Now there can be no doubt: A special age in the long history of Jews in America has ended.
The era – the sweetest in the ancient history of Abraham’s people – is so easily traced that it has a specific beginning and a discrete end. That honeyed time – for every Rosh Hashanah seemed to inaugurate a new year of sweetness – began on Sept. 12, 1941, and ended on Oct. 8, 2023. Bliss it was in that period to be alive, William Wordsworth would have said, had he been Jewish.
That special time – of mass tolerance and limitless possibility, of great opportunity and monumental achievement, of unqualified acceptance and genuine comfort – began the day after Charles Lindbergh, in a notorious speech in Des Moines, described Jews as “a major group leading America toward war.” His cruel, blatant antisemitism was greeted by a chorus of criticism. In an editorial titled “Against the American Spirit,” the New York Herald Tribune, at the time arguably the country’s greatest newspaper, charged that the renowned aviator “provided anti-Semites with fuel for their anti-Semitism.” The New York Post described the Lindbergh remarks as “anti-Semitism of size, so strong that it seems to have taken possession of its possessor.”
That special time – when American Jews had pierced the boardroom and the Cabinet room, when their talents were celebrated in the academy and in the Academy Awards, when bagels went mainstream and Jews were comfortable on every Main Street across a broad continental nation that Jews casually considered a modern-day Promised Land – came crashing to an end with the hatred that bubbled to the surface the day after the Hamas attack on Israel. It then metastasized to touch the very temples of achievement Jews had reached and – not so incidentally – the temples of worship Jews had planted across the land.
In that 82-year period, 44 Jews served in American presidential cabinets. In that period, more than 135 American Jews, including Saul Bellow, Joseph Brodsky, and Bob Dylan, won Nobel Prizes. In that period, a quarter of the students at Columbia University, which all but replaced City College as Manhattan’s irresistible intellectual magnet for Jews, were Jewish. In that period, Phil Ochs and Phil Specter, Benny Goodman and Irving Berlin, Barbra Streisand and Billy Joel, and Paul Simon and Paula Abdul were emblems of American musical genius. In that period, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax lit up baseball parks, Sid Luckman won an NFL championship, and basketball coaches Red Auerbach and Red Holtzman took issue with the NBA calls of referee Mendy Rudolph.
“Never before in history and likely never again,” Seth J. Frantzman – born in Maine, home-schooled in a sports camp accessible only by ski, snowshoe, or dogsled in winter – wrote in the Jerusalem Post seven years ago, “will such a small group of people create such influence as did Jews in the 20th century.”
Jews are not accustomed to applying the phrase “never again” in this context. But the world changed on Oct. 7, 2023, and not only in the Middle East. Those words no longer describe just threats in faraway countries in faraway times. They describe the way American Jews now look at the country, and their place within it: Never again a place of succor and solace.
The great universities of this country – especially Harvard, which had two Jewish presidents during this period; and Cornell, with perhaps the greatest kosher dining facility of any private secular university – no longer were the safe, welcoming harbors they had been the night before, which (in grim irony) was when the two universities engaged at Harvard Stadium in their annual gridiron meeting. The streets of the big urban centers of the East and West – where Jews walked without self-consciousness and without fear – suddenly became danger zones, psychologically if not actually.
Now we understand what Simon Schama meant when, in his magisterial 2017 “Belonging: The Story of the Jews, 1492-1900,” he described Jews as “a people for whom even the most secure asylum must always have seemed provisional.”
The Democratic Party, where huge majorities of Jews had invested their hopes and spent their votes (71 percent on average since 1968), the institution that spoke for Jews’ dreams and seemed to encapsulate their political instincts and impulses, no longer is the steady friend it had been when Harry Truman recognized Israel; when Barack Obama held the first Seder in the White House; and when Al Gore, knowing that Joseph I. Lieberman was an Orthodox Jew, invited his colleague to stay in his parents’ house during a late Friday Senate session, turned on the lights in the house so as to honor the Connecticut senator’s piety, and eventually chose him as his running mate on the 2000 national ticket.
Political liberalism, the creed that spoke to Jews’ fondest civic aspirations, is no longer the loyal comrade-in-arms it had been when Hubert H. Humphrey spoke for racial integration; when John F. Kennedy revered the prophecy of Joel (“Your old men shall dream dreams/Your young men shall see visions”) and planned, in a speech he was to deliver on the day he was assassinated, to riff off the Book of Proverbs (“Without a prophetic vision a people become unruly”); and when Barack Obama won the greatest margin among Jews of this century (78 percent).
That was then, and now is a sad now. American Jews are either withdrawing from visibility or, freighted with the kind of pride that comes from defiance, are asserting their religious and cultural identities. But it is not the same. The sense of ease, the sense of dual belonging – Jewish and American, American and Jewish – is gone. For decades, the warnings have been there, ignored in young Jews’ self-confidence but rushing back from the recesses of memory. Don’t be deceived, antisemitism is just below the surface, the wise parents and grandparents warned, arguing, to deaf post-Holocaust ears: Don’t forget that you are Jewish because no one else will forget you are Jewish. The fire of that next time is burning now.
The period 1941-2023 was not, to be sure, an unalloyed golden age for American Jews. The sociable, polite antisemitism of the city club and the golf outing furtively persisted. Eleven Jews were gunned down at prayer in Pittsburgh in 2018. But a people of conscience who saw injustice in every corner of American life – the racism against Blacks and Latinos, the centuries-long war against Native Americans – could not avert its eyes from the injustices felt by others. That is what sent, among others, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) marching in the streets with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
“We cannot live with the assumption that everything was great for Jews in America in that period,” Susannah Heschel, a Dartmouth College professor of religion and the daughter of Rabbi Heschel, told me in an interview. “Things were not great for many people in this country – and for Jews, there was always the antisemitism just below the surface.”
It was ever thus. Consider this passage from Philip Roth in his 1993 “Operation Shylock,” with its reference to the character Shakespeare created in the last years of the 16th century:
“In the modern world, the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today the Jew is on trial, in the person of the Israeli – and this modern trial of the Jew, this trial which never ends, begins with the trial of Shylock.”
At the dawn of the new century, I wrote a chapter with the cavalier title “Hosts, Not Visitors” in the book “Jews in American Politics.” In those pages, I argued that American Jews had gone from being guests in North America to having become part of the host community here in the United States:
“The great American birthright is possibility, and if American Jews share one quality at this period, it is the conviction that possibility, not ideology, is the defining element of this ancient people in this new land. Here, all things are possible, not only security and, in many cases, unimaginable material wealth, but also responsibility for assuring those elements for others, not only for fellow Jews.”
That now seems like a passage from another world. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.