June 6, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
June 6, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Why I’m Proud to Be an American (Still)

When I was growing up, my parents were always very eager to express their hakarat hatov to America and to tangibly demonstrate their appreciation for being citizens of the United States. They proudly displayed an American flag on our front porch every year on Memorial Day and July 4 and they took their right to vote extremely seriously, casting a ballot each year — even when it was an off year and only local elections were held. My father was part of the first generation of Jews in his family to attend college and he was grateful that he lived in a country that allowed him the opportunity to advance professionally while still being faithful to his religion.

Today I’m hearing a lot of talk in the Jewish community that there is no future for Jews in America — and that the values and ideals that shaped our great country are quickly evaporating. Memes on social media compare America in 2024 to Germany in 1939, even suggesting that another Holocaust is on the horizon.

I don’t want to discount the serious problem of antisemitism that has gripped our country since Oct. 7. There are certainly several similarities between Germany in 1939 and America in 2024: the rise of authoritarianism … scapegoating and xenophobia … increased nationalism … propaganda and media manipulation … and an erosion of civil liberties. However, I believe the possibility of another Holocaust occurring in America in 2024 is extremely unlikely. The Holocaust was a uniquely horrific historical event, fueled by a very specific combination of political, social and economic factors in Europe during the 1930s. While it’s essential to remain vigilant against discrimination and hate speech against Jews, we are fortunate to have institutions and laws that serve as safeguards against such atrocities.

And even with the dramatic rise of antisemitism in America, I would still argue that Jews are much better off in 2024 than they were in 1939.

A lot better.

First, Jews have risen to the top echelons in government. In 1939, there were no Jewish senators and only eight Jewish representatives in Congress. In 2024, there are eight Jewish senators and 25 Jewish congressional representatives, a dramatic increase in both the quantity of Jewish representation and the ability to better address the specific needs of the Jewish community.

The Jewish community is a respected voting bloc and both Democratic and Republican government officials arrange regular meetings with Jewish leaders to make sure our needs are addressed. AIPAC is a powerful lobby that wields significant influence on politicians and their votes vis-a-vis Israel. Contrast that to what happened during World War II, when a large contingent of rabbis marched to the White House to speak on behalf of saving the Jews in Europe … and President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to even meet them.

Second, universities are much more open and accepting of Jews in 2024 than they were in 1939, this despite the rash of antisemitic incidents we have witnessed on college campuses across the country. Back in 1939, there were strict quotas at most of the respected universities that allowed only a handful of Jewish students to attend college. Hillel chapters were in their infancy and nonexistent at most schools. Kosher food was unavailable. Attending college and remaining shomer Shabbat was almost impossible, as tests were administered on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Today, one can keep kosher, attend a daily minyan, learn daf yomi, and remain fully observant on many college campuses (albeit with some very real challenges that unfortunately have recently surfaced).

Third, there was rampant discrimination against Jews in the employment and housing sectors in 1939. Jews were unable to get job interviews at many companies, as many corporations proudly advertised themselves as lily-White organizations. Hotels and country clubs routinely maintained a policy of “No Jews Allowed,” some proclaiming it openly while others discriminating quietly. Many real estate agents protected their communities from attracting Jewish families by refusing to sell homes to them. Thankfully, we have laws today that legally prevent this kind of discrimination against Jews and other minorities.

Finally, we have a strong and secure Israel today, a place where we can turn to for spiritual and religious inspiration and for many a place that can also become a permanent home. In 1939, there was nowhere that would guarantee Jews a safe place of refuge; today Israel has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and has become the residence for many of our friends and family who grew up in America.

And while it’s true that the media would like to make you think that there is a huge backlash against Israel and its handling of the war in Gaza, the truth is that there is still overwhelming support for Israel across all parts of our country. Americans realize that the United States and Israel still possess shared values of freedom, democracy and human rights — and that a strong Israel is not only good for Israel but for the rest of the world as well.

In 1941, Rabbi Herschel Schacter (Rabbi J.J. Schacter’s father) wrote a letter to his parents shortly after he enlisted as an army chaplain. His parents did not want him to serve, but he decided to join the armed forces anyway.

In the letter he wrote: “I want to join the armed forces of our blessed land, the land of freedom, the only land in the entire world that’s given equality to the Jewish people … I want to defend all of these wonderful opportunities and wonderful merits to us, being Americans.”

Later in his letter he noted that “we have the merit of being able to dwell in this blessed land under the protection of the flag of this special country.” And he ended his letter with this rhetorical question: “Are we not obligated, as pious Jews, to give up our lives for our blessed country that gave protection to all of the Jews who were so distraught and persecuted?”

The letter was written in 1941. But I think the message about America still rings true today.


Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, is the author of “Meet Me in the Middle” (meet-me-in-the-middle-book.com), a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. He can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles