At last, integrationists have won the great ideological struggle inside Jewish life

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In summertime my wife’s family goes to an exclusive community in the mountains where families occupy traditional camps with the owners’ names painted on an oar nailed to a tree out where their driveways meet the dirt road that circles the lake. Under this oar, the family then hooks shingles to advertise the various branches of the family who’ve shown up that weekend. 

I’ve been going to the place for 22 years and after about ten years my name showed up when my father-in-law painted it on a pine sliver. Then a year or so back my shingle got painted over– they needed it for someone else. I didn’t say a word. I’ve always been a little socially apprehensive, felt myself to be an outsider as a Jew in this fern-and-pines community. What’s my place here?

And then this weekend on the back porch, I saw Julie, as I’ll call her, a friend of my wife’s niece, painting a new one for me. It was her first time visiting, but she said that she planned to do one for herself before long, “so two Jewish names can hang right next to one another.”

It was a generational moment.

Julie and I had just met. We’d not shared the fact that we’re both Jewish. And here she brought it up effortlessly; because Julie has none of my hangups. She comes out of a privileged world in which Jews and non-Jews freely mingle. It seems like most of her friends are half-Jewish, she told me, their parents intermarried. And that is true for much of privileged coastal America. Why just look at the New York Times Magazine lying on the adirondack chair nearby Julie’s painting project– the cover features Miranda July, film director, the product of intermarriage.

Later it struck me that my old narrative, of social apprehension of the in-laws, perceived exclusion, was as Yesterday as my parents’ marriage stories with their whiff of Sholom Aleichem– about Jewish families that didn’t cough up dowries or about legendary upward Jewish marriages– Hank Greenberg married Gimbel’s daughter!

Julie’s narrative is one of Jewish inclusion, of Jewish integration into the establishment.

I say this all the time, of course. But I think we’ve reached a new stage. Why just look at the Murdoch scandal.

Yesterday Murdoch was backed at the Parliamentary hearing by Joel Klein, the former New York Schools Chancellor, who sat next to Murdoch’s wife Wendy. Murdoch has lately hired the p.r. firm Edelman, founded by Daniel Edelman, said to be the largest p.r. firm in the world. He is also said to have gotten advice from his son-in-law Matthew Freud, the communications genius who of course is the great-grandson of you know who.

You say Murdoch is a philo-Semite; but you can play this game with anyone. Murdoch was vigorously questioned yesterday by Conservative M.P. Louise Mensch, a blonde who is famous as an author of chicklit under her maiden name Bagshawe. She got her new last name from American Peter Mensch, the manager of Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Mensch went to Brandeis and his partner is Burnstein, so I’m assuming he’s Jewish.) Damian Collins was another Conservative questioner; he said his wife works at Edelman…

For more than a century now, the great ideological antagonism in Jewish life has been between Integrationists and Zionists. Integrationists said that the Jewish future lay with integrating into western societies, as Jews fully participating in western democracies.

Integrationists said we would be secure that way. Zionists said that Jews needed a nation of their own. And the Holocaust dealt a sharp reversal to the Integrationists. It said that we would never be safe. And in the 80s and 90s, I came of professional age with privileged American journalists who may have acted like Integrationists but who said stuff to me like, Will your in-laws hide you when the pogroms come? or How can we even talk about Jewish power; my wife just visited her ancestral village in Eastern Europe and even the Jewish graveyard is gone…

On the basis of such questions, Zionism thrived. We need a Jewish state because of the threat of anti-Semitism in the west.

I kept pointing out that I was happily making my way in a mixed Jewish-Christian world. The late Tony Judt– who was as stunned by this social integration as I was– said that Jewish nationalism was a 19th century anachronism. 

And still we lost the argument. Fears of assimilationism played into this. For years the Jewish community was rocked by the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, showing that more than half of young Jews were marrying outside the faith. The Jewish community fought the truth of that survey for years. With the Jewish day school movement, with Zionism, with elevating such race-men as Jeffrey Goldberg to be the spokesmen for the community.

In the end the nationalists will lose. They will lose because young Jews believe in integrationism, and more than believe in it, they live it. They are our living history, they are following Rabbi Hillel’s great commandment, to Be Here Now (If not now, when, as he put it). They will change American and Jewish tradition, and in time too, the oars on the lake.

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