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Don't Romanticize What America Has Been Like for the Jews

Don't Romanticize What America Has Been Like for the Jews
President Donald Trump's adviser Kellyanne Conway gets ready to go on television outside the White House, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

It seems to me that many of our deep thinkers have a romanticized picture of what America has been like for the Jews. Not so long ago, it was routine to segregate Jews from top schools, certain businesses, and big parts of the government.

I finished high school in New Jersey in 1958, had an impressive transcript, was a National Merit Scholarship finalist, had high SAT scores, and, like most of my cohorts, believed I was entitled to attend most any college in America. The issue wasn’t whether I could get in, but where I wanted to go.

I thought I would like Princeton. It was down the road from us, it had a terrific football team, and Einstein was there. But my college adviser shook her head. The Jewish quota was full. I didn’t have parents or siblings who were alumni, so forget it. Try Harvard or Yale, she suggested; they both had Jewish quotas, but I had a better chance there.

In the event, I went to Pomona, which had an even smaller quota: two boys and two girls. (And one black girl along with one black boy, who was my roommate.)

That was sixty years ago, and it did not seem to me that, as Adam Kirsch happily wrote in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, “American acceptance of Jews and Judaism is…certainly greater than in any other country where Jews have lived in the diaspora.” I don’t believe that. Those quotas were very real (and racial quotas remain in place at innumerable universities), and very widely accepted. And as for the uniqueness of America’s embrace of Jews and Judaism, consider that there had been two Jewish prime ministers in Italy by the start of the First World War.

To be sure, Jews have been very successful in this country, indeed today they are flourishing. Yet lots of the punditry on antisemitism is very confused, and in some cases the pundits have it backwards. Contrary to the nonsense that appears in a surprisingly large number of media outlets, I think it’s ridiculous to accuse Trump of encouraging Jew-hatred. Isn’t he the first president to have Jewish children and grandchildren? And isn’t he the most pro-Israel president we have ever had?

Quotas still exist, and if the current band of student radicals have their way, there will be more of them. In my day, Jews were limited because of their religion. Nowadays, it’s Zionism. But the effect is the same, and throughout the establishment, suspicion of Jews is more common than you’d imagine. Many Jewish government officials who have needed high-level clearances have been subjected to all manner of nasty insinuations about “dual loyalty,” the assumption being that American Jews are invariably excessively pro-Israel.   I know several cases, especially when the CIA did background checks on nominees, where the mere fact of being Jewish deprived them of clearances, or delayed the clearances for a long time. If you need a clearance from CIA, you’re well advised not to have Israeli relatives, and the Agency has been known to raise objections to nominees who attended a bar mitzvah in Israel. I was once cross-examined by U.S. senators about my stint as coach of the Israeli national bridge team. Imagine! And the hardest part of that job was learning enough Polish to work effectively with two players whose native language was Polish.

The bottom line: there is really no good reason to be astonished when anti-Semites act against the Jews. If anything, we’re entitled to surprise at the relatively low level of anti-semitism, and at the massive outpouring of pro-Jewish sentiment when violence does take place. I would be a lot happier if American Jews defended themselves more effectively, and if those millions of pro-Jewish Americans were more careful in identifying the real anti-Semites. But there’s hope. Lots of it.