What is a Symposium?
The feature that dominates this issue of Commentary is part of a tradition dating back to the magazine’s first year. Commentary is a traditionalist publication, and one of its enduring traditions is the Commentary Symposium, in which its editors ask a substantial number of prominent and thoughtful people at a moment of profound intellectual, political, or historical change to ratiocinate on the meaning of the moment.
The first Commentary Symposium, in July 1946, was the only lighthearted one ever to appear in these pages, and it came in response to an earlier article by Ruth Glazer on the subject of the Jewish delicatessen. “A friend gave me Ruth Glazer’s article on Jewish delicatessen to read. It was an unfriendly and cruel thing to do: I am on a reducing diet,” wrote one of its nine contributors, Orson Welles, in his only Commentary appearance. “We get a good deal of Jewish delicatessen in Hollywood. Without pastrami sandwiches there could be no picture-making.?.?.?.?My view on Jewish delicatessen in general is that it is far too good for the goyim, and the Jews are fools not to keep it to themselves.”
Through the years, the Commentary Symposia have taken up such subjects as “The Jewish Writer and the English Literary Tradition” (September 1949), “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited” (September 1967), and the general condition of the United States upon the occasions of the magazine’s 40th, 50th, and 60th birthdays.
Perhaps the most fascinating of the snapshot portraits of the United States in crisis can be found in the July 1975 “America: A Failure of Nerve?” which featured 35 leading thinkers of the day arguing over the proposition that “fifteen years ago, the ruling elements of American society were convinced that the United States was on the whole a good society and a desirable model for others to follow. Today, we find evidence of an increasing disposition among the elites—political, cultural, and even commercial—to question the legitimacy of American civilization.”
As far as matters Jewish are concerned, the landmark Commentary Symposium appeared in August 1966. It was titled “The State of Jewish Belief,” which asked 38 rabbis (15 Reform, 12 Conservative, 11 Orthodox) whether they believed the Torah is a piece of divine revelation, the Jews are the chosen people, Judaism is the one true religion, Judaism supports a particular political view, and how the then-fashionable notion that “God is dead” affects the condition of world Jewry. Astonishingly, in the course of this symposium, not a moment is devoted by any of the respondents to questions of the role of women in any respect or the issue of homosexual practice, or for that matter to the relation between Israel and the Arabs or Israel and the Palestinians. Unthinkable that such would be the case if we were to conduct such a symposium today; those would be the primary issues under discussion.
This month’s symposium on the crisis in American-Israel relations and the role of American Jewry is in some respects a crystallization of the magazine’s approach when it comes to these large discussions. “Obama, Israel & American Jews: The Challenge” ranges across the ideological divide and features 31 important actors in the American Jewish community, including partisan activists (Matthew Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition and Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council), organizational leaders (Abraham Foxman, Kenneth Bialkin), clergy (Rabbis Eric Yoffie, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, and David Wolpe), policymakers (Ed Koch, Elliott Abrams, Aaron David Miller, Tevi Troy), novelists (Jonathan Kellerman, Tova Mirvis), and other writers, scholars, and intellectuals.
The variety of perspectives offers us a fully developed picture of this moment of crisis at this moment in time—a picture of a community grappling with itself, its place in the larger American polis, and its obligations toward and responsibility for the existential condition of the Jewish state and the threats to its existence.