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Jewish "Continuity" and the Challenge of America’s Free and Open Society

Allan C. Brownfeld
Summer 1995

The future of the American Jewish community is being  
discussed by some observers in increasingly apocalyptic terms. Sociologist Egon  
Mayer of Brooklyn College recently wrote that, "Fifty years after the liberation  
of the Nazi concentration camps in which European Jews faced the prospect of  
total annihilation, American Jewish life is overshadowed by the specter of group  

In Dr. Mayer’s view, "The danger this time  
is not hate and murder. It is love and marriage, more specifically interfaith  
marriage." He laments the fact that since 1985, more than half of Jews  
marrying are choosing partners from other religious backgrounds and states that,  
"The demographic prospects of American Jewry are gloomy indeed."

Various Jewish groups have, in response, launched a campaign  
focusing on "Jewish continuity." This involves programs to send Jewish  
teenagers to Israel, urging aliyah (immigration to Israel), and vigorously opposing  
inter-faith marriage.

This entire community effort, in the view of many observers,  
is seriously out of focus. Rabbi Sami Shapiro, writing in the South Florida  
Jewish Journal,
notes that, "Continuity implies an unbroken link with  
the past, yet the one defining characteristic of North American Jewry is its  
discontinuity with the past...Continuity calls Jews to marry Jews in order to  
make new Jews. Most Jews, like most Americans, don’t feel obligated in  
this way."

A thoughtful new book, Jews and the New American Scene,  
by Seymour Martin Lipset, Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University  
and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Earl Raab, who served for  
thirty-five years as Director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations  
Council and is currently director of the Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy  
at Brandeis University, explores these questions with thoroughness and rare  



Unique Experience  

The authors point out that the American experience has  
been unique in Jewish history, and was not taken into consideration by the theoreticians  
of Zionism and Jewish nationalism, for they failed to understand its dimensions  
and consequences.

In his novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, the  
chronicler of American Jewish life at the turn of the 20th century, Abraham  
Cahan, described the following scene in a Catskills hotel. The musicians were  
having trouble rousing a dining room full of successful Jewish immigrants: "Finally,  
(the conductor) had recourse to what was apparently his last resort. He struck  
up the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ The effect was overwhelming. The few  
hundred diners rose like one man, applauding. The children and many of the adults  
caught up the tune joyously, passionately...There was the jingle of newly-acquired  
dollars in our applause. But there was something else in it as well. Many of  
those who were now paying tribute to the Stars and Stripes were listening to  
the tune with grave, solemn mien. It was as if they were saying: ‘We are  
not persecuted under this flag. At last we have found a home.’ Love for  
America blazed up in my soul. I shouted to the musicians, ‘My country,’  
and the cry spread like wildfire."

The authors declare that, "In their extravagant  
style, these immigrants were applauding America for providing a new order of  
freedom, status, and opportunity for Jews."

America has, indeed, been something new in history, not  
simply in the history of Jews. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville  
writes that the U.S. is "exceptional"—that is qualitatively different  
from other nations in a variety of respects. Lipset and Raab write that, "Almost  
every country with the exception of the U.S. and the now-deceased Soviet Union  
is a historically defined nation, united by a common history, not a political  
doctrine. Though immigrants may acquire citizenship almost everywhere, the meaning  
of being English, French, German or Russian is predominantly a birthright status.  
As a new nation legitimated by a revolutionary ideology, America differed from  
all these other countries, and the meaning of being an American was different  
....As the self-conscious center of liberal revolutions from 1776 into the 20th  
century, the U.S. has been open to new citizens who are willing to accept the  
creed. Conversely, one may be proscribed as un-American regardless of birth,  
by rejecting the doctrine, by accepting an alien one. The exceptional character  
of America entailed norms of universalism and equality that were conductive  
to individualism and the development of capitalist markets. The U.S. began a  
new society, making it the one major industrialized country that is not feudal....America’s  
major difference from Europe was that social status as well as wealth could  
be secured by achievement."



Free and Equal  

From the very beginning, the authors show, "for  
the first time in history of the Diaspora since the dispersal from Roman Palestine,  
Jews in the U.S. became free to partake in the society and polity as equals  
with everyone else....The pariah status they experienced in Europe and the Islamic  
world has had no parallel in the New World."

In an essay on "American Religious Exceptionalism,"  
Edward Tiryakian points out that, "...Jews in America have not been marginalized...by  
virtue of their religion...there has been no historical ghetto experience, no  
pogroms. In fact, because of a deep-structure affinity of Calvinist Puritans  
for Judaism, it is in America that Jews have increasingly found full societal  
and cultural participation and acceptance, symbolized by widespread acceptance  
in recent years of the term ‘Judeo-Christian.’"

In the colonial period, Jews were already an intrinsic  
part of the American society. The playwright Joseph Addison wrote in 1712 that  
Jews were "the pegs and nails in a great building, which, though they are  
but little value in themselves, are absolutely necessary to keep the whole frame  
together." George Mason said the Jews "were not only noted for their  
knowledge of mercantile and commercial affairs, but also for their industry,  
enterprise, and probity."

On July 4, 1788 in Philadelphia, at the greatest parade  
the country had seen, held to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution  
by the requisite number of states, a 15-year old Jewish boy named Naphtali Phillips  
marched and later described the event in a letter, making special mention of  
the food served the marchers: "There was a number of long tables loaded  
with all kinds of provisions, with a separate table for the Jews who (for religious  
reasons) could not partake of the meat from the other tables; but they had a  
full supply of soused (pickled) salmon, bread and crackers, almonds, raisins,  
etc. This table was under the charge of an old cobbler named Isaac Moses."  
In the parade, a rabbi walked arm in arm with ministers and priests. The authors  
declare that, "The favorable position of Judaism in early America was a  
function of the special character of American Christianity. The sectarianism  
of the religious sphere is an important dimension of American exceptionalism,  
contributing...to a genuine religious pluralism..."

In his message to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island in  
1790, George Washington stated that in the new republic "all possess alike  
liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship." Even more significantly,  
at a time when Jews lacked citizenship rights in Europe, Washington emphasized  
that the patronizing concept of "toleration...of one class of people by  
another" has no place in America, that Jews are as much Americans as anyone  
else. Thomas Jefferson stated that America was different from Europe and that  
the discrimination against Judaism prevailing there did not exist here, where  
all are "on an equal footing." He approved of heterogeneity which  
he believed was the best defense of liberty.



Achievement Drive  

Because "Jewish characteristics and values, including  
their achievement drive, have been especially congruent with the larger culture,"  
write Lipset and Raab, "Jews have done uncommonly well in America...These  
traits strongly resemble the modal national pattern set by the New England Protestant  
sectarians. Writing in the 1920s, the sociologist Robert Park suggested that  
Jewish history and culture be taught in the schools so other Americans can learn  
what America is. Park argues that the Jews were quintessentially American."  

Jewish success in America’s free and open society  
has been widely noted. The authors report that, "...Jews achieve higher  
levels of education, professional status and income than all other subgroups....During  
the last three decades Jews (who constitute less than 3 percent of the national  
population) have made up 50 percent of the top 200 intellectuals, 40 percent  
of American Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, 20 percent of professors  
of the leading universities, 40 percent of partners in the leading law firms  
of New York and Washington...At the beginning of the 1990s, 87 percent of college-age  
Jews were enrolled in higher education as compared with 40 percent for the population  
at large...In sum, the scions of the German Jews who immigrated in the 19th  
century and the European Jews who came later have been able to become the best  
educated, the most-middle class and ultimately the most affluent ethnoreligious  
group in the country."

Given the history of religious freedom and equality in  
the American society, why are Jewish organizations so troubled about the Jewish  
future? The authors argue that, "American exceptionalism has been a double-edged  
sword. The same factors that encouraged Jews to partake in America’s abundance  
have undermined traditional Judaism and encouraged Jews to integrate into the  
majority society. Most American Jews are not willfully abandoning their identity  
in the way that some did in other times and places, particularly in Europe,  
in order to avoid oppression and disadvantage. The erosion of identity is mainly  
a natural product of living in America. But if Jews are not doing anything ‘wrong,’  
neither is America. The problem is that American society has been doing what  
most people think is right: providing citizens with individual freedom to achieve  
success and status on the basis of their capacity, unencumbered by ancestral  

In 1783, on the occasion of the end of official hostility  
between Great Britain and the U.S., Mordechai Sheftall, a second-generation  
Jew in Georgia who had been active in the Revolution, summed up the feeling  
of Jews about America when he wrote to his son: "An intier (entire) new  
scene will open it self, and we have the world to begin againe." Lipset  
and Raab state that, "...there was another aspect of America’s...freedom  
which he could not foresee: that it would be so open and egalitarian that second  
and subsequent generation Jews would enter the larger society and drop away  
from involvement in the ancestral community...That kind of identity crisis brought  
on by the pressure to assimilate...also a function of exceptional America—is  
today more threatening than ever to Jews."



Problems of Continuity  

The problems with regard to "continuity" exist,  
the authors show, for virtually every religious and ethnic group in the American  
society. The "melting pot" is at work. Michael Lind, a senior editor  
of The New Republic, writes that, "The European ethnic groups that  
seemed so distinct at the beginning of this century have almost completely faded  
away. Four-fifths of Italian-Americans born since 1950 have married outside  
their ethnic group. Half of all American Jews marry gentiles. Nor is intermarriage  
limited to white Americans. One third of Hispanic Americans and one-half of  
Asian-Americans marry outside their officially designated categories...the American  
melting pot continues to bubble."

While ethnic separatism in the open American society  
is not possible, even if it were desirable, what is possible, the authors argue,  
is the transmission of religious faith. Yet, the substitution of Jewish "ethnicity"  
and identification with Israel for religion, has been, the authors believe,  
counterproductive: "Give their low level of religious commitment and practice,  
if Jews are to prove even a partial exception to the almost inexorable American  
pattern of decline in tribal cohesion, they will presumably need some cohesive  
factor beyond defensiveness on behalf of themselves or Israel."

Zionism has never been a dominant philosophy among American  
Jews, the authors show. Even those who called themselves "Zionists,"  
never meant that they and their families viewed Israel as their "homeland"  
and hoped to emigrate. They write that, "Zionism became a movement of some  
respectable consequence in America only after the involvement of Louis Brandeis,  
then a wealthy and influential Boston lawyer. Brandeis brought the benevolent  
American temper to the movement in this country. One Jewish leader later wrote  
that the Zionism of Brandeis and his followers ‘was almost entirely philanthropic  
in nature. It was no more than a desire to "help others." They did  
not feel that they needed Zionism for themselves in any way.’"

The vigorous opposition to Zionism among American Jews  
is described in some detail. In 1869, a conclave of rabbis explicitly renounced  
the idea of a homeland in Palestine. When Reform rabbis adopted the Pittsburgh  
Platform in 1885, they formally took the position that "we consider ourselves  
no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither  
a return to Palestine...nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the  
Jewish state." In 1897, with the first Zionist congress approaching in  
Basel, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, then president of the Central Conference of American  
Rabbis, commented on "the utopian idea of a Jewish state." He declared:  
"We are perfectly satisfied with our political and social position. It  
can make no difference to us in what form our fellow citizens worship God, or  
what particular spot on the earth’s surface we occupy. We want freedom,  
equality, justice and equity to reign and govern the community in which we live.  
This we possess in such a fullness that no state whatever could improve on it.  
The new messianic movement over the ocean does not concern us at all."  



Nazi Genocide  

After World War II, shocked by the genocide of the Nazis,  
the majority of American Jews supported the creation of Israel, but viewed it  
primarily as a refuge for the victims of war, not for themselves in any sense.  
Referring to the opposition to Zionism by the American Council for Judaism,  
which continues to maintain the philosophy of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1887,  
Lipset and Raab are seriously in error when they write that, "The Council  
for Judaism faded away." Not only is the Council still very much in existence  
but, as the authors show, the Council’s philosophy is indeed shared by  
the majority of American Jews. This may not be articulated, but it is evident  
in a multitude of ways.

While Jewish groups have, since World War II, often substituted  
concern for Israel for religion, the fact is that American Jews and Israelis  
are growing apart at a rapid pace. "There are signs that the common cultural  
and spiritual identity has in fact been eroding rather than growing for most  
Jews," the authors conclude. Recent national surveys show that only 34  
percent of Jews under 40 registered as "high" in their attachment  
to Israel. In a 1990 survey of Jews formally affiliated with nine middle-sized  
American Jewish communities, only 40 percent said they felt "close"  
to the Israeli people while 75 percent felt "close" to the American  
people. When the Los Angeles Times asked a national sample of Jews in  
1988 which of three qualities was most important to their Jewish identity, over  
five out of every ten American Jews in the sample, a majority, chose "equality,"  
two said Israel, and two said "religion." The authors provided this  
assessment: "Those indicators of attachment suggests that emotional and  
cultural affinity to Israel is relatively high for about two to three out of  
ten American Jews. Interest in Israel is peripheral at best for a similar proportion  
at the other end of the scale. For half of American Jewry, Israel is not at  
the center of their Jewish identity..." Charles Liebman, an Israeli political  
scientist of American origin, believes that, with the exception of Orthodox  
rabbis, Israel "is not a spiritual, cultural or ideological center for  
American Jews."

If Jewish continuity cannot be based on a connection  
with Israel, it is equally irrational to believe that such an identity can be  
based on "defensiveness," an area of much activity by Jewish organizations.  



Ancient Fears  

Jewish concern about anti-Semitism is, Raab and Lipset  
show, based on ancient fears caused by persecution in other times and places,  
not on the American reality. In 1985, about a third of those affiliated with  
the Jewish community in the San Francisco area said, in response to a questionnaire,  
that Jewish candidates could not be elected to Congress from San Francisco.  
yet, three out of the four congressional representatives from that area—as  
well as the two state senators and the mayor of San Francisco—were,  
in fact, well-identified Jews at the time the poll was conducted. And they had  
been elected by a population that was about 95 percent non-Jewish.

Because of the reality of their lives, which contradicts  
the notion held by some, particularly Zionist theoreticians, that anti-Semitism  
is, somehow, endemic to the world, American Jews are not likely to remain Jewish  
out of some "defensive" need. "As a consequence," the authors  
write, "the large sector of American Jews who are primarily ‘defensive’  
in their group identity will tend to melt away, to leave the community. That  
prophecy is largely based on what is happening within American society itself....Defensiveness  
is not a long-range prescription for tribal cohesion in option-rich America."  

Part of the concern for "continuity" confronting  
American Jews is similar to that which other American groups have faced. An  
Irish immigrant, Agnes Kelley, writing in the 1870s to her family, expressed  
the positive side of the American integrative experience with these words: "When  
we left (Ireland) we left the old world behind, we are all American citizens  
and proud of it." Another, Jane Crowe, wrote, "It is home to us now."  
Yet at the same time some immigrants were voicing the downside of the tribal  
dilemma. As another Irish-American put it in 1882, "How shall we preserve  
our identity? How shall we preserve our faith and nationality, through our posterity?"  

Clearly, "ethnicity" cannot be preserved in  
the American society, nor should it be, lest we find ourselves in a Balkanized  
country rather than in a unified society which has created a new nationality,  
comprised of men and women of every race, nation and faith. "In the new  
century of the coming millennium," state Lipset and Raab, "America  
may finally approach the destiny Ralph Waldo Emerson once saw for it, the construction  
of ‘a new race...as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting  
pot of the Dark Ages.’ His comment reminds us that the ancestry groups  
of this nation do not date back to Adam, or even to the Tower of Babel...but  
were themselves created in the crucible of history. America may well outgrow  
the tribal dilemma. Its historic role may have been to demonstrate a new political  
idea which allows associational diversity to flourish within an integrated,  
achievement-oriented society—but neither that diversity nor the communities  
to which humans typically aspire need to be based on ancient national backgrounds."  



Integrative Forces  

The authors predict that, "Give the inexorably integrative  
forces of American society and the resultant parallel trends among Jews, it  
is reasonable to predict that the Jewish community as a whole will be severely  
reduced in numbers by the middle of the next century."

The extent to which the remaining core will survive,  
or even possibly recoup, they believe, "will depend on more intrinsic factors  
than defensiveness, structural similarities, or even institutional depth....There  
is no escaping the fact that the religious dimensions of Jewishness is the key  
to continuity. This is obviously true for the relatively small minority who  
are personally devout, but it is also probably true for the much larger body  
of Jews who are primarily affiliated for communal reasons. If they yield their  
sense of religious tradition and history attached to the Jewish community, they  
will eventually lose any sense of its particularity. In that sense, experience  
strongly suggests that, given the possibility of fuller integrative achievement  
and absent the need for defensive reactions, other communal and familial involvements  
will not sustain commitment."

The rhetoric we now hear from groups promoting a variety  
of programs to further "Jewish continuity" is often irrelevant, if  
not counterproductive. It is, Lipset and Raab write, "often tautological:  
Jews would be better and stronger Jews if only they would be better and stronger  
Jews. Research projects have been multiplied in an effort to find the social  
engineering that will fix the problem. But, for the most part, the problem is  
beyond social engineering, as it is for other tribal groups; it is rooted in  
the dynamics of American society."

Particularly fanciful are Zionist efforts to convince  
American Jews that they are, somehow, in "exile" in their native country  
and that a foreign country, Israel, is really their "homeland." Only  
a relative handful of American Jews have accepted this notion and emigrated  
to Israel. Tens of thousands of Israelis, on the other hand, have emigrated  
to America. Further pursuit of such a policy is certain not to attract young  
American Jews but to drive them away.



Religion and "Ethnicity"  

Because organized Judaism in America has often placed  
religion in the background and placed Israel, "ethnicity," and other  
concerns in the forefront of its attention, many Jews seeking religion and spirituality  
have found it in other sectors. The Guru of a prominent Buddhist movement once  
came to the U.S. to find out why a majority of his members in this country were  
of Jewish background. The members of the Hari Krishna sect and the followers  
of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon are disproportionately of Jewish ancestry.

The authors warn against pessimism, pointing to the fact  
that all through history there have been dire predictions about an end to Judaism  
and the Jewish people. According to Simon Rawidowicz, "He who studies Jewish  
history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora  
period which did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain."  
Such sentiments, Lipset and Raab declare, "would give pause to any prophet  
of the Jewish people’s demise. Of course, history documents that some past  
Jewish communities have severely declined, but as Nathan Glazer hopefully  
cautions with respect of American Jewry, ‘There is no reason to believe  
that there will not be further surprises in the future.’"

What the authors particularly lament are those efforts  
which would isolate Jews from their fellow Americans. Opposition to inter-faith  
marriage, they point out, flies in the face of the open society and the values  
held by most Americans of all faiths. What can survive in America in the long  
run, they believe, is not Judaism as a "tribal" identity but only  
Judaism as a religious faith: "...the remnant—both the more devout  
and the fellow-travelers—will tend to be those who feel somehow connected  
to the religious core of their tribal identity. As a result, unlike most ancestral  
groups whose defensive need has waned, the remaining body of American Jewry  
may well be significantly less ‘fragile’ than it is now. Yet, even  
that religious core cannot be durably nourished by isolationist remedies. The  
tribal dilemma in America is not to be solved for most Jews—or most members  
of this country’s ancestral groups—by requiring them to forego those  
exceptional qualities of American society that have so beneficently created  
that dilemma."



Recoiling from Freedom  

It is sad, indeed, to see so many in the organized Jewish  
community recoiling from the freedom of the open American society. Some, it  
seems, would like to rebuild ghetto walls which never existed in America, but  
did provide for Jewish "continuity" in medieval Europe. Professor  
Israel Shahak of the Hebrew University points to the fact that, "A great  
many present-day Jews are nostalgic for that world, their lost paradise, the  
comfortable closed society from which they were not so much liberated as expelled.  
A large part of the Zionist movement always wanted to restore it—and this  
part has gained the upper hand."

All through history, some Jewish leaders have preferred  
the control they were able to wield in closed, ghettoized societies. In a letter  
written in 1832, the famous Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg (now Bratislava),  
in what was then the autonomous Hungarian Kingdom in the Austrian Empire, wrote  
of the Jews in Vienna, in Austria proper, who had been granted considerable  
individual rights. He laments the fact that since the Jewish congregation in  
Vienna lost is powers to punish offenders, the Jews there had become lax in  
matters of religious observance, and adds, "here in Pressburg, when I am  
told that a Jewish shopkeeper dared to open his shop during the Lesser Holidays,  
I immediately send a policeman to imprison him."

Ironically, some Zionist leaders even welcomed the ascent  
of Nazism in its early years because it would force German Jews to identify  
as something other than "German." Dr. Joachim Prinz, a Zionist leader  
in Germany who would later emigrate to the U.S. and become a leader in the World  
Jewish Congress, published a 1934 book Wir Juden (We Jews) in which he  
said that the Nazi requirement that Jews were forced to identify themselves  
as Jews was "the fulfillment of our desires." He declared that, "We  
want assimilation to be replaced by a new law: the declaration of belonging  
to the Jewish nation and Jewish race....Only he who honors his own breed and  
his own blood can have an attitude of honor towards the national will of other  

Something New in History  

The fact is that America is something new in human history,  
which authors Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab understand very well. In its  
open marketplace of ideas, Judaism can survive as a religion if it is meaningful  
and relevant to the spiritual needs of Americans. It cannot survive as an ethnic  
or "tribal" identity. Continuing discussion of programs to send young  
people to Israel to discover their "identity," or to fight an anti-Semitism  
which exists at the fringes of society, will hardly promote the "continuity"  
its advocates so fervently desire.

Jews should not fear freedom, but welcome it. Abba Eban  
once said that, "The Jews are a people who cannot take ‘Yes’  
for an answer." American Jews have an opportunity to prove him wrong, if  
only they have the will and confidence to do so. •



Seymour Martin Lipset  

and Earl Raab,  

Harvard University Press,  

239 Pages,  


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