Five brothers set out on a journey
By Eyal Nave | 14/02/2012
As the Western core disappears, the United States is becoming an anti-multicultural mosaic, a fact that does not sit with the unique identity of the Jews, since right now Jews are part of the Western core. On the fading of Jewish identity against the backdrop of fading Western identity
Chris Verene, "Sabbath", 2005
Imagine this scenario: It's the beginning of the twentieth century. Most of the Jews live in Europe. Modernity is seeping into many communities on the continent and presenting an identity and cultural challenge for millions of people who are experiencing economic, social and cultural changes. The traditional communities are falling apart, people are moving from villages to cities, skilled trades are disappearing and people's livelihoods are being replaced by machines, the traditional elites are descending, religiousness is being replaced by secularism, there is mass politicization and social pragmatism, cultural isolation – all of this is destined to have an impact on Jewish communities all around Europe. In a typical port city (Odessa, Trieste), five young Jewish brothers say a long goodbye. Each of them represents an option that many twentieth century Jews chose in light of the challenge of modernity. The significance of the choice is about preferring one dominant identity to guide their lives.
One brother chooses to maintain his ancestors' religious-Orthodox lifestyle. He will maintain his separation from the Gentiles and vigilantly adhere to the strictest reading of Jewish law. He may find himself belonging to a group from Agudath Yisrael, Hassidim, or a closed religious group led by some rabbi or tzaddik who determines everything.
The second brother adopts a stance of acclamation to society. He identifies with the land in which he was born, aspires to gain citizenship there, and defines himself as part of the nation. At the beginning, he will emphasize the religious aspects of his identity, but this will not be binding for him. He will try to integrate as well as he can – socially, professionally, even politically – in the land where he lives, so that over the years, Judaism will eventually cease being a part of his identity.
The third brother joins the revolutionary movement for tikkun olam, repairing the world. From his perspective, the Jewish crisis is part of the crisis of the bourgeois world in general. . The particularistic identities are a part of a misplaced consciousness that serves the ruling elites, so he joins the universal movement to destroy the system and build in its stead a righteous system that will express human solidarity. Presumably, during the twentieth century he will join some socialist party somewhere.
The fourth brother leaves the disputed and ambivalent continent and looks out towards the new world. He immigrates to the United States, an immigrant country that is supposed to accept him and enable him to make a new start as a Jew living in a country that (at least officially) espouses multiculturalism – or to be more precise, collective indifference towards multiculturalism. The American dream – i.e., freedom, equal opportunity, individualism, and opportunities for success, along with communal identification as a secondary culture and tolerance for every human being – is his dream, and the horizon that he aspires to reach.
The fifth brother is influenced by the idea of nationalism. He joins one of the cells of the Zionist Movement in his country, and dreams about national-social actualization in the Land of Israel, where he can awaken his Jewish identity by joining a modern national movement that has a social-justice orientation. He will settle with his group in a kibbutz, moshav, or city, he will learn Hebrew, he will change his lifestyle, he will build a new society, he will fight for its survival and realize the goal of establishing a Jewish state in the land of Israel.
Orthodoxy, assimilation, revolution, immigration to Israel, and aliyah to Israel – there were essentially the five identity options that young Jews had to choose from in the early twentieth century. These were five existential mutually exclusive solutions, since each choice entailed a rejection of the other options. The situation in which identities are blurred, intertwined, overlapping or in conflict, should have been resolved by the fact of making a choice.
Identities that are clear in retrospect
Fifty years passed. The Bolshevik revolution ended in a bloodbath. The two World Wars claimed a heavy price in Europe, and Nazi Germany eliminated most of the Jews who did not leave the continent. The extermination of the Jews damaged the Orthodox communities as well as the integrated communities, the revolutionary communities and Jews who were still debating their identities. Of the five young Jews, effectively only two survived.
The Zionist Jew became Israeli. He participated in establishing the state and continued with the task of actualizing the national project of Jewish revival in its own land, and building an ideal society. His Israeli identity seems, on the surface, stable and absolute. The revival of the Jewish state and society are his whole world, his identity is rebuilt as a new Hebrew and an Israeli, his children are first generation Israeli-born, and their Israeli identities seem perfectly understood. The destruction of European Jewry (Orthodox, revolutionaries or assimilated Bourgeois) confirmed his choice in retrospect, solidifying his earlier resolve to leave Europe and immigrate to Israeli – and the existence of American Jewry did not suit the Jewish model that he adopted. He looked with jealousy and contempt on the material components of his American brother's identity, and believed that his brother's Judaism would not withstand the abundance of the American Dream that would swallow his entire particularistic identity. In order to avert disaster, he assured his American brother that Israel would always be open to aliyah, and that he would always have a place in the state if, heaven forbid, he lost everything, or if he decided that the material abundance was threatening his descendants' Jewish identities.
Even the Jewish immigrant who became an American successfully adopted his new identity. He worked hard and advanced economically. He entered the lower middle class and saved enough money to send his children to college, children who continued to climb the social ladder. He used America's economic growth as a springboard to transform himself into successful man, whose identity and stability enabled him to send his Israeli brother presents on the holidays. He was active in his local Jewish community, went to synagogue as a social event, donated to Israel, and even occasionally thought about taking a trip to Israel. The existence of the State of Israel filled him with pride, even while he feared for its future. In any case, he always had a place to absorb his Israeli relatives who may choose to leave.
These two models of Jewish identity from the middle of the century were exclusive and absolute. They had connections between them because of the clear boundaries separating them. There were passageways, of course, but they were passageways of abandoning one identity and adopting another – an Israeli moving to America become a deserter; an American moving to Israel became an Zionist. In the context of building and empowering identity amid the optimal collective connection, new Israelis and American Jews felt that that the future of their identities was solid. The ambivalence, the neediness, the self-criticism, the bitter humor, the sense of otherness – all these phenomena that characterized European Jewry in the early twentieth century, seemed to disappear in the process of building these two identities.
Two illusions burst
However, as it turned out, this was all an illusion. The burst of the illusion of the exclusive Hebrew-sabra identity has been taking place since the 1970s, and I can waste a lot of ink talking about that, but I do not intend to do so here. Over the past few decades, the illusion of the singular and unique American-Jewish identity also burst, and it has been replaced by multiple Jewish identities that are more different than alike. The hegemonic identities that dominated twentieth century American Jewry are seriously challenged by changes in American society in general and in the Jewish community in particular, and it is worth pointing out some of the most significant changes:
Transition from the melting pot to multiculturalism and the disappearance of the Western core: Up until the last generation, the American "melting pot” model operated in a rather uniform fashion upon all immigrant groups that arrived in the New World. Over the course of two hundred and fifty years in which a new British community was formed across the Atlantic – from the early 17th century through the mid-19th century – the Anglo-Saxon culture rested at the American core. This emerged from the great immigration from Great Britain and natural positive expansion of descendants. Non-British immigrants who began to enter the United States since the mid-19th century were thrown into the Anglo-Saxon melting pot. That is, they melted into the ancient core, the one that always preserved an absolute majority vis a vis immigrant groups. The melting was always one-way: Swedes, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans all arrived in different waves to America and were absorbed by the Anglo-Saxon majority.
The absorption that took place was always into this social majority. There were some groups that absorbed quickly and absolutely, and lost all elements of their particularistic identities By contrast, non-European immigrants, such as Asians and Hispanics, along with American-born "immigrants” such as African Americans[E1], whose distance from the Western Anglo-Saxon culture was great, and therefore had difficulty in absorption. As such, over the years, they separated from society and did not join the melting pot, and were considered a failure of absorption because they held on to their unique identities.
It seems that Jews went through the process of absorption into the Anglo-Saxon melting pot while maintaining their uniqueness. Jewish identity retained an optimal balance between integration into American culture and maintaining Jewish particularistic identity. This balance was maintained during the first half of the twentieth century, but was violated towards the end of that century and disappeared completely in the last generation. Some Orthodox Jews and Israelis who form a new kind of Jewish immigrant still emphasize their uniqueness, but most American Jews adopted the stance of assimilation, completely ignoring Jewish particularistic identity.
Moreover, the melting pot model has recently been replaced by the multi-cultural model, which empowers and normalizes particularistic identities. But this process takes place after most Jews have become part of the Western absorbing culture, and it is therefore difficult and perhaps unnecessary to define them as a separate minority (as opposed to African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics or Muslims). Although this can viewed as a success, this success is accompanied by the erasure of a unique identity and by a similar process among assimilating Jews in Europe. In light of the disappearance of the European core, the United States has turned into an ant-multicultural mosaic, which no longer helps Jews who are part of the European core. Thus, paradoxically, there is nothing unique about being Jewish for many American Jews. They are part of western, American culture with its Anglo-Saxon core, and thus their identities are not unique at all.
The weakening of the progressive spirit and the rise of conservatism. Throughout the generations, Jews have been at the forefront of social reform and progressive movements in America. At the beginning, they acted on their own behalf, as part of their efforts to integrate into American society, and afterwards they acted on behalf of other minorities, out of a commitment to social change, and the process of turning America into an open, pluralistic, just, and democratic society.
This is why over the years Jews have traditionally voted for candidates who demanded change and were representatives of the Democratic party, which was established in the 1930s as a coalition of minority groups committed to fighting social injustices and repairing economic inequality. Jews joined and led the reform movement during the twentieth century, and among other things became an important component in the early progressives, marched at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, led the liberation movement at university, and led the feminist movements.
But this progressive spirit has faded and nearly disappeared over the 1980s, and along with that the Jewish spirit of social change has also weakened. The Jewish identity of social reformers went from being an asset to a liability that split the community from within. Many American Jews focused on their own careers, built themselves up economically, entered the elites within their professions, and ignored issues of social justice. Since the mid-1980s, many Jews have even crossed lines and joined the Republican Party. This switch reflects their own interests, and at times is even accompanied by the adoption of a neo-Conservative ideology, which holds more charm for some wealthy, successful Jews than reform movements of minority coalitions. The conservative Republican support for Israel also plays a role in Jews' switching parties. Although most Jews still vote Democrat and support liberal movements, a significant minority of 35-40% have become conservative Republicans.
Successful assimilation. In material terms, American Jewry is a story of phenomenal success. In one generation, Jews managed to break open barriers of formal exclusion that existed in the early twentieth century, and by the mid-twentieth century were well adjusted within middle class America. By the end of the century, they were already settled in the upper middle class, integrated into business, politics, culture, communication and academics as well as in the free professions. This assimilation was accompanied by high rates of intermarriage and lifestyles that had little overlap with Jewish life. Connections to Israel are weakening as well, although the Holocaust remains a central identity feature. But even the Holocaust takes on universal dimensions and comparative associations, which restricts its function as a component of particularistic Jewish identity.
From American Jewry to American Jewries. As American Jews become distanced from their common European ancestry, and as other groups of Jews join them (such as the half-million Israelis who have immigrated to America, as well as hundreds of thousands of FSU Jews and untold number of immigrants from Arab lands), the common denominators of Jewish identity fade.
These differences find expression not only in the issue of ethnic origin but also in lifestyle, political affiliation, religious ritual (or absence thereof), and cultural orientation. There are haredi, Orthodox, moderate, Conservative and Reform groups. There are Jews who support Israel and those who are anti-Israel, Jews who are disconnected from Israel and those who need connection to Israel for their identities. There are those on the east coast (New York and New Jersey) and those on the west coast (California) who have only fleeting connections between them. There are liberals and conservatives, Jews who fight assimilation and those who welcome it. Therefore it is difficult today to speak about American Jewry as one community with a common identity. The many identities that American Jews adopt have made Jews secondary members of different subgroups that are more different than they are alike.
Globalization, Americanization, and localization. The tension between globalization, Americanization and localization also weakens the sense of a unique Jewish identity. Ethnic groups that do not integrate well in the process of globalization adopt or strengthen alternative local identities, which may harm them in terms of social domination, but reward them with feeling of communal strength. This kind of identity gains cultural legitimacy by nurturing political identities, which also rewards them for not integrating into the global village – the politics that emphasize the local value of particular ethnic groups, regions, or lifestyles. Jews, like others who integrate well within the process of globalization, are not part of these local communities. The process of deconstruction and individuation within the global village erodes identities among groups that have replaced national identities with cosmopolitan identities, and here, too, Jews stand out vis a vis all other ethnic groups.
It seems, then, that a Jew who left Europe in the early twentieth century may have been saved from physical destruction, and may have even retained a short-term Jewish identity in the New World, but it is doubtful whether he succeeded in building a new, long-term collective Jewish identity. Even if he managed to build himself an identity in the mid-twentieth century, his children and grandchildren live in a more complex reality, amid a multiplicity of identities that completely obscures their Jewish identities.
There is an American Jewry and it is present in all aspects of life: synagogues, Jewish federations, schools, welfare institutions, universities, publishers, film and art. But it is doubtful whether this Judaism has a critical mass of Jews, since these Jews are also embedded in a dynamic of integration and assimilation, identity-switching and cultural erasure, fragmentation and globalization, which inhibit the ability to survive as a distinct significant collective in the future.
Eyal Nave is a Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and Seminar Hakibbutzim