What should the American Jewish community look like?
Thoughts before Arrival Day

In the run-up to Arrival Day 2004, The Head Heeb has been productively speculating about the future of American Jewry. I think it’s also necessary to engage in some exhortation. How should the American Jewish community reframe itself in the next 350 years – or the next 50? Of course the next decades will bring uncontemplated changes, but that’s a truism. No one can foresee the future – even the Biblical prophets did not have that as their main charge. Rather than reacting to unforeseen changes, let’s imagine an American Jewish community we would like to live in.

To that end, I want to address something that’s been missing from Jonathan’s posts: some understanding of how Jews, or any other ethnic-religious group, fit into American society. With such an understanding we can more clearly lay out what we would want our community to look like.

My wife recently got me a copy of Michael Walzer’s What It Means To Be An American, a slim collection of eloquent essays which treats the relationship between our patriotism and civic virtue (national and public) and religious, ethnic, and cultural allegiances. In his essay “Pluralism: A Political Perspective,” first published in 1980, Walzer makes some observations worth quoting at length.

The growth of state power sets the stage for a new kind of pluralist politics. With increasing effect, the state does for all its citizens what the various groups do or try to do for their own adherents. It defends their rights, not only against foreign invasion and domestic violence, but also against persecution, harassment, libel, and discrimination. It celebrates their collective (American) history, establishing national holidays; building monuments, memorials, and museums; supplying educational materials. It acts to sustain their communal life, collecting taxes and providing a host of welfare services. The modern state nationalizes communal activity, and the more energetically it does this, the more taxes it collects, the more services it provides, the harder it becomes for groups to act on their own. State welfare undercuts private philanthropy, much of which was organized within ethnic and religious communities; it makes it harder to sustain private and parochial schools; it erodes the strength of cultural institutions.

All this is justified, and more than justified, by the fact that the various groups were radically unequal in strength and in their ability to provide services for their adherents. Moreover, the social coverage of the ethnic communities was uneven and incomplete. Many Americans never looked for services from any particular group, but turned instead to the state. It is not the case that state officials invaded the spheres of welfare and culture; they were invited in by disadvantaged or hardpressed or assimilated citizens. But now, it is said, pluralism cannot survive unless ethnic groups, as well as individuals, share directly in the benefits of state power. Once again, politics must follow ethnicity, recognizing and supporting communal structures.

What does this mean? First, that the state should defend collective as well as individual rights; second, that the state should expand its official celebrations, to include not only its own history but the history of all the peoples that make up the American people; third, that tax money should be fed into the ethnic communities to help in the financing of bilingual and bicultural education and of group-oriented welfare services. And if all this is to be done, and fairly done, then it is necessary also that ethnic groups be given, as a matter of right, some sort of representation within the state agencies that do it.

[. . .]

America’s immigrant [and religious-cultural: ZB] communities have a radically different character [than their counterparts in other countries]. Each of them has a center of active participants, some of them men and women who have been “born-again,” and a much larger periphery of individuals and families who are little more than occasional recipients of services generated at the center. They are communities without boundaries, shading off into a residual mass of people who think of themselves simply as Americans. Borders and border guards are among the first products of a successful national liberation movement, but ethnic assertiveness has no similar outcome. There is no way for the various groups to prevent or regulate individual crossings. Nor can the state do this without the most radical coercion of individuals. It cannot fix the population of the groups unless it forces each citizen to choose a single ethnic identity and establishes rigid designators among the different identities, of a sort that pluralism by itself has not produced.

[. . .]

The survival and flourishing of such groups depends largely upon the vitality of their centers. If that vitality cannot be sustained, pluralism will prove to be a temporary phenomenon, a way-station on the road to American nationalism. The early pluralists may have been naïve in their calm assurance that ethnic vitality would have an enduring life. But they were surely right to insist that it should not artificially be kept alive, any more than it should be repressed, by state power. On the other hand, there is an argument to be made, against the early pluralists, in favor of providing some sorts of public support for ethnic activity. It is an argument familiar from economic analysis, having to do with the character of ethnicity as a public good.

Individual mobility is the special value but also the characteristic weakness of American pluralism. It makes for loose relations between center and periphery; it generates a world without boundaries. In that world, the vitality of the center is tested by its ability to hold on to peripheral men and women and to shape their self-images and their convictions. These men and women, in turn, live off the strength of the center, which they to not have to pay for either in time or money. They are religious and cultural freeloaders, their lives enhanced by a community they do not actively support and by an identity they need not themselves cultivate. . . . Nor is there anything unjust in their freeloading. The people at the center are not being exploited; they want to hold the periphery. Freeloading of this sort is probably inevitable in a free society.
Some observations on this excerpt of Walzer’s essay. First, it seems unlikely that large-scale government support of ethnic-religious groups, such as the author envisions, will become a reality anytime soon. In the absence of this support, and accepting as plausible Walzer’s account of the “center” and “periphery” of the Jewish community (in our case), we should try to propose an American Jewish communal structure which broadly speaking does the following:

1. Funnel funds away from those Jewish communal services which, as Walzer points out, are better, more consistently, and more equitably provided by Federal, state, or local governments, including anti-discrimination and –defamation organizations; welfare; and education. (Not every school which defines itself as Jewish is equally worthy of Jewish communal support.)

As a corollary, the American Jewish community should try to sharply define the limits of its support of Israel, so that this support is justifiable in broader Jewish terms. That is to say, the American Jewish community should attempt to provide for Israelis services which are not being provided by the Israeli government, or which are not being provided in Jewishly defensible ways.

2. Use communal funds (and, it goes without saying, Jewish intellectual and spiritual creativity of the past and present) to emphasize those Jewish cultural and religious institutions which can reinforce the center while attracting, however intermittently, the periphery.

3. Construct a model of American Jewishness which recognizes that communal Jewish interests will not necessarily overlap, and might at times even contradict, broadly civic interests in the well-being of American society at large.

More on this in a future installment, starting with a stab at the notion of Jewish culture in general and American Jewish culture in particular: what they are and what they are not.

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