Monday, May 17, 2010

A Growing Rift in the Jewish World?

Boaz Neumann teaches history at Tel Aviv University. His political positions have been at the very edge of Israel's radical Left, the camp which can find nothing positive to say about Israel and empathizes endlessly with its downtrodden Palestinian victims. That was then.

In a recent edition of Eretz Acheret, a popular journal of political matters, (March 2010), the editor Bambi Sheleg presented the theme of the month: Since Israelis are arguing ever less about issues they used to find crucial, it's time for this journal to see if we can't encourage more discussion. One of the articles she published was by Boaz Neumann, in which he described the intellectual path he took back to Zionism.

It's a fascinating article (alas, mostly not online). The author admits what the rest of us know, that the anti-Zionist Israelis are profoundly dishonest about the situation we live in, amplifying Israel's sins beyond any plausibility, rejecting the parts of the story where Israel does anything right, and with a determined blindness to the misdeeds of the Palestinians. I've been told he's part of a growing trend, in which intellectuals of the far Left re-examine their positions, recognize their moral and intellectual dishonesty, and rejoin the national community even while retaining a reasonable recognition of Israel's wrongs. Since the camp he came from was never more than minuscule, such a depletion in numbers and intellectual firepower is significant.

Now, compare that with this:
Since the 1990s, journalists and scholars have been describing a bifurcation in Israeli society. In the words of Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, “After decades of what came to be called a national consensus, the Zionist narrative of liberation [has] dissolved into openly contesting versions.” One version, “founded on a long memory of persecution, genocide, and a bitter struggle for survival, is pessimistic, distrustful of non-Jews, and believing only in Jewish power and solidarity.” Another, “nourished by secularized versions of messianism as well as the Enlightenment idea of progress,” articulates “a deep sense of the limits of military force, and a commitment to liberal-democratic values.” Every country manifests some kind of ideological divide. But in contemporary Israel, the gulf is among the widest on earth. [My italics]
Israelis who read the foreign press often have a surreal feeling: the reports purport to be about us, but there's nothing in them that seems even remotely familiar. So also with Peter Beinart's recent article in the New York Review of Books, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, from which that paragraph is lifted. He's got a number of themes, but his main argument, if I'm reading him correctly, is that Israel is splitting into two warring camps, one of which is ghastly but slowly winning; that young American Jews (unless they're orthodox) can no longer reconcile their liberalism with Israel's actions and thus are drifting away; and that this is a colossal failure of the leadership of American Jewry (AIPAC et. al.) who fail to confront Israel, allowing it to continue it's downward spiral and alienating America's young Jews.

Jeffrey Goldberg seems poised to argue with Beinart, here, here and perhaps with more to come. I generally appreciate Jeffrey's centrist line of relating to Israel, but if he's going to argue with Beinart about the fact of dwindling support for Israel, I'll have to disagree. The problem with Beinart's article is not that he's talking about an Israel which doesn't exist, though he does, nor that he blames America's Jewish establishment for a failure of the community at large, though he does that, too. The problem with Beinart's article is that he's right about America's Jews, but for the wrong reason.

It's not a growing disenchantment with Israel among young American Jews. It's a dwindling Jewishness. Over the past 65 years a majority of the world's Jews with the exception of the American ones have returned to their homeland. They have returned to the ancestral language. They have created a multi-faceted, complex and extraordinarily rich Jewish culture, such as has not been seen since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. They have built a vibrant democracy (and no, it's not under attack), a miraculous economy, and even the secular ones among them have a birthrate well above that of practically all rich societies: Israelis are optimistic about the future and wish to raise children into it. There's also the matter of a century of war, and of course the thousands of things that still need fixing - along with the expectation, based on experience, that many will indeed be fixed.

America's Jews can't be bothered. Three out of four have never visited Israel. Only a small minority make the effort to learn Hebrew. Few try, even without the language, to figure out what Israel is about.

I've long since grown out of the sophomoric Zionism that expects all Jews to pack up and come to Israel. Yet I can't help wondering what sort of Judaism it is that can't be bothered with the most important development in Jewish history in two thousand years, one that was always the central dream.

Back in the 1970s there was discussion in Israel about how America's Jews would soon disappear because of their high rate of marriage out of the fold. For various reasons this theme was then muted, one being the feeling that it was counterproductive, another being the impression that maybe it wasn't happening. 35 years later, sad to say, it is coming to pass, even if in a different form. There are still plenty of Jews in America, but it's not clear what their Jewishness means. Since they aren't very Jewish, it's not all that surprising that they don't have much affinity for Israel; this has nothing to do with AIPAC or the Conference of Presidents.

Before I sign off, a number of quick comments to the article.

1. According to all polls and every electoral result since the 1990s, a majority of Israelis would love to have a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel. Not that you'd ever know it from this article.
2. Prof. Beinart seems to think that if AIPAC et. al would confront Israelis about their anti-humanistic ways, the Israelis would change. I disagree that America's Jews have much to teach Israelis on these matters; most of us understand them in their full complexity in ways America's Jews never will.
3. It's also puzzling that he seems to think most Israelis would listen. I doubt they would. Israelis are sovereign, and make their own decisions, right and wrong. Distant Jews (two meanings) aren't really part of the discussion.
4. Beinart himself seems an interesting fellow, with children in orthodox schools if I'm reading him correctly. All the more peculiar that his description shows so little understanding of Israeli society.
5. Not long ago I wrote about how internal Israeli discussions in Hebrew take on dramatically different meanings when translated into English. Beinart's article fits neatly into the model.


Anonymous said...

Young people of the 21st century seem to have no sense for the volatility of everything just as non-war "educated" people had no sense for it in the 20th century.
(hopefully Rob/Didi? doesn't catch me out on not sharing his view that the 21sters are infinitely superior to the at best outdated 20iers. )

If all those reports about dwindling interest are correct then they are indifferent to one of the best things to be had i.e. dual citizenship. I find it hard to believe that they should either not care or think something great like that is for free.

(how did we tremble with our Turkish colleague that she would manage to get her German passport while keeping her Turkish citizenship just in time before the law changed.)

This Is Hell said...

Then by all means erect scholarships to send them cost free to Yemen or Iran or Syria; like a Birthright program for useful idiots.

ShrinkWrapped said...

It is true that half of American Jews are determinedly secular just as many Israeli Jews are secular. In a Jewish state, being secular does not detract from your Jewishness; obviously in America, to be secular tends to mean the adoption of a less conspicuously religious religion, which for most Jews is Liberalism and the Democratic party. It is no surprise that observant Jews are moving toward the Republican party. Further, observant Jews are having many more children than secular Jews. Maybe it is the Millenialist in me, but I think we are far safer having more than one large and extant Jewish population. I worry what would happen were the US to abandon Israel. (And please note that last week a poll was published showing that although 78% of American Jews voted for Obama, now only 42% would, while 46% would vote for his opponent proving that even politically blind Jews can eventually come to their senses.) Observant Judaism (not just Orthodox) in America is thriving; our children are having children (the most overt evidence of optimism a people can exhibit) and American Jews will not soon disappear from the scene.

NormanF said...

The point is the Disapora is vanishing... the remaining Jews in Europe will soon go to Israel. American Jewry will die out... and the only Jewish life remaining will be found in Israel. Zionism will have reached its promised fulfillment after all.There is no longer survival or safety for the Jews abroad.

Victor said...

I read the NYRB article and went straight to you to see if you had some thoughts. Lo and behold...

I don't know if you've ever read Sharansky, Yaacov, but something he wrote once stuck with me. Paraphrasing, when he is in the Diaspora, he feels Israeli, when he is in Israel, he feels Diasporist.

Is there apathy about Yiddishkeit in the US? Yes, but guess what, there are plenty of Israeli Jews who think living in Israel IS Yiddishkeit. Jewish life is thriving in Jerusalem and in Kamchatka and, yes, even in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and it can and should grow, from strength to strength, no matter where it is.

The Diaspora needs Israel, and Israel needs the Diaspora. Don't let the "regionalists" push us into corners.

Victor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Victor said...


I respect your opinion, but it flies contrary to all the facts at my disposal. There are new Jewish communities being created in Siberia, in India, in Africa... I'll point to Chabad's activities in particular, because I am best acquainted with them, but look at Aish, look at the Satmars, look at Ohr Hatorah. Everyone is growing.

A few years ago, a friend of a friend, a newly minted Chabad Rabbi, opened a Chabad House in the British Virgin Islands. I had several long conversations with him before he left. He told me where he really wanted to go at first was Dubai, but it's just not ready yet, but soon it will be. Can you imagine? A Chabad House in Dubai?!

The Diaspora is not dying, it's changing. Jews committed to being Jews will remain Jews, and they will help many other Jews who vacillate in their commitment from time to time. None of us can ride the coattails of Jewish innertia. It takes work to be a Jew in the modern world, but so what? It takes work to be anything in this world. As a friend of mine once told me, no one gave you permission for pessimism.

Rabbi Tony Jutner said...

All of the above comments are incorrect. American Jews are rapidly leaving the tribal, land based Judaism of primitive ancestors and getting behind NewJudaism. NewJudaism defies ancient atavistic totems and calls for economic justice, including the rectification of earlier conquests. That is why we oppose the racist laws in Arizona, because we stole from Mexico in the 1840s and we have to give back. Similarly, israel stole in the 1940s and also has to give back, especially in the right of return. American Jews, thru the vision of NewJudaism, are evolving to a borderless world, where notions of "israel" and "Jewish state" are irrelevant. If you want to ghettoize yourself in the future, you can live in Greenland (as long as you dont cause too much glacial melting) from your chulent

Victor said...

Tony, I don't think you've met that many American Jews. I really encourage you to pierce through the dark and dreary ghetto of your mind. Even young Reform Jews are starting to wear tzitzis and wrap tefillin.

Go back to your NewJerusalem of San Francisco where your neanderthal 20th century panacea of Jewish assimilationism still has a home. One of these days a Chabad bocher old enough to be your grandson will make you into a mitzvah boy. Until then...

Anonymous said...

"Rabbi Tony"

Are you joking?


Sylvia said...

"we stole from Mexico in the 1840s and we have to give back. Similarly, israel stole in the 1940s and also has to give back,"
And why stop in the 19th century? How about America and Canada stealing from the native Indians? And how about giving back to their native populations the 56 countries stolen by the Muslim of Arabia from the Kurds, the Berbers,etc. Where does that stop, "Rabbi"?

Love of the Land said...

An excellent rumination. I suspect what bothers me about this is that it has come up a number of times recently, and it is an unpleasant feeling to watch an entire portion of the Jewish people just drift away. Good encapsulation of the process.

Christian Zionist said...

Tony Juttner isn't Jewish. His religion is loony-left liberalism, an ideology inimical to Jewish survival.

Joe in Australia said...

Victor, I think we're seeing two things. One is the disappearance of vast swathes of American jewry. The other is re-formation of American Orthodox communities around inspirational leaders - whether they're Hassidic rabbis, Aish appointees, or just charismatic pulpit rabbis.

If you travel in the South you will find town after town that once supported a Jewish community. Almost all of them are gone, and few of the ones that survive can be expected to last. I recall visiting a synagogue in New Orleans once that had an enclave lined with plaques. They were the foundation stones of perhaps twenty-odd institutions that had merged, one with the other, to eventually become this last synagogue. The names sounded like something from a Yiddish novel of the last century: the Chevra Tehillim, Chevra Mishnayos, Bikur Cholim Society, Anshei here and Anshei there, you name it. They were all gone, only this one synagogue remained. It didn't reliably get a minyan on Shabbos mornings.

Yes, a lot of kids are becoming more religious - but they're mostly the ones who strongly identified as Jews. The vast majority of Jews have only a weak affiliation, and their children or grandchildren will probably have none at all.

Irritating said...

Pessimism for the Jewish community in the USA seems unfounded. To me, they have never been stronger and their influence more felt.

As to the unnatural concentration of extreme anarchist lefties amongst Israel's academia especially Tel Aviv university, this is an aberration more noticeable because of the Bibi government. (Extreme lefties seem to have great difficulty when people don't agree with them.)

Let us hope that Boaz Neumann is not alone in recognising the errors of his (previous) ways.

Victor said...


I have seen similar things in Wisconsin. There used to be Jewish communities scattered throughout this once German-immigrant dominated state. Over the last 50 years, the Jews have moved to the cities. In places like Green Bay, home of the Packers football team, which just 30 years ago had half a dozen thriving synagogues, there is just one left.

What's striking is that when you talk to the older Jews who have remained there, they can't understand why their kids are intermarried. After all, they gave them a good Hebrew school education, they made the synagogue egalitarian and incorporated a lot of modern liberal practices to keep things fresh and edgy, they did all the tikkun olam stuff. This isn't a knock on Reform, but the results speak for themselves.

The worst part is that they think it's natural that all their kids are intermarrying. I went up to Green Bay with a dozen young Jews for a Shabbaton last summer, all of us in various stages of connecting more deeply with Yiddishkeit, and the "natives" were shocked that young Jews would choose to be more involved in Jewish tradition.

That said, there is a kosher meat plant up there, Star K, and I can say that a healthy Jewish community is growing around it and having tons of kids. In another 50 years, half a dozen synagogues won't be enough.

What's important is that we've survived modernism. It wasn't at all clear when the ghetto walls came down in 1800 if any Jews would be left in 200 years to learn Talmud. Now we have a choice, and we've managed to be both modern and Jews. Even the Reform movement has turned back to Jewish ritual, which is a stunning turnaround.

We can't control what has happened, but we can make a personal choice to do a little more today than yesterday, including looking out for Jews who didn't have the benefit even of our limited Jewish education.

Barry Meislin said...

Maybe the anti-Semites will help us out.


Hey, maybe they're already helping us out?....

(Or at least, doing their darnedest....)

bataween said...

With reference to anti-Zionist leftists returning to the Zionist fold, Alexander Jacobson in Haaretz wrote a ringing endorsement of Zionism's role as equaliser of Ashkenazim and Sephardim. He comments that the anti-Zionist far left is overwhelmingly elitist Ashkenazi
I would hesitate to leap into the discussion about American Jews, where your other commenters are farmore knowledgeable than me, but it seems to me that as Conservative and Reform Jews they mostly regard themselves as Americans of the Jewish religion. Let's face it, Israel has primarily attracted Jews in distress - and and never successfully drawn the Jews of the comfortable West in any great numbers.

Insufferingly said...

Bataween. Nothing in HaAretz is to be taken at face value. I read this morning 'Quatar suggested renewing relations - israel refused'. That was the headline of the article. In the text it said that Quatar wants to rebuild some parts of Gaza and Israel has blocked her which is quite different from what the headline says. Now. I would have no problem with Quatar whom I feel that I can trust not to build Hamas bunkers but presumably, Bibi/Lieberman have objections.

Obviously I didn't vote for Bibi but I do accept their democratic right to decide for Israel.

Point being that sadly, anything that I read in HaAretz has become suspect as anything that the UK Guardian prints is suspect. They have both mixed opinion up with cherry-picked facts and are simply manipulating the readers mind.

What is called a 'mind-fuck' amongst more down to earth people.

Very sad for me. Over the past few years, I have become very sensitised to the narrative of the extreme disassociated looney left and it is flooding into HaAretz.

Anonymous said...

"Rabbi" Jutner

what do you propose to do with the 57.600 Greenlanders who presumably own their land and want to hold on to it just as much as any folks anywhere?
By which I want to make the point that before anything else your thinking and your argument is extremely shoddy on facts.

Barry Meislin said...

Indeed, one wonders to what extent, if any, Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, et amis, have contributed to Professor Neumann's "conversion".

I'm inclined to believe quite a bit (but maybe that's just me); in which case, the land of Israel (Haaretz?) is further indebted to these paragons of confabulation (and promoters of Zionism).

Anonymous said...

from what I've read this morning this whole Peter Beinart ruckus is an attempt of journalists to cash in on the Walt/Mearsheimer franchise under the guise of we are the liberals we are the good ones.

Decently paid jobs presumably becoming a rarety for the profession these days they seem more and more willing to grab anything, throwing around categorizations by "isms" with such abundance that I get serious attacks of vertigo within the first half of a first paragraph.

which for me proves that if the going gets rough decent standards of professional behaviour become a discardable encumbrance in no time whatsoever and mercenary-ianism;) becomes de rigeur.

(as I observe it, first they sacked the language watchers, then disgusting holocaust metaphors proliferated now they go for softed M&W ?)

Jeffrey Goldberg has a reader response posted from a David Marks - compare the fresh-air like saneness of it to the hypocrite lamentations of others. No watching with one eye his rating or hits in that one.


Anonymous said...

As an American Jew (living in Flatbush and thinking about world peace ;-) ), here are my $0.02:

The non-Orthodox manifestations of Jewishness here in the US have failed to produce, for the most part, lasting communities. As a disgruntled member of Orthodoxy, one of the main things that keeps me here is the people whom I have shared my life with. And I know, if I were to move to another location, I will find another Orthodox community, that will take me in, and provide that same support, friendships, and rhythm of time.

I think the lack of this in the other U.S. Jewish experiences is what results in the bleeding of Jews into our larger culture.

I haven't read everyone else's comments, yet. It is (as we say here) erev yuntif, and I must run. Have a wonderful Shavuot for those celebrating.


AKUS said...

"the camp which can find nothing positive to say about Israel and empathizes endlessly with its downtrodden Palestinian victims"

What puzzles me is why people with those views insist on continuing to live in Israel.

Its also true the small tribe of young British know-it-alls who inhabit the "Comment is Free" site (Freedmen, Shabi, Stein) or the washed up Israeli academics trying to capture a moment of glory by calling for a boycott of Israel there (Gordon et al)who hate everything about Israel but insist in living there.

There some others I stumble across occasionally who seem to deplane at BG with a laptop in hand and before they've passed immigration are blogging away, sharing their profound "knowledge" of Israel and all its faults with a select group of about 3 other readers - why don't they just get back on board an fly back to the UK, volcanic ash cloud permitting?

AKUS said...

By the way, Beinart's article was commented upon by Michael Tomasky at the Guardian in an anti-Israeli article attacking AIPAC:

I'd say he's changed all right

The article by Beinart referenced Tommy Lapid's experience relating to an old Palestinian woman who reminded him his grandmother who died at Auschwitz. Tomasky, of course, couldn't resist citing that portion of the article, which was immediately picked up by someone with the moniker "Bluthner", one of the gang of anti-Semites who flock to the Guardian's web-site:


18 May 2010, 3:00PM


How ironic that you should say that. Obviously she did not die for any cause at all, on her own part. What Kaufman, and Judt, and many other people, Jewish and gentle, are saying is that the Nazi atrocities DO NOT justify ANYTHING done by Israel. That to believe that Nazi atrocities justify crimes against Palestinians is the worst, and most tragic, category error. He does NOT want her death used to provide cover for ANYTHING done by Israeli soldiers.

So there you have it - from Beinart to Tomasky, to Israelis claiming that the Holocaust justifies "crimes against the Palestinians" in three easy jumps.

Lee Ratner said...

Akus: Perhaps they can't get a visa to live elsewhere.

After all, Israel is the only state that lets most Jews live unconditionally in it.

Anonymous said...

after having read Part I and II of Jeffrey Goldberg's e-mail exchange with Peter Beinart I feel willing to like Jeffrey Goldberg again.
Peter Beinart is a different case, I'll wait until somebody does a detailed fisking of the NYbooks piece like Gabriel Schoenfeld did with the M&W piece at Commentary but until then it is soft-rinsed or PC or whatever M&W for me.

To satisfy my malicious yearnings in the meantime I cherish the coincidence that the original M&W piece was written for the Atlantic, which refused to publish, so M&W turned to the London Review of Books (before they published on the uni-website). Peter Beinart's piece was meant for the New York Times which didn't take it and so ended up in the New York Review of Books.
Hony soit ...

also I remember that after the M&W piece there was a lot of hemming and hawing affirming the right to criticize which made me scratch my head quite a bit until Gabriel Schoenfeld and others came along and I felt re-assured that my gut-reaction that I had read a modernized PC-ed version of the protocols hadn't been gaga.