The Rabbi of my synagogue gave a fascinating sermon recently. He praised America as a blessing for its Jewish citizens, but he said that it also threatened their Jewish identity. As he put it: “America is killing us with kindness.” He cited a survey that caused a ruckus a few years ago when it revealed that a surprising number of gentile Americans sought to marry Jews. He went on to point out that America posed a unique problem for its Jewish citizens – a problem virtually unparalleled in the history of the Jewish people.
Specifically, the United States is the first (and arguably the sole) country in world history that is dedicated primarily to the ideals of individual liberty, limited government and sacred personal rights granted by God and not the government. Because of the environment created by this credo, Jews, like all Americans, are free to choose their spiritual, cultural and economic paths in life without being subject to a veto of their plans by any corporal higher authority – of course, within the rule of law. The modus operandi of Jewish civilization over the millennia is quite different. As the Rabbi phrased it, Jewish life is more dictated by “commandment” than by individual freedom. First and foremost, the Jew is enjoined to be faithful to God’s law, as transmitted by Moses, which entails a great deal of limitation on his individual freedom. One can argue – and scores have – that it is precisely this faithfulness to binding commandments that has allowed the Jews to survive many centuries of persecution and torment.
But Jews are not persecuted or tormented in America. We are free to pursue our individual dreams as much as is any other American citizen. And we have done so, with a remarkable degree of success. Furthermore, our beloved country has welcomed and celebrated our success as much as it has for individuals from any other ethnic or religious group. Ah, but there is the rub. Observing the success of their American Jewish brethren and ancestors, increasing numbers of Jewish youth have opted to pursue their individual dreams at the expense of their Jewish heritage. Thus the Rabbi’s humorous lament that “America is killing us with kindness.”
Now how does this Jewish problem translate over to a problem for gentile America? The issue is a clash between an individual’s identity as a member of some religious, ethnic, racial or regional subgroup of Americans as opposed to his identity as an American.
It is my contention that prior to the Civil War, the issue arose primarily with regard to region and race. Ethnically and religiously, the country was relatively, but certainly not completely homogeneous. While the people were mainly of European ancestry, ethnic Germans and ethnic Irish often did not see eye-to–eye, for example. Similarly, while the population was overwhelmingly Christian, the variety of sects and denominations often made for contentious relations. But among the vast majority of these groupings, disharmony between them was not reflected in any group feeling disaffected from the national ethos. There was no fundamental clash between any individual’s ethnic or religious identity and those of the nation as a whole.
This was not true in matters of race or region. The slave population certainly could not identify with American principles since the benefits of those principles were denied to them. And because of that, when combined with certain economic considerations, a huge regional divide opened up between North and South. Furthermore, those in the South definitely felt a disconnect between their moral values and those of the national psyche.
The regional issue was resolved by the Civil War, although the racial issue would take another century to heal. But here is my point: despite massive immigration – whose people the US did an amazing job of digesting, assimilating and fusing with the native population – during the roughly 75-year period from 1875 to 1950, the issue essentially did not arise. During this period, Americans by in large felt little conflict between their local identity (be it religious, ethnic or whatever) and their identity as Americans. (Again, there may have been conflicts between different groups, but very few felt a sense of alienation from their country’s ethos.)
The 1960s would put an end to that. Actually, the progressive cancer had been eating away at traditional America for more than half a century. But it was in the latter part of the twentieth century that traditional America succumbed to the lethal progressive advance. The country ceased to be committed in a primal way to individual liberty, limited government and, as Mr. Jefferson, put it, unalienable rights endowed by the Creator. Increasingly, our rights came from the federal government, a government which ruled by its own designs and not according to the consent of the governed. As a consequence, many segments of the American population found themselves at odds with the national government. Some of those segments included: white males – who were beset at every turn by government policies that disfavored them; WASPs – who fell prey to multiculturalism; entrepreneurs – who came under suspicion because they earned too much money; gun owners – viewed as a threat to the increasingly hegemonic federal government; rural Americans – considered provincial, backward and reactionary; but above all else, religious people – deemed hopelessly retrograde and a threat to the progressive script for a secular, humanist America made safe for unlimited abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration. Even patriots became suspect as America was now seen as a flawed country, not at all exceptional among the nations.
Many in these groups now found themselves in the same place as American Jews. Namely, there arose a fundamental clash between their communal values and those foisted upon them by a distant national government.
There are two basic differences in the nature of the problem faced (for at least three generations) by Jewish Americans and the somewhat newer problem experienced by portions of gentile America. First, for Jews, the choice was between two pleasant alternatives. Not so for Americans who feel oppressed by a gargantuan, debt-ridden, unresponsive government. The second difference is in how the two communities deal with the problem. At least for now, disfavored Americans are fighting back – convening TEA parties, trying to capture the Republican Party and thereby the controls of government, working feverishly in political, cultural and economic spheres to restore America to its traditional roots. It is a formidable challenge, but they seek to change the national paradigm.