No religion or culture is more beholden to history than Judaism. Is there any way to prevent that?
…Nostalgia is huge in the Jewish religion – not as huge as for Christians or Muslims, but huge nevertheless. Two-thousand years after we lost it, we’re all still paying lip service to the fact that our most cherished goal is to slaughter goats on the world’s most prized piece of real estate. Our religion would have us believe that this is what our ancestors endured two-thousand of persecution to accomplish. If that is the case, I’m getting my circumcision reversed tomorrow.
The great strength and weakness of Jewish communities is that they are intractably slow in adapting to new circumstances. Even the Catholic Church changes faster. The centuries pass, empires rise and fall; but Orthodox Jews still chant the same prayers, circumcise every male child, don’t eat pork, refuse to mix linen and wool in their clothes, and segregate women from men. It is the Jewish mentality to find what works, and then to dig our fingernails into that solution as far into posterity as they go. There will be female priests in the Catholic Church long before there are female Orthodox Rabbis.
It is a mentality that goes nearly as far into the more recent branches of Judaism as it does into orthodoxy. However far Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, or Assimilationist Jews rise, the mentality seems to stay the same. History goes on, the debates within a society rage, but to a certain extent – it’s other people’s problem. I believe that there’s a part of every Jewish person which feels this way, and Jewish people who are particularly committed to another movement do so in part as a rebellion against their Jewish background; which like Chinese civilization, sees the concerns of the moment as the blink of an eye within time’s larger span.
In civilization after civilization, when things are at their best, we Jews begin to enter a state of denial; and the denial only increases in intensity as the years go on. Rather than accept that things are not as good as they once were, we try to maintain them precisely as they were long past when it was possible. At the end of the last century, many Jews seemed to believe that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Josef II, and his beneficent tolerance of Jews, would live forever. But World War I, ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the 20’s, many Jews believed that the Weimar Republic could last – they even believed it would return after Hitler was elected Chancellor. By the 30’s, many Jews still believed that Stalin and the Soviet Union would be the savior of the Jewish people – much good that did us.
In all those cases, many Jews believed in the permanence of their position well past the point that they went down with the countries who housed them. By the time most Jews realized there was no place for them in Central or Eastern Europe, it was too late to save themselves. The Jews with enough foresight to emigrate to Israel and America survived. They too believe in the permanence of their well-being in these states. For nearly a hundred years, they’ve been right. But for how much longer will they be?
In 2012, we are faced – as always – with a Jewish state on the perpetual verge of extinction – encircled on all sides by hostile, dangerous enemies and ruled by a right-wing government who believes that enough displays of force will intimidate their enemies into preventing attacks. America is still the greatest shelter the Jewish people have ever had, yet America is changing more quickly than we can imagine. We no longer live in the mid-20th century, and the certainties of that era have long since ended. Yet many Jews act as though our good treatment will be permanent.
Perhaps there’s good reason to feel this way. America’s not going anywhere any time soon, and Israel is perhaps the one country in the world to maintain a boom economy through the Great Recession. Nevertheless, America, Israel, and their relationships are changing.
Even in the worst possible situation - even if the Tea Party is able to dictate terms to America’s government, even if America’s entire middle class is obliterated, even if all of America's works are privately owned by Chinese investors – America’s Jews will be just fine. For better or worse, it’s true that a disproportionate number of Jews make upper class incomes (the average Jewish household makes $50,000 a year, $8,000 more than the average US household) – but if the Middle Class vanishes, Jewish charities will ensure that other Jews are relatively well provided for in comparison to other Americans. Like in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the income of the wealthy will not be threatened, and Jews will continue to contribute disproportionately to American society – perhaps more than ever. Meanwhile, Israel will remain, as ever, industrious and innovative. And while the average income in the rest of the world plummets, Israel will continue to thrive. And because Israel thrives, wealthy people will invest more and more money into Israel. And thus would likely begin anew all the conspiracy theories about Jewish control, corruption, and conspiracy. We know how that ends…
I have no idea how far in the future the next atrocity against the Jewish people will occur. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that another such atrocity will most definitely happen. And Jews will unwittingly do everything within their power to speed up the process. Every Jew should read Amos Elon’s unforgettable book about the Jews of Germany: The Pity of It All. Towards the end, Elon discusses how German Jews were the last people to maintain their belief in the Weimar Republic. Even during the Great Depression as Nazis were assassinating hundreds of political figures, Jews believed that Nazism was no more a threat to Germany than Communism, and if Jews simply refused to take a side and pay no heed to prevailing winds, this too would pass.
American Jews are well-known for their liberalism, but reports of Jewish liberalism were always a bit exaggerated. Ronald Reagan got 39% of the Jewish vote to Jimmy Carter’s 45 in 1980. Dwight Eisenhower (no friend of Israel) got 40% of the Jewish vote against Adlai Stevenson’s 60 in 1956. Jews have always been sensitive (some – not me, would say oversensitive) about shifts to anti-semitism, and most Jews have always been wary of any extreme belief. Sometimes, this charge against extremism comes at the worst moments. Running the centrist Americans Elect movement to provide a moderate alternative in this election was Peter Ackerman – chairman of Rockport Capital, former head of Freedom House and founder of the International Center on Violent Conflict . Its principal donor was Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks. Its primary voice in the press was Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Well-known Jews all, but they founded this movement at the very moment when it was clear that centrism was no longer a legitimate option for America in the foreseeable future. America had just elected a Democratic president whose entire campaign was founded on a message of unity, and the overtures to unify government were completely re-buffed by Republicans. Democrats are now the American party of the center as well as the left, yet many Jews persist in the thought that bipartisanship is still an option.
While assimilated American Jews embrace the left, the Orthodox community goes further and further into the arms of America’s Religious Right. The Religious Right not only believes in the bellicose policies of the Israeli right wing, they actively encourage it and wish Israel were moreso. But what happens if conservative religious people in America become destitute and their leaders require a scapegoat to explain why? What happens if Arab countries embrace democracy and are no longer threats to America? What happens if a significant portion of American Christians end up working for Israeli corporations without American government guaranteeing them a living wage? Will there be any reason for this alliance to continue?
Those Jews who wish to maintain some semblance of religion are caught in the middle. Taking a stand with one or the other is equated in their minds with taking a stand on Judaism between orthodoxy and non-belief. And just as it happened before, and just as it will one day happen again, Jews will long for a solution that does not exist until after it’s too late. I guarantee you, Jews will be the last ethnic group still looking back to the wonderful days of bipartisanship when every other group’s abandoned it for an entire lifetime. Just as Jews are to parties, no group has a longer track record to being late to historical realizations than the Jewish people.