Defining the Topic
The topic of JPPI’s 2020 Structured Jewish World Dialogue (the 7th of the annual series) is “The Impact of Anti-Semitism on Jewish Identity.” As is well known, both anti-Semitic attitudes and anti-Semitic acts have been on the rise in the United States. The aim of this Dialogue is to probe and assess the effect this is having on Jews in America, especially in terms of their experience of being Jewish in America and on their Jewish identity. Thus, to a certain extent we have discussed strategies of combatting anti-Semitism, and especially whether the Jewish community should join with other minority communities fighting racism in this struggle. Our interest in this was not so much to discuss operational strategies, but to get a sense of how Jews in America see themselves vis-à-vis other populations and how this affects their experience of anti-Semitism.
The description and analysis in this article is taken from two sources: an online questionnaire respondents completed in the course of the Dialogue sessions and statements that were expressed in the Dialogue sessions themselves. Thirteen Zoom discussion sessions have been held with a total of 154 participants invited by Jewish federations and other organizations, such as campus Hillels. Although participants have spanned a wide range of ages, this year’s Dialogue included a very significant number of young people (ages 20-40).
The Structure of Jewish Identity
Sociologists, such as Herbert Gans and Mary Waters, have formulated a concept of symbolic or optional ethnic identity for white ethnic groups in America (e.g. Americans of Irish, Italian, or Polish descent). By this they refer to the reality that white Americans can choose whether to display or emphasize their ethnic identity and culture – or symbols identified with it (e.g. food, music, holidays, dress) – or, on the contrary, choose not to display or reveal it. Many white Americans do choose to display their ethnic identity and its symbols on certain occasions as doing so can add color and interest to one’s life. American minorities of color (non-whites), whose ethnicity is inscribed physically, have less choice or fewer options in regard to their identity. Other people can relate to them as Black, Asian, or Hispanic whether these wish them to or not. Jews participate in both forms of identity. The vast majority of Jews are white and hence enjoy a form of optional or symbolic ethnicity. Nevertheless, anti-Semitism means that others determine your identity whether you will it or not. If they attack you or discriminate against you because you are a Jew, then you are not the sole determinate of your own identity. In this sense, Jewish identity is more similar to Black or Hispanic identity.
Eighty-six percent of JPPI’s dialogue survey respondents felt that anti-Semitism was more serious that it was ten years ago. This feeling is backed up by data. Over the last four years there has been a measurable rise in both anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents (see JPPI’s Anti-SemitismIndex on pages 109 – 123). We inquired whether this rise in anti-Semitism, both in fact and perception, affected the feeling of security that American Jews feel in the United States. America Jews had long felt that “American is different,” that is, that American Jews did not suffer from violent and aggressive anti-Semitism, as Jews in other places, such as Europe, did. Most respondents (61 precent) said that the rise in Anti-Semitism had somewhat shaken their confidence in the US, but that America “was still different.” Seventy-three percent of respondents indicated that they had not considered moving to Israel.
Responses to Anti-Semitism’s Rise
Europe had experienced rising anti-Semitism a decade or more before the United States. Jewish responses in Europe included downplaying or hiding one’s Jewishness as well as accentuating it. According to a European Union survey from 2018, 71 percent of respondents said they hide their Jewishness, at least occasionally. An alternative response is to turn away from the general society and turning inward to the Jewish community and strengthening one’s Jewish observance and commitment. This latter response is much harder to measure and our knowledge of it rests largely on anecdotal evidence.
We inquired as to whether these two responses also occurred in the United states. 46 percent of the respondents said that the rise of anti-Semitism has not changed how Jews express or present their Jewishness. However, 29 percent said that at least some Jews do attempt to downplay or hide their Jewishness, while 17 percent indicated that some Jews have become more assertive in expressing their Jewish identity. This second response was also expressed in the Dialogue sessions themselves. For example, New York participants related how friends and acquaintances, who were generally indifferent to their Jewish identity, were motivated to attend the January 2020 Brooklyn Solidarity March against Anti-Semitism following the violent attacks against Hasidic Jews.
Strategizing against Anti-Semitism
When we inquired as to the sources of anti-Semitism, 74 percent of respondents said that it was related to a general increase in racism. Accordingly, 95 percent also said that “the Jewish community would be well advised to form coalitions with other groups to combat racism.” Seventy-two percent said that Jews should even form coalitions to combat racism with groups with whom they have serious differences regarding other issues, such as Israel and Palestine. Some of the Dialogue sessions took place after the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. In these sessions, many participants, especially the younger ones, spoke about their engagement with these protests and the connection with the struggle against anti-Semitism. This approach emphasizes what Jews and other groups, such as Blacks, have in common: they are both minorities and hostile outsiders impose their definitions of identity upon them.
The Role of Israel
Dialogue participants understood our question about the role of Israel in combatting anti-Semitism on multiple levels. Some of them responded that the State of Israel, as the Jewish state, should and can provide resources, funding, organization and the like to help on a tactical level in the struggle against anti-Semitism. However, many participants understood this question as referring to a more substantive level and discussed how the character of Israeli policy and society both contributes to and mitigates against anti-Semitism. Thus, some participants mentioned that Israel mitigates anti-Semitism, because it is “a beacon of democracy.” Other respondents, however, focused on how Israel contributes to anti-Semitism through its treatment of the Palestinians. In the Dialogue sessions themselves participants brought up the annexation of West Bank territories and said that such a move would contribute to a negative image of Israel and Jews.
The Essence of Jewish Identity
Are we Jewish only because of anti-Semitism? To what extent is anti-Semitism constitutive of Jewish identity as Jean-Paul Sartre argued 75 years ago? That is to say, that we are Jews because others designate us as Jews and regard us with hostility. If they were to cease this hostility, we would cease being Jews and assimilate into being like everyone else.
When we raised this question in discussion groups, most participants said that there are many Jews that maintain their Jewish identity only because other people treated them as different and discriminated against them.
In that sense they said, anti-Semitism is “good” for Jewish identity (as the Talmud indicates). But almost all discussion participants, who for the most part were engaged and committed Jews, considered that a poor mode of Jewish identity. They insisted that a more worthy form of Jewish identity was one that rests upon the intrinsic meaning of being Jewish and the sense of fulfillment that Judaism gives to one’s life. Furthermore, many participants said or implied that the truly adequate response to anti-Semitism was not only to fight it in the public and political spheres, but to increase one’s commitment to Jewish identity and Jewish learning. That is, one’s Jewishness should increasingly become “for itself” (pour soi) and be constituted self-consciously out of choice and rest less upon how others define and relate to Jews.