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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Weathering the storm

Daniel Gordis has a thought provoking essay on the need for American Jewish support for Israel and how to keep it. I suggest that you read the whole thing, but I'd like to highlight a couple of points and make a couple of comments.
The evidence is virtually limitless. We’re witness to a tectonic shift in American Jewish life, but many people would rather ignore it than face the serious work that lies ahead. Thus, when I pointed out (“If this is our future,” Jerusalem Post, May 7) that following Brandeis University’s invitation to Ambassador Michael Oren to be its commencement speaker, the public discourse was captured by those opposed to his invitation, some people responded by pointing out the (obvious) fact that many Brandeis students (and probably the majority) supported the invitation. A petition in favor, signed by 5,000 people, was also reported. And a small number of articles in the Brandeis paper, opined one faculty person in a response to the Post, ought not be taken out of context. “Imagine someone telling you it’s pouring rain outside and you stick your head out the window and see there are just a couple of clouds in the sky,” he wrote.

But what we’re facing would be “just a couple of clouds in the sky” if the story that mattered was about Brandeis, which it obviously is not. Everyone knows that Jewish life on campus doesn’t get better than Jewish life at Brandeis. So why pretend that Brandeis is the issue? What is significant is that even at Brandeis, one of the crown jewels of American Jewish academe, as of the publication of my previous column, there had been four pieces in the student newspaper about the Oren invitation. The Justice’s official editorial and the head of the campus J Street chapter weighed in opposed. So, too, did a member of the computer science faculty. And a student representative to the Board of Trustees aimed to defend the invite by suggesting that Oren was being asked to campus not as a representative of the State of Israel, but as an academic.

WHY DOES any of this matter? Because in not one of these pieces did any of the four writers have a single positive thing to say about Israel. That, not Brandeis, is the story.
He's right, but I don't believe the shift in American Jewish thinking is limited to Israel. What we're really seeing - in the long run - is the separation of American Conservative and Reform Jews from Orthodox Jews. This has been a long time in coming.

Survey after survey shows that Conservative and Reform Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic and place Israel far down on their priority list. Orthodox Jews are voting more and more Republican and tend to place Israel as a much higher priority even if they won't consider living there ('parnassa' - making a living - 'you know'). I'm not sure there's much we can do to stop the coming fissure among American Jews.

From a political standpoint, I would argue (and have argued) that Israel doesn't need the support of the American Jewish community, because the Christians support us and that is more than enough. But the Christian support is not guaranteed. And the implications of Israel losing the political support of the American Jewish community go far beyond the political.

What we're witnessing is a fissure within the American Jewish community. It's not just about Israel. It's about all the people who would rather that their kids intermarry than become Orthodox. In a way, this was almost to be expected. Throughout Jewish history, those movements that varied from the Torah as taught by the rabbis have been destined to leave the Jewish people altogether. The Karaites, the Sadducees, the followers of Shabtai Zvi - they all disappeared or assimilated into the surrounding non-Jews. Are Conservative and Reform Jews in the US (where they are a much greater percentage of the population of Jews than anyplace else in the World) headed in the same direction? And by the way, how many Halachic (under Orthodox Jewish law) non-Jews are being counted in all the surveys that show declining support for Israel among American Jews?
To me it seems patently obvious that the secure, confident and creative Diaspora community that many American Jews now take for granted is directly dependent on a vital and flourishing State of Israel. Today’s young American Jewish leaders can neither recall nor imagine the days in which Jews hesitated to march on Capitol Hill, or the days in which one could not get a job on Wall Street wearing a kippa. That confidence is the product of Israel, and of the formative experiences that many American Jewish leaders have had in the Jewish state. The image of the Jew, no longer one of victim, but of utter confidence, was born in June 1967. In Israel.

Though many will disagree, it seems equally clear to me that were the State of Israel to be vanquished, the vibrant American Jewish life that we now too easily take for granted would wither away within a generation. And if that were to happen, the two great centers of world Jewry – Israel and America – would each essentially be gone.
I believe that a vital and flourishing State of Israel is a tremendous help to the American Jewish community. But I don't believe that American Jews would necessarily stop marching on Capitol Hill or stop wearing kippot to work on Wall Street (which you couldn't do on Wall Street when I got out of law school in 1984) if God forbid Israel ceased to exist. And I don't believe Jewish life in the US would wither away within a generation. But I do believe that Israel's disappearance - God forbid - would accelerate the creation of a chasm between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox streams. Quite simply, to the extent that they agree on support for Israel, it's often the only thing on which they agree. I also believe that by the time my and Gordis' generation reach our eternal resting places, either the problem will be solved or it will be unsolvable (Gordis is two years younger than I am). We are members of the last generation in which non-Orthodox American Jews instinctively support Israel. Perhaps that's because we do remember 1967.
And I believe that Israel’s military might, cultural flourishing, strength of spirit and more, important though they all are, are not sufficient to sustain the country. America’s support – financial, military and in the increasingly hostile court of international public opinion – is critical. Yet that support would be much endangered without an American Jewish leadership that instinctively feels deeply connected to Israel, that doesn’t ask, “What does any of this have to do with us?”

Today, we have that leadership. But the future is not as secure as many would like to believe. Nor is that future very far away.
I agree with everything he writes here except that I am not sure that Israel cannot obtain that support without an American Jewish leadership that instinctively feels deeply connected to Israel. And I think that Israel ought to be preparing itself for the day when that type of American Jewish leadership is not there. That day seems to be coming.

Read the whole thing.


At 12:05 PM, Blogger Y.K. said...

"And I believe that Israel’s military might, cultural flourishing, strength of spirit and more, important though they all are,are not sufficient to sustain the country. America’s support... is critical."

This sentiment was used by some to justify dangerous concessions, but I'm sure it's wrong. Israel managed to do well up to 1967 without American support, and it can do better now that it's a stronger country.

Relying on America is a mistake - it has an horrible record of standing by allies, and it can always change its policy on a whim every four years. We must stand on our own feet.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Israel needs to rely on G-d. That's going to be another sign of the chasm between Israel and liberalism, the latter which opposes any manifestation of public faith. Ironically enough, the secular nature of Israel's founding only underscores how profound that shift will be. When you have secular Israeli Jews like Michael Freund on the Right, talk about greater reliance on Heaven, Israeli Jews and American Jews are already headed for a divorce. The only question left is whether that divorce will be traumatic or amicable.


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