Commentary Magazine


Why Religion Is Good for the Jews

If a religious community experiences a very low birth rate and a very high rate of intermarriage—50 percent—what kind of future will it have? Obviously, not much of one.

Yet the American Jewish community, which is experiencing both of these phenomena, seems to feel no anguish, only a growing anxiety. After all, a very low birth rate fits neatly into the upper-middle-class style of life which appeals to contemporary wives and husbands alike—and it is in this upper-middle class that Jews are ever more concentrated. And a high rate of intermarriage testifies to the ever-fuller acceptance of Jews by the non-Jewish community. Is that not what American Jews have always wanted? Is that not what America has always promised? How fortunate American Jews are to be living in such a wonderful country!

It really is a wonderful country, and they are truly fortunate to be a part of it. Never in the history of the Diaspora has there been anything comparable to the American experience. Never in Jewish history have Jews achieved, not mere toleration, but the full civic equality promised them by none less than George Washington himself. Along with this full civic equality there has also come an unparalleled degree of social equality. (These days, even Ivy League universities seem to feel they cannot do without Jewish presidents.) In short, America has so warmly embraced its Jews, and Jews have so enthusiastically responded to this embrace, that the American Jewish community may yet vanish—by osmosis, as it were.

Is that what the community wants? And if not, what, if anything, can be done about it? Facing such questions, the major Jewish organizations are so skittish that one senses a positive relief and renewal on their part at the appearance of any new signs of old-fashioned anti-Semitism. That is a problem they are familiar with, and consider themselves expert in coping with.

A similar robustness characterized the reaction to a handful of purely theological statements made by some Christian fundamentalist preachers. These statements were to the effect that, when Jesus returns to the world, only Christians will qualify for redemption—Jews and other infidels need not apply. As it happens, Jewish theological teachings do not recognize the doctrine of a second coming of Jesus (or a first), so it is hard to see why Jews should take such offense at these statements. It is almost as if Jewish organizations, having fought (quite successfully) against Jewish exclusion from country clubs, now feel it necessary to take on the specter of discrimination in that Great Country Club in the Sky.

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Still, even anti-Semitism cannot be counted on to restore a sense of purpose to the major Jewish institutions. The most blatant and vicious form of anti-Semitism in this country now emanates from the black community—and, incredibly, from black college students, black professors, and black preachers. This was not supposed to happen, and it has plunged Jewish organizations, with their predominantly liberal orientation, into a deep quandary of indecision.

For several decades now, the official Jewish community has sincerely believed that it enjoys a strong alliance with black organizations. After all, Jewish money was always forthcoming to the Urban League, the NAACP, and the United Negro College Fund. And were it not for affirmative action, which the Jewish community has generally supported, many of today’s black students would not even be in college, nor would their black professors be ensconced in their black-studies departments.

So is today’s black anti-Semitism another instance of the rule that no good deed goes unpunished? No, it is not. What we have here, rather, is a case of ideological folly reaping its unanticipated consequences. It is precisely because of the extensive Jewish involvement in black organizational life that black anti-Semitism is so virulent today. It is because Jewish officialdom has been a “patron” of blacks that a frustrated and racist black nationalism has turned against the Jewish community.

The so-called “black-Jewish alliance” goes back to the early days of the struggle for black civil rights, a struggle in which Jews properly played a significant role, since civil rights is always a Jewish issue. The notion of an inherent alliance between the two communities survived the successful outcome of that struggle. Being liberal as well as Jewish, leaders of the Jewish community thought it natural that they should continue helping blacks achieve something like “real” (i.e., socioeconomic) equality.

Yet the liberal policies that were supposed to accomplish this goal have helped to create a black underclass and a demoralized black community. Despite the fact that old-line “civil-rights leaders” continue to demand more of the same, younger blacks, especially those drawn to one variety or another of black nationalism, are well aware of what welfare-state liberalism has done to their community. Black anti-Semitism today is a reaction to that liberal failure, and Jews, being so highly identified with liberalism, happen to make the most convenient target.

Among black university students caught up in the revolt against welfare-state liberalism, the situation is coming more and more to resemble that of German university students in the 1930′s. Their rebelliousness in the name of racial dignity and self-affirmation has a strong thuggish component, and is far closer to authentic fascism than anything we have seen since the 1930′s. Since blacks make up only 11 percent of the population, they do not constitute any kind of real threat to American democracy. But the phenomenon of black anti-Semitism, which is a surrogate for black contempt and hatred for whites, and especially liberal whites, seems to have a ring of permanence. It is a passion that is even now reshaping the NAACP and the old-line black caucus in Congress, and it also marks a major turning point in American Jewish history—precisely because it so effectively challenges the historic commitment of American Jews to the ideal of a universalist, secular liberalism.

That triple loyalty—to Judaism, secularism, and liberalism—no longer seems as unproblematic as it once did. Indeed, the dissolution of the black-Jewish alliance, of whose very existence only a handful of blacks were ever aware, is a sign of the break-up of the larger liberal coalition, a coalition that is now mainly a Jewish illusion.

True, labor unions with a substantial black membership—the teachers’ unions, for instance, or the social-workers’ unions—can still be counted on to pass resolutions deploring anti-Semitism; but they are reluctant to pass a resolution denouncing Louis Farrakhan by name. And on the campuses, members of the newest Left, consisting of gays, lesbians, and radical feminists, are working to ally themselves with black “militancy” (notwithstanding the homophobia often associated with such militancy). About Jews and anti-Semitism they could not care less.

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As the categories of “Left” and “Right” become hopelessly confused in postmodern politics, many people on the Left have begun to talk the language of fascism without knowing it, just as many black nationalists have unknowingly begun to act like fascists. Liberalism, bewildered by this new situation, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. That leaves the major Jewish organizations, heavily populated by liberals, trapped in anachronistic modes of thinking.

Some of these organizations already devote more attention to their liberal agenda than to their Jewish one. Thus, although the rate of abortion among Jewish women is far lower than in any other religious or ethnic group, a mass-membership organization like Hadassah has, in recent years, been more deeply engaged with the issue of abortion than with the issue of intermarriage. Or again, the leaders of some organizations find it easy to be for “choice,” but find it more difficult to cope with promiscuity (a.k.a. “sexual activism”) among their own children. Which is to say that, like liberalism itself, they are morally adrift. If two decades ago anyone had predicted that the major Jewish organizations would one day see nothing wrong with handing out condoms to students in junior high school, he would have been laughed out of court.

The one constant in this professional mindset is the suspicion and fear of Christianity—and of conservatism. In both cases the suspicion and fear are based on atavistic European memories that have little relevance to the American Jewish condition. When it is pointed out that Christians in America today appear to be more interested in marrying Jews than in persecuting them, the rejoinder is quickly made that it is not those Christians who frighten Jews. It is the more devout (“orthodox”) Christians, who keep talking about Jesus, and salvation, and even Armageddon. Such Christians, for the most part, do not want to marry Jews—a fact that in itself is taken as a symptom of potential anti-Semitism.

This brings us to the heart of the confusion with which we began. A plain and simple truth is that so long as Christians are willing and eager to marry Jews, and Jews to marry (secular) Christians, intermarriage will proceed apace. But another truth, not so plain and not so simple, is that while Jews are distressed by this situation, they are also flattered and reassured by it. One gets the impression that what many Jewish leaders want, ideally, is for Jews to remain Jewish, and to decline to marry the Christians who woo them—but not for Christians to be so Christian as to shy away from intermarriage with Jews. It is an impossible dream, reflecting the paradoxical situation in which American Jews find themselves today.

Meanwhile, the Jewish population as a proportion of the whole steadily declines. It is numbers that count, and Jewish numbers will count less and less. By the year 2000, just around the corner, the Mormon population, having tripled in the past two decades, will be greater than the Jewish population.

As for the evangelical Christians, they increase steadily and will soon be the dominant force in American Christianity. By contrast, the “mainline” churches, steadfast in their social agenda and their own liberal-Left commitments, continue to lose adherents; but they also continue to be the favorite churches of the institutional Jewish community—favorite because less aggressively Christian. Although there are signs of change in this area, as at least some Jewish organizations tentatively pursue an “opening” to the evangelicals, in general the Jewish-Christian liberal coalition is going down the path of the Jewish-black coalition, if for different reasons.

Or for some of the same reasons. Right now, for instance, some black preachers and educators, alarmed at the demoralization of black youth, are becoming enthusiastic advocates of prayer in the public schools. On this issue, as on many others, Jews find themselves increasingly isolated in their secular liberalism.

They are isolated, too, in their Jewish universalism, a compound of grandiose moralism and messianic self-intoxication. Ever since the French Revolution, the “Jewish message” of universal justice in an ideal world has been interpreted as a political prescription for the real world. A secularized version of this message is the very heart and soul of Jewish liberalism. But the message now rings ever more hollow, as political messianism itself is drained of all credibility.

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If ever there was a moment for Jews to turn inward, to think about their condition and their prospects in a more Christian America, that moment is now.

In recent years, all the major Jewish organizations have quite suddenly decided that Jewish education is the solution to the problem of intermarriage. It is, if anything is. But what Jewish education means is itself a problem. Although more American Jews are sending their children to Jewish all-day schools, especially where the public schools are both unsafe and unfit for learning, the numbers are still too small to affect the overall picture. And in any case, most American Jews are not happy at the thought of parochial schools. They fear the taint of “ghettoization.”

What happens in these schools is almost infinitely various. The Orthodox, of course, are a case apart; for most of them, the possibility of intermarriage is too remote to shape educational thinking. The more conservative of the Conservative schools work hard to teach Hebrew, to familiarize their students with the Jewish holidays and the more salient prayers, and to establish a sense of kinship with Jews everywhere, and especially in Israel. The Reform schools—a relatively recent phenomenon—emphasize a liberal social agenda accompanied by a smattering of Jewish learning.

We do not yet know just how significant will be the impact of Jewish day schools, through the high-school level, on the rate of intermarriage. Two separate studies done in 1993 conclude that Jewish education correlates positively with involvement in Jewish causes, and does act as a brake on intermarriage. But it is too early to tell. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the products of Jewish day schools quickly assimilate into the secular youth culture. When they go on to college, many—always excepting the Orthodox—may end up retaining only a vestigial connection with their Jewish heritage.

True, one can envisage a Jewish school system running right through the college years, and this might have a very marked effect. But that too is hardly a realistic prospect at the moment. It would be taken as suggesting a kind of voluntary resegregation, and segregation is what American Jews have fought against throughout their history. The official Jewish community would have to become a lot more “Jewish” than it is today for such a system of higher education to be allotted the resources it would need. Until that day dawns, relying solely on Jewish day schools to slow down the rate of intermarriage may be less than realistic. Still, as the only game in town, it is a move in the right direction.

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The liberalism of the last two centuries liberated Jews from the ghetto and enlisted them as civic equals in Western society. The new challenge Jews will have to face is just how to live as equals in American society without committing demographic suicide.

They can best confront this challenge by seeing it as an opportunity, not simply a problem. The opportunity is one for the American Jewish community to reestablish a Jewish core, a religious core, as a key to its identity. That is what many Christians today are seeking as our secular society continues to unravel, and there is every reason to think that Jews, willy-nilly, will be propelled in the same direction.

That does not mean that they will thereby instantaneously give up on their liberalism. So thoroughly does the liberal culture dominate attitudes in the Jewish community that even a turn inward, toward religion, may well become hostage, at least temporarily, to the liberal ethos. Thus, among rabbinical students at non-Orthodox seminaries in recent years, there has been a remarkable upswing in religious observance and a palpable move “rightward” in matters of ritual and liturgical practice. But this growing religious conservatism often goes hand-in-hand with a conventional liberal attitude about everything else, from racial politics to rock music to abortion, feminism, and homosexuality. It will be interesting to see whether the contradictions entailed in this adaptive maneuver can long survive.

In any event, being Jewish in a multiracial, multiethnic, and religiously pluralist society is the challenge of the hour. Or, to be more precise: the challenge is to find a way of incorporating the crucial religious dimension of “being Jewish” into American life.

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