Three years after the devastating COVID lockdowns and the summer of Black Lives Matter riots, it’s difficult to be bullish about America.
The United States has been shaken to its core after an ideological assault by an influential movement spearheaded by the nation’s leading journalism outlets and academic institutions, where its foundational narrative and heroes have been deconstructed and smeared. It is riven by partisanship that has now escalated to the point where members of both major parties take it for granted that the leader of their opponents should be jailed. Abroad, it is no longer respected or feared and seems to be on the way to being supplanted as the world’s leading economic and military power by a Chinese regime that rejects everything American ideals have stood for.
On top of that, the virus of antisemitism, though never entirely absent from these shores, is gaining a growing foothold in its culture and politics. So, it’s little wonder that some are beginning to think aloud about whether the assumptions about American exceptionalism no longer apply. Americans have always held to the notion that the United States was a unique experiment in republican government and democracy. American ideals and normative political culture, as well as its ability to assimilate immigrants who didn’t share the Anglo-Scot-Irish origins of the founders, had created something different. And those differences were, with good reason, thought to have rendered it invulnerable to the toxic forces that, for example, dragged European civilization into barbarism in the 20th century.
A movement that despises the America traditionally celebrated on July 4 views it as not so much what Abraham Lincoln called “the last, best hope of earth.” but as a fundamentally reactionary endeavor that must be remade in the image of “anti-racist” ideology rooted in intersectional and critical race theory myths. This ideological war on the West has produced something akin to a new, secular religion that views America as a function of white privilege and irredeemably racist, while also seeking to shatter norms about every other way of thinking about human existence, including marriage, sex and gender.
If that war is succeeding—and even the most cursory survey of popular culture and political discourse would seem to indicate that is what is happening—then the consequences are incalculable for all Americans but especially for Jews.
This notion of exceptionalism helped shape American Jewish ideas about their own place in the world. In the 19th century, Reform Judaism in this country came into being as a movement not just as a rejection of Orthodoxy but also because many of its adherents truly believed that they had found a new Zion on this continent. That led many (though by no means all of them) to reject traditional ideas about the importance of the land of Israel and Jewish peoplehood, but also to believe that defense of American ideas was essential to Jewish security.
While they were wrong about the former, they were right about the latter.
Throughout the 1900s, Americans took it for granted that they were living in their century. It was an era marked by triumph in two world wars and one cold one that left some of them thinking that history—or at least our conventional way of thinking about it—had come to an end with the complete victory of their way of life after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Jewish component of this mindset was admirably summed up by Norman Podhoretz in his 2000 memoir My Love Affair With America. His story of the blessings that this country had showered on a child of immigrants made clear that far from being a threat to a religious minority like the Jews, American nationalism was their salvation.
Jews weren’t just at home in America in a way they had never been in any other Diaspora stop throughout the last two millennia. They had been welcomed and then accepted in virtually every sector of society—not on sufferance or because of the benevolence of a monarch but as equals with the same rights as other citizens. On top of that, Americans—the most religious people in the developed world—were also uniquely supportive of Jewish nationalism and self-determination, leading them to support Zionism and the State of Israel, and creating an alliance rooted in values as well as national interests.
At the conclusion of the 20th century, Podhoretz rightfully saw that a strong America that believed in itself and its founding ideals was essential to the preservation of Jewish life both in the United States and in the Jewish state.
But the problem in 2023 is that the America that created this mutual love affair with the Jews is clearly incompatible with the one that the contemporary assault on the ideals of the American republic seeks to create. The attempt to replace them with a leftist creed that despises the founders and imposes twisted conceptions about race, rather than the rights of the individual as the guiding force in American law and governance, is one that threatens everyone. It also endangers the exceptionalism that has long protected and allowed Jews to thrive.
That is why it is so discouraging to see those who claim to speak for Jews go along with fashionable trends on the left that are fueling this war on the American tradition. Failed Jewish leaders of mainstream groups pretend that their partisan progressive allies who subscribe to intersectional canards about Israel and the Jews being beneficiaries of “white privilege” are not potent threats to Jewish life in this country and Israel while joining them in attempts to demonize Americans who seek to push back against the transformation of their nation by the neo-Marxist left.
It is equally troubling that even some Jews on the right are disdainful of so-called “culture war” issues, preferring to concentrate their efforts on bolstering American security or the defense of free-market economics. Both are important concerns, but the main threat to American liberty lies elsewhere. It isn’t to be found in foreign opponents, though those still exist, but in domestic forces that have successfully hijacked the institutions of education, popular culture, business and government to impose the woke catechism of anti-racism—diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)—that Jews should be resisting with every fiber of their beings.
Given the victories that progressives have achieved in imposing their indoctrination programs in schools, the media, businesses and government, American exceptionalism can no longer be taken for granted. Sadly, most of those wins were achieved against little or no opposition, as most citizens have been late to realize the stakes in these battles. But when ordinary people—regardless of their political affiliations, ethnicity or faith—choose to stand up against the woke totalitarians, they are often proving that fighting for American values is no lost cause but rather one that still can command the support of most citizens.
No nation or civilization is immortal, and much of what Americans have experienced in recent years will be familiar to those who have read Edmund Gibbons’ classic The History of the Decline of the Fall of the Roman Empire. Yet 247 years after its founding, the American republic is far from dead. Even those Jews who rightly support Zionism and look to the State of Israel as the safe haven for their people, which must be preserved at all costs, should understand that fighting to save America from the sort of decline and fall that the intersectional left is seeking to achieve is of critical importance.
Though as imperfect as any other human creation and sometimes led by fools and incompetents, the republic that came into existence on July 4, 1776 has been a powerful and irreplaceable force for good in human affairs since then. Rather than torn down and reimagined by cynical progressive ideologues and their deluded followers, it must be loved and defended as the font of liberty today as much as in the past. This July 4, Jews everywhere should pause to acknowledge a collective debt to this great nation and resolve not to let it go down without a fight.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.