One of the observations that unites the Middle East commentariat–right, left, and center–is that the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements has been counterproductive to peacemaking efforts. That doesn’t mean everyone approves of settlement building, just that there is wide agreement on one of the enduring truisms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: settlements are not the main obstacle to peace.
But according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, they are the main obstacle preventing American Jews from staying connected to Israel. Yoffie writes in Haaretz:
I spoke a few weeks ago with someone who works with American Jewish organizations in planning programs for their meetings and conventions. “Israel is out,” he told me. The demand for speakers about Israel or from Israel has dropped dramatically over the last decade. American Jews are simply interested in other things.
This was a man who understands the U.S. Jewish zeitgeist, and I was initially stunned by his statement. After all, he was not referring to the assimilated minority of Jews who are distancing themselves from all things Jewish; neither was he talking about the anti-Israel Left. He was describing the mainstream, organized Jewish community, which—sadly, tragically—is drifting away from its deep connection to the State of Israel.
I agree wholeheartedly with Seth’s post from yesterday about J.J. Goldberg’s shocking Forward column, but I’d like to tackle a different angle of the issue: the question of American Jewish leadership.
Goldberg charged that Jewish organizations are shifting their focus from “progressive” political policies to concerns more directly related to the Jewish community, and consequently, American Jews “are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.” This not only implies, as Seth correctly noted, that Goldberg sees traditional Judaism as inimical to the American variety. It also implies that what I’d always considered a somewhat snide slur is actually true: To some liberal American Jews, Judaism really doesn’t consist of anything beyond the Democratic Party platform. Abandon those liberal political concerns, says Goldberg, and Judaism becomes “a religion about nothing.”
The problem with this is that you don’t need to be Jewish to promote liberal causes, and you certainly don’t need to be active in any Jewish communal organization. In fact, you’re arguably better off avoiding such organizations: Jewish groups inevitably end up wasting time and attention on pesky issues like Israel or anti-Semitism, which distracts from the all-important focus on progressive political causes.
J.J. Goldberg’s Forward column today is bound to give the Israeli Absorption Ministry a measure of satisfaction. In late 2011, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver’s office released a series of videos depicting American Jews as overly secularized, bereft of a religious Jewish identity, and having essentially surrendered any Jewish connection in the name of total assimilation. The ads were offensive and obtuse–any country with Tel Aviv within its borders has some nerve lecturing foreigners about embracing secularism–and were roundly condemned and pulled off the air.
But Goldberg’s column this morning is the boldest defense of the thesis of those ads–albeit unintentionally and too late for the ad campaign. Ostensibly, the column is about the supposed “silencing” of Jewish voices by the Jewish right, as demonstrated by the recent cancellation of a speech by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a Florida synagogue. Leave aside the fact that the real reason the ill-conceived speech was called off was because shul members were told no Republican voices would be permitted to speak as well. (An actual silencing, by which Goldberg isn’t bothered.) And leave aside the incongruity of Goldberg touting the Jewish communities’ “national struggles for tolerance” while in the same column dismissing non-liberal Jews as a “noisy minority” that should not be catered to. The most telling line in the piece is when Goldberg says that integrating non-leftist concerns into the community, thereby diluting the social action efforts of America’s Jews, presents us with the following threat:
We are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.
Israelis are celebrating their Independence Day today, and it’s not likely that too many of them are spending their holiday worrying about American Jewish efforts to save them from themselves. The imbalance in the relationship between the two sides of the Israel-Diaspora relationship lends a touch of comedy, if not pathos, to the celebrated anguish of liberal American Jews who will spend this day, if not every day, publicizing their angst about Israeli policies and dramatically predicting doom for the Jewish state if it does not listen to their criticisms.
We have been hearing a lot lately about the imperative for “liberal Zionists” to speak out. Israel is a democratic country with a bewildering array of political parties and ideologies (almost all of which have some representation in its parliament), and if American Jews wish to identify with a particular brand of Israeli politics, there’s nothing wrong with that. I may disagree with some of the political views expressed on the Zionist left, but I consider the debate with those who are devoted to Israel but who wish to improve it in various ways, arguments undertaken, as Jewish tradition calls it, “for the sake of heaven,” which ought to be conducted with civility and respect on both sides and mutual commitment to Jewish peoplehood. Israel does not need blind devotion from its foreign friends or from Diaspora Jews. Nor does it require anyone to pretend that the Israeli state is perfect. Its democratic system, its politicians and even its military are no more perfect than those in the United States. But it does deserve a degree of respect that I think is lacking lately from some who call themselves liberal Zionists.
The Public Religion Research Institute, recently in the news for its survey on Catholic attitudes toward the Obama administration’s decision to include religious institutions in its contraception mandate, today released the findings of its polling on American Jewish values: “Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012,” a report based on its recent survey of 1,004 self-identified American Jews. Here is one of the key findings highlighted by the report:
When asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, nearly half (46 percent) of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality, twice as many as cite support for Israel (20 percent) or religious observance (17 percent). Fewer than 1-in-10 say that a sense of cultural heritage and tradition (6 percent) or a general set of values (3 percent) are most important to their Jewish identity.
The Jewish People Policy Institute has just published a new paper by Shmuel Rosner and Inbal Hakman on the so-called Distancing Hypothesis, analyzing “trends of distancing and… policy proposals for strengthening the attachment of young American Jews to Israel in the time of the distancing discourse.” The 53-page PDF comprehensively evaluates current surveys, contains 77 footnotes, walks the reader through dizzying charts, and is worth reading just for the appendices.
The authors outline a series of straightforward recommendations, including an emphasis on the methodological and normative value of discussing “attachment” rather than “distancing.” Along the way they note:
There is no conclusive evidence of an erosion of U.S. Jewry’s attachment to Israel. On the contrary, the studies that included a longitudinal comparative examination indicate a sustained and even increased level of attachment. In short, there is no evidence of distancing as compared to the past.
The day he published his 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books castigating the American Jewish establishment for too-strong support of Israel, Peter Beinart tweeted that it was the “hardest thing I’ve ever written.” As Noah Pollak noted at the time, there was nothing easier than Beinart’s criticism; there was already a wide market for it within the media.
Beinart subsequently received a book deal from Times Books, the publishing arm of the New York Times, and the book will be published next month. Last week, he circulated an email that Rabbi David Wolpe describes as “an end zone dance, a strutting lack of humility.” Here is the beginning of Beinart’s email:
On Tuesday, Peter Beinart chastised American Jews for not listening more closely to Israeli soldiers. “There’s nothing American Jews love more than Israeli soldiers, except perhaps, Israeli spies,” he wrote in a piece in the Daily Beast titled “U.S. Jews Should Heed Top Israeli Soldiers Who Oppose Bombing Iran.” “So perhaps American Jews should start noticing that an astonishing number of Israel’s top soldiers and spies are warning against bombing Iran.”
A few years ago, I witnessed a debate inside the Israeli Knesset between two former heads of Israeli military intelligence, research and assessment, General Yaakov Amidror and General Danny Rothschild. The veterans disagreed on everything — technology, threats, solutions, defensible borders, control of territory and disengagement. During my service in the military, I saw the same phenomenon among officers at every rank. In robust democracies “listening” to soldiers—or civilians—is almost never a shortcut to obvious or unanimous answers.
It has become an accepted point of Jewish communal debates in recent years that young American Jews are “distancing” from Israel. However, a contrarian view, that holds that a feeling of attachment to the Jewish state is at least as strong among young Jews as it is for older Jews, has been gaining traction of late, and it is buttressed by a recent poll, sent out yesterday by Mitchell Bard’s American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
The poll posed questions to 400 American Jewish undergraduate students and found that 66 percent of them view themselves as feeling “very close” or “fairly close” to Israel. By design, this question of a feeling of closeness is the same posed in the AJC’s 2011 annual survey of American Jewish opinion, which found that 68 percent of the general Jewish population also described their feeling toward Israel in similar terms. This, as well as the polls other results mean, according to Bard, that “Contrary to the claims of some outspoken critics, young Jews do not feel alienated from Israel.”
Yesterday, Marc Tracy, a blogger for Tablet, posted a response to Jonathan Neumann’s COMMENTARY article, “Occupy Wall Street and the Jews.” As an aside, he posited that “dissent and heresy” constitute the “other, dialectical half” of Judaism’s obsession with “laws and authority.”
This, in its pithy way –stated as a fact so self-evident that it need not be justified – illustrates well today’s central American Jewish argument over Judaism and Jewish authenticity, revealing how far from the true facts of things a small but well-placed minority of writers, philanthropists, and activists have strayed
and how, by so doing, they have set the latest roadblock to an invigorated American Jewish future.
The announcement today that 238 housing units will be built in Jerusalem will have no impact on whether there will ever be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The houses will go up in Ramot and Pisgat Ze’ev, Jewish neighborhoods that were created in the 1970s after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War struck down the barriers that rendered those parts of the city that had been occupied by Jordan between 1948 and 1967 Jew-free. Approximately a quarter of a million Jews already live in East Jerusalem, and the notion that they will all be chucked out of their homes in order to allow the city to become the presumably Jew-free capital of a Palestinian Arab state is a fantasy. If the PA doesn’t want to negotiate with Israel, and it is more than obvious that by calling for building freezes they are looking for an excuse to bug out of the talks to which they have been dragged by President Obama, then whether or not Jews build homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in their own capital won’t make a difference.
But this issue is precisely the one that caused a blowup between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government last spring, when Washington seized on another such innocuous announcement and declared it a mortal insult to the United States because Vice President Biden happened to be passing through the town at the time. The United States has never recognized Israel’s rights in all of Jerusalem, but the decision to specifically oppose building in existing neighborhoods and to, in effect, treat them as being as illegitimate as the most remote West Bank settlements was unprecedented. But contrary to Obama’s expectations, and those left-wing supporters who had been egging him on to fight with Israel (J Street), Netanyahu didn’t fold and was warmly supported by not only the majority of Israelis but by most American Jews, too. The result was that the administration soon backed off and began a charm offensive designed to ingratiate the president with American Jews who were offended by his decision to pick a fight over Jerusalem.
However, with the midterm elections only a few weeks away, the immediate political incentive to downplay the president’s distaste for Israel’s government and his willingness to butt heads with it over Jewish rights in Jerusalem will be removed. Though much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment has not missed the fact that it was the Palestinians and not the Israelis who blew up Obama’s peace initiative, it remains to be seen whether the administration’s Jewish charm offensive will remain in place after November 2.
Though the expected rout of his party in the elections will give President Obama far bigger problems to deal with than Jewish homes in Jerusalem, a decision to push harder against Israel to force “progress” toward a peace the Palestinians don’t want will be an indication that Obama hasn’t the flexibility or the understanding of the region that will enable him to learn from his errors. While the Middle East peace process is not the only or even the most important foreign policy challenge that Obama will have to confront this winter (not with Iran flexing its muscles in the region), one of the more interesting indicators of how a post–November 2010 Obama will govern will be whether he can resist the temptation to return to his fight with Netanyahu.
The J Street Education Fund has taken out an ad that takes issue with Elie Wiesel’s criticism of Obama on building in Jerusalem. But J Street doesn’t merely call for a housing freeze or for outlying Arab neighborhoods to be ceded to a Palestinian state. Using the mouthpiece of former Knesset member Yossi Sarid, the J Streeters want to divide the Old City. Oh, yes:
Barack Obama appears well aware of his obligations to try to resolve the world’s ills, particularly ours here. Why then undercut him and tie his hands? On the contrary, let’s allow him to use his clout to save us from ourselves, to help both bruised and battered nations and free them from their prison. Then he can push both sides to divide the city into two capitals — to give Jewish areas to the Jews and Arab areas to the Arabs – and assign the Holy Basin to an agreed on international authority.
As an alarmed reader e-mails: “They specifically want to remove Israeli sovereignty over the Old City. I mean, they want the Western Wall NOT to be in Israeli hands. Wow.”
Wow, indeed. There is no mainstream Jewish organization that takes this position, and I dare say J Street wouldn’t find 5 percent of American Jews who do. Moreover, there is zero support for such a position within Israel. So J Street’s recommendation would be what? — that this be part of an imposed settlement on the Jewish state? It seems that the mask has been dropped and that J Street now reveals its true colors — which happen to be pretty much the same as the Palestinians’. The question remains: does the Obama administration agree? Stay tuned.