Friday, August 28, 2020

The shtetl mentality is alive and well with liberal American Jews



JTA reports:

[O]n Wednesday night, the 93-year-old synagogue’s driveway was graffitied with the words “Free Palestine.”

Critics of the Black Lives Matter movement have cited similar vandalism as evidence that protests have devolved into rioting. But has the graffiti changed the synagogue’s support for the racial justice movement?

“Absolutely not,” said Rabbi Dena Feingold, who has led the Reform congregation for 35 years. “That’s a trivial matter. What’s happened these last few days is not about us and what’s happened to us. It’s about the issues of systemic racism that plague our society. About police policy, about implicit bias, white privilege and those bigger issues is what this is about. It doesn’t change anything at all.”

European Jews were conditioned over generations to not make waves because of fears of deadly antisemitic responses to the slightest perceived provocations. This is the shtetl mentality, and it is one that Zionism worked hard to eradicate in Israel.

In America, though, it has been a major part of the Jewish experience.

The irony is that this mentality is worst among the most liberal Jews – Jews who fight hard for the rights of every minority but their own.

What kind of a rabbi would trivialize an antisemitic attack against her own synagogue? Any person with self-respect would send out a clear message of outrage over an incident like this one, but in the progressive circles that Dana Feingold inhabits, a Jew cannot be proud or make a scene. So she says, hey, no biggie – graffiti us all you want, and maybe we’ll take down that Israeli flag we are waving if it upset the community so much.

I had a similar story yesterday that mentioned the liberal Jews who were concerned with American synagogues flying the Zionist and then the Israeli flags, pre-emptively worried about whether it would stoke accusations of dual loyalty before any antisemite even made that accusation. To the liberal Jews of America, the overwhelming mentality is one of not rocking the boat – to act as if American Jews are not full Americans with the same rights as everyone else.

To act as if antisemitism is the Jews’ fault.

The irony is that the shtetl mentality was inherited by the liberal American Jews who are against what they look at as the separatist Orthodox Jews living in tight-knit communities that resemble Europe’s shtetls. They style themselves as being fully integrated into American society and they look at the religious as being backward and regressive. Yet it isn’t the Orthodox who are fearful of American non-Jews – it is the supposedly assimilated liberal American Jews.

The flag story, where the Orthodox fought for Jews to be proudly Zionist in the face of some Reform Jews who were frightened by that idea,  was a small example. Another one comes from the early part of the 20th century.

It is the story of the Jewish Sabbath Alliance, a group of Orthodox Jews who lobbied strenuously to allow Jews to be protected if they refuse to work on Saturday and to allow Sabbath observers to open up shops on Sundays, when this was illegal in much of America. While Reform Jewish leaders at the time paid lip service to the Orthodox position, they didn’t actually join the lobbying efforts, because they felt that Jews in America must act like “Americans,” meaning Christians. (Indeed, the Reform movement supported changing the Sabbath to Sundays starting in 1885, and only abandoned that idea in the 1920s.)

It was the Orthodox who vigorously defended the rights of Jews while the liberal Jews were too frightened to step up and fight for their own people – specifically because to them, assimilation and not standing out were higher imperatives than being proud Jews. This excerpt from an article in The Reform Advocate, June 25, 1904, describes the shtetl mindset while decrying practicing and identifiable Jews as being “fanatics.”



This is cowardice dressed up as being practical. Don’t make waves. Fight for other minorities and oppressed groups – but don’t fight for your fellow Jews. Don’t stand out. Make up a Judaism where no one need know you are Jewish.

Rabbi Feingold is following in a long tradition of liberal Jews trying not to make waves. Just like her forbearers in America, just like the shtetl Jews of Europe.

She has not yet learned the fundamental lesson that in order to gain respect from others, you have to respect yourself first. If liberal Jews were taught to be honestly proud of their Judaism and their membership in the Jewish people – proud enough to loudly fight for it when it is under assault – they would get the respect from the gentiles that they have been craving for the past 150 years.



The Orthodox Jewish Sabbath Alliance eventually hit upon a solution that the Reform Jews could wholeheartedly support. Instead of framing this as a religious freedom and human rights issue, which the liberal Jews had no sympathy for, it was positioned as a social justice and workers’ rights issue which they loved. The religious Jews partnered with (liberal Jewish dominated) unions in  advocating a five day work week for all, where everyone would be off work on Saturdays and Sundays.

It took until the 1960s but eventually that discrimination against Sabbath observing Jews was largely abolished. (There are still some remnants of “Blue Laws” but as far as I can tell nothing that hurts Sabbath observing Jews.)

I am surprised that I cannot find a single book written about the Jewish Sabbath Alliance and the century-long fight for Sabbath observance in America. I could only find one academic article from 1979 on the topic. This is a book that needs to be written, about Jewish heroes who stood up for their rights in an American society that had plenty of antisemitism.

This is the message that liberal Jews  should internalize, that fighting for your rights is the American way, not assimilating into irrelevance.