To blend or not to blend: the American Jewish question

A centenary celebration is a good moment to take a long view, or so thought the organizers of the star-studded kick-off panel of the American Jewish Committee event on May 1. Moderator Ted Koppel, though, quickly discovered that we, as Jews, cannot shake our past long enough to consider the present with open eyes, let alone the future.

Talmudist Adin Steinsaltz, when asked what characterized us as Jews, began on a thought-provoking note when he described our central trait as “being obnoxious,” coupled with our “dying to be like the others” and being unable to do so.

Perhaps set off by that comment, A. B. Yehoshua declared that he knew who he was — an Israeli — and had no need for others, stating that was “your problem, not my problem.” It was impossible to contemplate the future, he contended further, without admitting our “failure as a people to defend our children.” We could have done this better if we had moved in droves to our land when that opportunity arose and created Israel before the Holocaust, he said. As if that were not enough, Yehoshua suggested that it was impossible to be a complete Jew outside of Israel.

The AJCommittee panel, in short, distilled the Jewish predicament even more than its distinguished members, including Cynthia Ozick and Leon Wieseltier, succeeded in expressing. We, as a people, remain ensconced in exile, like a bug trapped in sap, and may not survive if we cannot extricate ourselves.

I do not mean this in the sense of Yehoshua’s somewhat surprising uber-Zionism, though his historical analysis may have a lot of truth to it. Israel is not the only, or necessarily always the best, place for a Jew to be Jewish.

The Jewish people, including Israel, need a strong and growing diaspora now as much as ever.

Yehoshua’s nativism, ironically, fits Steinsaltz’s diagnosis of “dying to be like others” quite nicely, as a sort of envy of a classic national identity that other countries enjoy.

Our exile problem is different; it concerns the way we think. We now have a sovereign state, but we still do not know how to think as if we do. Our instincts, both in Israel and the diaspora, remain largely those built over many centuries of tenacity, yet the persistence of those same instincts today has become the greatest threat to our survival.

Steinsaltz hit on the central tension and irony. We survived by being different, yet we also always longed to blend in, and that too became a survival tactic. Said in an impish way, his comment was, in the American Jewish context, at least as stinging as Yehoshua’s.

As someone who looked different — black-and-white garb, kippah and long beard — he seemed to be saying to the Americans on the panel and the distinguished audience: If your main priority is being American, you might succeed, but not from a Jewish perspective. You have to become comfortable with being different.

To see this, a look at the Canadian Jewish experience is instructive. Canadians and Americans, and their Jewish communities, may at first glance seem indistinguishable. Yet Jewish day schools are booming in Canada and assimilation is much less rampant compared to south of the border.

The difference seems to be one of the surrounding culture. America is a melting pot, and Jews want to melt better than anybody. Canada is not only multicultural, but its multiculturalism is the closest thing there is to being “a Canadian.” The state, for example, funds separate religious school systems run by different faiths.

So while Jews instinctively understand and often even define what it is to be an American, and strive to be that, in Canada they can be Canadian by being Jewish — and they do that with gusto, too.

This chameleon-like quality is part of our basket of exilic instincts. Canada says “don’t disappear,” so we don’t; America says “disappear,” so we do.

In America, then, we need to learn that we can be different and still American. Jews need to be as proudly “ethnic” as other hyphenated Americans and to recognize one of the beauties of America, namely that being hyphenated does not make one less American. Many non-hyphenated Americans, ironically, envy those with other identities and cultures. Jewishness may be more “in” these days for non-Jews than it is for Jews.

The idea that Jews must escape hyphenation is natural and understandable, but it is also a remnant of our exilic self-image as a small and persecuted people whose main survival strategy is to lie low. But we are not good at lying low, and it doesn’t work. German Jews were among the most assimilated on the planet.

Lying low, moreover, encourages anti-Semites because it tells them that even Jews are embarrassed by who they are.

We need to stop thinking of ourselves as a people that cannot and is not allowed to grow. Again, these notions were drummed into us for so many centuries that it is not surprising that they are hard to shake. But we must shake our strange blend of elitism and low self-esteem if we are to adapt to the central challenge of our age, which is not the world’s rejection but its embrace.

Growth and morale are intertwined. If we would not want to be anything else, why are we so convinced that no one else would want to be Jewish? Jews find racism abhorrent, yet what else can one call the attitude that only Jews are good enough to be Jews?

If we want to be like all other peoples, there is certainly at least one attribute of other religions we ought to adopt: believing that our faith and creed has something to offer just about anyone. In fact, this would be a rediscovery of Jewish instincts that were only beaten out of us by centuries of exile.

Neither Israelis nor American Jews have reason for self-satisfaction before we can acknowledge, much less confront, the dysfunctional aspects of our exilic mentality.

Saul Singer is author of “Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle and the World After 9/11” and an editor of the Jerusalem Post, where this column previously appeared.