Tribal Dilemma

Jews and the New American Scene.
by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab.
Harvard. 234 pp. $22.95.

In the early 1980’s, the sociologist Charles Silberman published A Certain People, a book that depicted the American Jewish experience as an unqualified success and the American Jewish future as a golden prospect. By the late 1980’s, the mood among students of American Jewry had turned more cautious; a group of scholars known as “transformationists” were conceding that American Jewish life was undergoing a change, even if they were not yet prepared to say that it was declining. Now, two veteran observers of the Jewish community, Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, have given us Jews and the New American Scene, a book that administers the intellectual equivalent of a cold shower to American Jewry.

Pessimism regarding Jewish life is usually associated with a deep concern about anti-Semitism, but this is not what animates Lipset and Raab. Indeed, as they see it, anti-Semitism is at present a marginal phenomenon in American society. What preoccupies these writers is not the external but the internal threat: a sharp fall-off in Jewish identity and a serious weakening of Jewish commitment. Lipset and Raab argue forcefully that American Jews have become victims of their own success, achieving integration and acceptance in the larger American society at the price of a declining sense of their own Jewishness.

A key feature of Lipset and Raab’s analysis is its stress on structural factors. The authors repeatedly make the point that the problem is not one of will—either ill will on the part of an American society that would force Jews to give up their Jewishness, or a positive desire on the part of Jews to escape the Jewish condition. No, the atrophying of Jewish identity is due to the confluence of an otherwise happy set of circumstances: the unique openness of American society, and a structure of values that has enabled Jews to benefit uniquely from that openness. Lipset and Raab make this “double exceptionalism” the pivot of their argument:

American exceptionalism refers to the unique historical conditions under which the nation was founded, and to the unprecedented national ideology they spawned. Jewish exceptionalism addresses the extraordinary history of the Jewish people and the extraordinary zeal with which American Jews have adopted the American creed and subsequently achieved economic, political, and social success.

As to the first factor, American exceptionalism, Lipset and Raab note that for all groups in our society (with the partial exception so far of blacks), “success and assimilation have gone hand in hand”; the erosion of group identity is “mainly a natural product of living in America.” This is what the authors mean by the “tribal dilemma,” which they define as the

antagonism between individualism, which most ancestral group members value, and group identity, which they also cherish. In the ensuing conflict, tribal cohesion tends to succumb, despite all sentimental denials and institutional investments to the contrary.

But if the “tribal dilemma” is common to all minority groups, where does Jewish exceptionalism come in? Lipset and Raab’s contention here is that although America’s “openness, . . . egalitarianism, and . . . social heterogeneity” are available to all, Jews have been uniquely positioned to act on that promise. This is due to an “achievement drive” which Jews exhibit “in abundance in comparison with other religioethnic groups in the United States,” and which has resulted in their attaining “higher levels of education, professional status, and income than all other subgroups.” Thus, over the last three decades the Jews, a group constituting less than 3 percent of the American population,

have made up 50 percent of the top 200 intellectuals, 40 percent of American Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, 20 percent of professors at the leading universities, 21 percent of high-level civil servants, 40 percent of partners in the leading law firms in New York and Washington, 26 percent of the reporters, editors, and executives of the major print and broadcast media, [and] 59 percent of the directors, writers, and producers of the 50 top-grossing motion pictures.

But here, in Lipset and Raab’s view, lies the rub. For the openness of American society functions as a “double-edged sword, hacking away at disadvantage, and, on the backstroke, cutting away at Jewish identity.” And so we find ourselves in a situation where “group identity and cohesiveness are severely eroding for the large majority” of Jews. Indeed, Lipset and Raab go so far as to argue that “American exceptionalism may threaten the future of Jews even more than did anti-Semitic hostilities of the past.” After all, they point out, anti-Semitism can serve to strengthen bonds of solidarity among Jews. By contrast, in the prevailing condition of benevolent freedom, a “basic dwindling cycle is evident.”

Signs of such “dwindling” abound. Lipset and Raab especially highlight the fact that “more than half of young Jews are marrying out of the faith, and conversions of the non-Jewish partners are in a distinct minority.” In addition, “Jewish knowledge and education are, for most Jews, thin at best and becoming thinner.” Then again, “traditional religious observance and synagogue attendance are decreasing.” Add to this the fact that the “Jewish birthrate is low and declining” and the elements are in place for a cold calculation: the “cohesive American Jewish community can be expected to be reduced to a hard-core minimum in two generations,” entailing the loss of “at least half of the present population.”

Lipset and Raab are not reckless; they do not predict the disappearance of the community. They take it for granted that a “Jewish core will survive,” and even allow that a “minority . . . are actually intensifying their connections.” But the larger picture, they maintain, is nothing short of disastrous.

What to do? In a final turn of their argument, Lipset and Raab reiterate their point that Jewish assimilation in the United States reflects the working-out of an essentially benign process. America is “open and option-rich,” and that is as it should be. Jews, in turn, seek to act on America’s promise, and that is also as it should be. But—and this is the authors’ big but—that gives an “inexorable” quality to the American dynamic, one which appears to place it “beyond social engineering.” In the end, then, the authors of Jews and the New American Scene are left to describe a dilemma for which they see no apparent solution.



Lipset and Raab are clearly in tune with a prevailing mood in Jewish communal circles today, and their book gives flesh to the anguished concern voiced by many over “Jewish continuity.” But they put the case with greater subtlety and sophistication than others, citing a wealth of specific data to back up their key conclusions. Clearly, at this point the burden of proof is on anyone who would advance a more upbeat assessment of the condition of American Jewish identity today.

My own sense of the matter is that, if anything, Lipset and Raab understate the dimensions of the problem. For one thing, in their determination to focus attention on the internal threat, they play down the current significance of anti-Semitism in American society. Yet anti-Semitism exists, and not only among fringe elements. Even in the mainstream, there has been a noticeable withering away of the taboo against expressions of anti-Jewish attitudes: witness Pat Buchanan, Gore Vidal, Jesse Jackson, and the late George Ball. In this light, Lipset and Raab’s statement that “official constraints against active bigotry show no signs of breaking down” is unfortunately too facile.

As for their argument that anti-Semitism shores up Jewish identity, that is true as far as it goes, although it is hardly a recipe for Jewish survival. In any case, high levels of anti-Semitism can also comfortably coexist with high levels of assimilation, as was true in pre-World War II Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Given the right set of conditions, anti-Semitism can raise the costs of being Jewish to a point where many, particularly those on the margins of Jewish life, will want out.

Still another matter that receives scant attention in Jews and the New American Scene is the emotional distancing from Israel that is taking place among American Jews. Israeli and American observers agree that younger cohorts of Jews in the United States (the Orthodox are a major exception) are far less deeply involved with the Jewish state than are their elders; they are less likely to see Israel as central to Jewish life, and have visited there in far fewer numbers. Since these are the very same Jews who come off least well on all other indicators of Jewish identity, clearly what is involved here is not a shift of interest from one Jewish realm to another but rather a wholesale abandonment of any Jewish focus. It is worth noting in this context that amid the euphoria surrounding the signing of the Israel-PLO accord, not one person came forward to suggest that a Jewish state at peace might prove personally attractive to any significant number of American Jews.

Last but hardly least, Lipset and Raab may assume too easily that a significant core of American Jews will survive no matter what. Even at the core, it needs to be emphasized, survival is contingent on the willingness of committed Jews to opt for an increased degree of separateness from American society. It is the Orthodox who have been setting an example in this regard, with clearly gratifying results in terms of religious vitality and the commitment of young people. The big question is whether non-Orthodox Jews are willing to follow suit, at least to some degree—for example, by choosing day-school education for their children. The signs here are not particularly promising.

In any event, Lipset and Raab are certainly correct in noting that for the overwhelming majority of American Jews, separatism in any form is a nonstarter; Jews may approve of multiculturalism for others, but not for themselves. Which is yet another reason why the particular “tribal dilemma” so acutely described in this book is not about to go away.

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