August 24, 2010
Why has America treated Jews so well?
If there is anything that religious and secular Jews, liberal and conservative Jews, can agree on, it is that we live in a country that has treated Jews better than any other in which Jews have lived.
This is not only true for American Jews, but for embattled Jews abroad and for the Jewish state.
I am well aware of history: college quotas on Jews, the lynching of Leo Frank, Father Coughlin’s anti-Jewish hate broadcasts and other expressions of popular anti-Semitism. But our grandparents and great-grandparents and the many Jews who have moved to America more recently were not fools. They knew that, on the whole, the United States of America really was a “goldene medina,” Yiddish for “golden country.” Compared to other countries — not to a perfect ideal — America was the best place a Jew could live in peace, freedom and security.
Why is this?
It is on this question that Jews will likely differ. But at least we can further agree on this: It is imperative that we try to figure out the reason, or reasons. Whatever they are, we had better work to preserve and defend them.
Many Jews instinctively respond that the major reason is America’s long history of separation of church and state. They argue this because Jews’ experiences in medieval Europe, where religion permeated the state, were often terrible. Jews imbibe this history with their mother’s milk. Consequently, most Jews equate secularism with liberty and religion with oppression.
The problem with this explanation of the Jews’ blessed situation in America is that it has little to do with America. It is overwhelmingly about Christianity in Europe, and usually about the middle ages. Mention Christianity and anti-Semitism (for more than a few Jews, just mention Christianity) and you immediately hear about the Crusades and the Inquisition.
But those events occurred a thousand years ago and 500 years ago, respectively. And they occurred in Europe. Saddling America’s Christians with the sins of Europe’s Christians is not only unfair; it is immoral — and, from a Jewish standpoint, it is also profoundly self-destructive.
America’s Christians are now and have always been different from Europe’s Christians — not only in the exemplary way we Jews have been treated, but in the underlying reasons why.
By and large, Europe’s Christians saw Christians as supplanting Jews as God’s chosen people. The church was the New Israel. Jews and Judaism were essentially an anachronism.
But America’s Christians — from the beginning — saw themselves, indeed they saw America, as the Second Israel. The First Israel — i.e., Jews and Judaism — were therefore honored as forming the root of this new society called America.
Jews in America have not merely been tolerated, they have been honored. Unlike those parts of secularized Europe that tolerated Jews and expected that toleration to lead to the end of a Jewish identity, America’s Christians honored Jews as Jews.
America was founded by people we can legitimately call Judeo-Christians (the very term “Judeo-Christian” is essentially an American term), Christians who saw themselves as branches on a Jewish tree. This was as true for so-called deists such as Franklin and Jefferson as it was for religious Christians. Franklin and Jefferson designed a seal for the United States on which was depicted the Jews leaving Egypt. Just as the Jews left Egypt, America’s Christians left Europe.
The only words on the Liberty Bell are from the Torah. Yale University’s insignia is in Hebrew from the Torah.
The upshot of all this: The more rooted America is in its Christianity, the better it was and the better it will be for the Jews of America — and of Israel. Conversely, the more secular America gets, the less special the Jews are and the more precarious their situation is likely to be. Right now, the center of secularism, the university, almost precisely reflects the French Revolution’s attitude toward French Jews: “To the Jews as individuals all rights, to the Jews as a people [i.e., Israel and Zionism] no rights.” And Jews are doing rather poorly in secular Western Europe. Meanwhile our greatest allies in America and elsewhere are Christian Zionists, specifically evangelical Christians.
I recognize that for most Jews the hostility of secular (and liberal) Europe and the hostility of the secular (and liberal) university are distressing — almost as much as the uniquely strong support of evangelical Christians and other conservatives (the Wall Street Journal editorial page and George Will, for example). But the ability to acknowledge distressing truths is known as wisdom. And right now, regarding what is good for Jews (and, I believe, what is good for America and the world), this trait is not to be found in abundance in Jewish life.