Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Two Jews are walking in a dangerous neighborhood late at night. Suddenly, they hear footsteps behind them. One of them turns to survey the situation, and says to his companion: “We had better get out of here quickly. There are two of them and we’re alone.”
That is the way that it has felt this summer. And if American Jews have felt this, think of how European Jews are feeling.
Except we are not entirely alone.
Item: According to a Pew survey released in July, the Jews are the most popular religious group in the United States. Jews, Catholics, and evangelical Protestants appear at the top of the list. Muslims were the least popular, with atheists only slightly higher; Buddhists, Hindus, and Mormons were in the middle.
What accounts for the religious groups on the bottom of the list? The public face of Islam has not exactly been conducive to “kumbaya” — said with despair and sadness.
As for atheists, American identity and belief in God go together like ice cream and pie. Buddhists and Hindus? Most Americans simply don’t know any. If most Americans know anything about the Mormons, their views tend to have been molded by The Book of Mormon or HBO reruns of Big Love. It doesn’t help that many Christians don’t believe that Mormons are Christians.
So how did Jews win the popularity contest?
We are talking about the Jews as a religious group. With certain major exceptions, theological anti-Semitism has mostly evaporated in American culture. Look at the intermarriage statistics. Many American Christians have Jewish relatives. They have attended Jewish weddings and bar and bat mitzva ceremonies. They are moved, and this has been good for the Jews and good for Judaism.
Let’s remember something else. The American story is, in its roots, a Jewish story. The founders of the republic imagined themselves as “quasi-Jews” who had fled the English Pharaoh, crossed the Sea of Reeds (a.k.a. the Atlantic Ocean), and came to a new Promised Land. That is how we wound up with all of those American place-names like Canaan, Bethel, Sharon, Jericho, Salem, and Rehoboth Beach.
Item: Thirty-two countries recently petitioned a United Nations General Assembly committee, asking the UN to recognize Yom Kippur as an official holiday. To the signatories of the letter, it was a matter of simple fairness. If the UN is going to recognize the major festivals of the world’s main religions, why not recognize Judaism’s most sacred day?
This is the United Nations — the same group that has elevated criticism and condemnation of the Jewish State to an aerobic activity?
Check out the countries that petitioned the UN in favor of Yom Kippur: the United States, Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Bahamas, Canada, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Dominica, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru, Nigeria, Palau, Panama, Philippines, Rwanda, Samoa, Seychelles, South Sudan, Suriname, Togo, Uruguay, and Vanuatu.
Most of those countries have probably never seen a Jew. We’re not exactly talking about thriving diasporas in most of those places.
There is a link between the two items: the American Jewish popularity contest and the international championing of Yom Kippur.
It is simply this. This is about Judaism as an idea. This is about the Jews as a religious group, not as a people. The United Nations has no real interest in, or tolerance for, the Jews as a people — especially a people that has a land, a state, and an army.
Recall Conte de Clermont-Tonnere’s 1789 speech in the French National Assembly: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.” That sentence alone almost sufficed to serve as the Jewish passport into Western society. But it was not about the Jews as a people; only as individuals — individuals with a private religious preference.
Jews on the far Left are still playing that game. They seek to distance themselves from Israel’s actions — and from Israel itself. The idea of a Jewish nation-state offends their spiritual sensitivities. “Not in my name!” reads a Jewish Voice for Peace protest sign in front of an Israeli solidarity rally — with the emphasis on “my.” Translation: “I bought into this enterprise as a Jewish individual, not as a member of a people and certainly not as a representative of a nation that might actually have to get its hands dirty in order to survive.”
It is a tad narcissistic, as if “my” name is the most important thing here. How dare Israel offend me! In early nineteenth century Europe, Jews wanted to become salonfahig — society worthy, in German. The radical leftist rejection of Israel is simply another version of that — but this time, the “society” into which we beg admission is that of the press, college campuses, and cultural elites.
As the number of “spiritual but not religious” people grows, we should be expecting more distancing from, and even obtuseness about, Israel. A nation with specific soil, land, and language will not compute, not when it is so easy to hang out in the spiritual ether somewhere, offending no one with your very presence.
But can we at least enjoy the good news? By and large, Americans respect Jews, more than we had thought. And the nations of the world, even and especially obscure nations, actually respect Judaism — more than we could have ever imagined.
Let this be a small measure of comfort during these difficult and terrible days.