Commentary Magazine


Topic: J.J. Goldberg

The Kernel of Truth in Liberal Complaints About American Jewish Leaders

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.

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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.

Consequently, the people who do choose to devote their lives to Jewish organizations – and who, as a result, become “American Jewish leaders” – tend to be precisely those who think Judaism is about something more than just progressive politics, and who consider that “something more” important enough to devote their careers to it, or at least sizable chunks of their spare time. And that is why, even though many are also committed liberal Democrats, these leaders are more focused on traditional Jewish concerns than Goldberg deems proper: Study after study has shown that the more one cares about Judaism – in its traditional sense, rather than as a mere synonym for liberal politics – the more one cares about issues like Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Hence, it’s precisely those who become American Jewish leaders who are most likely to, for instance, defend Israel even when they disagree with its policies, or think that just as your own family takes precedence over strangers, helping fellow Jews in need may take precedence over helping non-Jews.

And in that sense, Goldberg’s second complaint – that American Jewish leaders don’t represent their communities’ real views, and are in fact often well to the right of their communities – contains an important kernel of truth. This plaint, increasingly heard from many left-wing American Jews, clearly overstates the case: Many liberal American Jews agree with their leaders that Judaism is not solely about progressive politics, and thus have no problem with these leaders’ focus on Jewish communal concerns.

But American Jewish leaders are indeed unrepresentative of that specific segment of American Jewry which, like Goldberg, thinks that Judaism is solely about progressive politics. And moreover, they always will be. Because only someone who cares deeply about Judaism in its traditional sense – as a religion and a people – rather than merely as a vehicle for liberal politics will opt to devote his life to Jewish causes rather than generic liberal ones.

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Must Liberalism Exclude Judaism?

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.

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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.

Ironies abound. Judaism’s increasingly “noisy minorities” consist of politically conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews, though there is a fair amount of overlap. So in Goldberg’s telling, integrating observant Jews into the conversation will risk American Judaism being “about nothing.”

Religion, while communal, has a personal element to it, and in a free country it is certainly up to each person how he chooses to practice (or not practice). But the idea that traditional Judaism would destroy American Judaism is a shockingly poisonous concept, as is the implication that those who observe Judaism’s laws and traditions and those who have gravitated toward political movements and parties that respect those traditions–instead of, for example, those who write columns attacking them–haven’t the same right to be heard.

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Beinart’s Universalists Strike Back

The discussion of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism is no longer a conversation about what Beinart wrote. It has morphed into what I believe is a much more useful conversation about the conception of Judaism that lies at the core of Beinart’s worldview and what I take to be his assault on it. In my review of his book in the Jerusalem Post, I suggested that part of what makes Beinart so uncomfortable with Israel is the fact that for Beinart and many like him, for whom the erotic draw of the sirens of universalism are too powerful to resist, Israel is a reminder of Judaism’s people-centeredness. In his book, Beinart used the word “tribal” for “people-centeredness,” so I did the same in my review. And I showed that every single time (not most times, but every single time) that Beinart used the word “tribal,” it had a distinctly negative connotation.

In his inevitable response, Beinart insisted, “I am a Zionist and a tribalist.” He did not explain why, if that is the case, every use of “tribal” in the book was negative, but such is invariably the nature of the “you said I said but I really said” of book reviews and responses thereto. Nothing particularly noteworthy there – except that Beinart has thankfully acknowledged that Judaism is tribal, and that (at least now) he thinks that’s a good thing.

But that is not so for Peter’s amigos. A brief glance at some of the responses to my response affords a sense of just how raw that universalist nerve is. “You can critique Beinart’s book all you want,” they essentially say, “but if you dare suggest that my abandonment of Jewish particularism is a departure from one of Judaism’s core values, well, then, I will come after you.”

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The discussion of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism is no longer a conversation about what Beinart wrote. It has morphed into what I believe is a much more useful conversation about the conception of Judaism that lies at the core of Beinart’s worldview and what I take to be his assault on it. In my review of his book in the Jerusalem Post, I suggested that part of what makes Beinart so uncomfortable with Israel is the fact that for Beinart and many like him, for whom the erotic draw of the sirens of universalism are too powerful to resist, Israel is a reminder of Judaism’s people-centeredness. In his book, Beinart used the word “tribal” for “people-centeredness,” so I did the same in my review. And I showed that every single time (not most times, but every single time) that Beinart used the word “tribal,” it had a distinctly negative connotation.

In his inevitable response, Beinart insisted, “I am a Zionist and a tribalist.” He did not explain why, if that is the case, every use of “tribal” in the book was negative, but such is invariably the nature of the “you said I said but I really said” of book reviews and responses thereto. Nothing particularly noteworthy there – except that Beinart has thankfully acknowledged that Judaism is tribal, and that (at least now) he thinks that’s a good thing.

But that is not so for Peter’s amigos. A brief glance at some of the responses to my response affords a sense of just how raw that universalist nerve is. “You can critique Beinart’s book all you want,” they essentially say, “but if you dare suggest that my abandonment of Jewish particularism is a departure from one of Judaism’s core values, well, then, I will come after you.”

And “come after you” they have. J. J. Goldberg, in a recent column in the Forward, says that I’ve become “unhinged.” But then he proceeds to illustrate what writing is like when context is ignored and honesty is no longer a value. He says I believe Judaism “mandates a xenophobic rancor” against non-Jews, when, in fact, I specifically asked whether the tribal-orientation of Judaism’s classic texts might contribute to “illegitimate Jewish senses of supremacy.” What I had written, then, was precisely the opposite of what Goldberg said that I said.

Goldberg also says, “Gordis even quotes approvingly the Talmud’s claim that ‘converts are as burdensome to [the people of] Israel as leprosy.’” But that, too, is completely false. I cite the phrase, but not approvingly. I simply note that Judaism’s classic sources are conflicted about converts, because there is something counterintuitive about people joining a tribe. Goldberg knows that my description of the phrase in the context of Jewish tradition is correct, and he surely knows that just days before my review of Beinart’s book I co-wrote a piece for the Times of Israel specifically advocating a warmer welcome of converts.

Distortions such as these make this a nasty piece of work, but if there is comfort in company, Goldberg should be feeling good. Shaul Magid, professor at Indiana University and until 2003 a member of the philosophy faculty at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, responded to Beinart’s book by essentially claiming that Beinart was too tribalist:

Intermarriage is a reality American Jews will have to deal with. It’s not going away nor, I would argue, should it. American Jews intermarry at a rate commensurate with many other minority populations in America (excluding blacks and Latinos), so is Beinart suggesting ethnic groups should only marry one another? Or is he saying that intermarriage between a Polish Catholic and a Korean Presbyterian is fine but that Jews should only marry other Jews? It may be that the intermarried Jew cares less about Israel, but rectifying this reality by making an exceptionalist claim about the Jews, making them “anomalous” (a label with ominous anti-Semitic coattails) is not the answer.

That’s an astounding claim for someone committed to a rich Jewish future. Magid then resorted to name-calling on Facebook. Responding to a Facebook posting about my upcoming debate with Peter Beinart at Columbia University, Magid wrote: “Why give voice to Gordis’ tribal fascism? Oh yeah, free speech.”

So, for having claimed that “tribalism” is a central facet of classic Jewish thought, and for having cited a relatively obvious laundry list of sources that make that clear, Magid decided that I’m a “fascist.” When I wrote Magid on Facebook saying, “You know I’m not a fascist, you know I advocate a two-state solution, you know that I’ve gone to protect Palestinians as they harvest their olives, you know that I’ve testified against settlers in Israeli court,” he responded by saying, in part, “It looks like I’m not the only one to use the ‘f’-word in response to your response to Beinart.” There’s a principled position: other people did it, too.

And with that, Magid referred me to a column by Zachary Braiterman of Syracuse University. Braiterman does, indeed, use the “f”-word, but he also borrows some tactics from Goldberg’s playbook, namely, saying that I said what I didn’t say. For example, referring back to my review of Beinart, Braiterman says, “Gordis cites political philosopher Michael Sandel to claim that liberal American Jews feel no attachment to Jewishness and Judaism.” But that’s patently false. I cited Sandel to make a claim about human beings and the importance of ancestral moorings. Sandel’s quote says nothing about Jews, and I said nothing to imply that it did.

In a refreshing moment of honesty, though, Braiterman at least has the courage to admit that he knows that the “fascist” moniker is unfair. “I really don’t know what Gordis means by ‘tribalism.’ Are we going to see the distinguished American born rabbi joining the ‘death to Arabs’ crowd or the hill-toppers or price-taggers? I don’t know. I know I’m being unfair. But this is one possible endpoint to which this logic of tribalism leads.”

Ah, so there’s the issue. We’re afraid of … ideas? Tribalism has many dangers, as does the absence of tribalism. So because anything that could be taken to an extreme could be dangerous, these academics will label those who raise the idea as “fascists”?

For good measure, though, it’s worth noting that for Andrew Sullivan, “fascist” isn’t enough. No, in a column that might well have been requested by Beinart (both of them write at the Daily Beast, so this surely seems like a favor called in), Sullivan, who I’m sure has never read a word I’ve written, writes “Perhaps the most dishonest McCarthyite review was written by Daniel Gordis. … But Gordis is at least not hiding behind bullshit like so many of his fellow travelers. He wants an Israel, dedicated to survival as a Jewish state by means of ethnic and religious cleansing. He is a proud tribalist: ‘Do we aspire to America’s ideal of a democracy? Not at all. We’re about something very different.’”

So, because I defended Jewish particularism (using the tribal word that Beinart himself employed), I’m not only a fascist. I’m a “McCarthyite.” The mere notion that the very purpose of the re-creation of the State of Israel and its survival might be the revival of the Jewish people (and not simply “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) must mean that we’re heading right for ethnic and religious cleansing.

Even allowing for the likelihood that Sullivan was coming to the defense of his buddy and didn’t have a moment to read anything that I’ve written about Jewish particularism, we have here a not terribly flattering picture of the state of writing and thinking in our world. Goldberg distorts the truth. Magid invokes the “fascist” label and then, challenged on it, defends himself by saying that he’s not the only one who did it. Braiterman uses it but can’t help but admit that he knows it’s unfair, and Sullivan, without having read a word I’ve written beyond the Beinart review, lurches from “fascist” to “McCarthyite.”

Not a terribly promising foundation on which to build serious discourse, is it? Israel, the settlements and even Peter Beinart’s book may be the least of the problems we need to address.

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