Are Jews Assimilated?

By Jeffrey Zaslow

Type "kill the Jews" into an Internet search engine and you'll find 5,100 entries filled with absurd accusations: that Jews forced the U.S. into war with Iraq, blew up the space shuttle, and masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks. In France, a poll shows that 26% of Jews are considering leaving the country because of anti-Semitism. In Spain, 72% of people surveyed say Spanish Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their home country. And in the U.S., according to FBI data, even though hate crimes against Muslims soared 1,600% in 2001, those 481 incidents were still less than half of the 1,043 hate crimes against Jews.

For many American Jews, the news is disheartening and confusing. By a multitude of measures, Jews are an assimilation success story in the U.S. -- accomplished, often well-regarded by neighbors, the "luckiest" Jews in history. And yet there is talk that American Jews are naively ignoring the storm clouds. Historically, in times of world turmoil, Jews have been targeted. Now again there's a confluence of issues -- America's strong support of Israel, anti-Western rage, the familiar backlash against Jewish achievement -- intensifying concerns about anti-Semitism.

"Some Jews are fooling themselves," says the Rev. Walter Michel, a retired professor from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. "Translate anti-Jewish writings from the Arab world -- things that a billion people read and hear every day -- and it's venomous. It's worse than Nazi propaganda." In the U.S., the war has heightened rhetoric. Last month, Rep. James Moran (D, Va.) said in a public forum that Jews were leading the U.S. into war with Iraq. This was despite polls showing that just 52% of American Jews favored military action, compared with 62% for Americans overall. "If the war in Iraq goes wrong," asks Mr. Michel rhetorically, "whose fault will it be?"

For Jewish and non-Jewish Americans alike, there are warnings here. Both anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism are driven by a fear of democracy and modernity, by a need to find an explanation for "what's wrong," says Ruth Wisse, a Harvard professor now writing a book on "Jews and anti-Jews."

Judaism has always been a religion focused on commemoration-- of tyrants overcome, of the deliverance from slavery, of the tenacious survival of the Jewish people. In the modern era, this urge to commemorate often settles on the Holocaust, which many regard as a motivator for fightingcurrent anti-Semitism. Some Jews dwell on the atrocities, stressing the lessons for today. Others have trouble dealing with the awful past, or are embarrassed by it, or say enough already, it's time to move on. I see this tension in my own family. As a U.S. Army private during World War II, my father was among the liberators of the Dachau concentration camp. At a row of cattle cars, all filled with the mangled bodies of dead Jews, a fellow U.S.soldier turned to my dad and said, "If you're not careful, Zaslow, that's where you'll end up." The soldier knew my father was Jewish. Was he issuing a threat? A friendly warning?

For decades, my dad rarely spokeabout the horrors he saw that day in 1945. But lately, he's been obsessed with his memories. He gives Holocaust lectures at schools, and discusses anti-Semitism with anyone who will listen. My mother wishes he'd let the topic rest. As my dad talks, she often feels overwhelmed with emotion and asks him to stop. She keeps telling him she is living in the present. But truth is, World War II is a painful memory for her, too. Her brother had enlisted in the U.S. military, saying, "I've got to go. They're killing Jews." His B-17 bomber was shot down, his body never found. It might be healing if more Jews moved on from the Holocaust by mastering a middle ground: pressing forward, but not forgetting.

A large new Holocaust museum is rising on a busy street in my community in suburban Detroit -- replacing a far-smaller museum -- and part of me is glad it's there. Part of me wonders, though, what my non-Jewish neighbors think of this huge, sad structure, with prison-inmate stripes worked into its design. In the end, I was heartened to learn that most visitors to the current museum are non-Jews.

Some Jews argue that we should focus on the bonds we've built with so many non-Jews, rather than isolated anti-Semitic incidents. In a New Republic article last year on "ethnic panic" among American Jews, author Leon Wieseltier called us "the luckiest Jews who ever lived," adding: "The Jewish genius for worry has served the Jews well, but Hitler is dead. "Indeed, the nation's 5.2 million Jews can focus on some bright spots. Few Americans see Joseph Lieberman's religion as a factor in his presidential run, and polls show that most Americans support Israel, even if they question Israeli policies. Though a 50% intermarriage rate threatens the religion's future, it also suggests that anti-Semitism is waning: More non-Jews are welcoming Jews into their families. About 74% of Americans have a "favorable" opinion of Jews, according to a 2002 Pew Research Center poll. That's down from 82% in 1997. But my father, for one, says numbers can never be the whole story. In a letter he wrote to his parents the day he saw Dachau, he described the crematorium, the liberated inmates beating Nazi guards, the stacks of bodies. "Please believe me," he wrote. "I am telling you what I saw."Fifty-eight years later, he feels it's crucial to keep repeating his eyewitness account. A part of him is still that 20-year-old soldier, standing by those boxcars, being told that as a Jew, he'd better be careful.

E-mail: Jeffrey.Zaslow@wsj.com

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