July 4, 2024
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July 4, 2024
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A ‘Moment’ for American Jewry

July 4th is an annual celebration of democracy. In the modern era, democracies have supplanted oppressive forms of government, protected individual rights and liberated the human spirit. Affording every citizen political and economic freedom, democracy has unleashed immense human potential, generating a modern world of progress and expansion.

The United States is the greatest democracy of the modern era. It began as a “city on a hill,” meant to showcase democratic principles of government. Not only did the United States launch this experiment but additionally, in the 20th Century, it courageously defended democracy against the threat of totalitarianism and Communism. Though July 4th is an American holiday, in a larger sense, it celebrates the general spread of democracy.

American Jews in particular, have a lot to celebrate. Jewish life in America has blossomed with unprecedented vigor. For the first time in our exile, we don’t inhabit the margins of society as strangers, but have become deeply and organically incorporated within the fabric of our host country. Jewish success in America is not to be taken for granted and July 4th both commemorates these historic achievements and offers an opportunity to express gratitude to America.

July 4th is also a day to consider the failings of modern democracy and the perils for religion and for religious values. By stressing the individual over the collective, modern society has glorified personal choice and personal expression. National, communal or collective identities which preach traditional values have become disregarded. Without strong communal or national identity, traditional values such as family and morality erode. The cultural melting pot of America encourages people to quietly disappear into a faceless suburban landscape.

July 4th is a day to appreciate democracy, to celebrate Jewish life in America, and also, to ponder the moral challenges which democracy poses.


A Moment

This year though, July 4th is different. This year’s July 4th is a point of inflection for the American Jewish community. October 7 and the ensuing nine months shattered previously held notions of Jewish life in America, transforming a once confident community into one grappling with renewed vulnerability. A community that felt embraced and embedded faces resurgent and rabid antisemitism which casts them as outsiders, challenging their sense of acceptance and security in a land they once viewed as their home. American society appeared to be tolerant and respectful, but it became quickly evident that antisemitism always simmered beneath the surface. The landscape has shifted for American Jews.

For many, this has been a devastating blow, one which ruptured their identity. For many Jews, the crusade for social justice is a keystone of Jewish identity. Many American Jews viewed themselves as equal partners in this lofty calling to craft a better society of equality and tolerance. Watching so many of their presumed partners turn their backs on the Jews shattered their conceptions of American society. Other Jews who were more culturally insulated felt less betrayed by the surfacing of antisemitism. Their Jewish identity was less centered upon a partnership with the broader society as they viewed themselves as less integrated within the general culture.

Either way, for American Jews across the ideological spectrum, October 7 was a seismic shift in how they perceive Jewish life in America.

This is a cognitive moment for American Jews. It is a moment of collective awakening and of shifting identity. It is difficult to predict the future. At some point, as it has been in every country we lived in throughout history, the American Jewish experience will come to a close. The final terminus for the Jewish people is our collective homeland.

Some Israelis wish that life in America becomes less secure for Jews, to encourage more rapid aliyah. I am uncomfortable wishing discomfort or antisemitism upon any Jew, regardless of where they live and independent of whether it inspires their return to Israel. Such calculations are better left to Hashem.


Previous “Moments” in Jewish History

But this year has certainly been a turning point. Throughout Jewish history there were similar “turning points,” during which it became evident that we were no longer fully welcome in our host country. The 1391 massacres in Spain had a profound and devastating impact on Jewish life and foreshadowed our tragic expulsion 100 years later. The violent pogroms against Russian Jews in the 1880s awakened us to our own helplessness and launched the first stages of what would become mass emigration to the West. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the Nuremberg laws enacted in 1935 signaled that Berlin wasn’t little Jerusalem. These were similar cognitive moments in Jewish history when we realized our life in exile would no longer be peaceful.

The United States of 2024 is very different. Though Jews face vitriol and hate, by and large, antisemitism hasn’t infiltrated the government. It is very easy to strike comparisons with Germany, but the situation in America is still very different and we hope it remains that way.

Despite our valuing of aliyah, every Jew should wish wellbeing for every other Jew, no matter where they live. The war and its aftermath highlighted just how codependent Israel and the American Jewish community are. Hopefully, life in America remains tranquil and successful.

It is undeniable though, that the war has forced American Jews to reconsider their attitudes toward Israel. This recalibration is healthy and important. It is fair to say that some American Jews had become too comfortable in America, took Israel for granted, and didn’t properly incorporate Israel into their Jewish identity. The past year has reminded every Jew that no Jew will ever be fully safe without the Jewish state. For American Jews, this year’s July 4th is a day to adjust their relationship with America, a country that has offered us so much, but can never be called “home.”


Spreading Prosperity

While pondering the American Jewish experience, it is also crucial to appreciate the impact and influence of Jews upon America. Over the past 150 years Jews have propelled the United States to prominence as a world leader. In diverse fields ranging from academia and medicine to business and the arts, Jews left an indelible mark on the fabric of American society, contributing profoundly to its intellectual, cultural and economic vitality. This is our legacy—to bring prosperity and welfare to humanity. This has also been our history. Almost every country which warmly embraced Jews, experienced growth and progress. After expelling us, they suffered a steep decline.

Jews helped advance Europe to its golden age in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Tragically, Hitler brought a murderous end to mass Jewish presence in central Europe, and this region has never recovered its past glory. A similar fate befell Russia. Twice in the span of a century Russia hounded the Jews. The Tzarists regimes of the 19th Century institutionalized a series of discriminatory decrees meant to harass and persecute us. In the 20th Century, through mass executions and forced deportations, Stalin attempted to purge Communist Russia of its Jews. Russia still hasn’t recovered.

Hashem told Avraham that he will be a bracha for other nations, and we have dutifully served this mission, supporting and praying for local governments while improving the surrounding society. We have brought values, spirit and innovation to the American experiment and we should be proud of this accomplishment. We hope though, that America won’t suffer the fate of other countries who ousted its Jews.

Until every Jew returns home, we continue to bring prosperity to all those who will accept it and embrace us.

The writer is a rabbi at the hesder Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, with ordination from Yeshiva University and a master’s in English literature from CUNY. He is the author of Dark Clouds Above, Faith Below (Kodesh Press), which provides religious responses to Oct. 7.

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