Straddling A Peoplehood And A Nation

As a septuagenarian American Jew belonging to the Baby Boomer class of 1949, my life in this country has unfolded in a manner beyond the most fervent prayers of my forbears for I have been able to coalesce without fear or duplicity my being Jewish with my full participation in American communal life. As such, I find myself sandwiched between the experiences of my parents’ generation with their foreboding of an imminent resurgence of antisemitism and today’s younger Jewish generation who face an open and insidious resurgence of antisemitism intertwined with anti-Zionism, religious bigotry, and nativism.

I was born in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, which was a time when our nation, appalled by the Nazi genocide and our own refusal to intervene to prevent this humanitarian disaster, discarded its crypto-scientific immigration and social policy of eugenics that regarded Jews and other non-North European populations as genetically inferior, embraced humanitarian rescue as a legitimate national objective, and perceived Israel as a beacon not just of safe haven for the Jewish people but as a vibrant social experiment and political miracle founded on principles of social justice, gender equality, and illimitable optimism. One by one, the barriers to Jewish integration into American society began to crumble – restrictions in higher education, housing, professional access and advancement, and public displays of religious symbology.

Yet, my parents in my early childhood opted to move to Skokie, Illinois, which remains one of the nation’s main urban Jewish enclaves – an evocation of the shtetl experience of their parents –that would ultimately become emblematic of Jewish solidarity when it mounted a community-wide resistance to the American Nazi Party’s march in 1978, But for me, living in a predominantly Jewish suburb provided security, good schools, two-parent households, and an overabundance of delis – all of which imbued me with confidence that I was living in a microcosm of a larger, pluralistic, and tolerant nation.

I have maintained an easy-going comfort with being Jewish that is expressed largely by my association with peoplehood, my commitment to the moral message of our faith, and my belief in the transformative power of hope. I waltz in and out of Jewish religious observance but remain steadfast in my self-identification as a Jew. I love the rich diversity of humanity that comprises the American mosaic and do my best to bring a Jewish voice to those of divergent ethnic, racial, and religious traditions. I do not feel a conflict between my identity as a Jew and an American and resist seeing flashpoints of conflict between these two formative influences. I am civically active but bring a publicly expressed Judaic sensibility to my contributions to social justice and social action. I have stumbled during the course of my life on isolated instances of antisemitism that I have had the luxury of dismissing as ignorant bigotry rooted in an anachronistic era.

My illusions of safety and security have been challenged although not shattered by the attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey; the pervasive security precautions now required at Jewish synagogues, communal meetings, and institutions; the fission of concern at Jewish communal gatherings at the presence of an unknown figure; the antisemitic vitriol that now appears on social media and even mainstream politics; the appearance of swastikas and vandalism recurrently targeted at Jewish institutions; the ignorance and/or outright denial within the general society of the Holocaust and, more broadly, the episodes of persecution that pockmark the Jewish historical experience; the jingoism rather than moral leadership of those in leadership positions to recognize the root causes of this pathology; the alarming increase in the FBI statistics on antisemitic incidents.

There are multiple pathways leading to antisemitism – an abject fear of the “other;” religious bigotry toward a people who do not subscribe to core religious tenets of the dominant population; the political rhetoric espoused by both the Right and the Left; resentment at the economic position and accomplishments of the American Jewish community; a perception that Jews are arrogant and insular; nativism that regards Jews as divergent and therefore antithetical to the established social order and national experience.

But antisemitism does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it exists as a subset of a broader social pathology that injects fault lines into the body politic along racial, ethnic, class, gender, and/or religious lines. The one foundational requirement for antisemitism is a taxonomy of the “us vs. them” followed by a judgment holding that the “us” is good and worthy and the “them” is threatening and evil. I cannot accept as an operative principle for my own life or for our nation that people are created with different degrees of worth, dignity, or claims to equality. Whether life springs from the masterwork of a deity or as a biological, evolutionary function, there cannot be any justification for gradations in the essential value of human beings, much less social policy of exclusion, minimization, and stratification.

I have now two infant grandchildren and am acutely aware of the journey I will take in their lives, running from an involved corporeal figure who ultimately will be transmogrified into an ingested whisper within their souls. I can neither predict the America in which they will live nor preordain my legacy in their lives. But my one fervent hope is that they will remain true to their faith and their people and a blessing to others regardless of their faith or identity so as to be grounded in faith, community, and heritage but indispensably connected with the broad and rich diversity of voices, ethnicities, religions, and creeds – that amalgam of humanity itself – that comprise the American mosaic.

Robert D. Aronson is an immigration attorney at Fredrikson & Byron. He is concurrently the Chair of HIAS, the nation’s oldest refugee rights organization and the agency of the American Jewish community providing refugees globally of all faiths and backgrounds with protection, dignity, and life-saving services.