In the wake of a congressional decision, the United States will officially celebrate the 350th anniversary of its Jewish community in a series of events in September 2004, which will be devoted to the first American Jewish History Month. At present, at the height of the "golden age" of American Jewry, and with the approach of the presidential elections, American Jews are once again being wooed by the parties as a key factor in the showdown between the candidates, because of their political-economic status and also because they are the deciding factor in several states.
Historian Paul Johnson, who is known for his sympathy for Israel, makes a claim that sounds very harsh to the "Zionist ear" - that the story of the expansion and strengthening of American Jewry in the 20th century is no less important than the establishment of the State of Israel, and even more so. The State of Israel, explains Johnson, gave the Jews, a nation that had been persecuted for thousands of years, a sovereign homeland. But American Jewry has attained an unprecedented status in the power it has acquired for itself to shape the policy of the No. 1 world power.
What is unique about the history of American Jews? There have been Jewish success stories in other places as well, but there is no precedent for such profound integration into all areas of life, and to political and political influence as great as that of American Jews. The integration is so great, that the percentage of intermarriage will reach 50 percent, and in many cases, even 80 percent.
There have been and are anti-Semitic incidents, and there were years of systematic discrimination against Jews, who until the last quarter of the 20th century could not join certain clubs and live in residential areas that were the exclusive strongholds of the white Protestant elite.
The peak of anti-Semitism in the United States found its expression in the figure of Henry Ford, the automobile tycoon, who in the 1920s and 1930s disseminated anti-Semitic, Nazi-style books and newspapers, and whose book, "The International Jew," which was published in German as well, brought him decorations and admiration from Adolf Hitler.
Anti-Semitism on the part of a person of Ford's status in American society, with his influence and his membership in the ruling establishment, was the most dangerous ever experienced by American Jewry. During World War II, U.S. Jews had difficulty working to rescue their brethren in Europe, and even after the Holocaust they confronted organized discrimination against them in American society. Only in the 1960s did anti-Semitism disappear as a social phenomenon, and in the 1980s, the Jews became an active factor in shaping the face of America.
In Israel, many people have difficulty digesting the success story of American Jews, which stands in contradiction to the Zionist "ethos" about the mournful exile. In addition to the rivalries and the tension in the modern version of "Babylon and Jerusalem" (traditional rivals in ancient times), there is also mutual dependence, which is expressed in involvement, and in the relations between American and Israeli Jews.
Many Israelis are repeatedly surprised at the strength of the American Jewish community: when a religious Jewish senator like Joseph Lieberman was chosen by the Democratic party to be a vice presidential candidate in 2000, or when a president from the Protestant-Republican establishment with strong ties in the oil business, like George W. Bush, becomes an enthusiastic supporter of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government.
The involvement of American Jews in the Israeli election campaigns, and in legislation that affects the definition of Israel's Jewish identity, discomfits many Israelis. American Jews should be seen not only as a political-economic support, but also as a component of identity for the Israeli Jew, and a constant reminder of the duality of Jewish existence, between diaspora and sovereignty.
American Jews can expect years of confronting problems of intermarriage, of identity and of support for Israel, but it is now clear that the 350 years of Jewish exile in America mark a golden age never before experienced in Jewish history.
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