By Sierrah DeBoer
The history of Jewish Americans is more complex than we have been led to believe, more nuanced than an immigration story, according to Tony Michaels, PhD., a religious studies professor from University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The story of American Jews is one of Americanization in linear and progressive terms…I want to present another way of understanding it, through the prism of revolution, of conflict and utopianism,” said Michaels, in a recent address in UC Santa Barbara.
Michaels has dedicated his career to researching the Jewish story in America and was presenting his new research for the first time as a guest of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center’s Taubman symposia in Jewish Studies. He focused on key moments in history to demonstrate the complexity of Jewish American political involvement, and how it can change over time.
Michaels became interested in Jewish Studies while spending two quarters as an undergraduate at UCSB, which he said changed the trajectory of his education. “I took [Richard Hecht’s] courses on history of Jerusalem and anti-Semitism and that was my introduction to the academic study of Israel,” Michaels recounted.
Now, years later, he was back to frame for a UCSB audience his perspective of American Jewry using its historical role in, and reaction to, revolutionary moments.
Covering nearly 250 years of history, Michaels focused on five major revolutions: the American Revolution, the Spring of Nations of 1848, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Bolshevik Revolution, and finally the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948. The modern American Jew, he says, is the product of these centuries of bloodshed and trauma. “A radically new and better world could be created in the here and now and these revolutions inspired that in Jewish life,” Michaels said.
The “Utopianism” ideals that drove American Revolution, were as formative for Jewish American history as they were for the history of the United States, he said. In a move of bold liberalism the new U.S. government granted Jews citizenship for the first time anywhere in the western world. This move was not without some opposition from a few states, but legal discrimination was short lived.
Liberal acceptance fostered open Jewish American communities, creating the Jewish American identity. Then widespread upheavals across Europe in 1848 brought “the first cohort of reform Rabbis” to the United States, cementing the idea that Jews in America were simply, “Americans of the Jewish faith.”
Michaels says that Jewish identity lasted until the third revolution, the Russian Revolution of 1905. “It brings by the thousands, Russian Jews from a new generation,” who imported their socialist and secular version of Jewish identity and rejected the model of the American melting pot, he said.
This radical ‘left’ turn from traditional American mythology was typified by the widespread support of New York’s Jewish residents for the Bolshevik revolution, which in turn sparked a web of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the United States. Michaels untangled these webs of paranoia in his talk. “Jews were slaughtered [across Europe] between 1918 and 1922 and it was the Red Army that stopped the destruction,” he said.
It was also the USSR that first supported the creation of the state of Israel, which Michaels considers the fifth revolution that changed American Jewry. Israeli culture has heavily impacted the culture of American Jews from that point forward, he said.
Michaels was hesitant to predict the future political engagement for Jewish Americans, but he predicts that Jewish identification with the left is going to depend on what happens in Israel, which is under attack from leftist political movements today, and will likely continue to produce right-of-center governments in the future. In answer to a question from the audience, he said many American Jews are finding it "hard if not impossible to continue to identify with the left" in this country.
Sierrah DeBoer is a Senior at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in English.