Editor’s Note: Rabbi Larry Kotok (Jewishidentitynow@gmail.com) is recently retired as senior rabbi of Temple Brith Kodesh in Rochester, NY. He lives in South Florida and is active in teaching, consulting and lecturing. This is based on a presentation he recently gave and is timely for Boomers who can look back on a few decades of U.S. history and the search for “normalization”. Does our historical memory and experience call us to action?
While preparing a recent lecture on “Jews in leadership – Jews in The White House” certain patterns and questions emerged that require serious thought and consideration.
At the core of my presentation is my sense that even today in 2017 Jews in America and in Israel have not found a sustainable vibrant Jewish identity to help them navigate the complex changing world we live in today. My hope is to present a brief historic overview that defines the issues and raises the unanswered questions that are before the Jewish community.
Jews since colonial times have been engaged in serving in American political and military leadership sometimes more than others. In a very real sense our involvement is a fairly accurate measure of the American societal climate and attitude towards Jews and Judaism at any given time.
From colonial times till today, we have played major roles in our government and our military. In the 20th century we were significantly involved in the Roosevelt administration to such a degree that some took to calling the “New Deal” the “Jew Deal”. It wasn’t meant to be complementary.
In spite of Roosevelt’s well documented negative comments and view of Jews many of his close advisors were Jewish, but they were conflicted in their roles when the extent of the Shoa became known. Though Roosevelt, like Truman and Nixon after him, embraced individual Jews when their talents and expertise proved useful—so long as they did not press him on Jewish issues. As a result, the Jews in Roosevelt’s White House seldom mentioned Jewish concerns.
The defining crisis of “Jews in leadership- Jews in the White House” is found in the words of FDR close advisor Benjamin V. Cohen: To a friend who urged Cohen to ask FDR about European Jewry, Cohen replied (in 1940), “I don’t feel that I should push myself into Jewish matters where the skipper does not ask my advice.”
So are Jews in leadership as Jews or because they have unique skills, knowledge and training or is there some synthesis that needs to exist?
A possible answer to my question appears in a phone discussion in mid-April 1973 with Henry Kissinger, a Jew who at the time was the national security adviser, Nixon expresses concerns that Jews would torpedo an upcoming U.S.-Soviet summit.
If that happened, Nixon said, “Let me say, Henry, it’s gonna be the worst thing that happened to Jews in American history.” He added, “If they torpedo this summit — and it might go down for other reasons — I’m gonna put the blame on them, and I’m going to do it publicly at 9 o’clock at night before 80 million people.”
Kissinger responded to voice his agreement, saying they “brought it on themselves.”
The president then released an anti-Semitic tirade, stating: “I won’t mind one goddamn but to have a little anti-Semitism if it’s on that issue.” Adding, “They put the Jewish interest above America’s interest, and it’s about goddamn time that the Jew in America realizes he’s an American first and a Jew second.”
Worth considering that statement once again, “They put the Jewish interest above America’s interest, and it’s about goddamn time that the Jew in America realizes he’s an American first and a Jew second.”
This dilemma is well defined by Alan Dershowitz in his 1991 book Chutzpah. In Chutzpah, Dershowitz suggests that most Jews in America act as if they are second-class citizens: “Despite our apparent success, deep down we see ourselves as second-class citizens – as guests in another people’s land. We worry about charges of dual loyalty, of being too rich, too smart, and too powerful. Our cautious leaders obsess about what the ‘real’ Americans will think of us.” (p. 3)
The book asks, “Is it possible for Jews to achieve normalcy in a ‘Christian country’ like America, or can that happen only in the Jewish state of Israel?” (p. 3).
The question of who we are as Jews living in America remains even today despite our relative affluence, educational attainment and role in American culture and society. That question is challenged today by the alarming signs in today’s America with the rise of anti-Semitic incidents, but perhaps even more concerning in the contemporary Jewish community’s inability to find a sustainable identity for the 21st century American Jew.
We are not alone in this search, as I believe the same crisis of identity is found in Israel today – Are we Israeli’s or Jews?
New identity paradigms don’t come easily. The 19th century and the failings of emancipation made it quite real to European Jewry. One response was the path of modern Zionism. The works of the 19th century Zionists addressed centuries of being the minority and the historic “outsider”. Reflected how our negative experience through centuries has impacted our consciousness and perhaps our very “DNA”.
In 1882, Leo Pinsker, a Jewish physician of Odessa, disturbed by the pogroms of 1881, made a keen analysis of the position of the Jews, declared that antisemitism was a psychosis and incurable, that the cause of it was the abnormal condition of Jewish life, and that the only remedy for it was the removal of the cause through self-help and self-liberation. The Jewish people must become an independent nation, settled on the soil of their own land and leading the life of a normal people.
Herzl; “During our two thousand years of dispersion we have been without political leadership. It has done us more harm than all the persecutions. It has rotted and ruined us, from within. There has been on one… to train us in true manhood. On the contrary …We … have been locked up in the ghettos where we degenerated. And when the gates were opened we were suddenly to have all the traits of a free people.”
Herzl’s reaction to the Dreyfus trial was instantaneous. He said that the Jews will never find a cure for antisemitism unless they “normalize” their situation. By “normalize” he meant Jews needed their own state, army, flag, diplomats, etc. – Jews had to be a nation like all other nations.
Now in our days have we found new answers? My reflection does not prompt easy solutions or answers, but does, I believe, require serious conversation among our community.
Rabbi Larry Kotok