Pol­i­tics, Faith, and the Mak­ing of Amer­i­can Judaism

Peter Adams
  • Review
By – August 26, 2014

Schol­ars of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry have often made the con­nec­tion between anti- Semi­tism and the devel­op­ment of Amer­i­can Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. In his book Pol­i­tics, Faith, and the Mak­ing of Amer­i­can Judaism, Peter Adams makes a fur­ther con­nec­tion by look­ing at anti-Semi­tism as the cat­a­lyst for Jew­ish accul­tur­a­tion in the realms of both polit­i­cal and reli­gious life. 

Adams argues that between 1840 and 1860, Jew­ish polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty in Amer­i­ca was gal­va­nized by anti-Semit­ic episodes in Europe. Despite the exter­nal threat, the Jew­ish com­munity’s abil­i­ty to exert polit­i­cal pres­sure was thwart­ed by inter­nal con­flict. Amer­i­can Jews were divid­ed along reli­gious lines. Ortho­dox tra­di­tion­al­ists and accul­tur­at­ing Reform­ers both strug­gled to speak for the Amer­i­can Jew­ish community. 

When the Civ­il War broke out, anti- Semi­tism moved to Amer­i­can soil. Adams shows that the Civ­il War cre­at­ed a cli­mate of hys­te­ria which tar­get­ed Jews as war prof­i­teers and strangers dis­loy­al to the Union. Gen­er­al Grant’s infa­mous Gen­er­al Order 11, expelling the Jews from ter­ri­to­ry under his con­trol, was the cul­mi­na­tion of wartime anti-Jew­ish feeling. 

After the war, Amer­i­can Jews felt that their best defense against anti-Semi­tism was dual: to shed their oth­er­ness by becom­ing more Amer­i­can, and to engage in pol­i­tics to pro­tect their own inter­ests. The growth of Reform Judaism and the emer­gence of a Jew­ish vot­ing pres­ence went hand in hand. Grant’s 1868 and 1872 elec­tion cam­paigns, in which he active­ly court­ed the Jew­ish vot­ers of Chica­go and Cin­cinnati, were con­cur­rent with the found­ing of the Reform insti­tu­tions, the Union of Amer­i­can Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tions and Union College. 

After 1877, when Russ­ian per­se­cu­tion of Jews moti­vat­ed an exo­dus to Amer­i­can shores, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was able to exert polit­i­cal pres­sure on the Amer­i­can gov­ernment while extend­ing a hand to the new arrivals. The sto­ry of Ger­man Jews ashamed of their Ostjude brethren is not new, but Adams puts it into the con­text of the Reform impe­tus to Amer­i­can­ize and accul­tur­ate, which the estab­lished com­mu­ni­ty extend­ed — how­ev­er pater­nal­is­ti­cal­ly — to the newest arrivals. 

Adams’s book is at its most com­pelling in talk­ing about the Civ­il War and its pow­er to gal­va­nize Jews into anger while prompt­ing them to fur­ther accul­tur­ate as Amer­i­cans. The con­nec­tion between accul­tur­a­tion and Reform Judaism is less per­sua­sive, since reli­gious life was only one strand in the process of accultur­ation. But as an account of the emer­gence of Jew­ish polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty, the book is a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to the his­tor­i­cal literature.

Relat­ed content:

Sabra Wald­fo­gel earned her B.A. inHis­to­ry from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and a Ph.D. inAmer­i­can His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Minnesota.She is cur­rent­ly writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Her nov­elSlave and Sis­ter, about a Jew­ish woman in Geor­giawho owns her slave half-sis­ter, was pub­lished ear­lierthis year.

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