Interview | Franklin Foer on the Golden Age of American Jews

By | Mar 21, 2024
Interview, Israel, Jewish World, Latest
F. Foer Golden Age

Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, former editor of The New Republic, and the author of five books. His latest is The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future (2023). In his recent Atlantic article, “The Golden Age of American Jews Is Ending,” Foer details rising antisemitism from both the left and the right, and reflects on the end of a unique period in Jewish history, one in which a now-eroding liberal order afforded Jews unprecedented safety and prosperity. Likewise, Foer describes new threats to American Jews in academia, activism, and media as historic Jewish overrepresentation in these sectors declines. Moment spoke to Foer about his widely read piece, the ideological underpinnings of ascendant antisemitism and the role of free speech and democracy in the future of American Jewry.

How did this piece come about? When did you start conceiving it?

About a year and a half ago, my brother Josh and I were talking about antisemitism in America. I said, I know it’s terrible. I know it’s rising. But I also said that I hadn’t actually experienced any antisemitism personally. He’s more observant than I am, and he started to tell me anecdotes from his life. He described one Shabbat walking down the street in Boston and being followed by somebody who was muttering “Trump, Trump, Trump” under their breath in a menacing sort of way, and about how his in-laws had a shtiebel [a storefront synagogue] in Westchester, NY, that had been shot up with a BB gun, and that his son’s friend, who is a Hasidic rabbi in Boston, had his house burnt in an antisemitic arson case. And I realized I needed to dig in and understand exactly what’s happening in the country. Things started to intervene, and I kept getting pushed onto other projects. And then October 7 happened, and I really couldn’t write about anything else.

You paint a disturbing picture of the celebration here in the United States right after the Hamas attack, and you also offer some frightening accounts of Jewish students’ experiences since. Do you have school-age kids, and are you scared for them?

I’m not especially scared for them. Because there’s an unevenness in the pattern; so much of the antisemitism we’re seeing is concentrated in certain places. And in some ways that accounts for the range of responses to my piece. Someone in the Bay Area, for example, might say they feel seen by this piece. But if you’re going to other schools, you might react differently. I’ve heard from people at Harvard and Yale—which have taken a lot of heat, and antisemitic incidents have happened there—but I think a lot of students there would say it’s not as bad as people on the outside are portraying it. There’s a number that I find so striking: A recent study Eitan Hersh did for the Jim Joseph Foundation asked Jewish students if they feel they pay a social penalty on their campus for supporting the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. Seventy-seven percent agreed. And so even if they’re not experiencing antisemitism, there’s the sense that they might experience it or that there’s something unsafe about being Jewish—so unsafe that it makes people, in a lot of instances, not want to participate in Jewish life.

I don’t know how I would necessarily respond to the war in Gaza if I were 18 years old right now. I didn’t grow up solely in the Netanyahu era, so my feelings about Israel are not completely colored by that looming presence of Bibi.

On the topic of antisemitism and privilege, you write: “Today, Jews are treated in sectors of the left as the epitome of whiteness. But any analysis that focuses so relentlessly on the role of privilege, as the left’s does, will be dangerously blind to antisemitism, because antisemitism itself entails an accusation of privilege. It’s a theory that regards the Jew as an all-powerful figure in society, a position acquired by underhanded means.” There’s the saying: America loves an underdog. Does this apply to everyone but Jews? Is this part of what you call the “mental habit” of antisemitism?

Exactly. As Jews, we went through this long cycle where we were self-consciously underdogs. And then the reality stopped corresponding to that, right? We made it in America, for the most part in an extraordinary way. But that doesn’t mean that antisemitism disappears. Overcoming a certain baseline of discrimination in this country wasn’t the same thing, it turned out, as being insulated from Jew hatred. The world gets broken down by the academic left into this very basic, very compelling taxonomy that separates the oppressed from the oppressors and doesn’t make space for antisemitism. And this is consistent with the rest of global history where Jews, as a concept, break people’s minds. We just don’t fit: We’re not a religion, we’re not a race, we’re not an ethnicity. We’re a people. And so, when you look at the way Americans think about race and think about privilege, it’s not surprising that we don’t fit neatly into any box. That’s made universities and the left as a whole dangerously blind to antisemitism, which never really truly goes away.

In your piece, you write chillingly about so-called “edgelords” and antisemitism. You write: “In the Jewish vision of free speech, open interpretation and endless debate mark the path to knowledge; the proliferation of discourse is the antidote to bad ideas. But in the reality of social media, free speech also consists of Jew hatred that masquerades as comic entertainment, a way to capture the attention of young men eager to rebel against the strictures of what they decry as wokeness.” Who are these edgelords? How large a role have they played in amplifying antisemitism, or is it the other way around—have the edgelords spawned antisemitism or did antisemitism spawn the edgelords?

What’s so interesting is that you have this social experiment called Twitter, where antisemites got shut out because the people who used to own the platform were trying to responsibly set boundaries in a public square. Because, really, free speech is never a totally libertarian paradise; it operates effectively when there are implicit rules that govern it. Then Elon Musk takes it over and invites all the antisemites back onto the platform. And I think that the people who had been excluded were antisemites to begin with, but they were also seduced by the idea that part of the reason they had been excluded was that the Jews were actually pulling the strings to shut them out of the mainstream. And Musk, by inviting them back in, essentially validated their argument.

In the world we live in, where you do have wokeness and you do have, in schools and other spaces, the sense that there’s a growing layer of the verboten—all sorts of things that you used to be able to say that you can’t say now—the natural response is to try to test the limits to say the subversive thing. These edgelords are testing what they can get away with. There are certain things in America you can’t get away with, or there’s a higher price to be paid, but I don’t think that there is such a high price to be paid for saying antisemitic things. The podcaster Joe Rogan, for example, had a long riff about Jews and money. Ten years ago people might have jumped all over him, but because antisemitism is so ubiquitous and the boundaries about what constitutes dangerous antisemitism have shifted over time, nobody pulled their ads, and Spotify renewed its deal with him. Dave Chappelle says things that are comically antisemitic, and he still gets a Netflix special. Jews become a test case for these edgelords where they can poke and they can prod and they can rebel against wokeness without actually getting destroyed themselves for saying something.

It’s interesting to go back and read works from the 1930s and 1940s about antisemitism. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a book about antisemitism, for instance, and he notes that part of the style of the fascists was to mask antisemitism in comedy. You either get somebody to laugh, which means that they become complicit, or they get upset, and you can say, stop taking this so seriously, it’s just a silly joke. And that’s why somebody like Chappelle can get away with it. And it’s part of Musk’s style as well, always couched with a wink, couched in layers of protective irony, where he can retreat and just say, “You’re taking this too seriously.”

April 2024 Atlantic

April 2024 cover image courtesy of The Atlantic

“The Golden Age of American Jews Is Ending” is the Atlantic’s April cover story. The print cover features photos of famous Jews and inside jokes in Yiddish typography. For example, a line in English, “JEWS FLEEING SCHOOLS” is followed by one in Yiddish that translates as: “Has a dybbuk overtaken the Ivy League universities?” Does the fact that a magazine like the Atlantic, long the most blue-blooded New England journal in the country, published this cover suggest there’s still some gold to be mined in the so-called golden age?

Yeah, I’ve made this joke myself. We’re a magazine founded by Boston Brahmins. In 1939 The Atlantic ran an anonymous piece titled “I Married a Jew,” and in 1941 explored “The Jewish Problem in America.” And then here’s my new story, and the question is, isn’t this a refutation of the piece itself? Isn’t this the Golden Age when there’s Yiddish on the cover of The Atlantic? As a visual, it’s a callback to Yiddish theater posters. Adding another layer of irony, there’s a rising group of Jews who identify as diasporists and who identify with Yiddish over Hebrew. But that wasn’t really on our mind when we did the cover. I think it was just a way to capture the vitality, the dynamism and the explosion of creativity that came at that moment.

Were you involved in conceptualizing it?

Yes, to the extent that I was part of the debate over the photos that were included on the cover. I’m not a Yiddishist, but I did take two years of Yiddish as an undergraduate and so I enjoyed watching the architecture of it unfold.

How would you respond to the idea that this so-called golden age is just part of a narrative cycle in Jewish history whereby things will be going okay for the Jews, but eventually they get kicked out?

So my piece isn’t “the end of American Jews,” it’s the end of the golden age of American Jews. And I don’t even think it’s the end-end of that. I’m not saying that Jews won’t continue to be influential, won’t continue to exist in a prosperous way. Jews are not going to disappear from American life. It’s just that there was this extraordinary moment where we overpopulated Ivy League universities, we overpopulated the cultural elite relative to our small size. And I think there’s a rebalancing that’s happened alongside the rise of this new sense of insecurity and unsafety that’s percolated up. But most of Jewish history involves Jews going about their lives, punctuated by episodes of antisemitism. And what was extraordinary about the post-World War II period was that there were very few of those punctuation points. There was very little reason to feel any sense of anxiety. And the opposite often occurred; being Jewish was a marker that you could wear proudly and might actually prove to be attractive to the Gentiles. That’s why, for example, Jerry Seinfeld didn’t need to obscure his Jewishness. He could play it up, confident that people were going to eat it up. And they did.

The pluralism of American Jewry is a beautiful, extraordinary thing and a source of its strength.

You write in the Atlantic piece about the neo-Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois in 1977, and how Jewish ACLU lawyer David Goldberger argued successfully that it was the group’s First Amendment right to march. However, you note: “The Jewish community was hardly unanimous on the Skokie question—unanimity would have been inconsistent with the tradition.” On the question of unanimity, at the ADL conference in NYC a few weeks ago, Jonathan Greenblatt defended the decision to honor Jared Kushner, noting that the ADL is nonpartisan and that in a post-October 7 world, “we in the Jewish community cannot afford to be divided…we are in this together.” Kushner echoed this notion, asking: “How can we ask others to stand with the Jewish people if we cannot stand with each other?” How do you square these two seemingly competing ideas of unanimity?

The title of Noah Feldman’s new book is To Be a Jew Today, and one of the arguments he makes is that there’s no one way to be a Jew. And I think that the pluralism of American Jewry is a beautiful, extraordinary thing and a source of its strength. There’s so much visceral reaction to Jewish Voices for Peace and Jewish anti-Zionism. And while I disagree with them, I don’t feel this need to throttle them that I think exists in a lot of quarters. Because I understand a lot of it. When I was an undergrad, I had a phase of student radicalism. I don’t know how I would necessarily respond to the war in Gaza if I were 18 years old right now. And I didn’t grow up solely in the Netanyahu era, so my feelings about Israel are not completely colored by that looming presence of Bibi. The problem with the likes of Jared Kushner, from my perspective, is that he served as an accessory to a president who winked at antisemites and gave them permission to enter into the mainstream. And he may have had complicated feelings about that, but he’s never really vocalized that in public. And so, he would not have been my choice for an award at this moment.

There is a huge generational divide among American Jews in how they feel about the war and about the occupation generally. In addition to the so-called golden age ending, is there truth to the idea that the golden age of American Zionism is waning?

I think that that probably waned quite a while ago. But there are all these other countervailing trends, which I think are important. For example, more American Jews now visit Israel and have a personal relationship with the country than in 1967. And that’s because it’s easier to get to than it was in 1967. That’s because Birthright Israel has brought all these young adults to Israel.

One of the perverse side effects of antisemitism is that it does enhance a sense of Jewish identity. So, when I was talking to students at Columbia, which is a campus that’s featured strongly in my story, I heard examples of those who felt compelled to wrap tefillin as an act of defiance while sitting next to a Students for Justice in Palestine march. When I talked to Hillel rabbis, I learned that they were experiencing a boost in attendance in the aftermath of October 7. And so, I think all of these things can coexist. There is a generational divide that’s real, there are American Jews who have complicated feelings towards Israel, but there are other countervailing trends that to me are present and beautiful and important and can’t be dismissed.

In terms of combating antisemitism, initiatives and campaigns have been launched by government bodies and private organizations, for example after the Tree of Life mass shooting, after Charlottesville and again after October 7. Do you think any of these have been effective? 

I would say just based on the evidence, no. I think the problem American Jewry has is that we’re, to some extent, bystanders in much larger historical trends. So, let’s say the decline of American democracy—we become victims of that trend. And we can’t control what happens in Israel, which is the perverse part of the anti-Zionist narrative, whereby American Jews feel pressured or feel like they’re forced to own this thing that they don’t own. We’re not citizens of Israel, we don’t vote for the prime minister. We don’t control how they execute their war plan. Which is all a way of saying I’m very pessimistic about the ability of any one program or any one policy to actually mitigate antisemitism. We need to work for a revival of democratic practices and democratic culture. That’s ultimately what will save us.


Top images: Courtesy of Franklin Foer and The Atlantic

2 thoughts on “Interview | Franklin Foer on the Golden Age of American Jews

  1. PENINA GOULD says:

    A great deal of thought to ponder and discuss. Thank you so very much and hope we will be treated with continued articles that will educate and stimulate thought and responses and perhaps even give us hope, Tikvah, to strengthen our Yiddishkeit and feel confident in discussing a very important and poignant issue.

  2. alan zucker says:

    Jews are welcomed into countries as long as we are useful to the economy and pose no political threat. However, we quickly become a convenient scape goat when there arises economic dislocation and social unrest and the political leadership can use us as part of their power solidification and unification of the national polity. Jews are expendable and Jewish blood is cheap. We have the historical receipts for proof. We have a limited shelf life wherever we land….perhaps for a few decades, or several centuries..but the sands of time run out for us eventually…..every time.

    People love our Broadway and Hollywood creations,,they love the Salk vaccines and how Jews made there bombs that ended WWII and saved millions of American soldiers from certain death. And don’t forget how they love Sienfeld and the Marx Brothers and the music Clive Davis produced….,They love us…but not that much

    The world is upset with Israel because now Jews have guns, a land, and the grit to defend it. In this place, Jesus will not die on bended knee. In America we live at the largesse of the government and their protection. Israel stands alone and knows it can really only rely on itself.

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