Whatever we make of the simmering and increasingly dangerous "clash of civilizations," for a complete disaster to be avoided, the president must do a better job than our present one of engaging the Muslim world in dialogue. For despicable but nonetheless real reasons, a Jewish president has no hope of getting an audience. And at times when dialogue must give way to action, imagine how difficult it would be for a Jewish president to rally world opinion or America's allies. Who would be willing to fight a "Jews' war"?
These are not the fears of a ghetto Jew - on the contrary, they are those of one highly aware of the reality of global anti-Semitism today. Much of the planet already thinks Bush invaded Iraq to serve "Zionist" interests (note the strong anti-Israel and anti-Semitic presence in the anti-war rallies even in the United States). That argument would be far more compelling during a Lieberman administration, and otherwise friendly European leaders would have a harder time ignoring public opinion. Moreover, as was the case in France, the relatively liberal values represented by someone like Lieberman would be discredited by many just as Blum's (and Crémieux's and Mendes-France's) values were by opponents who found it easy to condemn their agendas as 'Jewish.' The result wouldn't just be detrimental to American democracy, for America, unlike France, represents the West to the rest of the world and thus defines the values it represents. Whereas Blum's Jewishness undermined the cause of liberalism in Europe, Lieberman's Jewishness could undermine the cause of liberalism everywhere.
Perhaps the main reason we are blind to these dangerous possibilities is that, contrary to established Jewish community dogma, we Americans have not had real anti-Semitism in the last half century beyond what everyone considers the lunatic fringe. One occasionally hears a surprising anti-Semitic belch coming out of the gaping mouths of small-time figures like Congressman Rick Moran, or "off-the-record" remarks like those of Richard Nixon or James "Fuck the Jews" Baker. But Pat Buchanan's anti-Semitism is neither important to his over-all position nor to his supporters. Nixon's anti-Semitism, for that matter, never made it "on-the-record" or influenced his policies (although Kissinger's self-hatred might be a different story).
Even before the last fifty years, American anti-Semitism has never been anywhere near as virulent as in Europe or the Arab world. Acts of violence happened, but very, very rarely. Of course there have been copious instances of social snobbery: the quotas at the Ivy Leagues (which were actually generous when one considers the percentage of Jews in the overall population), the closed social clubs, etc., etc. It's also true that those exclusions led to more serious economic and political exclusion as well. But that's petty stuff, compared both with overseas and with the way people used to treat Irish Catholics in this country. No pogroms. No mass political movements. Father Coughlin got nowhere. Not even Henry Ford could do much more than make noise and raise eyebrows.
Of course, American leaders did not necessarily like Jews, but as with Nixon, their feelings rarely translated into policy or affected their governance. (The one and only exception is General Grant's infamous General Order 11, which expelled Jews from a few southern states under Federal military occupation during the Civil War. But Lincoln annulled the order as soon as he found out about it, and Grant's record otherwise is spotless.) Washington's precedent, as exemplified by his 1790 letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, has stuck: I might not want to socialize with you, but it makes me proud to see you prosper on our shores, and I wish you all the best.
I have little patience for American Jews' almost pathological sensitivity to perceived animosity past and present. As it stands now and as it has stood for most of our history, American anti-Semitism is offensive, but nothing compared with contemporary Europe or the Middle East. Indeed, our ancestors' obsession with Americanizing themselves and their religion in order to fit in and not get noticed (and presumably not suffer as a result) seems like an anachronism. They were projecting onto America hatreds that never really made it across the Atlantic. Even the word we commonly use for synagogues today, "temple," bespeaks an insecurity that came entirely from within: Isaac M. Wise, mentally stuck in Europe, promoted the word because he felt the need to replace the presumably embarrassing shul with a "temple" honoring the great fusion of American culture and Judaism. He clearly needed to reassure himself that he could be Jewish and American. But unlike Europeans, who even today tend to consider emancipation conditional, Americans for the most part didn't care and weren't paying attention.
In sum, many American Jews get very worked up about relatively shallow anti-Semitism, but precisely for that reason seem to miss the dangerous and deep anti-Semitism that is brewing overseas.
God Likes New Things
Abraham Joshua Heschel
You are God in Drag
Davening with Joe
Josh almost gets cancer
Our 440 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Winter 03 issue now on sale
From previous issues:
Edward Weston and the "M" Word
Enraged in the Enron Age