By Benjamin Kerstein
The unprecedented rise of antisemitism in the United States has taken many by surprise, in particular, because it is, for the most part, new in American history.
For the first time, antisemitism is being “mainstreamed.” It has emerged as a major political and social phenomenon on the far-right and the far-left, in the Muslim community and certain sectors of the Black community. American Jews appear to be facing a perfect storm.
No one in the Jewish community seems to know quite what to do about this, but they know they must do something. It is possible that the answer to this urgent question may be found by asking what American Jews’ primary relationship with America has been until now, since it is this relationship that has been disturbed by the tidal wave of hatred.
For the most part, the relationship has been defined by a single ideology, and it is an ideology in the most literal sense, a way of conceiving of and being in the world: assimilation.
Put simply, the Jews made an unspoken bargain with the United States: America would accept the Jews as free and equal citizens, and in return, Jews would do everything possible to become Americans as this was understood at the time.
Until quite recently, this appeared to be working. Over time, assimilation came to be seen as a done deal: The Jews had succeeded in becoming Americans in every sense, even the most Orthodox among them. They were proud of it, they embraced it and they began to take it for granted.
But they were wrong. In the face of the new American antisemitism (a phrase I had hoped never to write), it is clear that assimilation has failed. It didn’t work. To the surprise of many, American Jews turned out to be Jews just like all other Jews. They have discovered, or at least sense, that they are not exceptions to history.
What, then, should American Jews do?
Some of the more fervent among us, mostly American Jews who have moved to Israel, are urging immediate aliyah, but this is at best unrealistic, and American Jews have a right to attempt to continue to be Americans.
On the other extreme, there are Jews who have doubled down on assimilation, asserting that it can be achieved if the Jews completely divest themselves of any Jewish partisanship (especially their attachment to Israel) and appease the antisemites by becoming exactly like them. Needless to say, this would be an abomination and effectively erase the American Jewish community by making them indistinguishable from those who hate them — the ultimate endgame, perhaps, of assimilation.
Somewhere between these two extremes is a large contingent that might be called Jews of indifference. Children of decades of unquestioned assimilation, they lack a religious connection to Judaism and regard Israel with disinterest at best. They feel little or no urgency about the rise of the new antisemitism, as they are not visibly Jewish and have only the vaguest sense of solidarity with the rest of the community. Thus, they have largely escaped the current upheaval unscathed and see no reason why they will not continue to do so. To the extent that they think about it at all, they appear to believe that apathy will save them.
Their answer to the rise of American antisemitism is, in other words, to do nothing. If anything is certain, it is that this is not a viable option.
There is a certain model that might be adopted, however, though it is uncomfortable for many on both the left and right of the Jewish community because it has often been wielded as a blunt scythe through American society: identity politics.
Today, a great many American minorities — Black Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQ people and numerous others — have made their identity as minorities an essential part of their way of being in the world. They feel a strong sense of compact solidarity, which demands an essential struggle, and they formulate their political and social ambitions accordingly.
Though this does present, as critics point out, the threat of balkanization, it nonetheless grants these groups considerable power, above all because it makes them strong, militant and unafraid to express their anger. These are delicate materials, but they are often essential to social change.
Except, perhaps, for Asian Americans, American Jews are the only minority group that has not adopted this stance. Still clinging to their old ideology, they have no identity politics.
To overcome antisemitism, this must change. American Jews must become strong, militant and unafraid of expressing their anger, not to separate themselves from America but to become part of it on different terms. They should not seek diffusion into American society but engage with it as a compact minority that has replaced the urge to embrace conformity with a particularist identity. An identity that must be accepted by the majority in the same way the majority has accepted, albeit after many troubles, that of other minority groups.
There are, thankfully, some indications that American Jews are moving in this direction. Jews are now accepted as a “protected group” under the Civil Rights Act. There is a small but growing contingent of young Jewish activists who take a more militant and uncompromising stand against antisemitism and for their Jewish identity. And the American Jewish leadership has succeeded in pushing antisemitism to the top of America’s sociopolitical agenda.
We may hope that these seeds continue to grow, however much it may disturb a century-old ideology in which so much hope was placed only to be frustrated by history. What American Jews require now is a new hope. If they wish to remain Americans, they must find a new way of being Americans. And while it is still in a delicate infancy, this may finally be taking shape.
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv.