The Question Of Community

"What indeed is "community"?

Are we bound together by common purposes and goals? (This approach is beloved by the community organizers.) Or is there something deeper, more intimate, in the idea of community, something that reaches down to family? In this construct, the community provides the individual much of what the family provides; it’s the idea of kinship.

This question was once again triggered for me when, tossing through the past year’s journal literature, I came across Hebrew novelist A.B. Yehoshua’s provocative essay, “An Attempt to Identify the Root Cause of Antisemitism” (Azure, Spring 2008), in which Yehoshua addresses the age-old question, “Why do they hate us?” In reading Yehoshua’s article, I was reminded of historian Victor Tcherikover’s observation: There are very few phenomena in human history that have a history of 2,000 years. Anti-Semitism is one of them. Yehoshua is the latest in a long line of thinkers to ponder this dilemma. His article generated a discussion within the pages of Azure and in the larger community as well. There is, after all, a healthy debate amongst academics — and just plain folks — as to whether there is no one cause for anti-Semitism, or whether there is a single “root” (as Yehoshua asserts) of the phenomenon.

The question for Yehoshua — as it is for all of us — is whether anti-Semitism is just another form of ethnic and racial conflict and prejudice, or whether anti-Semitism is sui generis, a prejudice unlike anything else in time and place. Anti-Semitism is different from other forms of prejudice, avers Yehoshua, because it arises out of the unique nature and structure of Jewish identity. To Yehoshua, Jewish identity is all about “what separates the Jews from most other nations and relates to the special combination of religion and nationhood.” This combination generates amongst non-Jews, fantasies, needs, especially fears, incited by “the alienation, the otherness, the borderlessness of the Jew,” which derive from the twin historical dynamics of religion and nationhood.

Anti-Semitism therefore, according to Yehoshua, comes out of the clash between the identity of the Jew and non-Jew. Yehoshua is entirely right on one point: anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem; it is a non-Jewish problem. (He quotes the wonderful one-liner: Anti-Semitism is a disease of the non-Jew from which the Jew dies.) Bottom line, therefore, for Yehoshua: a “re-grouping” of Jews in its historical homeland —nationality and religion coming together — will alleviate anti-Semitism. It is “community,” in its largest sense.

But it seems to me that Yehoshua is missing something. Jewish nationalism of the kind advocated by Yehoshua was rarely an issue in America, which was informed by democratic and cultural pluralism. The separation of church and state lifted pluralism from being merely an ideal and made it a legal obligation. Whatever expressions of anti-Semitism there have been, anti-Semitism never took firm root in this country the way it did in European lands, where it was embedded in the institutions of power. Moreover, America did not have a “history”; we did not carry the pre-Enlightenment baggage of “rights,” which could be granted and therefore taken away. It’s a radically different idea of “community,” which Yehoshua misses in his otherwise thoughtful article.

Our “community” is indeed not monolithic: we are defined, yes, by the sovereignty of Israel (to Yehoshua, the beginnings of a cure) and by the pluralism of America. Each — and these two definitions are in friendly competition, as they should be — represents a sea change from our European past.
“Community” is implicated as well by Rebecca Kobrin’s smart article, “’When a Jew was a Landsman’: Rethinking American Jewish Regional Identity in the Age of Mass Migration” (Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, November 2008). The idea that urban regionalism is the centerpiece of American Jewish life — of community — is Kobrin’s theme. Kobrin ties together the centrality of the origins of thousands of immigrants in places like Bialystok to their understanding of identity in the new land, and to their shaping of community. “In the Eastern European Jewish immigrant world, one’s religious sensibilities, political beliefs or even nation of birth mattered far less than one’s city of origin, provoking … the quip: “Fun vanen is a Yid a landsman?” (“When did every Jew become a landsman?”)” Using the Bialystoker landsmanschaften in New York and Buenos Aires as exemplars, Kobrin shows how it was that in the city that lowly immigrant Jews “summoned, deployed and re-articulated their East European urban regional identities ... and formed associations that helped them … remain connected to their former homes” — in a word, they created community.
A footnote to community is the state of our Jewish communal agencies. Historian Edward S. Shapiro, in a review of Marianne R. Sanua’s commissioned institutional history, “Let Us Prove Strong: The American Jewish Committee, 1945-2006” (American Jewish History, December, 2007), parts company with Sanua’s paean to the American Jewish Committee. He notes the decline in membership numbers of Jewish “defense” agencies and a “growing cynicism regarding the American Jewish establishment.” Shapiro suggests that the impact of national Jewish organizations on American Jewish (and international) public affairs ain’t what it was, Sanua’s deserved praise of AJC notwithstanding. Visibility of national agencies is not the same as impact. With the exception of the Israel lobby AIPAC, the impact of our national organizations has been much diminished in recent decades. Writ large, the shift of center-of-gravity from “national” to “local” — a shift that is felt in many arenas of Jewish life — has implications for the central institutions and dynamics of “community”: fundraising and funding patterns, leadership, institutional structures and, to be sure, agendas.
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages” (ADL), editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming “Whither American Zionism?”(Bar Ilan) and “The Future of American Jewish Religion” (Columbia University Press).