Jews be­lieved the U.S. was ex­cep­tional. But we were wrong.

Our progress helped ob­scure the truth about Amer­i­can big­otry, says his­to­rian Lila Cor­win Ber­man

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Lila Cor­win Ber­man is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory and the di­rec­tor of the Fe­in­stein Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Jewish His­tory at Tem­ple Univer­sity.

Iam a his­to­rian of Amer­i­can Jews. My morn­ing last Satur­day be­gan with a bar mitz­vah at our syn­a­gogue in Philadel­phia; an hour into it, I left with my son to take him to a squash les­son at a pri­vate club. In my pro­fes­sion, we call this “the Amer­i­can-Jewish syn­the­sis”: the abil­ity to be Jewish and Amer­i­can all at once. His­to­ri­ans like me have spent decades ex­plain­ing how and why Jews have been able to achieve this.

Then I saw the news of the Tree of Life shoot­ing in Pitts­burgh. In my un­furl­ing of emo­tions — in­clud­ing vis­ceral anx­i­ety about the safety of my daugh­ter, whom I had left at syn­a­gogue — I con­fronted a no­tion that my train­ing as an Amer­i­can Jewish his­to­rian had not equipped me to un­der­stand. In fact, it had done the op­po­site: It had al­lowed me to be­lieve that the United States was an ex­cep­tional place for Jews. The Amer­i­can Jewish story as writ­ten and taught by his­to­ri­ans like me has been one of progress, of steadily inch­ing past old dan­gers to suc­cess in a new land. Sixty per­cent of Jews in Amer­ica have com­pleted col­lege or grad school. A larger share of Jews than of any other re­li­gious group earns in­comes over

$100,000. Jews can feel at home in Amer­ica more eas­ily than we could any­where else in the his­tory of the world.

What I’d never truly con­tem­plated was whether this story of Amer­i­can Jewish ex­cep­tion­al­ism can last.

From a very early time, Jews have wanted to be­lieve that Amer­ica is dif­fer­ent from other places. In the fa­mous cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and the con­gre­gants at a New­port, R.I., syn­a­gogue, Amer­i­can Jews sup­plied the first pres­i­dent with the lan­guage to ex­plain why En­light­en­ment hopes could be­come re­al­ity in the United States: the gov­ern­ment “to big­otry gives no sanc­tion, to per­se­cu­tion no as­sis­tance,” they wrote to the pres­i­dent, and he echoed those words back to them.

Through­out the 19th cen­tury, even as Jews in the United States faced prej­u­dice — bans on their abil­ity to hold pub­lic of­fice, of­fi­cial ex­pul­sion or­ders and myr­iad forms of so­cial ex­clu­sion — they con­tin­ued to voice their faith that Amer­ica was a bet­ter place than oth­ers where Jews had lived. Po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­stric­tions, in­clud­ing pun­ish­ing com­mu­nal taxes ex­tracted in ex­change for the right to con­duct Jewish life, had be­dev­iled Jews in many Euro­pean coun­tries. Here, Jews could build syn­a­gogues and even get tax ex­emp­tions for them, just as churches did, or in­cor­po­rate vol­un­tary as­so­ci­a­tions legally and par­tic­i­pate in Amer­ica’s ex­pand­ing civic life.

When a swell of Jewish im­mi­grants ar­rived from East­ern Europe later that cen­tury, they learned to see the United States as “The Promised Land” (the ti­tle of a fa­mous im­mi­grant au­to­bi­og­ra­phy), de­spite rising na­tivism. Eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity, paired with le­gal pro­tec­tions, fu­eled Jews’ pa­tri­o­tism. Al­though many im­mi­grants pined for the homes and fam­i­lies they had left be­hind, they em­braced Amer­ica, en­rolling in classes to learn how to speak, cook and dress like Amer­i­cans. And when the United States en­tered World War I, Jews vol­un­teered to fight and die for their new coun­try.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Congress voted to stanch the flow of im­mi­grants from na­tions with pop­u­la­tions clas­si­fied as un­de­sir­able. But even as the na­tions from which mil­lions of Jews had em­i­grated to Amer­ica were tar­geted in re­stric­tive im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies and false the­o­ries about Jews’ con­spir­a­cies for global con­trol and their de­sires to hold power for their own gain cir­cu­lated widely, Amer­i­can Jews still kept faith in the unique na­ture of their “golden land.” Jews voted in droves for Franklin Roosevelt, sup­port­ing the New Deal Demo­crat with grow­ing zeal each of the four times he ran for pres­i­dent. They saw in FDR’s pol­i­tics a kind of lib­er­al­ism that would bal­ance the rights of in­di­vid­u­als with pro­tec­tions for groups. De­spite pro-Nazi ral­lies and co­or­di­nated acts of anti-Semitism — most in­fa­mously a 1939 rally that filled Madi­son Square Gar­den — Amer­i­can Jews con­tin­ued to see an ex­cep­tional fu­ture for them­selves and their children in the United States.

Noth­ing con­firmed the right­ness of Amer­i­can Jews’ bet more than the de­struc­tion of Euro­pean Jewry. All of them, from the sec­u­lar to the de­vout and the rad­i­cal to the as­sim­i­la­tion­ist, had to con­front the “ac­ci­dent of ge­og­ra­phy,” as mid­cen­tury Jewish in­tel­lec­tual Irv­ing Howe put it, that had saved them from the gas cham­bers. Their be­lief in the ex­cep­tional na­ture of the United States seemed prov­i­dent: Here, un­like in other coun­tries, they could use po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and in­tel­lec­tual tools to pro­tect them­selves. Af­ter World War II, Jews helped cre­ate the lan­guage, laws and in­sti­tu­tions that would form the in­fra­struc­ture of Amer­i­can cam­paigns against prej­u­dice of all kinds, not just anti-Semitism. Through ra­dio and tele­vi­sion ads, so­cial re­search and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism, Amer­i­can Jews played a sig­nif­i­cant role in crafting the rhetoric of tol­er­ance and so­cial har­mony. In do­ing so, they trained Amer­i­cans to see anti-Semitism as un­ac­cept­able and made the case for the rights of mi­nori­ties more broadly in the United States.

In the 1950s, Jewish lead­ers, from rab­bis to in­tel­lec­tu­als to the heads of prom­i­nent in­sti­tu­tions, ar­gued that Jews would be only as ac­cepted as the least-ac­cepted peo­ple in Amer­ica. Yet by the 1960s and 1970s, many Jews ac­knowl­edged that they had more power than African Amer­i­cans and other racial mi­nor­ity groups; Jews could of­ten be ac­cepted even if these groups were not. And Jews dis­pro­por­tion­ately joined civil rights marches and fought le­gal bat­tles to help these groups (though some Jews also asked why African Amer­i­cans were not suc­ceed­ing as they had). A high level of en­gage­ment with Amer­i­can pol­i­tics demon­strated that most Jews con­tin­ued to be­lieve that, just as the United States had de­liv­ered on its prom­ise to them, it could, if pushed prop­erly, do so for oth­ers. How­ever much fur­ther Amer­ica had to go, if it had avoided the anti-Semitic im­pulses that had led so many other na­tions into tragic his­tor­i­cal mo­ments, this surely was a sign that progress could be made.

Iron­i­cally, that very faith would even­tu­ally pose a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion about Jewish en­durance: Would Jews achieve so much progress in the United States that they would stop be­ing Jewish? By the 1970s, Jewish lead­ers had started to iden­tify the im­ped­i­ments to Jewish life as in­ter­nal, not ex­ter­nal. They wor­ried that Amer­ica of­fered so much ac­cep­tance that young Jews would have no use for their his­tory and her­itage. At a 1971 con­fer­ence, a prom­i­nent

New York rabbi and com­mu­nal leader pre­dicted fore­bod­ingly (and hy­per­bol­i­cally), “We are likely to lose more Jews through in­ter­mar­riage and as­sim­i­la­tion in the decades to come than we have al­ready lost through the pogrom and the Holo­caust.” The lan­guage of Jewish sur­vival and con­ti­nu­ity be­came the ral­ly­ing cry of an Amer­i­can Jewry wor­ried about its un­do­ing through its suc­cess.

By the early 2000s, this was the face of Amer­i­can Jewish ex­cep­tion­al­ism: well-funded trips to Is­rael to al­low young Jews to dis­cover or re­cover their birthright; en­dowed Jewish stud­ies pro­grams and gleam­ing new col­lege Hil­lel build­ings sup­ported by fun­ders who wanted Jews to find other Jews on cam­pus; and count­less sur­veys of Jewish com­mu­ni­ties to mea­sure whether Jews were still Jewish. By the new mil­len­nium, non-Jewish Amer­i­can politi­cians seemed as in­tent — some­times more in­tent — upon de­nounc­ing per­ceived an­tiSemitism as were Amer­i­can Jews them­selves.

Now I won­der if I will look back on those in­no­cent min­utes last Satur­day be­tween the bar mitz­vah and the squash club as the last of an il­lu­sion, one that should never have lasted this long. Im­pos­si­ble will be our cel­e­bra­tions of “Only in Amer­ica,” the name of a stand­ing ex­hibit at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Jewish His­tory in Philadel­phia. The treat­ment of Amer­i­can Jews is not a bell­wether of over­all Amer­i­can progress — in­stead, it may be one of the most ex­cep­tional things about the United States. It is not the ex­cep­tion that proves the rule; it is just an ex­cep­tion and, per­haps, an un­re­li­able one.

The prob­lem with the deep-seated faith Jews have main­tained in Amer­ica is that it has propped up a broader vi­sion of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism and oc­cluded the dam­ages of ex­cep­tion­al­ist think­ing. As a de­scrip­tion of Amer­i­can Jewish life, ex­cep­tion­al­ism has brushed un­der the rug the ex­clu­sion and dis­crim­i­na­tion Jews have faced. Worse, it has stood in the way of an hon­est reck­on­ing with the vi­o­lent pos­si­bil­i­ties that have long sim­mered un­der the sur­face of its claims. The Pitts­burgh shoot­ing, on top of the more open ex­pres­sions of anti-Semitism in the past few years, makes that bru­tally clear.

For Amer­i­can Jews, that reck­on­ing will be painful. It will chal­lenge the very ba­sis of our ac­cep­tance in this coun­try and make us ask whether the op­por­tu­ni­ties and priv­i­leges we gained came not be­cause Amer­ica held par­tic­u­lar prom­ise for Jews, but rather be­cause it with­held that prom­ise in so many ways to so many other peo­ple. Should we ever have be­lieved in Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, even just for Jews, when all around us was ev­i­dence of the lim­i­ta­tions and rav­ages of that ex­cep­tion­al­ism?

Pres­i­dent Trump dis­plays how eas­ily ex­cep­tion­al­ism can be­come a weapon for ex­clu­sion; this is the very pur­pose of “Make Amer­ica Great Again.” The pres­i­dent le­git­imizes white supremacy as one of “both sides” of Amer­i­can life. He de­clares him­self to be a na­tion­al­ist with­out both­er­ing to dis­tin­guish be­tween his na­tion­al­ism and the dark his­tory of xeno­pho­bic and geno­ci­dal na­tion­al­ism. He rou­tinely gives cover to those who abuse vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions — trans peo­ple, refugees, im­mi­grants, Mus­lims, peo­ple of color, children and women — by telling his fol­low­ers that they are the vic­tims. In all cases, what he calls the “great­ness” of this coun­try is its abil­ity to ex­clude whole classes of peo­ple as un­fit and un­de­sir­able for its bless­ings.

Trump ren­ders Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism ir­re­deemable. What­ever was good or pure about the de­sire to pro­nounce our coun­try dif­fer­ent or spe­cial is, in his fram­ing, ex­plic­itly steeped in vi­o­lence, ag­gres­sion and ha­tred. For some Amer­i­cans, the pain of ex­cep­tion­al­ism — its fun­da­men­tal ex­clu­sions — has al­ways been clear. For Jews, it has not, but now it must be.

Faith in Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, for Jews or for any­one else, will not save us. I fear that faith is de­stroy­ing us. But we can look anew at our his­tory, as Jews and as Amer­i­cans. When we re­lease our­selves from the hold of ex­cep­tion­al­ism, we will have to search for new ways to ex­plain why Amer­ica has been so good to Jews in so many ways. And we will have to con­front the fact that the Jewish story in the United States is still be­ing writ­ten, and progress is not its in­evitable con­clu­sion. Per­haps free from ex­cep­tion­al­ism, we may dis­cover a new path to­ward jus­tice and equal­ity for all, with­out ex­cep­tion.


ABOVE: Mourn­ers’ shad­ows at Tree of Life syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh on Mon­day. Eleven peo­ple were killed there dur­ing ser­vices last Satur­day morn­ing, the dead­li­est at­tack on Jews in Amer­i­can his­tory.

RIGHT: Peo­ple em­brace and pray at a me­mo­rial in front of Tree of Life on Mon­day.

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