The “question of what it means to be Jewish in America,” is one American Jews have grappled with for over a century and continue to, journalist Emily Tamkin tells me in the latest edition of The Pivot podcast.
These discussions have renewed in the months since the October 7th attacks by Hamas as American Jews confront rising anti-Semitism at home and the moral questions surrounding Israel’s war in Gaza. Seemingly all at once, the major national debates over cancel culture, race, foreign policy, and DEI have all melded into the perennial question of where Jews fit in America’s social and political landscape.
Tamkin’s book, “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities,” is an essential guidepost to today’s debates on what it means to be a Jew in America, putting them in historical context.
The Many Origins of American Jews
As Tamkin explains, the history of Jews in America precedes this country’s foundation. There have been multiple waves of Jewish migration to the Americas — with each group bringing its own culture and customs and holding different views on assimilation and religious observance.
There is no Jewish pope or central authority, Tamkin reminds us. The absence of a central authority combined with the diversity and relative openness of this country have also lent a dynamism to the American Jewish experience.
In the mid-17th century, Sephardic Jews — originally from the Iberian peninsula — fled other parts of this hemisphere to settle in what was then New Amsterdam and would later become New York.
A century later, in 1790, President George Washington pledged full religious liberty to the Sephardic congregation of the Touro Synagogue, America’s oldest, stating:
“the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Small in number, the Sephardics were quickly outnumbered by Ashkenazi Jews coming in from central Europe.
Many German American Jews experienced remarkable upward mobility. For example, Marcus Goldman, a peddler, would later found Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s largest investment banks today. The patriarchs of this community pursued the politics of respectability and were highly assimilated.
Then, in the late 19th century began a new wave of Jewish migrants to the United States. Fleeing poverty and persecution, several million Jewish migrants from eastern Europe poured into cities like New York, forever changing the landscape of American Jewry and leaving an indelible mark on American culture and politics.
Many of these tenement-dwelling immigrants from eastern Europe toiled in sweatshops. Some, as Howard Sachar writes in his epic “A History of the Jews in America,” were gangsters and prostitutes — vocations not commonly associated with American Jews today.
The early 20th century is a unique moment in American Jewish history, marked by a vibrant Yiddish subculture with theaters as well newspapers like The Forward. Many Jews from eastern Europe brought with them or adopted the radical, transnational, socialist politics of The Bund, which, incidentally, was anti-Zionist.
With rapid suburbanization after the Second World War, the Yiddish socio-political culture gave way to a very American and Democratic centrism. Its legacy continues today in the form of bagels and lox, yiddishisms, and a political tilt toward the underdog.
The Ashkenazis are seen by many, Tamkin says, as the “paradigmatic” American Jews. But in our conversation and her book, she notes that there are Jews from other parts of the world who’ve made America their home. And they can have very different social and political views.
In the early 20th century, Syrian Jews would also make their way to New York, establishing a close-knit community in Brooklyn. The latter half of the century would see Jewish refugees come from Iran and the Soviet Union. Politically, these groups tend to lean right, while American Jews on the whole have voted heavily Democratic since the era of FDR.
For much of American history, Tamkin notes, Jews were largely regarded as “white Americans who pray differently.” But, due to high rates of intermarriage and conversion, the racial composition of American Jews is changing, with more non-whites becoming part of the community.
The Crisis of American Zionism
Into the early 20th century, Zionism had relatively few takers among American Jews. Many leading reform Jews, for example, rejected the idea of a separate Jewish homeland.
“We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and, therefore, expect neither a return to Palestine…nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”1885 Pittsburgh Platform of the American Reform Movement in Judaism
New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger too was a vocal Jewish opponent of Zionism during this period. And for that, he was attacked by Chaim Weizmann — who would later serve as Israel’s first president — as a cowardly “assimilated Jew.”
American Jewish views on Zionism, including those of the Reform Movement, would change with the Holocaust and the founding of Israel in 1948. The ascendance of Zionism among American Jews accelerated with the Six-Day War.
But today, American Zionism is in crisis. Many young Jews find support for Israel to be at odds with their progressive values. Groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace have staged high-profile protests, often courting arrest, to demand a ceasefire in Gaza.
While progressivism has served as a bridge between many young Jewish and Muslim political activists these days, it has also caused severe strain between older and younger generations of American Jews.
Younger progressive Jews who criticize Israel or disavow Zionism are accused of being naive or even self-hating Hamas apologists. Such accusations are not new.
Tragedy in comedy, comedy in tragedy. Identities shuffled, costumes tried on, the revolution as theater. Nobody knows who he is, everyone plays parts. Abbie Hoffman, accredited clown of the moment, chants praise to the bombs — “Boom!” — and his educated admirers chant back, “Boom, boom!” Jewish boys and girls, children of the generation that saw Auschwitz, hate democratic Israel and celebrate as “revolutionary” the Egyptian dictatorship. Some of them pretend to be indifferent to the anti‐Jewish insinuations of the Black Panthers; a few go so far as to collect money for Al Fatah, which pledges to take Tel Aviv. About this I cannot say more; it is simply painful.
The criticism of the far left by Howe — who, to be clear, was a lifelong socialist, not a right-winger — is eerily similar to what’s said about protests on college campuses today, including those led by Jews on the left.
In her book and our conversation, Tamkin says that many young Jews regret not being better informed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have come to reject the standardized history of the region taught in Hebrew school and programs like Birthright.
Young American Jews are also revisiting the centrality of Israel to their Jewish identity. For some, a counter-Zionist or post-Zionist Jewish identity, espoused by thinkers like Shaul Magid, author of “The Necessity of Exile,” is more appealing.
That conversation, Tamkin says, amounts to “a painful reckoning” among Jewish Americans. Jews “cast[ing] other Jews out is fully on display.”
But Tamkin sees change, debate, and introspection as constants of the American Jewish experience. And that, in her view, “is a good thing.”
Journalist Emily Tamkin, author of “Bad Jews,” joins host Arif Rafiq to discuss the evolving and often contentious debate over what it means to be an American Jew and how today’s conversations about Jews, whiteness, and wealth fit into the broader historical, American Jewish experience.
They also discuss the parallels between neoconservatism in the 60s and 70s and today’s counter-progressivism — or anti-wokeism — among Jewish public intellectuals. The conversation concludes with Tamkin’s thoughts on the crisis of American Zionism.
Emily Tamkin has been a foreign affairs journalist for Buzzfeed, Foreign Policy, and the New Statesman.
Books by Emily Tamkin
Tamkin’s first book, “The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society,” looks at the roots of the political influence of Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros and the conspiracy theories, often anti-Semitic, that revolve around him.
“Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities,” is Tamkin’s second book. Journalist Adam Serwer says the book is a “fascinating and compelling exploration of Jewish American history and the fault lines that have divded every generation of American Jews.”
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.