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Is this the end of the golden age for American Jews?

For more than a century, US Jews lived in safety and contributed way beyond their number. As fear replaces safety, the Golden Age is under threat.
Dan Coleman
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Six faces

Jews who made a mark on American culture: Betty Friedan, Bob Dylan (AP), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast), Henry Kissinger, Philip Roth (Universal Images Group), Barbra Streisand (Universal Images Group)

Published: 10 March 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

For more than a century, US Jews have lived in safety and contributed way beyond their number. As a climate of fear takes hold, the Golden Age is under threat.

Although set in New York, the long-running police procedural Law and Order is not known as particularly Jewy nor for dipping its toes into controversial topics.

Thus, it was surprising when Season 23 kicked off with a pro-Palestine student murdering a Jewish university president. The episode did not shy away from depicting the intensity of emotions surrounding recent events, culminating with the student’s faculty advisor taking the witness stand.

“How did you feel when he told you what he’d done,” the District Attorney asked. “I felt proud,” was her cool reply.

It was with reverberations of this chilling image that I woke the following morning to encounter the headline in The Atlantic: “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending.”

Author Franklin Foer describes how “Over the course of the 20th century, Jews invested their faith in a distinct strain of liberalism that combined robust civil liberties, the protection of minority rights, and an ethos of cultural pluralism…. [this] liberalism helped unleash a Golden Age of American Jewry, an unprecedented period of safety, prosperity, and political influence.”

Now, Foer argues “antisemitism on the Right and the Left threatens to bring to a close [this Golden Age] —and demolish the liberal order they helped establish.”

“Safety, prosperity, and influence” do not arise simultaneously. Safety has been foundational for the prosperity and influence that American Jews have enjoyed over the past century. It has created the space for such achievements as Supreme Court appointments from Louis Brandeis and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, prominent Cabinet appointments from Henry Kissinger to Antony Blinken, Pulitzer Prize winners from Saul Bellow to Joshua Cohen, and an astounding number of Nobel laureates.

Safety has been foundational for the prosperity and influence that American Jews have enjoyed over the past century.

The Golden Age affected everyday life as well. In my own childhood, we knew the word kike but never heard it. The nearby butcher, bakery, and deli were not menaced by the threat of antisemitic graffiti. Our synagogue had no guards or security walls, no metal grills to protect the tall, narrow windows rising over the sanctuary. An American flag waved proudly out front.

In that synagogue congregated middle-class Jews with strong liberal values and commitments. A case in point was my own mother. Never particularly political, she nonetheless volunteered with both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League. Eleanor Roosevelt was a personal hero of hers.

The Golden Age is not just about the perception of Jews themselves. It is how, throughout American society, they are, as children’s TV icon Mr Rogers would have cheerfully put it, “the people in your neighbourhood” – the doctor, the schoolteacher, the dentist… just regular folk, albeit particularly funny and kvetchy folk. In other words, the cast of Seinfeld.

Much as American Jews have rested comfortably in their acceptance, Foer details how, in the wake of October 7, forces have awakened on the Left which, joining those well-established on the Right, threaten to create an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and violence, one that threatens to permeate American society.

The author's grandparents, Celia and Charles Liebowitz, on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1928.
The author's grandparents, Celia and Charles Liebowitz, on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1928.

Perhaps most disturbing is his report on video footage of a California middle school protest: “Are you Jewish?” one mop-haired tween asks another. “No way,” the second kid replies. “I fucking hate them.” Another blurts, “Kill Israel.” A student laughingly attempts to start a chant of “KKK.”

It does not bode well when 14-year-olds are already this steeped in antisemitism.

Beyond these and many other incidents chronicled by Foer, the news has been rife with frightening events. At the University of California at Berkeley last month, Jewish students assembled for a talk by a reserve IDF officer on international law and its application to Israel. According to The Forward, the location of the event was disseminated on pro-Palestine social media with the call to “shut it down”.

Soon a mob of 200 protesters surrounded the event, chanting anti-Israel and antisemitic slogans. They entered the auditorium by breaking through locked doors and windows to accost the attendees, spitting on them, hurling slurs like “dirty Jew”, and physically attacking some.

Although campus police were unable to restrain the mob, they were able to lead the Jewish students single file down a stairway at the back of the auditorium and through a tunnel to safety. The image of Jews fleeing violence under the cover of darkness is no longer just for the history books.

As harrowing and horrifying as this story is, it is of a piece with so much that has happened across the US since October 7. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said that “a terrifying pattern of antisemitic attacks has been relentless since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, with no signs of diminishing. The lid to the sewers is off, and Jewish communities all across the country are being inundated with hate”.

Over recent years, I’ve written about the antisemitism of the likes of Kanye West, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer. The threats were real but isolated; the rhetoric vile but contained.

For most of my life, I thought America was the safest nation to be a Jew. Now, I think it might be Australia.

Now, antisemitism has leaped across American society and Foer is correct to ask if the Golden Age can be sustained. Jews have had Golden Ages before, in places like Iberia, Netherlands, and Poland stretching across the past millennium. None of them ended well.

Israel was founded to serve as a secure haven for Jews, a proposition that only time will bear out. For most of my life, I thought America was the safest nation to be a Jew. Now, I think it might be Australia.

Events here are so far nothing like those in the US but, still, the times are fraught. The recent breakdown in relations between the JCCV and the Islamic Council of Victoria is a worrisome step in the wrong direction.

The Law and Order episode is titled “Freedom of Expression”, begging the question of when that expression might take a more murderous turn, one that brings pride and celebration to perpetrators of violence, a celebration of atrocity spreading from the Hamas terrorists of October 7 across the global Left.

While drafting this column, I watched President Biden’s State of the Union Address. In the audience were Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Congressman Jamie Raskin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and many more. They seemed happy, relaxed, and confident in their roles. Yet, if Foer is correct, if the Golden Age ends and Jews come to live in fear, the ability to succeed so prominently may well go with it.

In a Golden Age, Jews are safe, other than from a few extremists. When Jews begin to live in fear, Foer correctly argues, the Golden Age is threatened. As he points out, given the close association of antisemitism with authoritarianism, “if America persists on its current course, it would be the end of the Golden Age not just for the Jews, but for the country that nurtured them”.

About the author

Dan Coleman

Dan Coleman is a former member of the Carrboro, North Carolina Town Council, and a former political columnist for the Durham (NC) Morning Herald. He is the author of Ecopolitics: Building A Green Society. He lives in Melbourne.


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