On Kinship in Politics and Suffering

There are two deep ways in which the American Jewish experience is shaped and informed uniquely by the events of 10 years ago.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

To be an American Jew on 9/11 – then, and now 10 years later – is mostly to be an American. The suffering of the American Jewish community, to put it coarsely, was proportional to its place in the population – which is to say that it was and is as paralyzing for Jewish Americans as anyone else. 9/11 has emerged into the civil religion and liturgical calendar of American-ness, which implicates all of us regardless of whatever other adjectives we use to describe our identity.

And yet there are two deep ways in which the American Jewish experience is shaped and informed uniquely by the events of 10 years ago that require our special consideration, and perhaps even lend some broader perspective to the general public.

9/11 and its aftermath, which includes two intractable American wars and the transformations of the Middle East both in reality and in perception, locked America and Israel into an awkward public affirmation of a long-lasting alliance. The specialness of a ‘special relationship’ only turns specious when the relationship is constantly in the public eye; this alliance that had long been an anchoring feature of confident American Jewish identity was now creating anxiety with no change in the relationship except the amount of attention it was generating. America and Israel were cast as the icons of a certain type of Western hybrid of religion and power against which a public jihad of both ideas and explosives was explicitly articulated. To be sure, other Western societies suffered under the criminal brutality of al-Qaeda and its kin, but to conspiracy theorists, political theorists and almost every country in the United Nations alike, 9/11 made explicit that in some deep way America and Israel stood together, and were to do so alone.

This has had an impact on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum, to American Jews across the board whose pride in Israel dovetailed with their American patriotism. For cosmopolitan and liberal classes, the American-ness that was victimized and then promoted after 9/11 increasingly clashed with their values, and so this isolation and loneliness necessarily called their pro-Israel-ism into question – or at least made it uneasy to inhabit political positions while wearing a Jewish/pro-Israel hat that were anathema to their American electoral hats. On the right, the neoconservative and hawkish segments of the American Jewish population were galvanized by the now-public acknowledgment of what they had held to be true for quite some time, and enabled a political brashness and boldness that echoes in the Republican presidential primaries and in Glenn Beck’s late-summer Israeli rallies. The American Jewish political experience has been irrevocably rattled and altered by 9/11, and it is no longer clear that any sort of American Jewish political consensus – or even plurality or predictability – will ever again hold sway. This may be inevitable, it may even be a sign of success, but it comes as a loss and must be acknowledged as such.

And then there is in the suffering. As I listened to the special programming today on WNYC in New York – a medley of elegiac hymns ranging from Paul Simon’s “American Tune” to the slow Second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony – it was hard not to hear the aching echoes of the sad soundtrack that permeates Israeli radio waves whenever the rattle & hum of the society is punctured by a terrorist bombing. In the early days after 9/11 I thought America was headed towards Israel’s culture of fierce and yet surprisingly efficient vigilance in its security apparatuses, but that quickly gave way as American attitudes against racial profiling proved hardier than could survive in the Middle East, and we all yielded a little more patience at airports and a little less confidence in the process in favor of our attempt at a more equitable society and bureaucracy. Still, there are moments when these two societies – paralyzed by the poison of terrorism but committed to moving forward – mark their grief in surprisingly similar ways.

As Jews we know memory and grief reasonably well; we have a lot of practice. Indeed, it almost seems in all there is to read about 9/11 this week and last that some of the conceptual pages and phrases are drawn from the Jewish playbook: the continued appropriation of “never forget” from Deuteronomy 25, mediated through Holocaust memory, and now associated most familiarly – as a Google search attests – with the memory of the 9/11 victims; the lyrical reciting of names that now takes place at many different 9/11 memorial sites, and was set to the liturgical cantillation music for the book of Lamentations by Rabbi Irwin Kula; prayer services, and more.

We as Jews then have a dual opportunity here and a dual challenge: It would be a colossal tragedy if 9/11 broke American Jewish political stability, just as it would be a waste if American Jews could not continue to supply their resources to an American society that desperately needs our time-tested mechanisms for absorbing loss into building a better and more ethical society. My prayer on this dark day is that 9/11 help us understand how we American Jews can stay together as a community of Jews, and can continue to model how to stand together as a community of Americans.

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