Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

How American Jews Helped Shape the American Idea

Since the earliest days of the country, the “New Covenant” of Jewish Americans has promoted a national vision of moral leadership.
January 13, 2023
How American Jews Helped Shape the American Idea
(The Bulwark / Midjourney)

Since the founding of the United States, American Jews have developed an influential movement that I call the “New Covenant”: a responsibility for working to renew the American story as part of a continuous project to deepen and expand democracy for ever-growing numbers of people from everywhere. As in the Hebrew song L’dor V’dor, from generation to generation, these Jews committed to propagating an American narrative that expresses the ideals and values of a vital liberal democracy. From early writers of the immigrant experience to current political leaders and advocates in the battle against authoritarianism, Jews in the New Covenant have persisted in proclaiming the ethical and moral basis of the American story. With the fervor of modern American Jeremiahs, they have instituted a rhetoric of liberal democracy that compels defending, maintaining, and advancing the very ethical and moral demands of the narrative itself. Today in the New Covenant movement, writers, artists, public intellectuals, civic leaders, political figures, film and media personalities, and ordinary citizens take up the challenge of articulating the spirit and meaning of American democracy in the face of illiberal forces at home and abroad.

Historically for many Jews who sustained the New Covenant, the answer to antisemitism, even in America, has been America. The passion of the New Covenant for a democratic culture of justice, equality, freedom, inclusion, and fairness emerged out of a long history for Jews of seeing America as a safe haven from hatred and oppression. Rather than retreating before paroxysms of antisemitism like the murder of Jews at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh and the noxious rantings of Kanye West, many Jews today have responded with an awakened commitment to defending and advancing liberal democracy. The surge of violence against Jews in America and elsewhere should impel the renewal of the historic commitment of Jews to maintaining a vital American democracy not only for Jews and other minorities but for all Americans and for the world.

George Washington pioneered in the struggle for human rights when he praised the Continental Army on April 18, 1783, for having “assisted in protecting the rights of human nature, and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and Religions.” Washington made his position on human rights specific to the Jews in his letter of August 17, 1790, to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, declaring that “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean [conduct] themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” For Washington, no one in America should be “afraid” of being “of the Stock of Abraham” because “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” Washington’s advocacy for Jews clearly contrasts painfully with his notorious position as a major slaveholder.

America was a beacon of hope and change for Jews a century before Washington assured the Jews of Newport that they could enjoy “their inherent natural rights” in this new nation. The first Jewish settlers in what would become the United States arrived in 1654 to what is now New York from Brazil, where they were the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1496. In the years that followed, Jews invested in the idea of America as a foundation for creating and cultivating their sense of home, identity, and security. Values and ideals, as much as the natural landscape of open frontiers and endless skies and the promise of economic opportunity, made America a place where Jews could feel at home and safe.

For the Jewish people, with a history through the ages of persecution, oppression, and alienation, liberal democracy in America opened the possibility of unprecedented safety and freedom even during decades of severe discrimination and prejudice against them in America. For Jews with so much at stake, the commitment to American liberal democracy became a kind of civic religion. Emulating the rhetorical strategy of the prophet Jeremiah and the New England Puritans, as elucidated by Sacvan Bercovitch, Jews often thought and spoke of America in moral and religious terms of reckoning, renewal, and redemption.

For generations, Jews have understood the American story as undergoing perennial renewal in response to the ceaseless demand of ethical and moral leadership. For such Jewish writers, thinkers, activists, and leaders in the New Covenant, the American narrative becomes, in Philip Gorski’s phrase, a “covenant narrative” designed to secure a democratic future.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews as new American Jeremiahs became strong voices in the fight for renewing the American story. The novelist Anzia Yezierska provides a provocative and poignant example of the yearning for America that Jews emigrating from Russia and Eastern Europe felt and expressed. Born in a Polish shtetl, her life and writings dramatize the melding in the New Covenant consciousness of the Jewish experience and the American idea. Her classic immigration novel Bread Givers (1925) and her many stories portray New York’s Lower East Side as a cauldron for a heated, blazing fusion of ideas, experiences, ethnicities, and values. The congested streets and crowded tenements of New York generated new energy for a fresh founding of the American story. She saw the Jews as new Pilgrims advancing, expanding, and modernizing the American narrative. In her work, the inflections, tensions, and rhythms of Yiddish informed and revivified the language of democracy. In one of her stories she writes, “I saw. . . the glory of America that it was not yet finished. And I, the last comer, had her share to give, small or great, to the making of America, like those Pilgrims who came in the Mayflower.” Giving voice to the fears, anxieties, and aspirations of new generations coming to America, she imagined a re-founding of the American story to include people who looked like her and spoke and struggled as she did for acceptance, achievement, and success.

In the wake of the influence of such early figures, a seemingly endless list of writers, thinkers, artists, and leaders in the New Covenant energized and modernized the American idea. Among the writers in the New Covenant, Norman Mailer was famous for testing conventional boundaries and norms regarding ethics and politics, fiction and history, sexuality and gender, high art and popular culture, freedom and repression—all within the context of the American experience. He wrote the “attempt to explain America was left to the sons of immigrants who, if they were vigorous enough, and fortunate enough to be educated, now had the opportunity to see that America was a phenomenon never before described, indeed never before visible in the record of history.”

Thus, Mailer became one of America’s most influential new Jeremiahs, excoriating the country and the people for failing to live up to the existential challenge and moral imperative of their individual and collective lives. As in the model of the Hebrew and Puritan Jeremiad, Mailer castigated and condemned; he promised apocalyptic catastrophe for moral and ethical failure, but he still held out the promise for ultimate redemption and renewal. In his remarkable experiment during the Vietnam era with the fluid boundaries between history and the novel in The Armies of the Night, he writes,

America—the land where a new kind of man was born from the idea that God was present in every man not only as compassion but as power, and so the country belonged to the people; for the will of the people—if the locks of their life could be given the art to turn—was then the will of God.

Continuing the history and tradition of the jeremiad, Mailer’s address to America includes multiple references to God, taking the story and meaning of America to a religious and transcendent dimension. The transcendent realm becomes a personal issue of selfhood, responsibility, and fulfillment. Individual and national mission cohere in the quest for transcendent meaning and purpose. The existential imperative of identity and the ethical demand for action and responsibility become matters of the meaning of America. Questions of life and death and right and wrong are felt and lived as part of the personal and national search and hope for redemption. Mailer’s persistent commingling of the ethical and moral imagination with the fulfillment of America’s highest ideals conveys the significance for those in the New Covenant of America’s role in history and world.

In a somewhat similar vein, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow conjectured the possibility that “the future of liberal civilization is bound up with America’s survival.” Writing in the December 1976 ADL Bulletin, he feared that if America failed to live up to this responsibility, “the damage would be universal and irreparable.”

Yezierska, Mailer, and Bellow are just three of a much longer list of Jewish American writers whose conception of their country was fused with moral imperative. American Jews in other spheres contributed similarly to the New Covenant.

William Wyler stands out among the many Jews in film who historically have been as deeply committed as writers to extolling the values and ideals of the New Covenant. One of Hollywood’s legendary directors during the “golden” period of American filmmaking, Wyler can be seen as an avatar of the New Covenant through his response as a director, a man, and a Jew to the momentous events of the twentieth century.

Before America’s entry into the Second World War, Wyler was working on Mrs. Miniver (1942), an uplifting story about a British family during the Battle of Britain. In the film, a Nazi pilot parachutes to safety from his stricken plane. Louis B. Mayer, the Jewish producer of the film and a famous Hollywood mogul, wanted to portray the pilot in a way that wouldn’t offend the film’s potential German market. Wyler refused. Wyler reportedly told Mayer that

if I had several Germans in the picture, I wouldn’t mind having one who was a decent young man. But I’ve only got one German. And if I make this picture, this one German is going to be a typical little Nazi son-of-a- bitch. He’s not going to be a friendly little pilot but one of [Luftwaffe chief Herman] Göring’s monsters.

The Japanese settled the dispute in favor of Wyler with their surprise attack on December 7, 1941.

Soon after America’s entry into the war, Wyler enlisted to become a combat war photographer in the 8th Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Force. After suffering a serious injury during his training, Wyler continued to serve with the Ninety-First Bomb Group, receiving an air medal after his fifth mission as well as ultimately earning the Legion of Merit upon his honorable discharge from the service. During the war, Wyler apparently risked a court-martial for refusing to follow orders to stop flying on air missions because, as a well-known Jew, he undoubtedly would have received horrific treatment from the Nazis if ever taken prisoner. He insisted on “doing what I think is my job” regardless of the possible consequences.

Two incidents during the war dramatically illustrate how Wyler’s visceral feelings about racism and antisemitism influenced his attitude and participation in the war. Like his encounter with Mayer over the portrayal of a Nazi pilot in Mrs. Miniver, these incidents during Wyler’s service demonstrated how the vital issues of the war became for him matters of basic human fairness and justice.

On March 10, 1944, according to Wyler biographer Jan Herman, a tall doorman at the Statler Hotel in Washington, D.C., made the mistake in Wyler’s presence of saying “One of these goddamned Jews” about another man. Wyler immediately struck and knocked the bigger man down. Wyler called the action “a matter of honor,” adding, “What happened is the kind of thing happening in Germany. Without that I wouldn’t be in uniform.”

In another incident reported by Herman, Wyler, while in southern France, witnessed a wounded German colonel demanding to learn the source, presumably the race, of the donor of the blood that was being made available to him as a prisoner. An enraged Wyler reportedly exclaimed, “That’s blood, you bastard! Negro blood! How do you like that, you stinkin’ Nazi?”

Such experiences and incidents provided the perspective, background, and context for the making of the film most often associated with Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives, the story of three returning war veterans and their families. One cast member, Harold Russell, who was not a professional actor, had lost his two hands during war training and played a character named Homer Parrish with the same disability. In one scene, Homer sits at a soda fountain as an unidentified stranger takes a seat at the fountain and obviously notices Homer’s handicap. He and Homer engage in a conversation that quickly grows heated when the man declares “the Germans and the Japs had nothing against us.” He asserts that “the Limeys and the Reds” were America’s actual enemies. He vociferously argues that “we fought the wrong people” after being “deceived” into war “by a bunch of radicals in Washington.” When the man insists that he merely speaks the truth of “plain old-fashioned Americanism,” Homer becomes so incensed that he strikes out with one of his mechanical hands and tears off an American flag insignia from the man’s jacket.

Using Homer Parrish as the center of the scene in the film that portends coming challenges for democracy at home makes a statement in itself. His name intimates his role as a kind of prophetic moral figure for his community. Homer comes to stand on his own as a living democratic principle of the infinite value of ordinary men and women. He speaks for the Homers of the world. He suggests that democracy can survive only by being a democracy for all. He signifies that the struggle for democracy remains a lasting, ongoing battle that must be fought and won on a regular basis as the price for having a living and vibrant democracy.

Wyler, of course, was just one of a myriad of like-minded Jews in the New Covenant in Hollywood, film, the media, and the arts who worked assiduously to propagate and secure social justice, human rights, and democracy in America.

In our time, a new generation of writers, thinkers, artists, and civic leaders in the New Covenant faces a new, perhaps even unprecedented, set of challenges to democratic culture. Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy (2020), Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy (2020), and Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy (2018) reflect on the ongoing assault against liberal democracy. Among so many other authors in the New Covenant, these writers proclaim how anti-democratic and autocratic forces both abroad and in America demean liberal democracy as a way of life.

For many Jewish writers, thinkers, and activists today, the current crises of democracy compel a return to the national covenant and narrative. The return demands a reawakening of the ethical and moral consciousness that provides the foundation for what John Dewey called a “genuine democracy” on multiple cultural “fronts.” As he wrote in 1939,

The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions similar to those which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon The Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is also accordingly here—within ourselves and our institutions.

As in the past, those in the New Covenant today strive to open, expand, and modernize the American idea to provide moral and ethical leadership for the challenges of our own times. The battle between liberal democracy and autocracy creates the scene and atmosphere for a renewal of democratic culture, thought, and life.

Accordingly, Anne Applebaum returns to the inspiring founding words of Puritan leader John Winthrop in 1630 that “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of the world are upon us,” and expounds upon their meaning through the resonances of Ronald Reagan’s addition of the word “shining” to accentuate the meaning of the Puritan sermon for modern times. Applebaum writes,

Reagan’s 1989 “shining city on a hill” speech, remembered as the peak moment of “American greatness” and “American exceptionalist” rhetoric, clearly evoked America’s founding documents and not American geography or race. Reagan called on Americans to unify not around blood and soil but around the Constitution: “As long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours.”

Applebaum categorically rejects what she considers the “deep cynicism” and “nihilism” of a false “form of moral equivalence” that disparages the American story by claiming “democracy is no different, at base, from autocracy.” She considers this argument a self-serving subversion by “authoritarians” of the moral idealism of the American story that gives the American idea its unique meaning in history.

Similarly, Gessen sees a return to the covenant narrative for American renewal as a kind of “reinvention” of the American idea and meaning. She, like Applebaum, returns to first principles to renew the American story: “What undergirds the Congress and the courts, the media and civil society, is the belief that this can be a country of all its people.” She maintains, “Moral aspiration forms the foundation of these institutions.” For Gessen, the means for renewing the moral and ethical basis of the American story becomes a question of language. She wants the recreation in America of “the language of ideals and principles” that can sustain democracy in the engagement with modern autocracy.

In the same vein, Yascha Mounk wants “to forge a new language of inclusive patriotism” that would advance “the ideals of a truly liberal and diverse democracy.” He wants a language for instituting an honest balance between “both the real injustices and the great achievements of liberal democracy.” For Mounk, such a language and balance could solidify the “moral foundation” of America’s democracy.

The search by these public intellectuals for a new language of democracy that can renew the American narrative continues a project that has been at the core of the New Covenant over many generations. They are building on the work of Yezierska, Mailer, and others. For those in the New Covenant today, the language of democracy could structure and propel debate over such issues as human rights and civil rights, reparations, sustainability and the environment, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and the battle against domestic and international poverty. The New Covenant today must find the language to articulate the drive for equality, justice, and freedom as both a continuity through history and a re-founding of the American idea and story. Such a language for a modern democratic society could inspire a meaningful challenge to the “lure” of autocracy and authoritarianism with the promise of the possibility for new beginnings. A renewed language of democracy could help regenerate America as “a light unto the nations,” a beacon in advancing liberal democracy at home and abroad.

The legion participants in the New Covenant today are a diverse and dynamic group from all parts of America and from all areas of public and private life. They vary dramatically in their religious commitment and practice and are divided over Israel, with some promoting absolute support of Israel while others feel less supportive or even sharply critical of Israeli leaders and policies. The differences in their politics reflect similar differences in the general population. They are liberals, conservatives, progressives, and centrists. They represent all ages and lifestyles. Together they sustain the New Covenant as Jews who see their identity, their lives, and the lives of their loved ones as inextricably enmeshed in the American experience and idea.

Throughout our history, adherents to the New Covenant have noted that antisemitism and democracy tend to function in an inverse relationship so that as one grows stronger the other weakens. A healthy and strong liberal democracy helps to make America a secure home for Jews. At the same time, the New Covenant also speaks and fights for the inclusion of millions of others in the American story. Thus today, the sharp rise of antisemitic crimes and violence motivates many New Covenant proponents to rededicate themselves to strengthening democracy by telling the American story as a drama of the struggle to secure and advance the ideals and values of the American idea. They seek to reverse the dimming of democracy wherever and whenever it occurs.

Jon Meacham defined the “the soul of America” as the opening of the heart and spirit to others:

In our finest hours . . . the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than to reject. In so doing, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.

The writers, artists, intellectuals, and activists of the New Covenant would surely agree. Meacham’s message of moral courage, brilliant hope, and heart-felt compassion also speaks to the Jewish immigrant experience of a lost people who came to America as “strangers in the land” to find new purpose and meaning in the American experience. For centuries, the New Covenant has been a project for the continual re-founding of America through the renewal and expansion of the American story. Over the generations, the New Covenant has worked to revivify and modernize the American idea as forces and instruments for the broadening and deepening of American democracy to preserve, protect, and propagate the moral basis of the American idea for their own times and for future generations on their own American journeys.

Sam B. Girgus

Sam B. Girgus is a retired professor of English and American Studies who has taught at the Universities of New Mexico, Alabama, and Oregon and Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is Generations of Jewish Directors and the Struggle for America’s Soul.