ommentary came into being 70 years ago with a fascinating mandate—it was a magazine designed to explain Jews to America and explain America to the Jews. In 1945, America may have been the most philo-Semitic country the world had yet seen, but even so, ingrained social, cultural, and religious prejudices were part of everyday life. Catholic children were still being taught that the Jews who were their contemporaries bore personal responsibility for the crucifixion.
Neighborhoods, fraternal organizations, and entire fields of professional work were basically off-limits to Jews. The Ivy League operated with a strict quota system that restricted Jewish admission to 17 percent of every entering class.
No longer. Just this past September, the pope shared the stage with a conservative rabbi (Elliot Cosgrove, a contributor to this issue’s symposium) at a Ground Zero prayer service. Whenever we publish a joke in our Enter Laughing column that makes reference to restricted clubs or professions, readers under the age of 50 express puzzlement. And as for the Ivy League—well, as a white supremacist website just helpfully informed me, “Of the 24 senior administrators of the Ivy League colleges and universities, 20 are Jews or have Jewish spouses.” Oddly enough, the fact that a non-Jewish president of an Ivy League university can be married to a Jew may be the most telling of all indicators. It was the late Irving Kristol who made the immortal crack that “the danger facing American Jews today is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them.”
Jews now constitute a mere 2 percent of the U.S. populace, down from 4 percent in 1950, but as Irving’s witticism suggests, I think it’s fair to say we constitute nothing less than the nation’s most beloved minority. The greatest of all Jewish jokes—the one in which a human emissary is ushered into the presence of the divine and asks if, given all the woes experienced by the Chosen People, He wouldn’t mind choosing someone else for a change—is all but nonsensical for those of us blessed by providence to live in America in the year 2015.
In this sense, one of Commentary’s originating purposes has been fulfilled. Our safety as Jews and the possibilities of our prosperity as Americans no longer require that we Jews be explained to non-Jews. Alas, that cannot be said in reverse. To the extent that Jews still need America explained to them, it is because of our own collective ignorance and upper-middle-class provincialism. For it is the most devoutly Christian sector of America, the part that has taken upon itself what it considers a sacred duty to protect and defend the Jewish State, that many of America’s Jews understand the least and seem determined to misunderstand the most—and, shamefully, willfully so.
The inability or refusal of many American Jews to engage with or understand the views, opinions, and feelings of those who would be their dearest friends is a mark of a troubling triviality. Commentary is its corrective. Commentary seeks to remain a vital contributor to the American scene 70 years after the publication of its first issue by reflecting, and evangelizing for, the Jewish people’s ancient dedication to intellectual seriousness. Jewry survived the destruction of the Second Temple, banishment from our homeland, and two millennia of powerlessness by preserving their connection not only to God and to the practices He commanded us to follow but to the ideas of Judaism.
Judaism is a faith that requires commitment to the deepest of abstractions, and it is for this reason, among many others, that it has sustained a culture of literacy and argument and debate. Every month in these pages, and every day on our website, we seek to advance arguments and conduct discussions that do not descend into the muck but attempt to elevate and add insight to the national conversation. And to elevate and educate our own people by, yes, continuing to explain America to them.