אַ סוף צו אַ גאָלדען עלטער אין אַ גאלדענע מדינה

Photo: Mendy Hechtman/Flash90

The socko cover story in this month’s Atlantic argues that the “Golden Age” for American Jews has come to a close and, with it, maybe the “Golden Age” for America and the “Golden Age” for Jews. Is the US putting the “mean” back into “reversion to the mean”?

This is a segment from The “You Know, I Read It in a Magazine” Edition.


And now it’s time for our first discussion.

So Allison, Jews have had a pretty good run in America.

Is the best of it over now? – Yeah, you might even want to call it a golden Medina.

Over the course of the 20th century, Jews invested their faith in a distinct strain of liberalism that combined robust civil liberties, the protection of minority rights, and an ethos of cultural pluralism.

They embraced this brand of liberalism because it was good for America and good for the Jews.

It was their fervent hope that liberalism would inoculate America against the world’s oldest hatred.

So writes Franklin Foer in his cover story in the latest issue of the Atlantic called The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending, in which he argues that the distinct strain of liberalism is these days dying in front of our eyes.

This liberalism has been under grave strain at least since 9/11, Foer writes, and we can see in all that has happened in America since October 7th as a sign that in some circles anyway, it has all but disappeared.

And as the strain of liberalism has disappeared, antisemitism has flourished, and the overall prospects of Jews in America have diminished.

Franklin Foer’s thesis about the history of American Jews goes something like this.

When the great masses of Jews arrived in America between 1881 and 1924, they found an entrenched WASP elite committed to keeping them and all kinds of other unseemly immigrants like Catholics coming from Ireland and Italy, and of course, blacks moving up North in the great migration out of proper American society.

There were schools that wouldn’t take any of these undesirable types, and country clubs that restricted them, and whole professions that boxed them out.

The great project of American Jews in the first half of the 20th century was to change the political culture of the United States from one of clubbish social stratification to something more pluralist and meritocratic, a liberalism that did not judge people by where they prayed or didn’t pray by their accents, the color of their skin.

Franklin Foer describes philosopher Horace Kaelin as a great prophet and avatar of this approach.

It was Kaelin who popularized both the idea of pluralism and the notion that America should be seen as a melting pot of many different hyphenated identities.

The sort of pluralistic meritocratic liberalism that Jews like Kaelin fought for with a great deal of success in the first half of the 20th century, a liberalism that included the separation of church and state, a demand for colorblindness, and also the inclusive refashioning of America from a Christian society to a Judeo-Christian society.

That produced an America in which Jews could thrive.

And thrive they did, finding places in the top universities, the best law firms, Wall Street, Hollywood, science, manufacturing, advertising, and politics.

And while Jews succeeded and thrived, antisemitism became disreputable in good company and faded as a barrier to still greater Jewish success.

Jews entered a golden age in a golden land.

All this held for some generations, reaching its high point in the second half of the 20th century.

And then it started to fall apart.

Franklin Ford describes how antisemitism burbled back into public discourse after 9/11 in the form of all sorts of conspiracy theories about how Jews were either behind the attacks or behind the wars that George Bush and the United States launched in response to the attack.

It was around this time that George Soros, a very rich Jew, was vilified on the right as some sort of evil globalist puppet master, wreaking all kinds of havoc to advance his own selfish aims.

At first, the old new antisemitism seemed to be a product to some vast, dark, right-wing id, but over the past couple of decades, a left-wing variant took hold too.

In the left-wing version of things, the old meritocratic liberalism was kind of like a ring-toss game at a carnival.

It seems to be fair, but in fact, it is crooked and fixed.

When a structurally racist society embraces colorblindness, folks on the left argued, what it is really saying is what was in the past will be in the future.

After generations of keeping people of color from amassing wealth, saying that we should ignore color is rather like saying, let generations of racism ride.

Basically, meritocratic liberalism ignores privilege, and much of the agenda of the left lately has been to identify privilege and do away with it.

Much of the agenda of the left lately has been to figure out who has been a has not and who has been a has, who has been on the bottom and who has been on the top, and to undo this justice.

A lot of the agenda of the left lately has been to separate the victims from the victimizers.

There is something inherently anti-liberal about this agenda, Franklin Ford suggests, as the very last thing this agenda does is ignore where this or that person comes from and treat them as individuals.

Liberal, judged known by their background, meritocracy, according to Ford, was what made the golden age of American Jews possible.

Without it, America becomes a place where anti-Semitism thrives, where Israel is an illegitimate colonial power exercising racist privilege and Jewish supremacy, and where it makes sense to boycott a Jewish restaurant in Philadelphia because of a war in Gaza.

Without it, America becomes a place where lots of people’s first reactions to October 7th is that Hamas’s attack was a blow against racism and in a heroic attempt to right a historical wrong.

Of course, that’s just the beginning.

It’s a long essay, and Franklin Ford says a lot more, which everyone should read.

And if they feel like it, they could listen to my podcast interview with Franklin Ford on the Howard’s podcast, not that I’m plugging myself or anything.

So Miriam, what’d you think of the thesis? – It was an interesting piece, and it’s a very in-depth, kind of broad view of the evolution, not just of anti-Semitism in America, but of America itself.

It’s really looking at what’s happened to the concept of liberalism.

It’s kind of a sprawling piece.

It’s scary and depressing.

It didn’t make me more scared and more depressed than I already was, because I was already quite both of those things.

What I would’ve wanted to hear about was, I didn’t quite catch the cause, why this changed.

It describes a change, but for me, I would have wanted a bit more of what the pivot is.

And the reason it’s important to me is because I don’t think we can underestimate the role of an active attempt to shape the narrative by pro-Palestinians in an environment in which people are fed their worldview through very radical or extremist social media platforms.

That sort of matrix of information sharing and silo we know about the silos and people not really talking to each other created sort of a perfect storm for convincing, persuading people who aren’t on site here, that there is a genocide, that Israelis are in some way subhuman, and that that redounds onto American Jews as well.

And I think the vilification of Jews through the vilification of Israel is a big factor.

And I say that as someone who was opposed to that in the past, who said, who wanted to draw a line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, between criticism of Israel and criticism of, and actual prejudice.

But I think that that line is much less clear than I had hoped it was.

And I just think it’s, that there is this free reign for people to speak in racist terms about Jews.

And by the way, in general in America, about people.

I think there’s just been this toxification of the general discourse in America and Jews are easy people to be toxic about. – What “Franklin Four” is trying to do, I think, is provide an explanation for why all that all of a sudden could happen and why it happened now, or why it has been happening over the past years and didn’t happen before that for a long time, when it could have in principle.

And I think that what he’s saying is that there was set in place in the 20th century, this worldview that was like broadly political and social that I just grew up in America believing is just the way things are, which is that it is, society thrives best when people are viewed not by their accents and not by the color of their skin, but like Martin Luther King said, by the content of their character and everyone has a chance to succeed.

And it’s the role of society to give people a kind of even playing field and then view them as individuals and let people who grew up in abject poverty find their way to Harvard and Yale and Princeton and to better lives that their kids will have and then all generations thereafter.

And this was the worldview that I think that Jews, this is what Four is saying, and I think he’s right, that Jews both thrived as a result of, but also played a really big part in creating, like literally writing the books of philosophy that describe this.

This is when he talks about Kalen, it’s because he’s an important figure, but far from the only one.

And a lot of things are implicated in this.

One of the things is this huge Jewish embrace of science, by the way, was part of saying, we need the world to be more scientific, which is to say, just like you, every scientific article goes through blind review.

The world should be just a series of blind reviews of everyone.

Everything, people’s opinions shouldn’t be because they’re Irish or because they’re Catholic or because they’re Protestant or because they’re Jews or because they’re black or because they’re white.

It should be the quality of their ideas.

That’s the way the world should be.

And if the world was that way, everyone would thrive.

And Jews really, really thrived under that and really advanced it.

And then beginning toward the end of the last century, the whole thing started to collapse, seemingly kind of under its own weight.

And part of the reason why I think is because, and Ford doesn’t get into this, but I think part of the reason why is because it turned out that that system worked super well for a lot of people and it didn’t work for everyone.

So that you could be, like, if you were black, it was just harder to get accepted into those places than to get into Harvard.

And if you were a new Latino immigrant, then it was harder to do some of these things.

The world was not open.

And the experience of going to an elite university was a friendly one for some people who came from certain backgrounds.

And it was like a little bit of a violent, unpleasant one for people who came from different backgrounds.

So people ended up rejecting the idea.

And then science as well.

Like then you started to learn about, well, then there was the atom bomb and then there was the environmental crisis.

And then also you started to learn about things like the Tuskegee experiments, where they let black men die of syphilis.

And it was like, I’m not sure the science is absolutely as meritocratic and as free of presuppositions and as blind to race as we thought it was.

And so then all of that started to come into doubt and it started to seem like all there was was power.

All there was was people pretending to be fair, but actually exercising their own power and their own privilege.

And that’s how privilege became the most important analytical category.

And then once that’s the case, once it’s all about power and privilege and some groups keeping down other groups, then the system kind of falls apart.

And it seems like Jews are just trying to protect their own successes at the expense of a lot of other people who came behind them, who aren’t being as successful as they are.

And the golden age was exactly that moment when everything lined up, when you had this like really beautiful belief.

It was the belief that led Heschel to march in Memphis with Martin Luther King, this belief that we’re all equal.

This beautiful belief also lined up with it being incredibly successful for American Jews. – It was beautiful and self-interested at the same time. – Exactly. – You can’t say, “Oh, it’s not a beautiful sentiment,” but it really did serve our, like ours and American Jews, serve our agenda. – Exactly.

You said that in, by the way, this interview that Allison just slightly mentioned is fantastic.

You should go and listen to that interview in the “How Are Its Weekly” podcast that Allison did with Franklin Foer.

So that was the golden age, and that’s part of why it fell apart.

And that’s why, partly why, I think, it was so many people were so primed already to see like, you know, this story that for generations we’ve told of this like heroic Israeli story of people who had been, who have been, you know, burned in crematoria coming and starting this country, why it was so appealing for so many people to see it.

No, as another story of a privileged people exercising their power to oppress other people.

It just, it’s like, that’s the new intellectual regime that explains society to society for many people in America.

And it’s really, it’s really scary to me. – And as Foer points out, he says, “Any agenda built around the concept of privilege “is just ripe for antisemitism “because antisemitic stereotypes “are built around privilege, right?

“Are built around, you know, “we are whatever chosen privilege, “and we’re going to game the system “in order to benefit ourselves.

“So anyone who vilifies privilege, “all of a sudden that presses the buttons that they have.”

But the horseshoe theory where, you know, extreme right-wing meets extreme left-wing, and, you know, they’re the same memes, the same, you know, puppet master controlling colonialism.

And the biggest conspiracy theory implicating Jews is, you know, really built on this liberal concept, the replacement theory, right?

Because Jews are trying to be, let’s all be equal, and let’s all be multicultural as possible, et cetera.

You know, the far right antisemitic groups can point to that and say, “Aha, look, you know, you see, “they are trying to replace us.

“They are trying to replace the elite.” – I thought so much about my father when I was reading this piece, I’m sure. – Because he was part of that golden age ideology. – It was exactly that.

And, you know, the one thing, he was a lawyer who, you know, cared about and worked around, you know, civil rights, also, you know, First Amendment rights.

So, like, he had a tremendous love of the Constitution, like a deep, deep, deep love of the Constitution.

So I would have put law in parallel to science, and actually, exactly as you described it, because of the unfair, and if you look at the actual hue of prisoners, of those who are incarcerated in America, it’s just deeply evident that the system does not live up to the ideals, but the ideals were really, really, deeply, deeply important to him.

And I loved watching him in action, you know, with clients who really desperately needed him.

And at the same time, he was somebody who had experienced, you know, his very fair, more than his fair share of anti-Semitism growing up on the mean streets of Queens, and, you know, was down for, you know, a fist fight if it was necessary.

So he was just this, like, he exactly held those two poles that his generation, and I feel like he was, you know, somehow the best of his generation when he was my dad, but, you know, he held those two poles, which was, you know, everyone deserves a fair shake, and that kid called you a kike, what hospital is he in?

Like, it was both of those, both of those things, and it’s like the other, that side has emerged right now as the pole we need to, that we’re working on, rather than this idea of equality. – I mean, as people who were born into the golden age, I mean, I feel like, you know, this is my experience in the golden age of American Judaism, and it, you know, it was so strong, and it was so dominant that when, as a young woman, I came to Israel, and people were talking about the Jews will never be safe, and Zionism, and you need to move here, you know, the whole, you know, refuge theory of Zionism. – They seemed nuts. – It didn’t speak to me at all.

I said, what are you people talking about?

I have never, I really had never experienced anti-Semitism, and it was based on this European experience that I felt, you know, was completely irrelevant, and had nothing to do with me, and it feels like, you know, maybe in a way that, I spoke with For about this a little bit on the podcast, like, are we basically reverting to more of the European model of Jewish life? – It was always there. – Yeah. – I grew up with anti-Semitism.

I was the only Jew in my class, so, you know, that, it just would depend on where you live. – Yeah, but I was so immersed in this golden age that I had no, no idea, like, no clue until I came to Israel.

Obviously, I had the Holocaust stories, but that was, you know, a long time ago, far, far away, having nothing to do with me.

So, and I came to Israel, and all of, through all these years in Israel, I was like, why can’t you be more like American, liberal, and this?

I was always preaching that, and now it seems that instead of Israel becoming more like America, or, you know, that America’s just becoming more like Europe as it was, or, you know, tribalist Israel.

And so maybe, you know, in that way, the thesis of Forest Peace speaks to me that maybe we have to understand that, you know, we’re not, we don’t have the special immunity from things that the rest of the world has suffered from as American Jews. – It also makes me feel so warmly about those ideals.

I mean, it just, you look at, you look at that famous picture of Heschel walking, armed, locked with Martin Luther King, and you realize that today, that could never happen.

Like, you would just not see a picture like that, and it breaks my heart. – And Jews didn’t invent them, they fell in love with them.

They were inherently American, and Jews said, “Wow, this is the place for us.” – I think Jews had a big part in inventing them.

They didn’t invent them by themselves, but we view that as being like America, you know, the American Constitution, but it’s really a product of the 20th century. – I grew up near Toro Synagogue in the famous Washington Letter where he talks about religious tolerance, and it was such an amazing, miraculous thing for the Portuguese and Spanish Jews who came to Newport, you know, that the president of the, the new president of the new United States would make that kind of declaration.

So I really do think, and the Constitution, obviously, it is also, it’s embedded in American DNA, and yes, you know, the American Jews that we’re talking about, you know, fell in love with it, or moved it, or influenced it, or tried to expand it, but I don’t think it’s, I don’t think they, you know, tried to implant something that wasn’t already there. – There’s a reason they came, there’s a reason they came to America.

It was there, there is, it’s embedded, at least in the ideal of it, but I look back at, you know, my third, no, my fourth grade photo, I happen to have the class, one of those classic class pictures, and I think the, the group is 40% black, and this is a time when we were still, it was still a very, very hopeful time, and I think that when I look at those kids, I know that they were not getting the fair shake that they, that everyone was talking about, and I know that they did not reach their potential, and that they remained in very difficult straits, because it was a lot of talk, and nobody was really giving people the, you know, meeting people’s needs, so, so it was a, it was a really mixed bag, and I wouldn’t want to, you know, over-idealize the era, the terrible mistakes were being, were being made all at the same time, and you know, the, I think the terrifying next step is a potential Trump presidency, which will throw, which will, you know, which will throw it all off from the diving board into the pool of history, these commitments to science and law.

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