The Future of Jews in America – sort of (4 cents)

Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish History at New York University, gave a lecture last night entitled “The Future of American Jewry”, sponsored by Farbrengen, attracting (to me) a surprisingly large audience. Prof. Diner, who was a substitute speaker as the original invitee had become ill and passed away, did not give a speech consistent with the printed title.

Instead, she claimed that it was impossible to foretell the future, and that after all she is a historian, and her skill is interpreting the past. Keeping with her profession, she said that she went back and looked at the writings of Jewish sociologists of the 1950s and 1960s and at their predictions for the future. Many of their predictions did not come to pass: the demise of orthodox Judaism in the United States being perhaps the most notable. But even more interesting were the changes that they did not foresee: Jewish day schools, the increasing role of women in ritual, Jews by choice, the complex relationship with Israel and Israeli policy, the immigration from the Soviet Union, the growth of the havurah movement, etc. Proving her point as to the difficulty of predicting the future.

She went on to talk about Jewish history in American, her field. This part of her presentation was not as successful, I don’t think, in large part, in part because the topic is so broad. She didn’t give a chronological presentation, but instead concentrated on five facets of American life that she believe facilitated Jewish integration and success in this country. They were as follows (obviously abbreviated):

1. The United States is a society of immigrants. Jews were immigrants like the others.
2. The United States has unfortunately always been a society based on race; the Jews were always considered to be ‘white’.
3. The economy of the United States has, with setbacks of course, evidenced steady progress, and the Jewish population has been positioned to take advantage of that progress, particularly in fields of commerce.
4. Religious freedom as a facet of American society, and in particular how religious discrimination in the United States was much more anti-Catholic than anti-Jewish.
5. Political office in the United States has never been dependent on religious affiliation.

She went through detailed explanations of how these various elements supported Jewish success. While there was little to argue with in her presentation, I thought there were some equally important points that Diner did not make. Most importantly, she did not talk about the American constitution itself, which in two ways at least, helped protect Jews in America. First, the various anti-discrimination provisions of the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, which prohibited discrimination based on religious preference or many other categories. Secondly, the balance of power provisions of the constitution, which provide that the judiciary, and not the legislature, have the ultimate power in determining constitutional questions. She also did not talk about the nature of the original Jewish settlers, who came to this country to become a part of society and not to exclude themselves from it, and who set the tone for the many more who came later. Nor the financial success of many Jews and how that success translated into social influence and power. Nor the many social organizations, such as the Masonic orders, which treated Jews and Christians equally and allowed the to meet and work together in ways otherwise not possible. And only in response to a question did she discuss the Jewish role in media and entertainment and how that has affected the larger society’s view of itself.

I enjoyed the presentation. It gave me a number of ideas. But I think she could have developed her thesis better in some respects.

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