Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Boker tov, 'Economist'

Modern Jews have been examining
"what it means to be Jewish"
since the Enlightenment

Here's one version of reality: Once upon a time, "being a potential Israeli citizen" was the "anchor" for "what it means to be a Jew." But now, "as the threat of genocide or of Israel's destruction has receded, a growing number of diaspora Jews neither feel comfortable with always standing up for Israel, nor feel a need to invoke Israel in defining what makes them Jewish."

Big Jewish organizations "have not caught up" with this reality and often lobby not so much for Israel as its "right-wing political establishment."

This "tendency to stand by Israel right or wrong" especially over its policies in the "occupied territories" is hardly any incentive for keeping Diaspora youth from "leaving the faith." Indeed, while some youth find "defending Israel uncritically" "distasteful," "others simply find Israel irrelevant."

That's how last week's Economist (January 13-19) evaluated "The state of the Jews" in an editorial entitled "Diaspora blues."

In a further three-page inside feature, Economist editors concluded: "Jews around the world are gradually ceasing to regard Israel as a focal point. As a result, many are re-examining what it means to be Jewish."

I'LL COME back to how long Jews have been "re-examining what it means to be Jewish" later. Suffice it to say that the constant redefining of Jewishness is part and parcel of what modern Jewish life is about. But I'll grant that pro-Israelism as a touchstone of Jewish identity is on the wane. The pro-Israel phenomenon began only after the 1967 war, coincided with the freedom for Soviet Jewry movement, and is now dissipating.

If, however, Economist editors really think that millions of well-heeled Diaspora Jews once held visions of becoming "Israeli citizens," they are less sagacious than I imagined.

I've got more news for The Economist: Dissociating Diaspora Jews from Israel's policies in the "occupied territories" goes back almost to their 1967 capture. The Diaspora establishment never embraced the idea of Jewish sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and Gaza. And the record shows that Jewish machers have never hesitated to criticize Israel - not even back when Golda Meir was premier.

Take Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who was chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations until just after the Six Day War. He championed a Jewish "declaration of political independence" from Israel. And as early as December 1967, left-wing critics were calling on Jerusalem to trade land - not for peace, but for free navigation through the Suez Canal.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, heavy-hitters such as the World Jewish Congress's Nachum Goldmann and Philip Klutznick were habitually critical of Israeli policies. And by the time Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977, up and down the Jewish mainstream toeing the Israeli line was the exception, not the rule.

As for non-establishment groups on the Jewish Left, they had been "re-defining" what it meant to be pro-Israel from at least the 1970s. For instance, Breira, founded in 1973, supported unconditional inclusion of the pre-Oslo PLO in the diplomatic process. Before Breira there was the Radical Zionist Alliance, and after Breira came the New Jewish Agenda.

So The Economist is wrong in promulgating the idea that to be a critic of Israel in the Diaspora is somehow avant garde.

THE NEWSPAPER - it doesn't like being called a magazine - is also mistaken in insinuating that threats to Israel have receded. Show me a kindergarten, bus line, cafe or mall that - embracing The Economist's sense of serenity - has removed its armed guards.

The Economist says that "the threat [to Israel] of genocide... has receded." Really. Does the name Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ring a bell? And the last time I checked, the best offer we were getting from Hamas was a 10-year truce, conditioned on a pullback to the 1949 armistice lines, and on opening our doors to millions of "refugees" (and their descendents) "returning" to our truncated state.

What about Fatah's more moderate Mahmoud Abbas? From where I sit, he and Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh seem to disagree more over means than ends (see, for instance, Abbas's January 11 speech in Ramallah).

YET WHILE its editorial is way off the mark, the inside feature, "Second thoughts about the Holy Land" provides an informative, albeit tendentious, summary of Israel-Diaspora relations.
The paper, not known for its Zionist sympathies, seems to revel in highlighting the chasms between the Diaspora and Israel. Nevertheless, it has pulled together all the right data, such as a study (several years old) showing that "only 57%" of American Jews say Israel is "very important" to their Jewish identity. It correctly points to the senseless cleavages created by our narrow-minded Orthodox establishment in their condescending attitude toward the world's pluralistic Jewish majority; it correctly notes that being Jewish is, for many young people in the West, only one part of their multifaceted identities; and it draws attention to the welcome revival - quite unconnected to the Zionist enterprise - of Jewish life in such places as Moscow, Berlin and LA.

It belatedly discovers that young people are finding new, non-Zionist ways of "doing Jewish" such as the fine tikkun olam work of The American Jewish World Service.

To its credit, while The Economist may delight in Israel's discomfiture, it reasonably acknowledges that a "fruitful fusion" between Zion and the Diaspora is the best hope for both.

BACK WHEN I was in college, I was assigned a book of essays edited in 1971 by James A. Sleeper and Alan L. Mintz and entitled The New Jews. So I was intrigued to see The Economist cite a recent work with a similar title in arguing its thesis. New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer rejects the very idea of a "diaspora" with Israel at the core. At first blush this sounds radical - even anti-Zionist. After all, what are we Jews absent the covenant idea of a shared past, a blueprint for the future, and Israel at the center?

That may be my ideal, but in practice modern Jews have been "redefining" what it means to be Jewish since the Enlightenment in the 1700s. If anything, the destruction of European Jewry between 1933 and 1945, the subsequent birth of Israel, and the growth of a heterogeneous, acculturated Diaspora in the West has only served to accelerate the debate over "Who is a Jew" and "what it means to be Jewish" into the 21st century.

In an exchange of e-mails, Caryn Aviv, a lecturer at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, and David Shneer, director of the center, write that Israel radically changed the way Jews identify, both as individuals and as a collective. "The legacy of Zionism cannot be ignored in Jewish life today. But neither is Israel necessarily the center of all things Jewish today for all Jews." Israel, they say, is but one of a number of cultural centers reflecting the diversity of Jewish life.

How relevant is Israel to your own lives?
Israel is deeply relevant - as are other Jewish centers around the world. We both spend time each year in Israel. Aviv has lived in Jerusalem. And we each subscribe to the JTA Daily News Bulletin - though we wish it had more news about global Jewish communities and less about the "crisis in the Middle East."

You've suggested that maybe in 10 years' time there could be a sort of "birthright" to take Diaspora youth to Vilnius to study Yiddish, or Prague to study art...
Why not? These places might be just as effective and compelling to engage young Jews, the way birthright Israel has tried to cultivate a connection to Israel.

How do you assess 'The Economist's' contention that Jews around the world are ceasing to regard Israel as a focal point?
Our book argues along a similar line, although we'd say that Israel is becoming one of many centers on a global Jewish map. It is interesting to us that our somewhat radical rethinking of the global Jewish map that discards the concept of diaspora encourages people to think that we're anti-Zionist, which our responses hopefully suggest we're not.

We're also not in the mainstream, which still holds onto the notion that there are Israeli Jews and everyone else is a diaspora Jew, rather than seeing all Jews as global.

What of the dangers Israel faces?
Sure we see the dangers, but our book is about global Jewish life and the multiple ways Jews live it. Focusing on anxiety about existential threats that Israel faces often obscures other important issues within Israel, not to mention important stories about the resilience and vibrancy of Jewish life in lots of other places.

Anyway, your presumption is that championing Israel should come first. But the reality is that it's a balancing act - for some Israel is indeed a high priority, but for a larger group it's not. We don't see that as a problem.

You Israelis need to focus on finding long-term solutions to your problems, and US Jews who are invested in Israel can help. At the same time, we Jews would be smart and strategic to focus on nurturing and sustaining our own communities.

Does the relationship have to be either, or?
Absolutely not. Jews should, can, and do support thriving Jewish communities around the world, including in Israel. We argue that by imagining a global, rather than "diasporic" Jewish world, all Jews benefit. Philanthropy, people, and ideas should be flowing in many different directions.

You've posed the rhetorical question: What does a middle-class professional, secular Jew in LA have in common with a working-class Sephardi Orthodox Jew in Bnei Brak? And your answer is...
That by self-defining as Jews they opt into a common past and heritage (though each would also have her own) which can - but does not always - create an imagined bond between them.
Sure, in terms of practices, beliefs, cultures we find little in common between the two. And we think this condition (which isn't anything new) is okay; that Jews will survive and thrive even if those two imagined Jews have little in common.

PERSONALLY, I'm not sanguine, much less laudatory, about a Jewish world in which Israel is not the cultural, spiritual and political hub, and where two imagined Jews who each think of themselves as Jews have so little in common. But I see all this grappling with identity, alienation, faith and the Israel-Diaspora relationship as part of a continuing process that is "good for the Jews," keeping us from becoming stultified.

Where The Economist sees "Diaspora blues," I see an ancient and stiff-necked people struggling not just with God, but with itself.

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