Anxiety Amid Success For American Jewish Community

February 02, 1992|By ANTHONY DAY

The American Jewish community, whose success and security are unparalleled in Jewish history, is nevertheless veined with anxiety, conflict and even fear.

There are perceived external threats, in the ancient and still-stirring monster of anti-Semitism, and in the fear that other Americans may turn against Israel and, in the process, against American Jews.

Perhaps more ominously, there is deep concern about the very future of America's 5.5 million Jews. The birth rate is low. Intermarriage has been rising, with more than half of Jews wed since 1985 marrying non-Jews. Only 28 percent of the children of those marriages are being raised as Jews.

"The current pattern probably means there will be net losses to the core Jewish population in the next generation," says a report last year by the Council of Jewish Federations.

There is conflict about ways to approach these things, sometimes muted, sometimes sharply stated.

Yet there are in American Jewish life deep wells of vitality and fresh spirituality, and there are new attempts to move out of the magnetic field between the poles of the Holocaust and Israel to vivify and reshape Jewishness, the culture, and Judaism, the religion, in the pluralistic American setting.

"American Jews are more troubled, more worried than at any time since World War II," says Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York, speaking of recent incidents of real or perceived anti-Semitism:

* After a week of tension last August between blacks and Jews in the Crown Heights section of New York City, during which a black youth was accidentally killed by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew, a Hasidic Jewish student was killed on the street by blacks in apparent retaliation -- "simply because he was a Jew," says Mr. Foxman.

* A black professor, Leonard Jeffries Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department at the City College of New York, in a speech last summer accused Jews of financing the slave trade and accused Jews and Italian-Americans in Hollywood of denigrating blacks in movies.

* Some campus newspapers, including those at Duke, Northwestern and Cornell, accepted an advertisement denying the existence of mass-extermination gas chambers at Nazi death camps.

* President Bush has been challenged by David Duke of Louisiana, a former Ku Klux Klan official, and Patrick J. Buchanan, a conservative columnist, for the Republican presidential nomination. There were times when the remarks of Mr. Duke and Mr. Buchanan "would have made them non-persons," Mr. Foxman said. "This is new and frightening."

Mr. Duke's earlier expressed admiration of the Nazis has been well-documented. Mr. Buchanan's views, perhaps less well-known, are still controversial; he denies being anti-Semitic. Before the Persian Gulf war, which Mr. Buchanan opposed, he said, "There are only two groups that are beating the drums right now for war in the Middle East, and that is the Israeli defense ministry and its amen corner in the United States."

* In September, Mr. Bush denounced "powerful political forces" for opposing his request to delay consideration of $10 billion in housing loan guarantees Israel had asked for to settle refugees from the former Soviet Union. In attacking the pro-Israel lobby and its friends in Congress (who then acceded to his request), the president was trying to force the Israelis to stop settling Jews in the occupied territories as the United States sought to set up Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Hearing complaints that included allegations of anti-Semitism and alarmed by some anti-Semitic responses the White House was getting in Mr. Bush's support, the president apologized to American Jewish leaders.

The Israeli connection touched one of the tender nerves of American Jewry. Repeatedly there have been fears that American Jews' support for Israel would arouse hostility on the part of other Americans. Such fears were voiced at the time of the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and when Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American Jew, was caught spying for Israel in 1985.

But Americans blamed the Arab states, not Israel and the Jews, for the embargo. And the Pollard case incited no perceptible surge of the "double loyalty" charge -- the allegation that Jews cannot be both supporters of Israel and good Americans.

"Since the 1940s, the polls have shown that the general American support for Israel is very strong. There has been no basic change in that support," said Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. "Of course, on particular events there can be swings of opinion."

It might seem strange that a group of Americans generally so successful should feel menaced. Jews have been broadly accepted, though not quite entirely, into the national life.

"At the moment there is no important disadvantage in being Jewish in America," says Rabbi Emeritus Leonard Beerman of the Reform Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles.

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