I didn’t think anything in American Jewish life could surprise me—until an Upper East Side neighbor told me recently that his daughter, who moved to Israel a dozen years ago, “was the first to to see the wall.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I know you’re an optimist about America,” he replied. “But at a certain point, Jews were expelled from every place they settled.”
I was amazed. “You don’t mean she thought Jews were so threatened that it was time to leave America because they left France and Russia?”
My neighbor smiled at my visible distress and said he was surprised: did I really not know what was going on?
A few weeks later, unable to get this conversation out of my head, I shared it with a professional advisor, another Jew in our neighborhood, who was equally amused by my reaction. “Did you see the man who just left my office?” he asked. “One of the top lawyers in his field. That’s just what he told me he heard from some of his clients.”
Have I really fallen so far behind on a subject I’ve been following for decades? Everything about the rise of anti-Jewish politics in the United States troubles me: the role of universities, media and cultural elites in aiding anti-Zionism, the successor and incorporator of anti-Semitism; the organization of grievance brigades against the allegedly privileged Jews; the ease with which the Arab and Islamic war against the Jewish people found a home on the left; the election of known anti-Semites to the government; the lone shooters who choose Jews as their targets; the underreported street attacks on visible Jews; and the timidity and stupidity of some American Jewish spokesmen in response to all this aggression.
It wasn’t the escalation of anti-Jewish activity that surprised me, but the idea that it was time for Jews to give up on America altogether.
Let me try to make it as clear as possible. Aliyah, the voluntary relocation of Jews to Israel, is an honorable Jewish imperative. The Jews’ return to their homeland – “to build and be rebuilt by it” – is one of the most hopeful developments in the history of civilization. No amount of effort to tarnish Israel’s reputation can diminish the magnitude of that achievement.
On a more mundane level, just as some Israelis may want to live in the United States, some American Jews may choose to live in Israel. A young Israeli relative of mine once illustrated the concept of Americans successively “taking off and descending” from Israel in a photo of two muscular gunmen lugging boxes up the stairs for an Israeli-owned moving company. He intended to pierce the ideal of aliyah by focusing on some of its grimmer real-life details. Yet, although the ideological urgency of that ideal has waned over the decades, the call of Jews to Zion will never cease.
In any case, moving to Israel does not necessarily imply seeing the “handwriting on the wall” – a powerful phrase with its own heavy Jewish associations. In the biblical book of Daniel, the Jews are in exile, surviving with their wits at the will of their Babylonian conquerors. Daniel, who accurately prophesied for King Nebuchadnezzar, interprets the mysterious phrase on the wall – MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN – to the king’s successor Belshazzar: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. . . . You were weighed on the scales and found to be too little.”
In its context, it would be the punishment specifically for the Babylonians who desecrated the items taken from the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, in the broader historical context, a prelude to civilizational doom repeatedly correlated with harm or danger to the Jews.
Millennia of evidence supports this connection between political durability and treatment of the Jews. Because of the way Jews lived among the nations, as a self-defined, high-functioning minority without independent means of self-defense, they fared differently according to whether societies welcomed or resented their presence. It is no mere cliché to call Jews “canaries in the coal mine”; societies that organized against the Jews were indeed defeated, or disintegrated from within. Conversely, tolerance of the Jews demonstrated cultural and political qualities of openness and self-restraint that translated into extensive achievement.
The United States is an example of the latter mindset. When Moses Seixas, warden of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote to George Washington in 1790 asking for religious freedom for Jews, he also invoked the book of Daniel:
Allow the children of the tribe of Abraham to approach you with the warmest affection and regard for your person and merits. . . . With pleasure we think of those days—those days of trouble and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the danger of the sword, protected Thy head in the day of war—and we rejoice to to think that the same Spirit who rested in the bosom of the much loved Daniel, enabling him to preside over the provinces of the Babylonian Empire, rests and will always rest on you. . . . [emphasis added]
By associating Washington not with the fate of Belshazzar, but with the deliverance of Daniel, Seixas claimed that the Jews, hitherto deprived of the “priceless rights of free citizens,” felt all the more grateful to the Almighty for a government of the people that “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Indeed, Washington’s reply to the rabbi included these same phrases, going a step further to deny mere toleration “as if it were by the indulgence of one class of men that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights .” From now on Jews had to know that citizenship was their right. Welcome to the Land of the Free.
Flash forward to the 1960s, when Jews were both agents and beneficiaries of the civil rights movement that eventually extended the legal promise of America to all its citizens. Jews meant it when we sang Woody Guthrie’s national anthem, “This land is your land, this land is my land/ From California to New York Island/ From the rooibos grove to the Gulf Stream waters/ This land was made for you and me. ” We meant it when we belted out Irving Berlin’s anthem: “God bless America, land I love/ Stand beside her and lead her/ Through the night with the light from above.” American Jews were no doomsday Daniels at Belshazzar’s feast, but equal partners in this great experiment, and we bear our share of responsibility – no more and no less – for the Republic whose benefits we reap. If America fails us, it fails itself, but the failure is equally ours.
With that in mind, it was interesting to see how conservative media figure Ben Shapiro was greeted in Tel Aviv recently by a cheering crowd when the interviewer pressed him on his readiness to aliyah. Shapiro, a religious Jew, Zionist and American patriot, held nothing back in his appreciation and gratitude for Israel, but said that since the “founding principles of the United States are good and worth upholding,” Jews continue to live there as one of the places where they can do “the most good”. In the celebratory moment, it really seemed that the American and the Israelis together made the security of the world worse, and as a loyal American, Shapiro was right to praise his country of citizenship. But anyone listening to him in Florida might be forgiven for wondering if he might be about to hedge his bets. In Israel, the center is holding on to the most serious questions of the day, perhaps better than it has since 1948. Back in America, Jews are more nervous than ever, and they are not the only ones spreading alarm.
Some of the most thoughtful and eloquent Americans have trouble holding back their anger. About the universities, Roger Kimball writes:
All the old liberal virtues – disinterested inquiry, due process, color-blind justice, progress by merit and not by some strange racial, ethnic or sexual quota – all relabeled as the ridiculous patent of reactionary and therefore impermissible vice. In short, the educational institution in its highest realms today is a cesspool polluting the society it was dearly created to nurture.
For his part, Victor Davis Hanson, scrolling through the actions of the current administration, sees “the rapid destruction of most wisdom as we once knew it.” In short, although the culture battle is still being waged, some warriors have already begun to speak the language of defeat.
Jews have been taught that although the task is not ours to complete, we are not free to forego it either. In this most consequential struggle, our experience is instructive, and we are compelled to share the secrets of our creative survival with our fellow Americans. The primary Jewish obligation throughout the millennia since the giving of the law at Sinai has been to maintain and secure our constitution, the Torah: the “tree of life for those who hold fast to it”.
American Jews may be an ethnic group born into a nation, but the Jewish way of life can only be perpetuated by a rigorous education that begins in childhood and continues throughout a lifetime; on a larger scale, a similar responsibility for the American way of life rests on concerned Jews and non-Jews alike. To ensure that no one takes their civilizational structure for granted, Jews have ceaselessly preserved, transmitted, and strengthened the teachings of their tradition. In recent times, how could we have allowed some of our own to forget, cast aside or reject their Jewish heritage? How could we have allowed our fellow Americans to become so careless about preserving theirs?
A second Jewish insight, acquired too late and at greater cost than any nation has ever paid, is to never underestimate the will of those who rise up to destroy us. Having regained its national sovereignty after millennia under foreign occupation, the modern Jewish state is acquiring the skills, developing the strategies and above all building the stamina needed to protect its citizens in the millennia to come. Unfortunately, democracies with no incentive to be aggressive against others become the easiest targets for aggressors – including aggressors from within – who claim or seek to destroy what others have built. May the people with the worst record of self-defense in history inspire the world’s still-strongest nation before it’s too late.
In any case, my Jewish neighbors who feel the full brunt of the general rot in the particular form of attacks against them and the Jewish homeland, must warn against the self-destruction that accompanies anti-Jewish behavior. But they and the rest of us must also do everything possible to preserve the exceptionalism that is America. In the fateful parable that continues to ring through the ages, we are both Daniel and, here, part of Babylon. This is also our responsibility.