Jack Wertheimer: I want to add one note to what Ruth has just said: when it comes to Israel, American Jews have the empathy of the American public. One of the reasons that these organisations have been so effective, and this is where I part company with those so paranoid about the so-called Israel lobby, is that the American people retain a great deal of sympathy for the State of Israel. We know this from survey research that is conducted regularly.
Ruth, your comments dealt very much with the posture, the positioning of the American Jewish community vis-à-vis the wider world, a very important theme and especially important in comparison to Jewish communities in Europe which feel far more besieged. But in the lines you quoted, Daniel, I was referring to internal Jewish cohesiveness and attachment: how well connected are Jews to some aspect of American Jewish life? Here, I want to reflect on a problem. You started talking, Ruth, about the 1930s, when some of the glaring weaknesses of American Jewish politics were revealed. But there were some important lessons American Jews learned from those weaknesses.
In the post-World War II period a remarkable infrastructure of Jewish organisations was created, and a sense of cohesiveness came into existence which might be called "the post-World War II consensus." This was built on two fundamental pillars. One was an almost wall-to-wall consensus among American Jewish organisations — certainly their leaders — in support of Israel, making the case for Israel as a democracy surrounded by dictatorships, if not by countries that were sympathetic to communism. The other pillar was liberal politics, as understood then. In the post-war era, this primarily meant opposition to discrimination against any Americans. Whether that concern was based entirely on altruism on the part of Jews, or on a hard-headed understanding that Jewish life would be imperilled if discrimination against any American groups were permissible, is secondary to the fact that Jewish organisations were unified in their posture on equality and in opposition to discrimination.
In time, these two consensus positions have begun to erode. We have lost our consensus or even the will to forge consensus positions that would bring about a measure of cohesiveness. We have also lost the spirit of joining and an understanding that Jewish politics is about marshalling our forces to make the case for Jewish need. In part due to the post-war consensus and in large measure due to American mores of the time, joining or as sociologists call it "associationalism" became the norm. People joined synagogues and national membership organisations. Living according to the "American Way," as President Eisenhower famously put it, meant joining a religious congregation. That sense of connection with an organised Jewish life is not disappearing, but it is eroding in our own time. Membership in national organizations is way down, as is synagogue affiliation.
To be sure, there are important parallels between Jewish patterns and what's happening on the American scene in general. Ruth has a colleague at Harvard, Robert Putnam, who has famously written on this question, showing that the decline in social capital is not a uniquely Jewish challenge, but it's certainly one that the American Jewish community must confront. I am struck by the gravitation of some to greater involvement, even as larger numbers are disengaging from Jewish life. We see this bipolar model at work when we measure religious connection, engagement with the State of Israel, involvement in Jewish study, and Jewish giving.
DJ: Liberalism is still a defining characteristic of modern Jewish life, but is there not a contradiction now between liberal politics and support for the State of Israel, a tension that wasn't there before? And if Jack is right and some of this thick association and vigorous community life is weakening, then won't that in the long run weaken the ability of Jews to defend themselves against anti-Semites, critics of Israel and so on?
- The Socialism of Fools
- The Anti-Elitist Elite Versus the Underclass
- Putting A Value On Human And Animal Life
- Is China Really a Threat to us?
- Will Germany be a Divided Nation Again?
- Europe, America and the Coalition
- Incurable Romantics
- Staving Off Despair: On the Use and Abuse of Pessimism for Life
- Can the Atlantic Coalition Hold?
- Has Britain Found a Role Yet?
- Life, Death and the Meaning of Cancer?
- Is the Party Really Over for Labour?
- Should Baby Boomers Feel the Pinch?
- Will the Tories Give us the Schools We Deserve?
- What Would Keynes Say?
- How European are the British?
- Speaking Truth Unto the BBC
- Booking a Place in History
- When Britain Feared the Blackshirts
- Brown’s Britain is Bankrupt