The Magazine

Oy Vey!

The anxieties of America's Jews.

Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
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Jewish Polity and American Civil Society

Communal Agencies and Religious Movements in the American Public Square

edited by Alan Mittleman, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Robert Licht

Rowman & Littlefield, 440 pp., $75

Jews and the American Public Square

Debating Religion and Republic

edited by Alan Mittleman, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Robert Licht

Rowman & Littlefield, 392 pp., $75

JEWS ARE FOREVER taking their temperature. They worry constantly about matters like declining birthrates and increasing anti-Semitism. They brood not only over their future, but--as demonstrated by their penchant for writing histories of all things Jewish--over their past, as well.

Occasionally, somebody suggests that Jews would be better off if they threw away their psychic thermometers. But no sane observer can honestly conclude that the patient suffers only from imaginary illnesses. The Jewish people forever faces grave external threats and internal tensions, and temperature-taking would seem to be in order. Moreover, taking stock is a venerable tradition among Jews, inaugurated by God Himself when He described them as a "stiff-necked people."

The tradition continues with two hefty collections of essays, "Jewish Polity and American Civil Society" and "Jews and the American Public Square," both edited by Alan Mittleman, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Robert Licht. Both books furnish the reader with a great deal of useful information about Jews in America, while the essays included in the books are characterized by competence and earnestness throughout. Each author was afforded great latitude, so repetition was inevitable, but not excessive.

The volumes differ in their emphasis. "Jewish Polity and American Civil Society" concentrates on the internal organization of the Jewish community, characterized as a polity by the late Daniel Elazar because its "institutional infrastructure" manifests, according to Alan Mittleman, certain "quasi-governmental features." "Jews and the American Public Square" deals, as it were, with the "foreign policy" of this polity, its relation with American civil society at large.

Obviously, these overlap to some degree: Some anti-Jewish sentiment exists in that civil society and shapes the response of the Jewish community. Indeed, the organization of the Jewish polity cannot be grasped without paying attention to its three most prominent agencies--the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League--which are commonly called "defense" organizations, defending as they do the Jews against potential and actual injuries. They tend to overshadow the various Jewish federations (originally loosely linked as the Federation of Jewish Charities), although these charitable organizations have done and continue to do a great deal of useful work in dealing with various social problems. Nevertheless, the "Big Three" are much more prominent. They fight indifference or hostility to Jews in various ways, from legal action and lobbying efforts to accentuating the positive contributions of Jews to the United States. (Years ago, I overheard a boy on a New York subway platform ask, "Mommy, is Davy Crockett Jewish?" "No," she answered, "but Dr. Jonas Salk is.")

These Jewish organizations differed in makeup and outlook. The American Jewish Committee used to be made up primarily of German Jews whereas the American Jewish Congress represented East European Jews. The former was more upscale and conservative than the latter, while the Anti-Defamation League tended to be more brash than the other two. Today, much more harmony prevails than in the past, above all because support of Israel unites America's Jewish community. Milton Himmelfarb was right when some years ago he articulated the widespread feeling among Jews that they could simply not make it without Israel. Nevertheless a good deal of fractiousness remains in the "Jewish polity." One is reminded of the old joke that if Robinson Crusoe were Jewish, he would have promptly built two synagogues on his island, one in which to worship and one he would not be caught dead in.