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Anti-Semitism, Assimilation and the Paradox of Jewish Survival

A self-proclaimed ‘tribal Jew,’ historian David Myers explains why he‘d be sad if his daughters married a gentile, and how anti-Semitism could end up fortifying the Jewish collective identity. First in a series of interviews with North American Jewish leaders and thinkers.
Yair Ettinger is a former Kogod Research Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and an Israeli journalist whose work focuses primarily on religious affairs, the religious and Haredi communities, and their politics. Previously, he covered issues relating to Palestinian citizens of Israel and was a foreign affairs correspondent in Paris. Until 2017, he served as a journalist with Ha’aretz for 20 years. Yair studied Islam and Middle Eastern affairs at the Hebrew University

Anti-Semitism, Assimilation and the Paradox of Jewish Survival

An Interview With David Myers, New President of the NIF. A self-proclaimed "tribal Jew," historian David Myers explains why he’d be sad if his daughters married a gentile, and how anti-Semitism could end up fortifying the Jewish collective identity.

First in a series of interviews with North American Jewish leaders and thinkers. First posted in Haaretz


Prof. David Myers finds it hard to define himself as a Zionist, and at the same time he calls himself a "tribal Jew" who thinks it will be "a serious blow" if his daughters get married outside of the tribe. As a historian, he thinks anti-Semitism in America could fortify the Jewish collective identity. As a political activist, he believes that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora should never stop criticizing one another.

Our interview took place in three stages and was spread out over several months, two languages (English and Hebrew) and two turning points in his career. The Hebrew version will be published on the Shalom Hartman Institute blog .

When we met in New York last spring, Myers was president of the Center for Jewish History, but also invested in his academic career as a historian at UCLA. We discussed his political views and activities (than as a board member of the nonprofit New Israel Fund) and his public criticism of official Israeli policy.

But politics and Israel were not the main reasons for reaching out to Myers. Sometime after our meeting, he resigned from the Center for Jewish History and in October was named the new president of NIF’s international board. Public activism is now his main calling card.

As a result, we sat down for a second interview. But this time Myers was much more circumspect, asking to check every quotation. The third and final part of the interview came after the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last month. In the shadow of the deadliest attack ever on the American-Jewish community, I wanted to hear his views as both a historian and a leading member of the community.

In your latest book Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2017), you present a challenging analysis of Jewish survival throughout history. What is your central thesis?

"There are two unlikely keys to survival, which are both relevant and irrelevant to the present century. The first key is assimilation, in the absence of which Jewish culture would have stagnated long ago.  If Jews in Ashkenazic lands, for example, had remained in a corner, entirely cut off from the outside world, without adopting the norms and customs of the surrounding society, they would have become petrified. If Jews hadn’t done that repeatedly, we would be frozen in history.

"The second component – which is crucial and plays a dialectic role together with the first factor – is anti-Semitism. I’m of course talking about anti-Semitism in nonlethal doses and not about anti-Semitism of the scale that reached murderous proportions in the Holocaust. Without assimilation, there would be no absorption of the cultural norms and habits of the host society; but without anti-Semitism there would be no limits to this process of integration nor affirmation of Jewish difference.

"For example, after the terrible tragedy in Pittsburgh in October, Jews came together – many even made their way to synagogues other than during Yom Kippur – to affirm their sense of Jewish solidarity and distinctiveness. This response to tragedy has been played out many times in the past. Anti-Semitism, as Spinoza suggested in the Theological-Political Treatise, reaffirms Jews’ own particular group identity.

"To be sure, there are other factors that explain the survival of the Jews. But these are two key – and counterintuitive – ones given that they are usually seen as pathways to Jewish disappearance rather than survival."

If we apply these principles roughly to what’s happening in America today, we have to regard the new anti-Semitism from the right and the left – nonlethal anti-Semitism – with satisfaction from a Jewish point of view. How do you read the present situation?

"Until now, there has been relatively little anti-Semitism in the United States – [certainly] when compared to Europe. We shouldn’t ignore the discrimination against Jewish immigrants, the hateful agitation of Father [Charles] Coughlin or the social exclusion of Jews from universities, clubs and businesses until quite recently. And again, we cannot forget Pittsburgh.

"But until the last few years, rates of anti-Semitism in the United States were dropping to the point that one could imagine a world without it. And that, ironically, raised a problem: Because without the restraining force of anti-Semitism, the drift and alienation of Jews in America might well continue to the point of serious diminution – certainly among the non-Orthodox sectors. It’s possible that that’s where we’re headed.

"On the other hand, it’s possible that the rising rates of anti-Semitism– which, astonishingly, some on the right seek to deny – will fortify Jewish collective identity. It’s possible that Jews in the United States will continue to say what Sartre wrote in Anti-Semite and Jew: "I’m a Jew because the anti-Semite reminds me that I am." On the basis of this proposition, Jews in the modern age have often based their identity on membership in groups such as the ADL, devoted to fighting anti-Semitism. As a general matter, I suspect there will be less anti-Semitism, less of a constraining force to assimilation, and therefore the community will get smaller."

What could save it from such a fate?

"The Jewish community in America is rich in institutions but not in collective identity. This has to do with the powerful ethos of liberal individualism. I think back to my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania, where, in my romanticized recollection, everyone had a clearly marked ethnic identity. This one was the Irishman, that one Italian, the other a Jew. That kind of ethnic patchwork is less present now, certainly for the third and fourth generations whose ancestors immigrated here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The American melting pot has done its part. And now we have the added factor of a philosophical pushback against ‘identity’ in the name of a central liberal individualism. There are serious costs to this pushback.

"I think back to one of my favorite Jewish thinkers, Simon Rawidowicz, who once wrote that we should add a fifth freedom to the four freedoms described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union address: What he called libertas differendi – the right to be different.

"There are two types of people in the world, two types of political theories: There are those who favor a neutral liberalism, which holds that a person should look exactly like his neighbor; and there are those who acknowledge difference and the possibility of creating a rich and colorful mosaic out of that difference. I belong to the second group.

"I grew up in a community where everyone knew to what group they belonged, and there were a series of institutions that supported it – synagogues, the community center, the Federation."

In which group did you grow up?

"I grew up in a Conservative community, but the boundaries between Jewish groups were more porous than today. There was dialogue and interaction across denominations, there was a sense of communal concern. I suppose I aspire to something paradoxical: It’s not enough to simply be a part of the larger American collective – you also need a strong group identity to add color to that larger American entity. This is what Judah L. Magnes called in the early 20th century a ‘symphony of nationalities.’ I like that ideal. But we live now in a different era."

What has replaced communal solidarity?

"Hyper-individualism, in which there’s a distinct door for each person to enter his or her Jewishness. That has its own benefits. I recognize that. I have daughters who grew up in a Shabbat-observant home and who will decide by themselves how to live as Jews – and it’s likely not to be the same way I live my Jewish life. So I acknowledge the fact that the present generation enters its Jewishness, when it does so, through different doors. That continues a process that began already in the late 18th century, in the time of Moses Mendelssohn, but the culture of individualism has dramatically expanded in recent decades."

That’s pessimistic. Since it seems the memory of the Holocaust and solidarity with the State of Israel can no longer do the job, what connects American Jews?

"There’s a degree of pessimism, I suppose. But I’m enough of a historian to know that past Jewish generations have often feared being the last link in the chain. It’s why Rawidowicz famously called Jews ‘the ever-dying people.’ Throughout their Diaspora wanderings, Jews developed an adaptive mechanism that allowed them to integrate in the surrounding culture without losing their identity – and I think that’s been part of the genius of Jewish survival over time.

"The question to which we return here in America is whether that mechanism still exists. Or has the balance been thrown off – for example, by the high rate of intermarriage. That’s a key question."

And what’s your answer?

"I won’t sit shivah if my daughters marry non-Jews. I’ll be sad, and they know that. It’s hard to explain that to our good liberal-minded friends who are not Jewish. If you preach the ideals of humanism and universalism, and say that those values stem from your Jewishness, it’s hard to explain why you want to preserve your tribe. But that’s how I am. In the final analysis I’m a tribal Jew – although one who believes in a universal impulse in Judaism. So it wouldn’t be a disaster, but it would be a serious blow to me if my daughters and future grandchildren wouldn’t be serious Jews. We have both a historical and moral obligation to continue the shalshelet hakabbala, the chain of tradition."

And in real life? After all, you won’t tell your daughters they’re inflicting a disaster on the Jewish people.

"Well, I recognize the present situation – that over half the members of my daughters’ generation marry non-Jews. One could say: ‘You’re lost to the Jewish people, and we’ll simply rest content in being a smaller community.’ I think that’s a mistake. I’ve seen quite often that the non-Jewish partner becomes the more Jewish of the partners in the household.

"I don’t know what the community will look like. But without enough foresight and resources, the Jewish community can plan for that day by building institutions that accept and educate such couples."

Many Jewish communities do open their doors to non-Jewish marriage partners, as well as any gentile who wants to enter.

"True. This is in the spirit of encouraging openness, inclusivity and the traditional principle of hakhnasat orchim (welcoming visitors).  I like that, but there is another impulse inside of me as well. For example, I am not thrilled with Conservative rabbis performing a Jewish wedding ceremony for interfaith couples. But that’s the reality rabbis face today. The ideal of dwelling within an internal Jewish vacuum rather than an outward-facing community is nice if you live in the Hasidic community of Williamsburg [in Brooklyn]. But what about the rest of the world?

"In thinking of the demographic future, we need to recognize emerging trends. According to a 2012 survey, 16 percent of the residents of the metropolitan New York area are Jewish. Of these, 30 percent are Orthodox – and some 60 percent of Jewish first-graders are Orthodox. So you could say that in New York at least, Orthodoxy is the future of the Jewish community – barring some significant shift in the way we treat interfaith couples."

So do you envy the isolationists? For example, do you feel there’s something more complete about Jews who are Satmar Hasidim in America, whose Kiryas Joel village you and your wife are researching?

"Yes and no. I’m envious and not envious. I’m a serious Jew, but I live in a very different, pluralist world than Satmar Hasidim."

You won’t move to the ultra-Orthodox community of Borough Park in Brooklyn or to Kiryas Joel?

"While I have good friends in Kiryas Joel, I don’t see moving there anytime soon. That said, part of me envies the simplicity and clarity of that world, where you don’t have to torture yourself or constantly ask questions. In fact, in such communities, it’s strongly discouraged to ask challenging questions. Those who can’t stop asking often end up leaving, but that is a very hard thing to do.

"There is something alluring about the fact that everything is organized, and you know exactly what, when and how. But I’m a modern Jew and couldn’t live in such a world of conformity. What’s the word that defines the modern Jew more than any other? Autonomy. I would prefer to preserve the tension between autonomy on the one hand, and obligation and responsibility on the other. It yields the enormous creativity of the modern Jews."

Why do you miss the Jewish world where you grew up in Pennsylvania?

"Look, in the modern liberal world, Jews have often sought out strong forms of community.  In communities like Scranton or as we just saw in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, you belonged to a strong community. There was a sense of responsibility to assume leadership positions, which my grandparents and parents did. Whenever there was an emergency campaign related to Israel, my grandfather would step into a leadership role. He was the guy who sat everyone down in the room and made clear that nobody was leaving until they doubled their pledges.

"There was also an ethos of service, a belief that you owed a debt to both the Jewish and the wider community. That is what we saw recently in Pittsburgh. That was the example of my parents and grandparents."

I want to discuss the NIF, which was the cause of a campaign against you and against your appointment to the Center for Jewish History last year. But what role does this position fill for you as a Jew?

"At a certain point I realized that I’m a Jew with deep ties to Israel, but who can’t keep quiet and accept the community dictate that says you shouldn’t voice criticism in public. I felt that for the first time in the Lebanon war in 1982, and again surrounding the collapse of the Oslo process and the second Intifada.

"So a few things: First, I don’t believe that it is necessary or healthy to remain silent. Second, I reject the claim that somehow public criticism of Israel pushes you beyond the bounds of the community. And third, my own sense of public commitment has been continually expanding. It’s not only about Israel. I’m a different person from when I began my career as a Jewish historian in 1991. I increasingly admire the ideal of being both a Thinker and a Doer."

Meanwhile, it seems that these are ideals that don’t go together in reality – creating a community and incisive political discourse. It seems that the Jewish community in America is suffering greatly from the political debate. Community rabbis from all denominations are fleeing from it, it’s too sensitive.

"I’d love to see a community in which ‘those words and these words are the words of the living God.’  I’d love to see a community in which we don’t dwell in the comfort of our own bubbles, but force ourselves to meet our ideological opposite across the table. It’s about extending the culture of the ancient beit midrash [study hall] or of the modern coffeehouse – both of which featured loud and intense debate – to the present day. It’s a world in which left and right could sit at the same table and argue over what they see as the best path forward for the Jewish people."

You’re an American Jew who wouldn’t define himself as a Zionist, but in the end Israel is the heart of your Jewish identity. How come?

"The problem is that the term Zionism has been hijacked by the radical right. I very much identify with the Zionism of the Declaration of Independence – with the right of the Jews to return to their homeland and also to the ideals of freedom, peace and justice outlined in the Declaration.

"But there is a problem in the United States and elsewhere. I’m very connected to Israel, I love and speak Hebrew. I feel that it is very much a part of my soul. At the same time, I fear that we have sold ourselves into a very meager relationship with Israel via philanthropic Zionism. You gave us a blank check, we’ll give you a bit of identity. That’s a problem, because it encourages a shallow and brittle sense of connection. So one antidote is to make Israeli culture the default Jewish culture in our educational institutions.

"Don’t get me wrong: It’s great that we teach our children Israeli folk dances and songs. And I really love Israeli music. But it’s important to remember that there are other rich Jewish cultures – Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi – that we’re losing. There’s a homogenization of Jewish cultures both in the Diaspora and in Israel."

It seems you blame the State of Israel for that as well. And I’m thinking of American ultra-Orthodox Jews. They have a rich Jewish culture, Torah and Yiddishkeit, regardless of their feelings toward Israel. They have responsibility for their culture. Do you envy the Jews of Williamsburg or Kiryas Joel, who have solved the problem that’s bothering you?

"In a certain sense, yes. But I don’t want to live their life. There’s a degree of admiration that they are preserving Jewish culture and not surrendering to the powerful cultural mainstreams in both America and Israel. I admire that. We need to be careful to avoid an erasure of classical Jewish cultures. We can’t succumb just to Israeli culture, which I know, love and grew up on."

At what point did you encounter it?

"In college I discovered both modern Jewish and Hebrew literature (under the tutelage of my teacher and colleague Arnie Band). Just after, when I moved to Israel to begin graduate studies, I happened [upon] the Israeli singer Yehuda Poliker and [his rock band] Benzeen. Amazing! And I saw one of the greatest Israeli movies I’ve ever seen, "Because of that War," in which Yehuda Poliker features prominently. Ever since, I’ve been an avid consumer of Israeli literature, music, comedy and film."

We spoke about anti-Semitism. Each side, the right and the left, is willing to forgive anti-Semites on his side, and to say that those on the other side are more dangerous. You are, in fact, in the same camp as the anti-Semites on the left. Do you think there is excusable anti-Semitism?

"No, anti-Semitism is never excusable. But that shouldn’t prevent us from making distinctions. As I see it, anti-Semitism on the right has far more influence on what’s happening in our political life in America. The ones who are encouraging and engaging in violence come from the right. It is nothing short of stupefying for me to hear self-respecting people, including Israeli government ministers, deny that anti-Semitism from the right is growing and becoming more visible and lethal. What is that? It’s the height of self-delusion, cynicism, or both."

And the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, BDS, has no anti-Semitism in it?

"Let’s try to make some distinctions here. Yes, some who support BDS are motivated by anti-Semitism. But I don’t believe all who support BDS are anti-Semitic. BDS is a nonviolent movement that would not have come into existence were it not for the occupation. Among its supporters are those who say that the State of Israel should be a state of all its citizens. Is that anti-Semitic? Not necessarily. It’s a political vision based on democratic principles. On the other hand, when someone comes along and says that the Jews are not a nation – as [BDS co-founder] Omar Barghouti says – that makes me mad. It’s no different from a Jew or an Israeli saying that there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people."

So is Barghouti an anti-Semite?

"I have no idea what’s in his heart. And he is not preaching for the death of Jews, as they are on the right. But I don’t like people telling me who I am. That impulse to deny the right to self-definition of the other deeply disturbs and offends me."

But you still work with them?

"How so? I neither support BDS nor work with BDS groups. I do have friends who support BDS. And they’re not anti-Semites. That said, BDS is not my way. Nor is it the most effective way to fight injustice and inequality in Israel."

When you were at the Center for Jewish History, Israelis and some American Jews were angry at the fact you were part of the New Israel Fund.

"They were – which, frankly, was crazy. Over its 40 years, NIF has contributed some $300 million to every corner of Israeli society, to supporting a robust civil society, to fulfilling the values of democracy, fairness, and equality. If you care about battered women, respect for the environment, religious pluralism, Jewish-Arab cooperation or civil and human rights, then NIF is your address. So how did it come about that NIF is the enemy? Clearly, there is a playbook of vilification – and NIF appears on page one.

"In the case of the protests against me in September-October 2017, there was a small campaign organized by a local PR guy who knows how to make noise. It was never more than a handful of people, and it had no effect on my time at CJH. Let’s be clear: We will not stand down in the face of bullies or intimidation. We will not stand down, because we believe in the importance of what we do. We will not stand down, because we believe that NIF is one of the most effective tools we have to guarantee the fulfillment of the ideals of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. And, by the way, that is a document I take seriously; I carry it around with me in my backpack. It is my obligation to care deeply about Israel and to fight for the fulfillment of its most noble Jewish and human values. Nobody is going to tell me that I’m a traitor."

Isn’t there a difference – morally or at least psychologically – between an Israeli president of the NIF and an American one? You live in Los Angeles and are staying in LA.

"The New Israel Fund presidency shifts every two years from Israel to the United States, it’s a regular part of the bylaws of the NIF. But … there needs to be a two-way street. It can’t be that the State of Israel expresses responsibility and concerns for the well-being of World Jewry and tells it what it should do. But on the other hand, Diaspora Jews are not allowed to express their interests and concerns in Israel."

The NIF isn’t alone: Jewish donors also fund right-wing activity and try to promote deep change in Israel. And that might be legitimate, but speaking based on mutuality, I don’t see the exact parallel Israeli actors – official or unofficial – who sharply criticize American Jewry or its leadership in order to change it radically. But if such an actor exists, what do you think of it?

"Well, first of all, we obviously see different things. I see Israeli leaders and emissaries frequently telling Jews how they should educate their kids, lead their religious lives, and [to] pick up and move to Israel, usually in the wake of tragedy. It would be hypocritical to say that they can’t, but [instead] that I can voice my view on Israeli affairs – and vice versa.

"I believe we are entitled to express our opinions about the well-being of our family members, our fellow Jews, throughout the world. There is a higher principle here. It is one that Rawidowicz explained in his 1949 essay, "Two That are One." He spoke of the ideal of a meaningful, bidirectional shutafut, or partnership, between Israel and the Diaspora. He even spoke of the need for a constitution between the two sides, which together make up a single nation or people.

"I agree with him about the importance of mutuality of respect, and the need for values and institutions that promote it. I’ve been speaking for years of an idea that President [Reuven] Rivlin mentioned at the GA (Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly) last month: A "reverse Birthright" that would bring Israelis to the Diaspora to learn about the wide range of Jewish expressions to be found here, alongside a Birthright that brings Diaspora Jews to Israel."

An Israeli who comes to be your guest on Shabbat, what will he see? To which congregation will you take him?

"I’m a member of four synagogues in Los Angeles, across the denominational and trans-denominational spectrum. That means I’m very invested in Jewish life. It means that I have ample choices, for which I feel blessed. But it also means that the perfect synagogue has not yet been found. That’s for Moshiach Zeit, the time of the Messiah. In the meantime, I’m blessed to live in a world of choice, between and across denominations, between Israel and America, between Ivrit and Yiddishkeit, and between my traditional and progressive values. That’s what it means to be a modern Jew."

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