Dear ‘Atlantic’: The Golden Age of American Jews Ends Only If We Let It

This April’s edition of The Atlantic featured a retrospective eulogy by writer Franklin Foer for America’s time as a place where anti-Semitism was rare, and Jews in America were welcome.  Foer describes “Antisemitism on the right and the left” as threatening to destroy the America of civic nationalism that characterized the post-WWII boom and revert American Jews to a state of peril.  In the next edition, numerous Jewish Atlantic readers responded with mixed views.  America is currently under what could be an existential strain as political polarization widens and the national debt threatens the viability of the country’s economic structure.  At the same time, Foer not only misunderstands today’s anti-Semitism and its overwhelming preponderance on the political left but misses the place of Jews in American history.  Was there a “Golden Age” for American Jews? Is it really ending?  This all depends on which version of America you believe in and when you think that “Golden Age” began.

To portray American Jewry to be as American as apple pie would not be promoting an overly rosy propagandistic picture of American Jewish history; rather, it would be highlighting the truth as Jews have been instrumental to America’s founding and success.  After all, it was the Polish-born Jewish businessman Haym Salomon (1740-1785), who was not only a member of the Sons of Liberty in New York but helped finance the American Revolution despite being imprisoned as a spy by the British.  The Jewish surgeon Philip Moses Russell received a commendation from George Washington for serving at Valley Forge.  As a member of South Carolina’s Provincial Congress, Sephardic Jew Francis Salvador was the first Jewish American to die fighting for America. President Washington’s 1790 speech to the congregation at the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island assured the congregants that the new country would be a new world where the “stock of Abraham” would be safe.  For the most part, Washington was right.

In nineteenth-century America, between 8,000 and 10,000 Jews, mostly immigrants, fought in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln even promoted the son-in-law of New York rabbi Morris Raphall, CM Levy, to the rank of captain of the Union Army. By 1878, a Union of American Hebrew Congregations survey found an estimated 230,257 Jews living in the United States. Well before any twentieth-century zenith, Jews were deeply involved in the American experience.

In the “Wild West,” the wife of American lawman Wyatt Earp, Josephine Marcus, was Jewish.  The Jewish businessman Julius Meyer was kidnapped by Sioux warriors in Nebraska, eventually learned to speak their language, and later became an interpreter for Native Americans addressing Congress.  These anecdotes are not tokens of Jewish-American history; rather, they are a feature of it.  If there was a “Golden Age” of American Jews, it did not magically begin after WWII or the civil rights era.

What Foer misses is that the golden age for American Jews is part of America’s golden age itself.

In Foer’s assessment, the anti-Semitism endangering American Jews is equally pervasive and pernicious on both the political left and right. He points to the campaigns of Donald Trump and his 2016 campaign video featuring George Soros, Janet Yellen, Lloyd Blankfein, and Neo-Nazis at Charlottesville as evidence of rightwing anti-Semitism.  It’s intellectually dishonest to portray Trump’s campaign video as anti-Semitic, as it also shows Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, and other figures and crowds in an otherwise underwhelming ad.  This is a small detail.  The biggest factor that ironically unites the Neo-Nazis of Charlottesville with the progressive anti-Semitic campus mobs calling to erase Israel “from the river to the sea” is tribal politics.

If Trump’s populism has an anti-Semitic soul, the data does not back it up.  In 2020, the number of Jewish Trump voters increased by six percent from 2016.  According to a 2021 Pew Research survey, 75 percent of Orthodox Jews identified as Republican, while 77 percent of Orthodox Jews viewed Trump as favorable to Jews in America.

In 2018, the Trump administration officially moved America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  This move was not a fixture of a post-WWII “golden age;” rather, it was a fulfillment of America’s support for a Jewish homeland in Israel that was first mentioned by President John Adams. In 1808, Adams openly criticized the thinking of Voltaire, demanding how “he should represent the Hebrews in such a contemptable light” when the Jews were the “most glorious nation that ever inhabited the Earth.”

If America’s founding and the heart of Trump’s populism were anti-Semitic, data trends do not back it up.

As evidence of America’s rightwing anti-Semitism, he mentions the 2017 Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.  The “Unite the Right” rally featured tribalism at its worst, complete with chants of “Jews will not replace us.” Three people died, and 35 were injured as a result of the rally’s ensuing violence.  Ironically, for Foer and progressives, Palestinian terrorist groups and their progressive apologists who characterize Israel as an “apartheid” state and Western “settler-colonial” projects oppressing Arabs argue the exact same thing.  Many on the left view Israelis as Jewish usurpers of indigenous Palestinians.

This view on the left is so pervasive that international bodies like the United Nations argue that Israel is committing genocide and ethnic cleansing against Palestinians.  Palestinian terrorist groups, progressive Western activists animated by essentialist ideas of race and oppression, and the Charlottesville Neo-Nazis all function on the same tribal logic. Foer neglects to note that the anti-Semites on the left and right accuse Jews of the same imagined injustice.

As for those pesky facts, American Jews have been a part of the country since the beginning.  In the Middle East, a Jewish presence in Judaea and Samaria persisted since ancient times despite the best efforts of the Romans in 70 CE.  It is precisely a committed stand against tribalism that makes both Israel and America unique.

In Hebrew, the U.S. is translated as Artzot Ha-Brit, which literally means “States of the Covenant.” In America, that “covenant” is the Constitution.  The “Golden Age” of American Jews began in 1776, not the 1960s.

However, America, as defined by diverse individuals united by a common acknowledgment of inalienable rights, mutual help, and commitment between citizens, is under immense attack from tribal politics.  Schools and universities in America now teach that the country is founded on racism and is, therefore, illegitimate.  Similarly, unsustainable migration from countries where anti-Semitism is normal and tolerated adds fuel to the fire.  If this continues, the “Golden Age” of American Jews will not just be ending, but America will end with it.  The “old” America is not dead yet, but saving it will require mobilizing votes, money, and cultural power over a committed period to restore trust between citizens and make the government accountable again. Within elite universities, where anti-Semitism is its most dangerous, pressure is needed to drive it back into the shadows where it belongs.

Jews were always involved in building and protecting America.  Now is not the time to quit.

Image by Jared Gould


One thought on “Dear ‘Atlantic’: The Golden Age of American Jews Ends Only If We Let It”

  1. “The “Unite the Right” rally… Three people died…”

    Facts matter. Two of the deaths were Virginia State Troopers flying an unsafe helicopter that has ALREADY crashed once before and would inevitably have crashed again, regardless of where it had been flown or why — it had a known defect that got worse and caused the loss of the aircraft.

    As I understand it, the FAA does not have jurisdiction over state police helicopters and hence can’t “ground” them — order them not to be flown. As I understand it, the FAA would have “grounded it” after the first crash, but it couldn’t legally do this, so all it could do was tell the Virginia State Police that it was a really really really bad idea to fly it in the condition that it was in.

    The Virginia State Police ignored this, and the helo crashed again, for the same reason, but this time killing both occupants in the process. Tragic, yes, but the responsibility resides with the persons who made the decision to ignore the FAA and order the helo flown that day, not the Tiki Torch Brigade.

    And what’s also not said is that while there was no one on the ground to be killed where it crashed, there could have been. It could have crashed into the midst of a parade, or onto a beach, or in any number of circumstances where it’s flying over large numbers of people.

    Even if it crashed into a residential area, crashing with more than 50 gallons of quite combustible fuel into the roofs of occupied wooden homes is not going to be pretty…

    My point is that the VSP ought not have been flying that thing, which is independent of why they were, and responsibility for those two deaths lies with the person(s) who made the decision that the unsafe helo should be flown that day. It’s the same thing as if they were driving an unsafe cruiser that fell apart on the highway, killing the two officers inside…

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