A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with some friends in Texas. The group, to use an oft-abused term correctly, was diverse—Jews and Catholics and evangelicals, young and old, university professors and professional musicians, with little in common save for our shared belief that faith, family, and nation ought to be the building blocks of a happy, fruitful life.
Maybe it was the spirited conversation, or maybe just the spirits served liberally throughout the evening, but at some point I turned to my friends, raised my glass, and made a toast. “Mazal tov,” I said. “You’re all Jews now.”
The line got a big laugh, but I was being serious. Growing up in what, until five or six years ago, felt like a very different America, my friends had no way of knowing what life as an embattled minority might feel like. Their beliefs, give or take a few articles of faith, were so ubiquitous in the public discourse that they hardly needed stating: Of course we all love America and believe in its divine election. Of course we all cheer and yearn for warm, tightly knit families offering love and support. Of course we worship a mighty God, divergent as our religious practices and affiliations may be. Sure, here and there a fiery and divisive issue might have popped into view, reminding my friends that some of their neighbors held wildly different convictions, but what they could expect at such contentious moments was a debate, not a crusade, because America was America, and because they, normal Americans, were the majority.
The story of how values and worldviews that were, until recently, so common and so unremarkable suddenly became anathema—of how American culture and politics changed, rapidly and radically, and why—is best left to those who can write it with the grace of historical distance and perspective. Meanwhile, those of us who are in the midst of this change and bewildered by it are left with little but a notion that, to quote a great American anthem, “there’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.” A recent internet meme summed our situation up neatly: It showed a perplexed person with a caption that read, “Am I a racist, misogynist, transphobic, ableist White Supremacist, or am I simply a normal person from ten years ago?”
Although explaining how we got to this grim moment in American history requires intricate and complex reflections, the question of how to proceed is—hallelujah—much simpler. It brings me back to my observation about how all Americans who care about faith and family and nation are now, in essence, Jews.
You hardly have to be a Talmudic scholar to realize that if Jewish history had a tagline, it would be: We’re outsiders. On the outside of the Roman Empire and the Greek behemoth and the Persian kingdom. On the outside of Christianity and Islam. Tucked away in a dusty corner of the Middle East, just outside of the real hubs of civilization, and then exiled and spread all over, sentenced to life outside of whatever happened to be the mainstream. Assimilation was never an option; annihilation, alas, often was.
You’d think perpetual marginalization would produce a people bent and bitter. Instead, it blessed us with Moses and Joey Ramone, Maimonides and Groucho Marx, King David and David Ben-Gurion. With no real hope of ever being truly at home in their place and in their time, Jewish outsiders soon realized that not belonging was bliss. Not belonging means not only that you can tell the whole and unvarnished truth, but also that you can pursue your own ideas and passions and not worry too much about anyone or anything else.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting approach for this moment in American history. Our institutions, from our classrooms to our newsrooms, have all become altars for a new religion. It’s one in which people are canceled without the possibility of repentance or redemption; one in which the color of one’s skin, not the content of one’s character, matters; one in which the only path to salvation is to lament America’s essential evils, reject the shackles of the oppressive family structure, and believe in nothing but power and its ability to punish and reward. And so, all of us must do as the Jews have always done when rapacious oppressors bared their claws—simply walk away. We don’t have to send our children to universities that teach them to hate their heritage. We don’t have to subscribe to newspapers that root for our downfall. We don’t have to engage with a culture dedicated to nothing we hold dear and much we find repugnant.
Okay, Okay, I realize this isn’t easy. A lifetime of attachments isn’t something you simply brush off your shoulder. Which is why so many Americans, including so many American Jews, continue to cling to the fantastical notion that sometime soon, somehow, things will go back to the way they were. If we win the next election, they think, or appoint the next judge, or write one more angry letter to our alma mater, common sense will be restored, and the old ideas will once again prevail.
Ain’t gonna happen. What we’re experiencing now isn’t the sporting give and take of a democratic society jousting its way through something like civic discourse. What we’re seeing is holy war, waged by fanatics who won’t stop until their benighted beliefs—gender is a fluid construct rather than a biological reality; America’s founding principle was not freedom but slavery; having children is a malicious imposition on the environment—are the only ones permitted to be proclaimed. Their goal is submission.
Sadly, the Jewish people have been, and continue to be, on the receiving end of our fair share of extermination campaigns. We’ve had the opportunity to figure out what to do when the nice folks with the torches and the pitchforks come a-knocking. Three principles stand out.
First, stop talking to people who hate you. Let’s say someone calls you a racist. Don’t bother with indignation or denial. Just say fine, sure, I’m a racist. A fascist, too? Sure thing. A hater of women and minorities and non-dairy milk alternatives? You bet. Do that, and you’ll notice something amazing occurring: The terrible power our pursuers hold over us, the power of intimidation and of setting the terms of the debate, dissolves the moment you realize you’re free to disengage.
But disengage and go where? This leads us to our second principle: Get busy building. For every school district drowned in critical race theory and choked by other lunatic propaganda, let’s have a thousand sane and caring parents opt out, band together, and establish their own private schools, learning pods, homeschooling collaboratives, or other innovative forms of educating. We owe our kids a real education, not brainwashing. For every church and synagogue that spends more time talking about social justice issues than about the Lord and Scripture, let there be a dozen independent study and prayer groups keeping it real. Do that, and before long you’ll be surprised to learn that what was once the outside has become the core of a new, generative, and wonderful inside.
For new initiatives to be launched and a new spirit of independence to be born, we need principle number three: Stay focused. Culture wars may be exhilarating at first, but they soon turn exhausting. If you invest too much of your energy and life force sparring with your enemies over the insane ideas they’re so eager to impose, you’ll soon realize you have little left to invest in what really matters. And what’s essential now is what has always been: God and love, parents and children and friends, charity and kindness, service and sacrifice—all the good stuff our religious traditions have cherished and promoted for millennia. Want to make sure we win the battle for America? Here’s my plan: Just do one more thing this week that truly reflects the wisdom of your faith tradition than you did last week. Do that, and you’ll discover that religious observance is not only rewarding, but also the world’s greatest source of renewable spiritual energy.
So welcome, my Christian friends, to the mishpocha, Hebrew for “family.” We’re all on the outside now, but we’re outside together, a communion of believers, happy and passionate and committed to a life of truth and beauty. Let’s celebrate!
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.