NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘F or thirty years,” as one biographer described him, he “was a rather ordinary and typical representative of the central European Jewish upper-middle class.” At various stages of his life the man was a literary critic, a foreign correspondent, and even a playwright. His assimilated cosmopolitan upbringing was markedly lacking religious connection: His writings leave no mention of a bar mitzvah. And yet, he would become the founding father of Zionism, in large part thanks to antisemitism.
In 1895, Theodor Herzl was sent to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a distinguished French Jewish military officer accused of treason. Dreyfus exemplified the assimilated, patriotic, European Jew. The affair became an antisemitic show-trial. “It has been established that justice could be refused to a Jew for the sole reason that he was a Jew,” Herzl reflected following Dreyfus’s conviction. In his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), published the following year, Herzl expanded on the thought: “If France — bastion of emancipation, progress, and universal socialism — [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!,’ where can they be safe once again, if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it.”
While historians still debate whether Herzl’s inspirational turn toward Zionism in 1895 was more self-invention than truth, antisemitism undoubtedly catalyzed his midlife embrace of Jewish identity through Zionism. Zionism became Herzl’s link to Judaism, “his salvation,” as his biographer Derek Penslar called it, “what he would later call ‘the sabbath of my life.’” Arguably, but for antisemitism — and Herzl’s firsthand exposure to it — Zionism’s foremost intellectual may have languished in the cultural arena for the remainder of his life. Bigotry, counterintuitively, reinforced Herzl’s Jewish identity.
Indeed, across vast swaths of the Jewish diaspora today, many are experiencing a similar reawakening. “Antisemitism in America,” a survey released by the American Jewish Committee in 2019, confirmed the alarming trend. Nearly 90 percent of American Jews believe antisemitism to be a problem. The effects are particularly pronounced among the young. Nearly half of respondents ages 18 to 29, more than any other age group sampled, have been victims of antisemitism at least once in their lives. Social media have figured prominently in such attacks, with roughly a third of them having been carried out online. Compounding such attacks have been the culture campus wars and Israel’s expulsion by progressives into an orbit of presumed fascism, racism, and colonialism. More than a third of young respondents have either experienced antisemitism over the past five years or know someone who has. Nearly 40 percent of young Americans Jews acknowledge that they have concealed their Jewishness in public.
Much journalistic fodder is made of these statistics by themselves. But buried in such bleak circumstances may be an answer to the community’s other primary concern: an erosion of Jewish identity over time. As Herzl’s example demonstrated, heightened contact with antisemitism may actually reinforce Jewish identity and arrest generational drift. Although there is no current U.S. survey data on this question, hatred against them could well be driving young American Jews to reconsider the centrality of religious identity in their lives.
French Jews offer an interesting parallel. “Young Jewish Europeans: Perceptions and Experience of Antisemitism,” a 2019 report from the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, made few headlines stateside, but the analysis reveals striking similarities between the two communities, European and American. “Extraordinarily, close to half of the young Jewish Europeans surveyed say they have been a victim of at least one antisemitic experience in the past twelve months,” the report noted. Young people, again, are clearly the most vulnerable group. The confluence of online hatred with the toxic environment of academia is a particular source of youth anxiety. “Existing evidence shows that Jewish university students — especially those involved in some way in student politics — are known to be particularly susceptible to antisemitic harassment from their fellow students, often expressed in the form of anti-Israel discourse
The degree of religious identification among young, middle-aged, and older Europeans is virtually identical. The youngest cohort is found to be the most religious, more likely than their elders to participate in Passover seders, fast on Yom Kippur, light Shabbat candles, and keep a kosher home. While the authors speculate that such trends may be the result of the growth of Orthodox Jewish communities, the largest denominational growth is that of European Jews who identify as Reform/Progressive or “just Jewish.”
Such findings are noteworthy when examined alongside “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, which underscored the opposite demographic pattern. On the whole, the younger that American Jews are, the less important is their religious identity to them. Pew reported that over a fifth of American Jews had no religious ties and that since the Greatest Generation (those born between 1914 and 1927) the phenomenon has accelerated. Only 7 percent of American Jews born in the first quarter of the 20th century identified as “Jews of no religion.” Among Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996), the rate had increased nearly fivefold. Pew reconfirmed the unfortunate arithmetic of American Jewish life: the farther one strays from the bedrock of religion or community, the higher the probability that one will intermarry, assimilate, and disconnect and distance from Jewish practice and identity. “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” Jack Wertheimer, an American Jewish scholar, remarked on the report’s publication. Many Israeli leaders have even provocatively dubbed such developments a “second” or “silent” Holocaust.
In retrospect, American Jewry’s assimilation has been a mixed blessing. Increasingly accepted as fellow citizens, American Jews are among the most financially and academically successful ethnic groups in the country. Here, the relative dearth of antisemitism, which in Europe is more extensive and more often violent, has enabled a flourishing of American Jewish life. Accompanying the upward mobility of American Jewry has been their assimilation and embrace of secularism. They have increasingly relegated religion to the peripheries of their life. In Jacob Neusner’s wry summation of postwar American Jewish life, “the State of Israel became the new god and the Holocaust the new liturgy.” Religious identity suffered.
Now, as the bipartisan consensus over Israel erodes and the Holocaust recedes further into the past, the religious identity of American Jews is further diminished. As Adam Garfinkle argued last year in Tablet, the golden age of American Jews is over:
As the shine comes off the Zionist apple, religious Jews in America retain the option to seek solace in the abiding rituals of their faith communities — or to leave America for Israel. But most nonhalachic [non-observant] Jews lack such options, because ritual for them has long since become ceremony — performative displays for the sake of others rather than inward acts for the sake of self. And few will emigrate to a place that is no longer shiny.
It is this latter group that represents the vast majority of the American Jewish community, making institutional leaders most anxious about the community’s longevity. Philanthropists have responded with multi-million-dollar initiatives such as Birthright, which brings American Jews of all denominations to Israel on a ten-day guided trip. The aim is to connect youth with their tradition and heritage. However, although the research is not conclusive, Birthright appears to have failed in addressing the root problem. One study has shown that Birthright has little long-term impact on either religious behavior or participation in communal life.
Unfortunately, being a victim of hatred may do more than any free trip or Yiddish class to reinforce one’s identity as a Jew. Gal Beckerman bemoaned that the brief unity of American Jews after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh was only temporary, a distraction from the true crisis of assimilation. “Once the candlelight vigils are over, where is the solid ground for the future of American Jewish identity?” he asked. “It won’t come from being victims — it shouldn’t — and cultural and ethnic identity, the bagels and lox version, is disappearing fast. From where then? . . . There really is only one source left: the religion — Judaism itself, and its unique capacity for adaptation.”
Beckerman is both right and wrong. Without a rootedness in religion, as the data show, Jewish life, conceived in secular terms, will wither. Nevertheless, as the study of European antisemitism shows, it may be a resurgence of bigotry against young American Jews that will rouse them to reconsider the centrality, or perhaps inescapability, of Judaism in their lives. The journey may be unappetizing, but the destination might not.