The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons

Musings about politics, religion, law, art and marriage - what else is there?

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Sunday, August 24, 2003
I've moved

Thanks to the good offices of Matt Drachenberg at Blogmosis, I've moved to a better neighborhood. My new URL is:

Please update your links and bookmarks accordingly, and enjoy my new home!

Countdown to Arrival Day, Week 5

This post continues the countdown to Arrival Day 2003. Arrival Day is a non-religious celebration of the founding of the American Jewish community, which occurred with the landing of the first Jewish immigrants in New Amsterdam on September 7, 1654. Every Sunday until September 7, I will post an essay on American Judaism from a historical, contemporary or personal perspective. Both Jews and non-Jews are invited to participate in the Arrival Day Blogburst on September 7; if you're interested, let me know via e-mail or in the comments.

The popular image of the American Jewish community today is that of a well-established, prosperous "model minority." What is often overlooked is that American Jews are an immigrant community to a greater extent than at any time since the 1920s. In the past thirty years, the United States has experienced a fourth wave of Jewish immigration comparable in magnitude of the great migration of 1880-1920.

Exact statistics are hard to come by, but it is probable that a plurality of the fourth-wave Jewish immigrants are from the former Soviet Union. From 1973 through 1979, and again during the late 1980s, the Soviet Union responded to American pressure by allowing up to 200,000 Jews to emigrate to the United States. This trend accelerated after 1989, when the Lautenberg Amendment allowed 50,000 Soviets to immigrate to the United States annually. Moreover, until 1992, Soviet Jews were accorded refugee status in the United States, allowing them to enter the country more easily than other persons from the former Soviet Union.

Thus, as the Soviet Union collapsed into economic ruin and semi- anarchy, hundreds of thousands of additional Soviet Jews moved to the United States. Some studies have placed the total number of Soviet Jews in the United States at 400,000, and others have pointed to even higher figures. In 1996, a study conducted by New York and New Jersey law enforcement agencies estimated that there were 350,000 Soviet Jewish immigrants living in the New York metropolitan area alone, with as many as 150,000 more living in other parts of the country.

The Israeli diaspora may account for almost as many new Americans. Many American-Israelis have one or more parents who were American citizens, and therefore hold United States citizenship from birth. Others have been able to settle in the United States due to the 1965 liberalization of American immigration law, which removed national-origin quotas and made it easier for families of immigrants to obtain permanent resident status. The Israelis living in the United States today are a diverse community, consisting not only of those having American ancestors but also the descendants of European and Mizrahi Jews.

As with Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, exact statistics are hard to come by. The Lahis Report, which was published as early as 1980, estimated that 300,000 to 500,000 Israelis lived permanently in the United States, primarily in New York and Los Angeles. A 1997 Jerusalem Post article likewise put the Israeli-American population at approximately 500,000. The United States Census Bureau places the number considerably lower, at less than 100,000 as of 1990.

Both figures are probably inaccurate. The Census Bureau figure likely undercounts Israeli immigrants with American ancestors, who may not have declared their ancestry as Israeli on their census forms. A considerable number of census respondents also declared no national origin at all. On the other hand, the Lahis Report may have erred in the opposite direction as a product of alarmism over emigration within Israeli society. The fact remains, however, that the Israeli-American population numbers at minimum in the hundreds of thousands.

About 50,000 to 80,000 Iranian Jews also reside in the United States today, most of them refugees from the 1979 revolution. There has also been some Jewish immigration from Syria and North Africa, and communities of Mizrahi Jews have grown up in New York during the past twenty to thirty years. There may thus be as many as a million Jewish immigrants living in the United States today, which means that while the American Jewish community contains proportionally fewer immigrants than it did a century ago, the absolute number is of similar magnitude.

As with the Great Migration, the fourth wave has led to social cleavages within the American Jewish community. For the first time since the mid-19th century, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews form a significant fraction of the American Jewish population, and the century-old Eastern European dominance of Jewish culture in the United States is under attack. This can be seen in everything from the Bukharan synagogues of Queens to the recent proliferation of Sephardic cookbooks - Mizrahi elements are being integrated into nearly every aspect of American Jewish culture.

Sometimes, however, integration is not so easy. As Lahav and Arian wrote in 1999, the secular outlook of many recent Jewish immigrants has led to misunderstanding:

The major arena of conflict, though rarely expressed explicitly is in the field of personal and national identity. Of those who described themselves as Jews by religion in the United States, 80 percent expressed a denominational preference for the Conservative and Reform synagogue movements, while only some 6 percent identified themselves as strictly religious, Orthodox Jews. In Israel, secular Israelis consider themselves Jewish regardless of their alienation from any form of Orthodoxy. They are usually unaware of American Jewry's attachment to Jewish religious traditions (i.e., Conservative and Reform movements) that constitute the majority of organized American Jewry, and that are often very different from those represented by Israeli Orthodoxy. This religious pluralism fits in the American mainstream culture of denominational and communal association, and is simultaneously alien to Israelis' perception of Jewish identity, which is an elementary component in the Israeli definition of citizenship and nationality. Israelis arriving to America discover the central role of the synagogue in the life of American Jews, while American Jews are stunned by the ignorance and complete withdrawal of Israelis from Jewish tradition and organizations.

The same is often true of Jews from the former Soviet Union, who had little opportunity to practice Judaism prior to immigration and whose Jewish identity is often more ethnic or national than religious. Some have become more observant and gravitated to religious institutions in the United States - as evidenced by the Bukharan synagogues down the street from me - but others have remained apart from the organized Jewish community and created their own parallel institutions.

The fourth wave of Jewish immigration has also brought an increase in problems that are common to recent immigrants, including poverty and crime. There have always been pockets of Jewish poverty - the image of American Jews as a prosperous middle-class community has never been entirely true - but Jewish organizations have placed poverty issues on a back burner for a generation or more. A visit to Brighton Beach makes clear that such a comfortable attitude toward poverty can no longer be taken.

Likewise, organizations such as the Aleph Institute, which works with Jewish prisoners, report that the crime rate among American Jews is increasing. Jews are still underrepresented in American prisons, with an incarceration rate of 1.5 to 2 per thousand compared to about 7 per thousand in the country as a whole. Nonetheless, this is a considerably higher rate than a decade ago, and Russian Jewish and Israeli immigrants have also appeared among the United States' emerging "ethnic mobs." This is a concern for the Jewish community not least because criminals tend to prey on their own; the primary victims of crime within the Jewish community are themselves Jewish. Moreover - as Rabbi Isaac Jaroslawicz of the Aleph Institute points out - Jews in prison are still Jews, and the Jewish community as a whole has a duty to assist in their rehabilitation.

For the past generation, the major focuses of Jewish organizations in the United States have been anti-Semitism, Israeli-diaspora relations and the maintenance of Jewish identity among third and fourth-generation American Jews. These issues are still important, but they are no longer enough - Jewish organizations must also return to their roots and respond to the challenges facing an immigrant community.

The muse of fisking

Cinderella Bloggerfeller reveals an undiscovered Jonathan Swift poem about blog wars.