Essays

The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation, by Jonathan D. Sarna

As World War II began, Jewish Americans presented a mixed picture. It was a community at home in America and proud of its achievements, but still uncertain of its identity or its position vis-à-vis other Jewish communities in the world. It faced substantial antisemitic hostility and discrimination, yet under President Franklin D. Roosevelt more Jews had entered public life than ever before. As Hitler’s armies reduced European Jewish communities to ashes, the mantle of Jewish leadership firmly descended upon American Jewry. Yet its performance during these agonizing years—whether its leaders did enough to save their brethren in need—remains a subject of intense communal debate. The waning days of the twentieth century found the American Jewish community at another crossroads in its history. Demographically, the community was stagnant. The great issues of the past, including Zionism, no longer inspired and united American Jews as once they had. Nor was there any large community of suffering or persecuted Jews anywhere in the world calling upon the American Jewish community for assistance. As a result, American Jewry turned inward. Its new rallying cry, born of a survey that showed more Jews marrying out of their faith than within it, was “continuity.”