Jewish Journal

We Are Not Alone

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

August 6, 2014 | 6:30 am

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Two Jews are walking in a dangerous neighborhood late at night. Suddenly, they hear footsteps behind them. One of them turns to survey the situation, and then says to his companion: “We had better get out of here quickly. There are two of them and we’re alone.”

That is the way that it has felt this summer. And if American Jews have felt this, think of how European Jews are feeling.

Except we are not entirely alone.

Item. According to a Pew survey that was released in early July, the Jews are the most popular religious group in the United States. Jews, Catholics and evangelical Protestants appear at the top of the list. At the bottom, Muslims were the least popular, with atheists only slightly higher, and with Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons in the middle.

What accounts for the religious groups on the bottom of the list? The public face of Islam has not exactly been conducive to kumbaya – said with despair and sadness.

As for atheists – American identity and belief in God go together like ice cream and pie. As for Buddhists and Hindus, most Americans simply don’t know any of them. The same is true for Mormons -- and if Americans know anything about the Church of Latter-Day Saints, their views tend to have been molded by "The Book of Mormon" or old HBO reruns of "Big Love." It doesn't help that many Christians don't believe that the Mormons are Christians. 

So, how did Jews win the popularity contest?

We are talking about the Jews as a religious group. With certain major exceptions theological anti-Semitism has mostly evaporated in American culture. Look at the intermarriage statistics. Many American Christians have Jewish relatives. They have attended Jewish weddings and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. They are moved, and this has been good for the Jews and good for Judaism.

Let’s remember something else. The American story is, in its roots, a Jewish story. The founders of the Republic imagined themselves as “quasi-Jews” who had fled the English Pharaoh, crossed the Sea of Reeds (a.k.a. the Atlantic Ocean), and came to a new Promised Land. That is how we wound up with all of those American place-names like Canaan, New Canaan, Bethel, Sharon, Jericho, Salem, etc. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, is actually Rehovot.

But then, there’s a second piece – admittedly somewhat more unexpected.

Item. Thirty-two countries recently petitioned a United Nations General Assembly committee, asking the United Nations to recognize Yom Kippur as an official holiday. To the signatories of the letter, it was a matter of simple fairness. If the U.N is going to recognize the major festivals of the world’s main religions, why not recognize Judaism’s most sacred day? (Groan alert: "Let's do it for the Kippur!" Sorry.)

This is the United Nations – the same group that has elevated criticism and condemnation of the Jewish State to an aerobic activity?

Check out the countries that petitioned the U.N. in favor of Yom Kippur. Here is the list: the United States, Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Bahamas, Canada, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Dominica, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru, Nigeria, Palau, Panama, Philippines, Rwanda, Samoa, Seychelles, South Sudan, Suriname, Togo, Uruguay and Vanuatu (a prize to the person who knows where that is – no looking on Wikipedia!)

Most of those countries have probably never seen a Jew. We’re not exactly talking about thriving diasporas in most of those places.

There is a link between the two items – the American Jewish popularity contest and the international championing of Yom Kippur.

It is simply this. This is about Judaism as an idea. This is about the Jews as a religious group -- not as a people. The United Nations has no real interest in, nor tolerance for, the Jews as a people -- especially a people that has a land, a state, and an army.

Recall Conte de Clermont-Tonnere’s 1789 speech in the French National Assembly: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals." That sentence alone almost sufficed to serve as the Jewish passport into Western society. But it was not about the Jews as a people; only as individuals – individuals with a private religious preference.

Jews on the far Left are still playing that game. They seek to distance themselves from Israel’s actions – and from Israel itself. The idea of a Jewish nation-state offends their spiritual sensitivities. “Not in my name!” reads a Jewish Voice for Peace protest sign in front of an Israeli solidarity rally – with the emphasis on “my.” Translation: “How dare the Jewish collective deign to stain my name! I bought into this enterprise as a Jewish individual, not as a member of a people and certainly not as a representative of a nation that might actually have to get its hands dirty in order to survive.”

It is a tad narcissistic -- as if "my" name is the most important thing here. How dare Israel offend me! In early nineteenth century Europe, Jews wanted to become (German word alert here) salonfahig -- society worthy. The radical leftist rejection of Israel is simply another version of that -- but this time, the "society" into which we beg admission is that of the press, college campuses, and cultural elites. 

Oh, by the way -- as the number of “spiritual but not religious” people grows, we should be expecting more distancing from, and even obtuseness, about Israel. A nation with specific soil, land, and language will not compute -- not when it is so easy to hang out in the spiritual ether somewhere, offending no one with your very presence. 

But can we, at least, like the good news? By and large, Americans respect Jews – more than we had thought. And the nations of the world, even and especially obscure nations, actually respect Judaism – more than we could have ever imagined.

Let this be a small measure of comfort during these difficult and terrible days.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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