most liberal sub-groups in America. But religious Jews take a very dim view of contemporary liberal causes like gay and women's rights.

Cohen says despite that, American Jews are still liberal. Two-thirds voted for President Obama, for example.

I have to challenge Cohen about Jews being liberal. He says he is a sociologist. If he asks someone if they are liberal and they say yes, then he must accept their statement at face value, even if they act in an illiberal fashion in their lives.

I hear a tremendous amount of illiberal talk in my community – much of it centered around Israel. Some who vote Democrat, support gay marriage and attend a synagogue with a female rabbi, blindly support the Likud government's policies of settlement expansion. They talk about pre-emptive strikes against Iran. They listen closely to the neo-conservative leaders of AIPAC and don't know very much about liberal organizations like J Street

Israel — more than religion vs. secular — is the hinge point of Jewish identity in America today.

"I think that there's a lot of division in Jewish life," says blogger Philip Weiss. "That division is based on Israel."

For many secular Jews, support of Israel has become a new form of religion.

Israel is much more than a nation-state with a democratically elected government, where people speak a different language, and happen to be Jewish. It is a place invested with hope and mystery. There is a zealous love of Israel.

Zealous religious love often leads to sectarianism.

The American Jewish community is split between those who put blind faith in the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and those who are critical of it.

The blogosphere is on fire with verbal nastiness. It runs from the crude, like the Jewish S.H.I.T list (Self-Hating and/or Israel Threatening) to the more traditional online mailing list service like Israel Forum

Even Jewish grandmothers get in on the act.  

In college classrooms, monitors of the "correct" view of Israel take diligent notes and feed them back to Campus Watch

The media monitoring group CAMERA has at times brought pressure on media organizations it deems to be pro-Palestinian with special attention focused on Jewish reporters.

Through his caustic criticism of all shades of American’s opinions on Israel, Weiss has put himself on a ledge outside the mainstream. It is not a very comfortable perch, but the view back into the community is unobstructed.

"The Jewish community is in crisis over this. It is overwhelmingly liberal. They opposed Jim Crow. They supported Freedom Riders, the liberation movement in South Africa, and they know that what's going on in Israel with the Palestinians is that there's apartheid going on."

Weiss says it is a generational question. 

"Middle-aged Jews are very supportive of Likud and their children are giving them flack," he says.

In a recent blogpost, Weiss noted the whole subject had become so fraught that many thought it was better not to talk about Israel at all

To underline the difficulties the traditionally liberal Jewish constituency has with the subject, the blogger quotes Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, "The truth is that like many liberal American Jews — and most American Jews are still liberal — I basically avoid thinking about where Israel is going. It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide — and that’s bad for Jews everywhere, not to mention the world."

The changes in what it means to be Jewish in America, with a split developing between the new religious and non-religious, and the increasingly blurry boundaries between belief and politics is in many ways, no different from trends in other faiths.

Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism all are experiencing a new intensity of devotion among some adherents, which has led to greater sectarian tensions within their faith communities and political activism within their societies.

What makes the American Jewish situation unique is Israel. Ironically, in Israel, the same tensions are changing Jewish identity. 


Read Part Two of this series, Identity Crisis in Israel

Read Part Three of this series, Beyond the land of ghosts in Europe

In Lifestyle & BeliefLifestyleReligionBelief.

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