By: Avi Polotsky  | 

Unpack With YUPAC: The Jewish Relationship with America

In 1978, a 40-year-old medical researcher in Leningrad, USSR, commuted to work with feelings of anticipation. Years of exertion were about to pay off, as he was promised the lead position in the pathology department at the prestigious Institute of Experimental Medicine. In the USSR, money was worthless; the premier currency was titles and status. Becoming a department chief at this top research center could dampen the persistent feelings of unease and insecurity the pathologist felt living under the Soviet thumb.

When the researcher arrived at work, he instead discovered all the work he had put into his career was for naught. Not only did the pathologist lose out on the promotion, but he was also fired from the institute. Why? The man was a Jew, and two Jewish coworkers had applied for an exit visa to move to Israel. Soviet authorities wanted to make a statement that such disloyalty would be met with retribution, so they ordered the Institute to fire all Jews in an act of collective punishment. That pathologist was my grandfather, and his only transgression was that he was born a Jew. Judaism in communist Russia was merely an ethnic label. Until my grandfather moved to America, it meant nothing beyond that.

Stories like this showcase the complex nature of Jewish identity. Growing up, I had initially assumed Judaism was a religion comparable in social structure to other faiths. Still, hearing of Jewish persecution in an atheistic society made me think it had to be more than a matter of religious doctrine. What is Judaism? A religion? An ethnicity? A nation? I struggled to find an answer until I asked a rabbi in my high school. His response changed my outlook on the Jewish people for the rest of my life. He told me that Judaism was a relationship; or rather a series of relationships. Being a Jew meant having a relationship with God, a relationship with the gentile world, a relationship with other Jews and a relationship with ourselves. What does this mean? It means that God and humanity are integral to Judaism; Jews cannot exist in a vacuum. Halacha and societal norms are the foundation of the Jewish relationship with Hashem and other Jews. Moreover, the actions of Jews, individually and collectively, constantly affect and change these relationships. These relationships can be positive or they can be negative. Although my grandfather never thought of Judaism as a religious description, the label “Jew” still affected his relationship with Soviet society.     

Viewing Judaism as a set of relationships is a choice framework for examining our American Jewish existence. What is the American Jew’s relationship with the broader United States society? To answer this, we must look at the history of Jews in the United States. Like our Ten Commandments, the American Constitution contains ten amendments serving as the nation’s guiding principles. The First Amendment outlines the rights of individuals to practice any religion freely. America was the first nation in history where Jews did not undergo a period of disenfranchisement. Jews were theoretically full-fledged Americans from the beginning. 

History has proven that legal rights do not always ensure freedom from persecution. Though legally just as American as any Christian, Jews were seen by many as lower-class citizens throughout the first 150 years of American history, were barred from social clubs and were accused of being grifters who sought financial gain above patriotism. Jews were not subjects of state-sanctioned hate, but Jewish life in America was not without discomfort. 

But today's America is far more diverse and pluralistic than in the past, and Jews have a comfortable societal position. Jewish citizens have found extraordinary success in America in fields ranging from politics to STEM. In a modern world where many governments still persecute Jews, America is a safe harbor. 

Is that fact unchanging? Will Jews be able to rely on America’s warm embrace forever? According to a 2021 Pew Research Poll, 53% of Jewish Americans feel less safe than they did five years ago. 21st-century America has seen violent attacks on synagogues, and Jews have been scapegoated for many societal ills. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic spawned many conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the disease’s outbreak. Such events bode for an uncertain future for the Jewish presence in America. 

Considering these factors, how should Jewish Americans view their relationship with the nation? It is time to “jump ship” as Jews have done in many countries throughout our 2000-year diaspora? I don’t think so. America is still a country where Jews can thrive, even if some individual Americans wish us ill.  American liberties mean Jewish Americans hold the reigns to their own destiny; rather than being dependent on the whims of others. In other countries diaspora Jews have sought refuge, we were seen as a completely separate entity, seemingly a separate nation within a state. This separation left Jews vulnerable to alienation, which could easily regress into vilification. 

In America, this is simply not the case. Jewish citizens are free to follow their traditions while fully participating in civic society. Historically, assimilated Jews were the primary representatives for Jewish communities in states like France and Germany. Jews in America, however, no longer have to choose between their religious enclaves and broader communities. The American system of democracy has seen religiously active Jews attain elected positions. In the New York Assembly 48th district, assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, an Orthodox Jew, represents Brooklyn neighborhoods with sizable Orthodox populations. This is just one example of Jews taking advantage of the political opportunities available to us in America. Political representation does not ensure protection from antisemitic vitriol, but it is one of many commodities in the Jewish American toolbelt.

Liberty is a two-sided coin. On one hand, American Jews are not slaves to the state and we have the freedom to live according to our values. But having liberty also entails responsibility, nothing is assured without hard work. The freedom to succeed does not mean an entitlement to success, it means that, ideally, nothing can stop you from achieving your goals as long as you apply yourself. Jewish citizens must recognize this fact and put effort into shaping American society, rather than letting society dictate Jewish life. We cannot prevent individuals from wishing Jews harm or fueling hatred, but we can do our part to push back positively. Jews in America must fight the spread of antisemitism by engaging in the American civic process and living as proud Jews and proud Americans. 

It is easy to fall into a timid and scared view of Jewish identity in America, but we must remember that we are as American as anyone in this great country. Do not allow the evils of small-minded individuals to cloud our vision of our nation, and do not let those individuals make us feel alienated. Jews are part of the American nation as long as we act assertively to maintain that truth.

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Photo Caption: Jews have to understand their identity and how it interacts with American society

Photo Credit: David Holifield on Unsplash