I am an American, suburban-Chicago-born. There has always been a basic compact—call it a “covenant”—for such a person, at least for those of us, which is everyone other than Native Americans, with antecedents in one of the old countries of Europe, the Middle East, Asia, wherever.
It goes like this: you leave your tribal feuds, squabbles, and ancient baggage at the door when you enter and get freedom in return, not only of choice, profession, and association, but of identity. You get to choose who you are, what you believe, even what you remember. Even those who were dragged here forcibly and against their will can, finally, be offered that. That’s America, where, if you kiss the old thing good-bye, Issur Danielovitch becomes Kirk Douglas, and Dino Crocetti becomes Dean Martin. But as a Jew who started out as Zimmerman sang, “The times they are a’changin’.”
Suddenly, for the first time in my life, Jews in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Los Angeles are being threatened on account of events happening continents away. Being Jewish in America suddenly feels different.
To some degree, this new reality is attributable to a new ideology that goes by various names, including intersectionality and settler-colonialism theory. It can be explained in detail by someone with patience, but it boils down to this: no matter your personal history, nor that of your family, you are either oppressor or oppressed. If you are white, you are oppressor. If you are Black, brown, or whatever else God has come up with, you are oppressed.
There is comedy in this. For the last 2,000 years, when white was the best thing to be, Jews were classified nonwhite. It’s what kept us out of the country clubs, the blueblood firms, and the Ivy League colleges. It’s why Jews started their own industries, including Hollywood. And now, when white is a bad thing to be, Jews have been classed with the Caucasians, who don’t accept us anyway. Our timing sucks.
It offers little solace, knowing that this ideology, which erases every particular, is profoundly un-American. America, built on its founding documents, has always been a place for the outsider, the weirdo, the misunderstood, the entrepreneur, the risk-taker, the Jew. America is the land of the individual, and it’s the license given to individuals from around the world that made it rich and powerful. If the ideology of the universities were to conquer America, which often seems to be its aim, it would stop being America. The prize would crumble in their hands.
Being Jewish in America suddenly feels different.
There would be no good place for Jews in such a country. Jewish life, that is also part of national life, depends on a society that judges people in the way of our happiest image of the deity: one at a time, each by each. A God who pays attention to every detail—“Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered”—is not a God who ranks by group.
The student and political movements that attack Jews in America for what’s happening in Israel have always seemed nonsensical. What do they want? No Jews in Palestine. And how do they pursue that goal? By menacing Jews in America, who are doing what they want: not living in Palestine. The rallies in Brooklyn, London, and Paris meant to undermine the Jewish state end up demonstrating that Jews remain unsafe in the diaspora, and hence stress the necessity of such a state.
For a Jew who cherishes the American promise, this is a desolate moment. I’ve always seen myself as 100 percent American, as pure a product of the nation as Kansas wheat or Wisconsin cheese; as American as Harry Truman, or Barack Obama, or Joe Biden. Now I’m not so sure. Many years ago, while reporting from Gaza, I asked the Israelis I was traveling with what they saw when they looked at me: American or Jew. They laughed. Then one of them said, “Jew. The world sees a Jew. Even in America, people see a Jew. Just wait. You’ll find out.”
For American Jews, this moment rhymes with another. It’s not World War II or the Yom Kippur War. It’s the days that followed World War II, as news of the Holocaust became widely known. Even in America, people worried about their safety. Forget Russia and Poland. If the Jews of Germany, the wealthiest, most powerful, most assimilated in the world, could, in less than a decade, be demonized, stripped of property, deported, and killed, then how secure were any of us?
I saw a large photograph in the Jewish Museum Berlin. It showed the members of a Reform congregation leaving synagogue after a Saturday service. In my mind, maybe as an act of self-protection, I’d always imagined the communities lost in the Shoah as foreign, different. But the people leaving the temple, gossiping in suits and ties, looked exactly like people I knew at North Shore Congregation Israel, in Glencoe, Illinois. There was a shock of recognition: if it happened to them, it can happen to me.
Around this time, thank God, I came across an Irwin Shaw short story about a Jewish soldier in the U.S. Army who’d been among the ranks that defeated the Nazis. In the course of battle, the soldier took a luger off a dead SS major. He planned to bring it home, less as a souvenir than as a necessity. He would use it to protect his family, to fight back when they came for him. In the end, he decides to sell the gun and share the money with his friends on a trip to Paris. That is, he chooses his comrades over the pistol, the promise of the future over the past. The story is called “Act of Faith.”
All these years later, I make the same bet. I bet on America. What other choice is there? The guys in Tel Aviv did not identify me as an Israeli. They identified me as a Jew. I know I don’t belong in Israel. I’m American. If America forsakes its promise and gives into the ancient prejudice, I don’t belong anywhere at all.
Rich Cohen is an Editor at Large at AIR MAIL