Thursday, February 29, 2024

Jews in America

Hard to believe that he used to babysit my granddaughter when he and my son in law were students at YU.  And it’s even harder to believe that we used to have lively conversations with respect to politics and religion at Yeshivas Brisk where his grandfather, Rav Ahron, was the Rosh HaYeshiva. (If I recall correctly we agreed on just about everything.) But it’s true. Although I have not spoken to Meir Yaakov Soloveichik in many years I am proud to say ‘I knew him when…’

Meir Soloveichik (for some reason he dropped his middle name ‘Yaakov’) just hit another home run in the area of intellectual discourse with respect to the place of Jews in America. In a rather lengthy article in the National Review, he concludes that despite the current increase in antisemitism our place in this magnificent country is unlike our place in any other country at any other time in Jewish history. In a very significant and positive way. And once again, I could not agree more.

His discourse is replete with sources and anecdotes about our historical status among the nations of the world where we were found; how those nations saw us; how they treated us; and why.  Comparing them all to how our founding fathers saw us and treated us. The contrasts could not be more stark. 

His thesis is rooted in theology which is suggested by the following: 

“Some people like Jews, and some do not.” With these words Winston Churchill once divided humanity into two categories. Churchill cited Benjamin Disraeli as having said that “the Lord deals with the nations as the nations deal with the Jews.” Churchill concluded, “We must admit that nothing that has since happened in the history of the world has falsified the truth of Disraeli’s confident assertion.”

How true. If one thinks of how the Jews were mistreated by all the great and once powerful civilizations that populated the globe and are now extinct while we still live on, Disraeli’s words have surely been vindicated.

It is in our DNA. Throughout history we have been persecuted by our host country, if not at first then eventually. That, says Meir, is based on a national theology that saw us as infidels or deniers of their religious doctrines. Europe which was once guided by Christian theology was particularly guilty of this in a variety of ways. Some better. Some worse. But all bad . That resulted in persecution to one degree of another: 

(When) Christendom began to emerge, the question of Jewish endurance became particularly perplexing. The church understood itself as the new Israel, with the biblical promises to God’s chosen made manifest in its own success; yet Jews undeniably remained… Augustine of Hippo put it plainly: “Jews are not admitted into their city (Jerusalem), and yet Jews there are.” 

For Augustine, Jewish endurance was an eternal testament to the truth of Christianity. As deniers of the gospel, they were to be denied access to Jerusalem and to political restoration; but, just as Cain in Genesis was exiled by the Almighty but also protected by Him, Christians were forbidden to harm Jews so that Jewish powerlessness would eternally testify to the gospel. 

Augustine considered Jews a protected class but clearly not equal to Christians. 

As Meir notes, this spiritual protection did not last. Over the next millennium Jews were massacred and otherwise subjected to a variety of tortures and blood libels. 

That’s not only because of their role of moneylenders - forced upon them by denying them entry into other professions. True that bred a terrible resentment. But there was a theological component as well that is an even more potent explanation for our persecution: 

The great early-20th-century Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig described this phenomenon: “Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time… But in Jews, Rosenzweig writes, a nation is given a reminder that there is one people that is not like theirs…” 

Jew-hate is rooted in resentment of this undeniable fact of history… the Jew became a mirror reminding it of its finitude. The result was rage, what the Jewish columnist Jonathan Rosenblum has called “eternity envy.”

The Christian writer Robert Nicholson has correctly conjectured that the disease of antisemitism “almost always grows from a resentment of ‘chosenness’… This hatred, he argues, becomes a “grand anti-myth that turns Jewish chosenness on its head and assigns to the people of Israel responsibility for all the world’s ills.”

This of course did not end well for us in the  20th century when Hitler came into power.

Unfortunately violent antisemitism has not gone away - as October 7th has so painfully demonstrated. Which is reflected in this country by way of the recent anti Israel protests. But that sad phenomenon does not reflect the ethos of America whose founding fathers saw us as a blessing that protects America.

Europe was once guided by religious ideals that were used to persecute us. They have been replaced by values that are in may ways anathematic to the religious values that defined them. Christendom has changed its original animus against us into friendship  But Europe has abandoned its Christian underpinnings in favor of a Godless humanitarian philosophy that sees any religion as at best irrelevant if not downright evil.

Not so America. Whose founding principles valued religious principles based on the Hebrew bible:

On July 4, 1776, a committee comprising John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson was created by the Continental Congress and charged with developing a seal and symbol of the nascent United States. These Founders suggested an image of Moses and Pharaoh at the splitting of the sea, along with a motto: “Rebellion to tyrants, obedience to God.” The suggestion, ultimately not adopted, reflected not these men’s devout religiosity but their deep understanding of American culture and the place of the Hebrew Bible within it. 

The scriptural connection lies at the heart of the American vision…

Democracy rests on the sense that, as first stated in Genesis, “both man and woman [are] equally made in God’s image.” Only a notion of rights derived from the Creator was believed to be sustainable — which is why John Adams, looking with horror across the ocean at the godless revolution fought in France, predicted the tyranny that would result…

America looked to the Jewish story as an indication of divine blessing, and therefore as a source of inspiration for the sort of country America was called to be.

There is, however, a competing influence that has abandoned that wisdom. That is where the current  anti Israel protests reside. It is no coincidence that 3 presidents of major universities had tepid responses to the rise of antisemtism on their campuses. Their values are not the values upon which this country was founded.

The country is divided between those who still place high value on religious principles and those that do not. Those who value religious principles are currently the ones who are most supportive of Israel and – as demonstrated at the hearing by those 3 college presidents. Those who value their Christian principles are the ones that were the most condemning of their responses.

There is so much more to Meri Soloveichik’s article. There is no way I can do it justice in this short (but longer than usual) post. Please take the time to read it. I challenge  anyone to that does to make any argument against it.

Which philosophy will win the day in this country? I don’t know. But America beware. As Disraeli said “the Lord deals with the nations as the nations deal with the Jews.”