The Jewish Condition: Then, Now, and in the Future

October 31, 2013

During this exciting Centennial year, we have devoted a heavy dose of our attention to the relationship between the two elements of our mission – fighting anti-Semitism and securing justice for all.

At this, our final major national event of the Centennial, I want to turn my attention and yours solely to the condition of the Jewish people -- then, now and in the future.

In 1913, the Jewish history was very much a mixed bag.  Centuries long anti-Semitism remained potent, particularly in the Russian Empire, which housed a large Jewish population.  In Western Europe, it was a time of greater Jewish participation in broader society while a new modern form of anti-Semitism was also emerging; a hatred of Jews based on race rather than religion.  Modern democracies offered Jews the possibility of normal lives and professional success, but the deeply embedded stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Jews presented ripe material for those whose outlook was fundamentally anti-democratic.

It took twenty years from the founding of ADL for these anti-democratic, anti-Semitic tendencies to emerge and challenge democratic values.  When they did in the thirties with the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the fascist governments elsewhere in Europe, the Jews of Europe were in the most precarious situation possible.

They had no means of self-defense.  They had nowhere to go.  The nascent Zionist movement in Palestine was growing, but the British prevented mass emigration of Jews to the Holy Land.  And even America was largely closed, as reflected in the tragic story of the S.S. St. Louis.

Jews had allies in theory, but the democracies were reacting to the disaster that was WWI, and were ready to do anything to avoid conflict with the rising fascist powers.

The U.S. had retreated to isolationism following the Great War, voting down U.S. participation in the League of Nations.  In the final analysis, America, following Pearl Harbor, entered the war soon enough to save the world from Hitler. But America did not enter the war soon enough to save the Jews of Europe.  By D-Day, when we started to turn the tide, more than four million Jews had already been murdered.

Meanwhile, American Jews in the thirties were going through their own version of exploding anti-Semitism.  Obviously it was nothing like what was happening in Europe, but for America it was a most trying time.  Extremist anti-Semitic groups, together with mainstream anti-Semites like Father Charles Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh were at their height.  Stereotypes about Jews, both personal and political, were strong, as were quotas against Jews which existed in universities, matched by exclusion from certain jobs, neighborhoods and clubs.  Still, it was America, and while ADL had a lot of business, Jewish life went on.

It is the memory of these dark days that generated the very different ADL and American Jewish community ever since.  The theme of “Never Again” became the calling card of the community after the Holocaust.  With the increasing openness of American society caused by World War II and the Civil Rights movement, Jews became more comfortable as full American citizens, and developed a self-confidence that they lacked in the thirties.  Standing up for Israel and endangered Jewish communities became a way of life for ADL and others.

Together with this came the emergence of American leadership in the world.  Bipartisan support in Congress and the country for such a role arose in the late forties as Americans saw the need to combat a new threat—the threat of the Soviet Union.

The third leg of the new triangle for historical development that changed the Jewish condition, of course, was the newly independent state of Israel.

Suddenly, Jews were no longer powerless, Jews were no longer homeless, Jews were no longer alone in the world.  For ADL, all three legs of the triangle -- Israel, American Jewry and America, came together to enable us, in coordination with others, to stand up for the Jewish people wherever there was a need, and wherever there was a threat.  And not only to stand up, but to win one battle after another -- Soviet Jewry, Syrian Jewry, Ethiopian Jewry, the security and well-being of the state of Israel.  There are so many stories here of how it all worked.  The one I like to talk about is the rescue of Ethiopian Jews after the fall of the communist government in Ethiopia—American Jews working with our government and with Israel were able to provide for the peaceful transport of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Sometimes—well, frequently I get asked why ADL speaks out so often regarding Israeli security and issues affecting Jews all over the world. “After all, you’re Americans, you’re comfortable, you’re safe. Why do you care?” The answer is that we learned the lessons of the thirties and forties. We understood as the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism and living in the country that was the most dominant power in the world, we had a unique responsibility and a unique opportunity to make sure that this time catastrophe would be averted. 

We accomplished so much because we were part of a larger community that understood its responsibility.  We accomplished so much because we have unique expertise, programs and perspective.  We accomplished so much because the State of Israel existed.  And we accomplished so much because the United States was strong, and in its strength, it too could ensure that “Never Again” was a living and breathing idea, and not just a hope.

Which brings me to the present moment.  I ask myself: how are these three pillars doing? How strong are they? Are they still the foundation of a more secure existence, and how has ADL enabled to do so much in the past? Will it be able to do so in the future?

The state of Israel, with all its challenges foreign and domestic, is a flourishing entity.  It has a highly modern economy and society, a strong military and innovative scientific and cultural life. It remainds the ultimate insurance policy.  It remains a haven for Jews.  American Jews remain a strong force, vibrant in its intellectual, business and communal life.  Passionate about the politics, American Jews fully participate in all segments of public life.  And when necessary we remain ready to stand together to defend the Jewish people and communities, whether that means Israel, or Jews in Greece, or Ukraine, or Hungary, or France, or Venezuela, or even here in America. 

Yes, I am aware of the Pew Survey about American Jews that has drawn a lot of attention.  We need to take its findings seriously.  It talks about a sustained identity of American Jews as Jews – a pride of 90+ percent, but a decline in the intensity of the connection to Jewish matters such as the state of Israel, Jewish education and synagogue attendance.

These trends are important but I’m an optimist, I’ve always been an optimist, and I believe that the organized Jewish community will remain a potent force because we will continue to be passionate, despite synagogue attendance and all the questions that we ask about Jewish survival and security.  And even as time passes, I believe that the mantra of “Never Again” will continue to resonate.

So all in all, I feel confident about two of the pillars, Israel and American Jewry.

It is the third pillar, that of America and its role in the world, that causes me to lose some sleep.  One doesn’t have to agree with every American foreign policy decision to recognize that American leadership in the world has been a good thing. A great thing.  It protected democratic Europe following WWII; it rehabilitated Japan into a thriving democracy; it brought an end to the Cold War and threats of nuclear annihilation with the demise of the Soviet Union; and its ideas of democracy have spread around the world—unevenly, but still overall such a potent, significant force for good.

As to the impact on Jews, as noted, the contrast is self-evident.  Before WWII when America retreated from the world, it enabled the greatest disaster ever to the Jewish people.  And since, American leadership has helped produce the exceptional accomplishments that we spoke about.

Now we are seeing growing indications of a desire for America to retreat from the world.  Interestingly, the bi-partisan support for America’s leadership came about after World War II when Republican isolationists from the twenties and thirties were transformed, led by Senator Robert Vandenberg, into internationalists in order to combat the Soviet Union.  When the Berlin Wall came down, there was talk that a new isolationism would rise up.  Now that Republicans didn’t have the communist threat to contend it, it was argued, they might return to the old ways.  It happened in some instances—note Pat Buchanan.  Overall, however, it didn’t take.

Now, however, some two decades later, more serious trends are developing.  The combination of America’s unsatisfactory involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, together with the financial crisis at home, have generated broad opposition to American military involvement overseas.  The recent issue surrounding Syria’s use of chemical weapons highlighted this trend.  When President Obama announced he would attack Syria and then decided to obtain Congressional approval, he met a wall of resistance on both the Democratic left and the Republican right.  Mistrust of government and entanglements overseas abounded.  Members of Congress seemed merely to reflect the wishes of their constituencies.  And then the President turned to a Russian solution of ridding Syria of chemical weapons, a huge sigh of relief was heard throughout the nation.  But what was also heard was questioning around the world whether America could be counted on -- it was bad enough that the American people understandably wanted out, but where was leadership in Washington to stand up?

This is not to say that anything about Syria is a slam dunk.  There are no angels in this conflict.  But the same thing was true about the Spanish Civil War between 1936-39, fascists on one side, communists on the other.  But it was a testing ground for fascists when they saw that the democracies did not meet the test, it helped lead directly to World War II.

In Syria, chemical weapons aside, allowing Assad, the murderer of many thousands, to stay in power supported by Iran and Hezbollah, with America largely on the sidelines will send a terrible message.  Iran will emerge the victor.  Allies of America are wondering, the good potential of Syrian chemical weapons notwithstanding, whether America’s desperation at all costs to avoid a military confrontation signals a dangerous weakening of American resolve.

And then on top of that comes the drive to find agreements with Iran on the nuclear issue.  Now let me be clear: if we can reach a satisfactory deal with Iran that ensures that if Iran is deceptive or abnegates that agreement, it couldn’t in a short time break out and speedily move to a bomb, I’d be all for it.  The concern is the context: America seems desperate to avoid a confrontation with Iran; the Iranians, aware of that, are playing it to a fare-thee-well.

Not only are they talking the language of moderation, but they are already offering substantive proposals that may appear more giving than they really are.  Again, it’s not impossible that things can work out well, but when it appears to come from a perception of American weakness, it doesn’t bode well.

Arguments could be made to counter these points but often perception is reality.  America is seen as weak and retreating.  The world looks at our choices, looks at our public opinion polls, looks at congressional reactions, looks at the paralysis in Washington on budgeting matters and wonders.

I hope and pray that we get our act together.  I hope Congress starts to think of the bigger picture.  I hope we are truly able to keep all options on the table, whether vis-à-vis Iran or Syria, without rushing to military action.

Make no mistake about it.  If what we are seeing now is the beginning of a deep change in American foreign policy, it will be bad for Jews.

Don’t believe for a second that there is an alternative to American leadership when it comes to Israel’s security, peace in the Middle East, safety and security for Jews in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Still, all in all, as I look to the Jewish future and the role of ADL on the occasion of our centennial, I am and continue to be an optimist.  Again, and I’ve said it to so many of you—as a survivor of the Holocaust, I dare not be a pessimist.  Golda Meir once said, “Jews don’t have the luxury to be pessimists.” So I’m an optimist. I am an optimist on Israel, and an optimist on American Jews.  And, despite the concerns I have expressed here, I remain an optimist about America, about the good sense of the American people, the track record over the last seventy years about its ability to overcome the obstacles to governance and to recognize that American leadership in the world is good for America, and is good for the world, and all the Jewish people.

And so I sum up to you this year with a promise, and with a commitment that out of this sense of optimism that infects the Jewish people and the Jewish community, and our sense of hope, our sense of belief in the goodness – for nobody else could dream or imagine a theme to celebrate and commemorate its one hundredth anniversary, than to hope and dream and pledge and plan and program and try to implement what some have said is unachievable – a world without hate. It’s our optimism, tinged with realism, remembering very well our history, understanding our history, the weaknesses and the strengths. 

Still, we come to you today to recommit with a sense of optimism to make this a better world, if not without hate, certainly with much less hate. But for that, you will have to continue to inspire and be there for us. You will need to make sure that we know that you’re with us, and therefore are not alone.

Thank you, and God bless.

"We accomplished so much because we were part of a larger community that understood its responsibility.  We accomplished so much because we have unique expertise, programs and perspective.  We accomplished so much because the State of Israel existed.  And we accomplished so much because the U.S. was strong and in its strength it too could ensure that "Never Again" was a living and breathing idea."