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Scaring Ourselves To Death?


The lengthy cover story in a weekly news magazine deftly sums up the profound unease afflicting U.S. Jewry. Titled “American Jews and Israel,” the piece paints a picture of a community enjoying unprecedented affluence and influence and at the same time worrying about the future of U.S.-Israel relations and the possible emergence of widespread anti-Semitism in America.

“American Jews,” the article says, “are indeed worried today, worried about Israel’s future…. Is American support for Israel weakening? What happens if U.S. interests and Israeli interests, which have always seemed to coincide in the past, should diverge? Has Jewish influence in the U.S. become an obstacle to U.S. foreign policy?”

The article quotes the president of Brandeis University: “From a Jewish point of view, the danger is that the sentiment in favor of Israel is now counteracted by declining guilt over the Holocaust and an increased sympathy for the Palestinians. And we are under great pressures of both military and economic policy that we were not under before.”

Disclosure time: The article is not exactly current. In fact, it’s not even of relatively recent vintage. It’s actually some thirty-two years old, from the March 10, 1975 issue of Time magazine. And it went on to quote some prominent American Jews expressing a near-apocalyptic level of fear:

In his book American Jews: Community in Crisis, Gerald S. Strober, a former staff member of the American Jewish Committee, predicts that current trends will make “life rather unpleasant for the individual Jew” in America, and that U.S. Jews are now entering “the most perilous period” in their history. Author and Playwright Elie Wiesel, survivor of Nazi concentration camps, claimed, in the New York Times, that for the first time he could “foresee the possibility of Jews being massacred in the cities of America or in the forests of Europe” because of “a certain climate, a certain mood in the making.” According to Author Cynthia Ozick, writing in Esquire, Israel’s survival is in grave doubt, and with it Zionism and thus all Jews.

Reading that old Time article, the Monitor couldn’t help but be reminded of Leon Wieseltier’s much-cited 2002 essay “Against Ethnic Panic: Hitler Is Dead.” Wieseltier, literary editor at The New Republic (where the piece appeared), was reacting to what he viewed as unseemly American “Jewish panic” in the wake of 9/11, the resurgent Palestinian intifada and the sharp rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

American Jews, Wieseltier wrote, were “sunk in excitability, in the imagination of disaster. There is a loss of intellectual control. Death is at every Jewish door. Fear is wild. Reason is derailed. Anxiety is the supreme proof of authenticity. Imprecise and inflammatory analogies abound. Holocaust imagery is everywhere.”

It was with this slough of despond as backdrop that Wieseltier sought to inject a sense of balance into the discussion, noting that in both the U.S. and Israel,

Jews found not only safety, but also strength. The blandishments of pluralism in America have included the fierce and unembarrassed pursuit of Jewish interests, and so brilliantly that the American Jewish community has become the model for what an ethnic group can accomplish in such conditions of freedom. The blandishments of sovereignty in Israel have conspicuously included military power. Suicide bombs are sickening; but it is the Israelis who command an army and an air force, and also a nuclear arsenal.

Hardly unmindful of the roots of what he called “the fright of American Jewry,” Wieseltier nevertheless drew a distinction between understanding and sympathy:

To a degree that is unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people, our experience is unlike the experience of our ancestors; not only our ancient ancestors, but also our recent ones…. We do not any longer possess a natural knowledge of such pains and such pressures. In order to acquire such a knowledge, we rely more and more upon commemorations – so much so that we are transforming the Jewish culture of the United States into a largely commemorative culture.But the identifications that seem to be required of us by our commemorations are harder and harder for us to make. In our hearts, the continuities feel somewhat spurious. For we are the luckiest Jews who ever lived. We are even the spoiled brats of Jewish history. And so the disparity between the picture of Jewish life that has been bequeathed to us and the picture of Jewish life that is before our eyes casts us into an uneasy sensation of dissonance…. In the absence of apocalypse, we turn to hysteria.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at jmaoz@jewishpress.com.

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