The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Frank: Mark, many years ago my father, of blessed memory, told me that since his entire family were Germans dating even before Germany became a unified country in 1871, he had always considered himself to be a German Jew rather than a Jewish German. Then Hitler came to power in 1933 and changed that. In 1935 my fathers German citizenship was taken from him and the rest of German Jews and life became so unbearable that he and my mother left Germany to come to America, where he became a citizen and lived the rest of his life in comfort and peace. 

Recently, with all the turmoil that has existed in Israel and the Middle East and the rise of anti-Semitism in America, I began to ponder that same question my father asked himself so many years ago. Was I an American Jew or a Jewish American? 

I began asking many of my friends this question and most but not all stated that they felt they were American Jews. I wonder what your thoughts are on this question.  

Mark: Frank, the memories you share, of your father’s prescient sense of the inevitable rise of and domination by the Nazi Party, and what that would mean for the Jews of Germany and all of Europe, shows astonishingly keen insight, and a profound and amazing courage to escape when he did. 

I am afraid that there is a very real sense among many American Jews right now of that history repeating itself, right here, right now, even in this exceptional land that has loved and welcomed us, and which we have come to love and embrace as well. 

Once again, Jews have become a target of hate, in an ever increasing and exponential fashion. The anti-Semitism we have come to expect from the far right (“The Jews shall not replace us!”) has been joined now by those on the far left, including those groups we thought were our allies and friends. And, since the devastating massacre in the Jewish homeland on October 7, we have seen a surge of both violent rhetoric and violent actions directed towards Jewish people across the globe, including within our own borders. 

All of which has caused us to ask the question you initially raised: What are we — each of us — Jewish Americans or American Jews?  

Frank, what is the difference between the two, at least as far as you see it? 

Frank: No pun intended, but quite frank-ly, I always considered myself to be an American Jew as I was equally secure with both identities. However, with a significant and disturbing rise in anti-Semitism in our world and especially this country, I have changed my mind. History’s tale of how Jews have been treated in other countries is on my side. 

Anti-Semitism is as old as history itself and dates to ancient times. Jews were expelled during the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian Kingdoms as well as from Rome in 139 BCE, 50 CE and 135 CE.  

Jews were thrown out of Italy in 19 CE and from North Africa in the 10th century. In more modern times, Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and 1394, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1496, Russia in the 15th century, Lithuania in 1495, Germany and North Italy during the 14th to 16th century, Ukraine in 1648 and 1915, and Prague in 1744. And from the Arab countries of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Morocco in 1948. And, of course, there is Germany in 1935. 

It would seem, therefore, that even America may someday follow in history’s footprint and make life here difficult if not impossible for Jews. With that in mind, I am aware that I am a Jew and will always be a Jew, no matter what happens to our wonderful America. However someday, I may not be able to consider myself an American and I cannot say that what happened to my father, could not also happen to me as well. So, in response, when asked if I am a Jewish American or an American Jew my response is a resounding, I am a Jewish American! 

How would you respond to this same question 

Mark: Frank, you’ve made the case for the historical record that none of us wants to hear nor heed: That in every single country in which Jews have ever lived, they were either expelled, exterminated, or erased from any continuous presence in any land in which they attempted or assumed they had found a safe haven or harbor.  

This is the cruel fact that we must recognize as Jews residing in this country as well. While America has been a land of golden opportunity for our people, and continues to be so, the rise of anti-Semitism, both on the right as well as now increasingly on the left, has shaken and frightened many of us with good reason. 

Today, we are still secure, residing in a country in which we have thrived and distinguished ourselves like in no other place, in no other time in our history. And we, in turn, have contributed to the welfare of this Golden Land on an unparalleled scale and degree. 

 Tomorrow, who knows what is going to happen? The reality of Jewish history is such that no matter where we have lived, there is always a time limit on our welcome. I hope and pray that such a time may be a long time away from now, but the possibility of exile, even here, is not beyond comprehension.  

So, while I love this country, without question and without end, I love my Judaism and my Jewish heritage much more. Therefore, when push comes to shove, Frank, I will always consider myself a Jewish American, as well, just like you: I will always choose to highlight my Jewish identity, even over my pride in being an American. 

 

Rabbi Mark Schiftan can be reached at mschiftan@aol.com 

Dr. Frank Boehm can be reached at frank.boehm@vumc.org  

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