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  • Is America “Different”? A Critique of American Jewish Exceptionalism
  • Tony Michels (bio)

In his classic essay from 1955, “America Is Different,” Ben Halpern undertook to explain what he (and many others) viewed as the uniqueness of American Jewish history. The experience of Jews in the United States was singular, according to Halpern, because they at no point underwent an emancipation process wherein they needed to prove themselves worthy of citizenship. They became citizens at the founding of the republic without special consideration. Absent a “Jewish Question” in which the legal status of Jews was subject to debate, powerful antisemitic movements failed to develop on American soil. No significant political party ever attempted to strip the Jews of civil and political rights or undo the liberal constitutional order that guaranteed those rights. Needing neither to seek emancipation nor defend it, American Jews constituted “a post-Emancipation Jewry,” one that enjoyed unprecedented levels of freedom, acceptance, and affluence within a society characterized by a fluid class structure, ethnoreligious pluralism, and a malleable national character. The United States was thus “different,” not merely in the assortment of particulars that differentiates any country from another, but in its fundamentals. This democratic, pluralistic, and prosperous country proved hospitable to such an extent that it produced a profound departure: for the first time in their long history of dispersion, Jews found a true home.1

Halpern’s essay presented a Jewish version of American exceptionalism, the deeply rooted belief in American national uniqueness.2 As described [End Page 201] by the late sociologist Daniel Bell, exceptionalism regards the United States as a “transforming presence whose emergence at the center of history had been made possible not only by the providential wealth of a virgin continent, but by the first successful application of a new principle in human affairs. . . . Having a common political faith from the start, it would escape the ideological vicissitudes and divisive passions of the European polity, and, being entirely a middle-class society, without aristocracy or bohème, it would not become ‘decadent,’ as had every other society in history. As a liberal society providing individual opportunity, safeguarding liberties, and expanding the standard of living, it would escape the disaffection of the intelligentsia, the resentment of the poor, the frustrations of the young—which, historically, had been the signs of disintegration, if not the beginning of revolution, in other societies.”3 Such notions of American uniqueness and superiority have infused the consciousness of American Jews, no less than the nation as a whole, since at least the nineteenth century. They were expressed by native-born Jews such as Emma Lazarus, whose tribute to American exceptionalism, “The New Colossus,” was emblazoned on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty; as well as by immigrant Jews such as Peter Wiernik, the Yiddish journalist who designed a book plate for his library showing a holy ark with a curtain fashioned from an American flag (see Figure 1).

Exceptionalist thinking was especially prevalent around the time of American Jewry’s tercentenary celebrations in 1954, just before Halpern published his essay.4 Probably that year’s most sophisticated formulation of American Jewish exceptionalism was Oscar Handlin’s Adventure in Freedom, the first comprehensive survey of American Jewish history written by a major U. S. historian. Handlin traced three major lines of development: the attainment of full civil and political equality in the eighteenth century; social and economic integration in the nineteenth century; and the construction of a pluralistic Jewish community between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By immigrating to the United States, Handlin argued, Jews freed themselves from autocratic European governments and stifling aspects of their own communal traditions. “The Atlantic crossing was liberating,” in his judgment. “In every area of life [End Page 202]

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Figure 1.

Peter Wiernik’s bookplate, depicting his belief in the exceptionalism of American Jewish life. Reproduced from Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 45 (1955–1956).

the confining regulations fell away and man was left free, within the rules general to all, to pursue his trade and calling, to act as man and citizen without interference from the state. . . . In this spirit, democracy...