Current research on trends in the Jewish community is not rosy. The Jewish birthrate, except for the Orthodox community, is falling. Assimilation and intermarriage rates are rising. Identification with Israel seems to be weakening. One need not be an inveterate pessimist to look 50 years ahead and see very serious problems in Jewish continuity, religious commitment, and support for Israel.
Perhaps a look back in history will inspire a degree of optimism for the future.
When Commentary first appeared on the literary scene, 70 years ago, the Holocaust was ending. The most horrific period of European Jewish history was also one of the saddest for American Jews. During the Holocaust, the Jewish community was disappointingly disengaged from the plight of their brethren overseas. Jews were frightened by a powerful anti-Semitism and anti-alienism, which swept the United States during that period. American Jewish organizations hesitated to speak out. Moreover, prominent Jews such as Herbert Lehman, Bernard Baruch, Felix Frankfurter, and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who had President Roosevelt’s ear, failed to urge him to act in support of European Jewry in any meaningful way.
There was one episode that starkly dramatized this failure. Here is the way it was described in the diary of a member of the White House staff who witnessed it.
October 6, Wednesday, 1943 . . . a delegation of several hundred Jewish rabbis sought to present (Roosevelt) a petition to deliver the Jews from persecution in Europe, and to open Palestine and all the United Nations to them. The President told us in his bedroom this morning he would not see their delegation. . . . Judge (Samuel) Rosenman, who with Pa Watson also was in the bedroom, said the group behind this petition was not representative of the most thoughtful elements in Jewry. Judge Rosenman said he tried—admittedly without success—to keep the hoard from storming Washington. Said the leading Jews of his acquaintance opposed this march on the Capitol.
Rosenman was in the right place at the right time and did the wrong thing. Contrast that with what is happening 72 years later, with AIPAC putting on a full-court press to oppose the Iran deal and standing up to a sitting president in the process. There was no AIPAC 70 years ago. There was only a loose confederation of Jewish organizations that were too frightened to engage in a political struggle to save Jews and that eschewed public demonstrations in support of Jewish causes.
As I write these words, I do not know the outcome of the struggle against the Iran deal. But it is clear that American Jewry today, with all its flaws and question marks, stands up like an exclamation point, defending its position and refusing to be intimidated by superior political strength in a struggle to support not only the State of Israel but the well-being of America. This is a day-and-night difference from 1945.
Another historical perspective concerns Commentary itself. I vividly recall Commentary’s format and contents when it first appeared. The back cover consisted of an advertisement for AMOCO, the American Oil Company. This reflected the mind-set of those who then led the American Jewish Committee. They were mainly interested in being American and only marginally concerned with being Jewish. The content of the magazine reflected that point of view. It was a journal of literary significance in which Jewish life and thought played a minor role. There could not possibly have been in its pages a symposium on the future of the Jewish people in the next 50 years.
Commentary and the AJC are dramatically different today from what they were 70 years ago. Commentary is still a very important literary journal, but many of its articles are devoted to Jewish life, Jewish history, Israel, and Jewish ritual and religion, subjects that were once absent from its pages. The AJC of today, moreover, is not the assimilationist organization that it was seven decades ago. It is at the forefront of the struggle to strengthen the Jewish people, the Jewish religion, the Jewish role in the world, and, of course, the security and success of the State of Israel.
Nobody would have predicted any of this 70 years ago. The 1945 publishers and the organizational sponsors of Commentary would have been mortified and somewhat frightened were they to have read the articles of the 2015 issues of Commentary.
It shows just how far we have come as American Jews. Not everyone will agree with the positions of this journal or the AJC, but everyone can admire the great strides that have been made by American Jewry over the past 70 years in standing upright as Jews and as Zionists, not without criticism of Judaism and Israel, but with love and loyalty to both.
Maybe our future isn’t going to be so bleak after all.
Two years ago, in the Pew study on American Jewry we learned the sad truth about non-Orthodox Judaism in America: It’s dying. The only growing segment of the Jewish world in the United States is that of Orthodoxy, thanks to low rates of intermarriage and a high rate of fertility. The institutions of Conservative Judaism are disappearing: Every year more Solomon Schechter schools close and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the rabbinic flagship school of the movement, is facing deep budget cuts and layoffs. While the institutions of Reform Judaism are thriving, the children of its members are intermarrying at a frightening and growing clip with an increasing number not considered halakhically Jewish by the standards held outside of the Reform community.
What of Orthodoxy, the last great hope of survival for American Judaism? How is it handling the responsibility laid at its feet?
Not well enough.
With every passing year, an increasing number of sex scandals plagues its rabbinic leaders. These predatory rabbis target the most vulnerable: children and converts. The collective shoulder shrug from their peers and many members of the Jewish community is deeply disturbing. The rabbis keep their positions; they are quietly allowed to move to new communities; they are counted in minyans wherever they go.
The sex scandals are not merely objects of prurient fascination. They go to the very heart of Jewish continuity in America, because the institutions of Orthodox Judaism are weakened and undermined by them.
Those institutions are the day schools, which educate young minds and shape the future generations of Jewish leaders; the synagogues, in which Jews stand before God and gather for communal rituals, not the least of which is prayer; and the courts of conversion, in which the Jewish community has the chance to open its arms.
“There are commands that leap off the page by their sheer moral power,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once wrote about the Torah. One such example? “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt.” And: “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger [literally, ‘you know the soul of a stranger’], because you were strangers in Egypt.”
Even wayward lay people, such as husbands who refuse to grant their wives a divorce (known as a get), are often still counted as members of their community. Although they are supposed to be shunned, the men who leave their ex-wives as agunot, or “chained women,” unable to remarry, often enjoy a degree of leniency that is technically not allowed within the context of Jewish law.
There is much that is beautiful and authentic about Orthodox Judaism. There is also much that is necessary, considering the demographics. But it must learn from the stumbles of the Catholic Church. Before the sex scandals involving priests during the 1980s, Catholicism was the most powerful organized religion in the world. It is now a shell of its former self.
If Orthodox Judaism can learn anything from the Catholic Church, it is this: Men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers will prioritize the safety and well-being of their families. If rabbinic authorities don’t take seriously the plight of agunot and sexually victimized women and children, Orthodox Judaism will squander its place as the last best hope for American Judaism. If the lesson of the Catholic Church isn’t heeded, American Judaism will face the same fate.
Bethany Mandel is a writer on politics and culture and a stay-at-home mother. She served on the Rabbinical Council of America’s committee to evaluate its Orthodox conversion protocols.
There’s one bit of undeniably good news about the Jewish future: Fifty years from now, no one will face that perennial, and perennially annoying, question: “Is Jewish identity based on religion or ethnicity?”
In 2065, Judaism as a religion will survive in the United States. But Jewishness as an ethnicity most certainly will not.
This prediction hardly counts as bold or daring. Normal patterns of American life show ethnic identity inevitably dissolving within three or four generations of immigration. Nativists of 200 years ago worried that German newcomers would remain irreducibly different, and Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee became centers of German-American population and culture. But all that’s left of this once vibrant Kultur is historical monuments. In 1972, the great Michael Novak wrote the insightful book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, focusing on the PIGS—Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slavs—who helped swing politics in more conservative directions. Forty-three years later, those once durable communities have largely melted away through the relentless processes of assimilation and intermarriage.
If anyone doubts that proposition, consider some of the presidential contenders for 2016. Chris Christie is the result of Irish-Sicilian intermarriage but enjoys no special resonance with voters of either heritage. Ted Cruz is arguably Latino, with a father who emigrated from Cuba, but in recent interviews he’s hard-pressed to say what that identity means to him. Donald Trump is German on his father’s side (the original family name was Drumpf) but lederhosen play no role in his wardrobe or his political appeal.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn-born Bernie Sanders may be recognizably Jewish, but he married a Roman Catholic, reveres Pope Francis as his spiritual inspiration, and he has never been affiliated with a synagogue—though the other recent presidential contender from Vermont, Howard Dean, has. Dean isn’t Jewish, of course, but his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg is, and they raised their two children in the Jewish faith.
The point of this all-American mishmash (to cite a word with Yiddish and Middle English roots) is that the Deans, with two children exposed to Judaism as a religious tradition, have at least some chance of producing Jewish descendants, but the future Jewish identity of the Sanders family remains a far more questionable proposition. If his Vermont-raised offspring (three of them stepchildren from his Irish-American wife, Jane O’Meara, one of them the product of a brief nonmarital relationship) ever develop a meaningful, ethnically Jewish identity, it’s hard to imagine what it would look like.
Conversion to Judaism is a common occurrence, but in even the most liberal precincts of the Reform movement it requires some ritual religious practice—attending seders or celebrating a bar mitzvah.
What would an ethnic conversion demand? Studying Jewish cookbooks to learn to prepare kasha varnishkas? Immersion in Woody Allen films? Fifty years from now (and probably much sooner), these often entertaining artifacts will look like relics of a vanished past, based on the filmmaker’s Brooklyn upbringing during the heyday of secular Jewish ethnicity.
Even today, Brooklyn is hardly what it used to be: Far more residents define their Jewish identity as followers of prominent Hasidic rebbes than seek Jewish content through the holy works of Rabbis Woody Allen and Bernie Sanders. In August of this year, the Forward expressed shock at a Pew study proving that the Orthodox community is not only growing as a percentage of the overall Jewish population but, with high birth and retention rates, has been growing in raw numbers as well. A 2012 study for New York City’s Jewish Federation showed a heavy majority of Jews younger than age 18 already identify as Orthodox.
And what about the forlorn hope that a common commitment to liberal politics, or a deep connection with the State of Israel, will somehow preserve an ethnic identity despite all the pressures toward its dissolution? The bitter, well-publicized split over the president’s nuclear deal with Iran illustrates the folly of relying on a monochromatic political perspective to keep a purely secular sense of community alive.
Regarding the significance for American Jews of the (increasingly Orthodox) Jewish state, the Pew study shows 84 percent of the Orthodox believing that God gave Israel to the Jewish people, along with 82 percent of evangelical Christians. Among non-Orthodox Jews, only 35 percent accept that notion.
None of this means that we can’t look forward to a special celebration in 2065 for the 120th anniversary of Commentary. We’ll still be able to say L’Chaim, but the Jewish life we toast will include strong religious elements, or else offer nothing more than memories.
Michael Medved hosts a daily nationally syndicated talk-radio show. He is currently writing his 13th nonfiction book, God’s Hand on America.
Ruth W. Messinger
As the head of a Jewish organization with American roots and global reach, I find that Commentary’s big question begets familiar and more specific questions: Will Jews be viable in 2065? Will our community be more observant and more politically conservative? Will its signature institutions—federations, denominations, and congregations—still exist? Will today’s liberal majority drift away from Jewish community and identity? Or will new ways to organize Jewish life, express Jewish values, and shape Jewish identities emerge?
The answers: Of course, yes, no, maybe, some of each, all of the above, and a few things we never expected. While I do not have 20/20 vision into the future, I believe that in 50 years being Jewish will, more than ever, be tied to fixing what is broken in the world in partnership with others, so long as we allow Jews who are instinctively drawn to this work to do it as Jews.
Wishful thinking? I don’t think so. In the landmark Pew study, 56 percent of American Jews reported that social justice is a defining feature of what it means to be Jewish in the world. To put a fine point on it, an acute sense of social justice has tremendous staying power as a marker of American Jewish identity in the 21st century.
While the staying power of the Jewish commitment to justice is clear, the world is changing radically. Globalization and digital communication have made the world seem smaller. Increasingly, events anywhere have a direct impact on the lives of people everywhere. Our neighbors are no longer simply the people next door but also the Burmese refugees and Indian child brides continents away. As part of the most educated and affluent generation of Jews to ever exist, we—like other privileged Americans—understand that we are citizens of the globe. And the young Jews of today, who will be our future leaders, recognize this intuitively and want to take up responsibility for finding solutions. We need to do all we can to help them do this as Jews, or we will lose them.
The young people of our community understand that our world is terribly broken. Close to 1 billion people live with chronic hunger and malnutrition. Refugees are driven from country to country. Genocides and wars reign over millions. Local people lack control over land and water, and their natural resources are being exploited without their consent. Women and girls are second-class citizens with no control over their lives. LGBT people experience discrimination and violence that prevent them from living safe, productive, and dignified lives. Minorities and dissidents are denied basic civil and political rights.
I am encouraged because much of what young Jews believe today echoes the deepest beliefs of teachers of earlier generations. My teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who shaped my thinking about the role of Jews in the world, observed: “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty but all are responsible.”
And Elie Wiesel wisely pointed out, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” And as the German refugee and American rabbi Joachim Prinz said, “Neighbor is not a geographic concept. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of human dignity and integrity.”
I have no doubt that the moral truths of these teachings will speak to who we are as American Jews 50 years from now because they are intimately tied to our values and history and because they resonate powerfully for young Jews today.
Together, we must make it possible for more Jews in the next generation, more rabbis of all persuasions, and many more others with Jewish identities of all kinds to see this as quintessentially Jewish work.
I believe and pray that in 2065 more and more Jews will build on our history and our values, take responsibility for our imperfect world, and work toward universal equity and justice—and that they will do so proudly as Jews. This can happen only if we allow them to shape Jewish spaces and identities of their own. If we want to look just as we do today, then we can say goodbye to the future. If we want a vibrant Jewish life in 2065, we must be wise enough to understand that we need to allow it to unfold. And when it does, I know that there will be continuity in discontinuity in the form of a deep moral and Jewish commitment to social justice.
Wishful thinking? I don’t think so.
Who can be certain of anything about the Jewish world as it will be in 50 years, other than that we will be arguing with one another?
Argue we will, because the very constitution of Jewishness, mixing universal and particular, ethnicity and spirituality, family and free will, cannot but yield enduring debate.
What are the arguments that will sustain us? They are twofold—and both come down to faith.
Two things are necessary for Jewish flourishing, indeed, survival: political and social conditions that allow Jews to live in freedom; and Jews learning Torah, in the spirit of the Talmudic dictum “great is the study that leads to action”—namely, learning Torah in all its forms (but especially in Hebrew) as a guide to action, which in turn deepens our understanding of Torah.
The arguments that matter most are how to secure that survival, and how to understand and live that Torah. And they proceed in different settings, in fact, in different life-worlds: Israel and the Diaspora, a nation-state and a network of voluntary communities.
In Israel, the challenge facing Torah is that the particular will overwhelm the universal, by virtue of Jewish majority, and through the military conflicts besetting the state, becoming bitterly or even proudly chauvinistic, losing the ability to judge ourselves. In America, it’s the reverse, the universal overwhelming the particular, with Jewishness becoming synonymous with middle-class life, to the vanishing point, becoming just one more set of tiles in the great American mosaic. In that process, we lose the possibility of judging our American mores.
These deep questions about the meanings of Israel and Diaspora life have profound implications for the defense of the freedom that makes Jewish life possible, and that itself, without devout commitment, will not endure. This freedom is under siege by those who would undo it, for power or profit.
In other words, if we are still here in 50 years, it will be because we were able—through our arguments, through our living Torah—to maintain and renew faith, which I define as the faithfulness on which one can build.
What is the difference between faith and fanaticism? Both the faithful and the fanatics ask themselves whether they are living up to their ideals. The difference is that the fanatic knows that his ideals are perfect as they are. The person of faith, by contrast, is willing to question his or her own ideals in light of other, competing, or even superior ideals, and to question the form of life to which he or she is committed. The faithful never assume that the fact of commitment makes them qualitatively better than all the rest.
Faith is indeed a narrow step or, if you will, a narrow bridge. On one side of the gorge lies fanaticism, and on the other lies nihilism. Nihilism and fanaticism are, each in its own way, equally capable of crushing life. What keeps the person of faith from fanaticism is questioning; what keeps him or her from nihilism is the willingness to commit oneself and to act, in the teeth of questioning and doubt.
The fundamental question, as always, is how do we want to live? In trying to answer, we dig down to our deepest commitments—moral, social, political, communal—the commitments (and the corresponding institutions) without which we cannot live and for which we may indeed be willing to die. I believe that in this post-metaphysical age when, even if God is still with us, nobody can claim with a clear conscience to be His designated representative or spokesman—if indeed He could even have such a thing—it is by digging into those commitments that we can find the footing, the courage, to look at one another and at the universe and say, “You.”
And that “You” means answering to a truth beyond and outside ourselves.
That is where our commitments, our willingness to take responsibility, will begin. That is where Judaism will begin. That is where the dialogue of Judaisms, between Israel and America and the rest of the Diaspora, will begin—if it can begin at all. But then again, if we want to endure, it must.
Yehudah Mirsky, a former State Department official, is an associate professor at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and the author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.
The future is easy to predict, and a 50-year leap is long enough so that I am confident I will feel no pain if I am wrong. Thanks to the Iran nuclear deal, when I peer into my crystal ball what I see contains a lot of darkness.
By 2065, the tripartite division of American Jews—those whose religion is Israel, those whose religion is Judaism, those whose religion is liberalism/leftism—will have reconfigured. The first two groups will have melded more tightly, impelled by a heightened sense of belonging to a tiny beleaguered minority. The third group will have shrunk but become more militant. Marxism will be largely passé, and adherents to this strain will mostly call themselves Obamaites, invoking not only, indeed not primarily, the presidential administration of Barack Obama but the activist movement he will have stoked and served as figurehead for 35 years after leaving office.
The mainstream of American Jews will feel beleaguered not only out of solicitude for Israel, which will continue to seem terribly vulnerable in a region that will have witnessed ceaseless warfare, but also due to increasingly free expressions of anti-Semitism flowing from the edges of the Obamaite movement. Oddly, this will feature frequent accusations of dual-loyalty, although those who make these accusations will not otherwise be conspicuous for their strong belief in the value of American patriotism. Some of the most telling jibes will come from Obamaites of Jewish heritage, a heritage they will recollect whenever it suits as a predicate to denunciations of Israel.
All of this will come in the context of a coarsening of American political discourse. During the second quarter of the 21st century, the country will have experienced a spike in violent crime and a prolonged stretch of economic stagnation while the international scene witnesses a frightening era of nuclear proliferation among unstable states. Barack Obama, setting a precedent for public advocacy by a former president far beyond even the example of Jimmy Carter, will take the lead in attributing these deleterious conditions to the policies of his Republican successors, noting that none of them had taken place while he still held office, which will be true except for the crime rate. Of course, Republicans will argue that these various ills can be traced to the policies of Obama’s presidency, but the Obamaite movement will relentlessly stigmatize any such claim as stemming from racism.
Israel, home by now to the substantial majority of the world’s Jews, will be flourishing in many respects primarily because of its astonishing ingenuity. But life will seem precarious, perhaps more than ever, as perpetual warfare convulses the Middle East. The dominant axis of fighting will be Sunni versus Shiite, but there will be many subplots involving mini-states and warlords, as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen have broken into smaller units and insurgencies flare sporadically in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. At some point in these long wars, Israel will have had a bloody confrontation with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iranian forces. It will have emerged victorious but with a heartbreaking loss of life. Subsequently, it will have kept itself mostly out of harm’s way through the combination of high-tech defenses and adroit diplomacy amid the inter-
necine broils among the region’s Muslims.
Internally, Israel will be more united than ever. The intensified turmoil swirling around it will lead Haredim to shoulder greater responsibility for the survival of the state and seculars to greater acceptance of the idea of divine providence. The new wave of immigration in the first half of the century, from Western Europe, will have been absorbed with relative ease. A greater challenge will have been presented by more exotic newcomers. Following the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, the Bukharans of Central Asia, and the Bnei Menashe of India, each of which had a proven oral tradition tracing its roots to one of the lost tribes before migrating to Israel in the late 20th and early 21st century, the descendants of the seven remaining lost tribes will have appeared. They will have been absorbed less smoothly but with ultimate success thanks in part to the lessons of the absorption of those earlier groups as well as vast numbers of homo sovieticus.
Joshua Muravchik is a distinguished fellow at the World Affairs Institute and the author of Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel.
I am nearing the end of a scholarly career spanning more than six decades, but nothing in my scholarship—not the history of the Jews of Babylonia or the sages of Yavneh—speak meaningfully to the context of the United States. We as Jews have never lived so comfortably and freely. We have no historical analogy to draw on. And as a scholar of theology and history, I have no way to connect the challenges of the present to the trials of the past.
But this I know: Judaism does not depend on birthrates. The decline in our numbers—now foretold by demographers—does not foreshadow the decline in our faith. Far from it. Judaism as a system always finds a home wherever it answers the urgent questions of humanity. If American Jews today do not ask those questions answered by Judaism, that does not mean Judaism has lost its place in America, or anywhere else. Its moment will come.
For now, the Judaisms of Shoah memory and ethnic identity and Israel affinity are ascendant, but as we know, those Judaisms have limited appeal and they do not do a good job of answering the questions that create a religious system. Their failures are apparent and require no further comment.
The Judaism that endures is the one that exists wherever people seek to discover the answers to questions that run much deeper: What is a good life? How should we act? What is expected of us? These are questions that confident, prosperous people sometimes think they have figured out for themselves. But the Jews, for centuries, never took them for granted. That made them stubborn, willful, and questioning. It made them unruly even to their own community’s leaders. And to tyrants, it made them a target, because the Jews placed God above any man’s rule and any man’s judgment.
I don’t know when American Jewry will turn back toward Judaism for answers to those urgent questions, or when they will place the word of God above the judgment of any man, including themselves. But I am optimistic that such a Judaism will return—and may even be returning. A Judaism that is vital, that looks forward and inward, that depends not on political Jerusalem, or the vestigial memories of the Lower East Side, or the ashes of Auschwitz. Instead, it will be a Judaism rooted in spiritual purpose and textual depth, the questions that have shaped all human history and all theological experience. In the past 50 years, such a Judaism was a whisper in America. But tomorrow, it may be a song, and who can know who will sing the first chords?
I don’t reasonably expect to be in this world 50 years from now, so this is only what I can hope for my children and my grandchildren—and for the Jewish people. (Hope begins at home.) My belief is that my descendants will be living the traditionally religious life they are now living.
Of course, many have argued that Judaism is not a religion because nonreligious or even anti-religious Jews are still members of the Jewish people. But by whose criteria are these Jews still considered to be Jews? Is it not the Jewish tradition that teaches it is God, not the Jews themselves, who chooses the Jews to be God’s covenanted people? Jews have the somewhat lesser choice of whether to identify as Jews religiously, nonreligiously, other-religiously (by conversion to some other religion), or not at all. I think that those Jews whose Jewish identity is lived religiously are leading a more coherent Jewish life than those who have chosen the alternatives, so my remarks are immediately addressed to them.
It seems to me that they will have three religious options, and these options are already with us. These are not connected to the nearly passé Reform/Conservative/Orthodox trinity. Instead, the new Jewish religious trinity is liberal–modern/Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox. Now “liberal” Judaism (including almost all those who still call their Judaism “Reform” or “Conservative” or “Reconstructionist”), on every major moral and religious issue, has clearly made liberalism its religion, with “Judaism” functioning as a very weak modifier. Think of the very public liberal Jewish support for President Obama’s position vis-à-vis Israel over that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Think of the liberal Jews’ public stance on same-sex marriage, or homosexuality in general, which is at odds with the normative Jewish tradition, halakha. As for the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), they too seem to have questionable loyalty to the Jewish people. Think of their ambivalence toward the Jewish legitimacy of the State of Israel; and think of their willingness to effectively read out of the Jewish community many persons and groups who do not accept their authority. Also, their loyalty to the Jewish tradition seems selective, insofar as they wilfully ignore those aspects of the normative Jewish tradition that are more open-minded toward other Jews, let alone to the larger world.
Modern Orthodoxy, where one will find the most consistently Jewish Zionists, and which looks to modernity as an exciting challenge rather than a frightening curse, seems to be the best hope for the Jewish future, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, hope for the future that does not drive active planning in the present is but wishful thinking. So, if modern Orthodoxy is to survive, let alone flourish, it faces three challenges, which must be dealt with now.
The first challenge is developing an intellectual leadership that doesn’t “look over its right shoulder” (to the ultra-Orthodox for even tacit approval). That might require dropping the insistence on “Orthodox” credentials and acknowledging that the Orthodox community is already so fragmented that calling for its unity is like asking a long-separated couple to recover their youthful desire for each other. The second challenge is to develop teachers who identify with the religious positions of their pupils’ parents. (Today, most teachers in modern Orthodox schools are “moonlighting” ultra-Orthodox Jews. They often harbor poorly hidden contempt for modern Orthodox values.) The third challenge comes from Jewish feminism. It is well known that modern Orthodoxy’s most vibrant segment is made up of women who call themselves “Orthodox Jewish feminists,” and whose feminism modifies—perhaps enlightens—their Judaism, not vice versa. Accepting or rejecting the thoughtful, courageous attempt of these pious and learned women (among whom, I’m proud to say, is my own beloved daughter) to steer a middle course between liberal anti-nomianism and ultra-Orthodox authoritarianism is what will either make or break modern Orthodoxy. I hope it will be the former and not the latter.
David Novak teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at the University of Toronto and is president of the Union for Traditional Judaism.
Michael B. Oren
Some physicists say that the universe is simultaneously expanding and contracting, and the same can be said of American Jewry.
It is contracting through assimilation—a 70 percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews and, even among Jewish couples, families far too small for sustained demographic growth. Membership in Conservative and Reform congregations is declining, as is participation in many American Jewish organizations. Overall, Jewish identity is waning. The image is one of a community on the verge of numerical and spiritual implosion.
But another segment of American Jews is flourishing. Intermarriage among the Orthodox is virtually nonexistent, while synagogue membership burgeons. Family sizes far exceed the national average. In result, the Jewish population of New York, which for decades suffered decline, is now registering yearly gains. Though roughly estimated at 10 percent of the community, the proportion of observant Jews will inexorably mount.
In 50 years’ time, the American Jewish community may be smaller in numbers but stronger in terms of identity. Though no less active politically, it is likely to vote more conservatively at the polls. Jewish literacy may reach an all-time high. And so, too, might American Jewish attachment to Israel.
I have seen this process unfolding. As a frequent speaker at American Jewish events—synagogues, federations, pro-Israel rallies—I look out at the audience and see ever-growing numbers of kippot. Most of these are of the modern Orthodox knitted type, but, increasingly, they are the even more traditional velveteen black.
This, I sense, is a glimpse of American Jewry circa 2065, contracted, perhaps, in size but expanded in terms of its connection to Israel and to Orthodox ways of life.
Michael B. Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, is the author, most recently, of Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.
As we look back 50 years to those distant days of 2015, we can see that the signs were clear even then. The West was in the throes of an existential crisis, repudiating reason and truth and replacing God with worship of the individual. In this demoralized state, it was unable to fight the onslaught from the Islamic world. Along with everyone else, Jews were caught up in these dramas.
In 2065, Diaspora Jewry is now a fragment of its former self. Most Jews have fled Europe and the widespread social unrest that followed the mass-immigration emergency. Under cover of anti-Israel sentiment, the indigenous Europeans scapegoated the Jews for the continent’s social crisis, picking on them unless they renounced their attachment to Jewish peoplehood.
Whether through innate prejudice or fear, countries such as France, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands stood aside as their ever more numerous Muslim populations subjected Jews to more and more attacks. Squeezed between aggression and indifference, the Jews of Europe increasingly moved to Israel.
In Britain, the Jewish experience was different. The indigenous British did not resist the Muslims who colonized them, because they no longer remembered what Britain had once uniquely stood for. Newly independent Scotland, where Islamist radicals had long been embraced by nationalist politicians, became England’s Gaza and mounted a cultural and terrorist onslaught from the north.
England’s Marxist Labour prime minister Jeremy Corbyn, who transformed British politics by forging a huge constituency of the disaffected and the alienated and who tacitly backed the Scottish Islamists, weakened England still further by wrecking the economy and instituting thought-police patrols. Islamophobia became a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. All this paved the way for an Islamist government to take control and fly the black flag of Islam from the roof of 10 Downing Street.
Now a special tax is levied on Jews, synagogues are restricted to a very low height, and microchips are implanted into Jews to record their individual identities.
With all this, the Anglo-Jewish leadership have pronounced themselves content. They say this is benign jihad. They welcome the chance to atone for the original sin against Ishmael, and they regularly declare that there has never been a better time to be a Jew in Britain than now: the very same words they used back in 2015.
Nevertheless, assimilation has slashed their numbers from 280,000 identifying Jews in 2015 to 80,000 now in 2065. The American Jewish community has experienced a similar decline. As in Britain, the collapse was caused by progressive Judaism, including the so-called conservative strain. This never understood that the inconvenient outer shell of rules, restrictions, and halakhic authority, which it so comprehensively undermined, was absolutely essential to defending and preserving the inner spiritual core.
The outcome in the United States has been the retention of a single, small community of the strictly religious. Beyond them, there has been a mass flight from Judaism into a sentimentalized and meaningless ethnic identity focused on the erroneous belief that “universal” values of human rights and altruism have nothing whatsoever to do with the Mosaic code—a view that has also grievously eroded America’s wider society. And Israel, among these Jews, is shunned.
Yet although in 2015 Israel had seemed besieged by delegitimization movements, terrorism, and war, it has confounded the rest of the world by prospering and growing in strength.
The genocidal nuclear threat from Iran was removed after Israel allied with President Rubio’s America to destroy Iran’s air force and navy through bombing raids, thus galvanizing Iran’s oppressed people finally to rise up and overthrow the Islamic regime.
With the collapse of the oil weapon as a result of Israel’s becoming a major exporter of natural gas, Saudi Arabia now has a solid, if guarded, relationship with the Israelis, who are showing the Saudis how to irrigate the desert and how to reconcile religion and modernity. With the neutralization of both their principal terror sponsors, the Palestinians finally abandoned their war against Israel and formed a confederation with Jordan.
And meanwhile, Israel’s Jewish birthrate continues to soar as the country not only outperforms every other economy in the world through the genius of its people but also, largely through the rise to dominance of the modern Orthodox, remains one of the happiest, most decent, and life-affirming places in the world.
In 2065, it would seem therefore that Israel is not only the last, and first, redoubt of the Jewish people; it is also Western civilization’s last man standing.
Forgive me, dear reader, but virtually all the trends are negative.
1. To understand Jewish life outside of Israel, it is crucial to first understand the most important development of the past hundred years: The most dynamic religion in the world has not been Christianity, or Islam, or even Mormonism, let alone Judaism. It has been a secular religion: Leftism—and its offshoots such as Environmentalism, Feminism, Socialism, and Egalitarianism.
Jews outside of Israel (and some inside Israel) have adopted Leftism as their value system far more often than Judaism. While individual Jews of all backgrounds have resisted converting to Leftism, the only Jewish group to do so has been Orthodoxy. And modern Orthodoxy has not been immune.
Most American Jews are far more influenced by, and far more frequently attend, the left-wing temple, the university, than their local Jewish temple; and far more seek guidance from the New York Times and other left-wing media than from the Torah.
Yes, there are left-wing Jews who are religiously affiliated. Indeed, they dominate non-Orthodox Jewish denominations. But their Jewish future is not bright. Most young Jews want authentic Leftism, and that usually precludes synagogue attendance, as Leftism is radically secular.
2. Israel will have to choose between doing what the world demands and becoming increasingly loathed and isolated. Either choice bodes poorly. The world wants Israel to give Palestinians an independent state. I have always supported a two-state “solution,” but an independent Palestinian state at this time can only lead to another haven for violent Islam, which would mean constant attacks on Israelis and the probable end of Jordan as an independent state.
3. Europe will have to choose between civil war and becoming increasingly Islamicized. The acceptance of more than a million Muslim-Arab refugees from Syria, Libya, and elsewhere—added to the 20 million Muslims already in the European Union—will only hasten this outcome. This will probably mean no more Jews in Western Europe.
4. One of the great falsehoods of our time is the line “Islam is a religion of peace.” From Muhammad’s time until today, Islam has almost never voluntarily been a religion of peace. How many people know, for example, that during their thousand-year rule over India, Muslims killed between 60 and 80 million Hindus? India doesn’t talk about this, because the Indian government fears Muslim–Hindu violence. And few in the West talk about it because Western academics and other leftists fear that talking about it would divert attention from their anti-Western narrative.
Needless to say, the ascendance of a virile Islam bodes poorly for Jews. The violent end of Christendom in the Arab world—which bothers Western elites far less than carbon emissions do—is what a vast number of Muslims seek for the Jews living in the Arab world, namely the Jews of Israel.
5. Outside the United States, Christianity has rarely been good for the Jews. The Christians (cultural and theological) who founded America and led the country from its inception have been a unique blessing to the Jews. But most American Jews, consistent with their left-wing faith, have joined and often led the left’s war on American Christianity. These foolish people think that a godless, Christianity-free America will be good for the Jews. They do not understand that America has been a unique blessing to Jews precisely because it has been the one truly Judeo-Christian country.
So, then, there is little reason for optimism. Will Jews be around on the 120th anniversary of Commentary? Of course. There may well be a Chabad House on the moon. But the purpose of Jewish life is not to survive, any more than the purpose of any of our own lives is to survive. Survival is a necessity, not a purpose.
The purpose of the Chosen People is to bring the world to the God of the Torah, more specifically, the God of the Ten Commandments. Unless we do, the future is bleak. But who will do this? The only vibrant Jewish group, the Orthodox, is still—Chabad and some Orthodox individuals notwithstanding—overwhelmingly committed to Jewish insularity, the preservation of the shtetl, and to religious laws designed to keep Jews insulated from non-Jews.
Is there a solution?
Yes. Above all, Jews need to abandon secularism and Leftism and return to God-based, Torah-based values—even without necessarily becoming Orthodox—and influence the world to live by the Ten Commandments. Imagine what would happen to Jewry and to society at large if left-wing Jewish professors abandoned Leftism and embraced ethical monotheism.
Admittedly, there are few examples of God-centered, Torah-based, non-Orthodox Jews. But unless this begins to happen, and unless the Orthodox become as preoccupied with bringing the world to the God of Sinai as they are with what’s kosher for Pesach, the future is bleak.
Dennis Prager, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, is the author, most recently, of The Ten Commandments. He is also the co-founder and president of Prager University.
Naomi Schaefer Riley
Iam not the first to observe that the demographic trends of Jews in America suggest growing polarization in the community. Thanks in part to rising (though perhaps now plateauing) rates of intermarriage, the Jews of 50 years from now will be divided largely among the Orthodox and the so-called nones, that is, the unaffiliated.
It is certainly true that interfaith couples are less likely to raise their children Jewish than same-faith ones are. But there are other related factors that are leading to the decline of Reform and Conservative families. First, like most of America, the young people raised in these denominations are waiting longer to get married. The average age of first marriage is now 29 for men and 27 for women in America—it gets higher if you have a college degree. This long period of time away from one’s religious and family roots not only makes it more likely they will marry someone of another faith. It also makes it more likely they will not marry at all.
And it will certainly limit the number of children one has. Again, like the rest of America, the birthrate for American Jews has fallen significantly. And more and more of the middle and upper classes in this country are choosing to have no children at all.
This will have a significant impact on Jewish institutions. The ones that are populated by the most committed (whether measured by time or money) will remain. And the rest will cease to exist. It’s hard to see how the suburban synagogues will survive in any great numbers. Not only do young adults seem disinclined to support them in any significant way, they also seem to prefer institutions within walking distance. (It is no small irony that the Jewish communities of old would have in some sense been much more appealing to twentysomethings than the ones built in the 1950s.) Many of these young adults want to relive their college years, when friends were nearby and Jewish experience was conveniently available across the street at Hillel. Whenever they wanted to take advantage, that is. But this is not how institutions in the adult world work. And if young adults don’t figure that out soon, many of our synagogues are not long for this world.
The other institutions whose future is uncertain are Jewish day schools. The Orthodox ones will continue—because they have to—but even that community will need to think about other financing models. Conservative and modern Orthodox communities are increasingly unable to afford day-school education for their children. They will either need to persuade politicians of the need for some kind of tax-credit plan to offset these costs, or the schools themselves will have to drastically change—using more technology perhaps. But it is hard to see middle-class Jewish parents settling for so-called blended learning when they can send their kids to what they view as good public schools. Even some kind of intensive supplementary religious education might need to replace the day schools.
There are those who will look at this picture and say that this coming religious polarization—the Orthodox on the one hand, the loosely affiliated or unaffiliated on the other—is unavoidable and even reasonable. That is, the people who care most about Jewish institutions and communities will be the ones running them.
But this kind of religious sorting is not a positive development. Our chattering classes might like to talk about a religious America and a secular America, but religion in America has long existed on a continuum, and I think that is healthy. In fact, individual religious congregations usually have their own spectrums. It is good for the more and less religiously observant to see and interact with one another. As individuals, our inclinations to be more or less religious may change over time, and it is good for us to see that religion needn’t be an all-or-nothing prospect. It would be a poor development if we came to think that once we had started to practice faith less frequently, we would have to give it up altogether. Or if we had to worry that we wouldn’t be welcomed back into the fold. A religious perspective on life can bring us great comfort and happiness and sense of purpose, even at times when we don’t expect it. And there is much to be said for encountering it regularly, even if we are not strong believers. Fifty years from now, that probably won’t happen.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.
Throughout human history, Jews have endured the real-feel temperatures of a dystopian existence more so, and more consistently, than any other group. Paradoxically, the same people, throughout different periods, participated in humankind’s enlightenment and also, sometimes simultaneously, were its most tragic victims.
Crimes against humanity are fatefully part of the human condition, but Jews have suffered more than their fair share—and, in fact, it was at the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, which were established to bring justice primarily to Jews, where such crimes were first named.
What is movie science fiction for most people has often had the gritty reality of a documentary for Jews. Conquests, expulsions, inquisitions, forced conversions, blood libels, genocidal threats, and actual mass murders—you name it, and Jews have once lived it, or were killed on account of it.
Yet, most improbably, most survived it. In the grand and chaotic stock market of mankind, Jews are sometimes up, and at other moments they are free-falling into a devastating crash. Volatility is the defining word for a people who lack the optimism to be safe bets.
Who would have ever imagined that Jews would need to flee France in the early 21st century? Well, a century earlier, Captain Alfred Dreyfus would not have perceived France as being long for Jews. The Jews of Germany also, a mere 70 years after the Holocaust, are now contemplating emigration plans that a Berliner would not have dreamed of in 1932.
All of which is to say that Jews are not Okinawans—as if that wasn’t already stating the obvious. Historically, Jewish life spans vary for reasons having little to do with diet, genes, or disease. Jews are one tribe in which searching for family histories is nearly always a venture interrupted by cataclysmic events.
Predicting the future of the Jewish people, at any point in history, during the best of times and worst, is a fool’s errand, an exercise in advanced sorcery, the most speculative of all soothsaying—odds-making at the most fanciful.
The one sure thing is that 50 years from now, Jews will undoubtedly still be here in some form—predictably sturdy, overly principled, simply unwilling, or too brashly tenacious (a fancy word for chutzpadik), to disappear.
But during the last century, which was marked by a monstrous genocide, there were also examples of Jewish penetration into secular worlds that ultimately reduced the number of Jews in the process. Through intercourse and intermarriage, the pull of pluralism and the allure of openly liberal values, Jewish tribal existence diminished. Meanwhile, the Holocaust contributed mightily to the “God Is Dead” movement, which depleted synagogues even more. Jews were left without a map to return in case things didn’t work out in the wider world. And for many, they didn’t.
And still, many, eventually, came roaring back—with tefillin and tallisim in hand, kvetching about the food and the climate where they had just been.
Jewish flight is always accompanied by Jewish return. In a half-century, other Jews originating from somewhere else will replace the departing Jews of France and Germany. After all, many of the French Jews today are former Jewish Moroccans who were forced out of North Africa soon after the creation of Israel. Many of today’s German Jews are not old-school yekkes, but former refuseniks from the Soviet Union.
The wild swings in the marketplace of Jewish survival always return, reliably, to equilibrium.
And yet, despite their fall elsewhere, Jewish populations will grow larger in the United States and Israel. Jews have had quite a run in America. And the Start-up Nation beams along the Mediterranean like a true light onto nations—the purest example of what can happen when Third World regions truly wish to join the developing world. By comparison, Israel’s neighbors are depositories of sand and oil fields of hate—mixed in with medieval envy.
More so than Torah, the Jewish state will continue to unite world Jewry in a Zionism that is more than a mere idea. It is a common homeland, a destination that beckons and pulsates when the evils of anti-Semitism threaten to return. Such is the promise of the Promised Land. Regardless of whatever deals the Diaspora makes with its host countries, Israel will always be the ace in a Jew’s back pocket, a suitcase at the ready, family by his or her side.
Of the current focuses of world Jewish life—Israel and the United States—only one will remain vibrant 50 years hence. Non-Orthodox American Jewry will be largely a relic.
The Torah forbids all manner of foretelling. But American Jewry has already entered into a demographic death spiral. American Jews marry later, if at all, and have fewer kids than the general population. More than four out of five marriages involving non-Orthodox Jews today are intermarriages. The offspring of those marriages will be even less likely to seek a Jewish partner.
Ethnic identity has proven incapable of generational transmission. Less than half of self-identified American Jews under 35 recognize a special duty to help one’s fellow Jews. “Being Jewish” is an increasingly trivial part of their self-identity. According to the critical 2013 Pew study, a particular sense of humor or taste for certain foods plays a larger role in their Jewish identity than does Jewish practice or belief, identification with the Jewish people, or belief in a divinely given mission to the Jewish people—a belief almost inevitably derided as racist.
Prospects for a 21st-century Jewish Great Awakening appear slight. The coercive political correctness on the campuses where most Jews matriculate (and where overt anti-Semitism is the one acceptable “aggression”) is hostile to traditional religion. I am one of four brothers (out of five), raised in a highly Jewish-identified but not very observant home, who is today living a Haredi life in Israel. But our parents taught us that being Jewish was the most important thing about us, and we took them seriously by coming to Israel and following elite educations to find out what Judaism is. How many Jewish kids today have ever contemplated the survival of the smallest of peoples, removed from their land for 2,000 years, as the greatest miracle in history?
All the talk of a dynamic, eclectic Judaism evolving from the old is just whistling past the graveyard.
Matters look much brighter with respect to Israel, assuming Israel finds, with G-d’s help, a solution to a nuclear Iran.
The letters left behind by fallen soldiers in last summer’s Gaza war described their pride in fighting and dying to defend the Jewish people—with the Jewish people preceding homeland. Israeli Jews know what they are living for, because they know there is something worth dying for.
Living in a majority-Jewish state encourages Israelis to investigate at some point what it means to be Jewish. Repeated surveys show largely nonobservant Israelis drawing closer to Judaism.
The unparalleled multiplicity of threats Israel faces necessitates a degree of faith. And behold, Israelis are the most optimistic people in the world. If one forms a graph with suicide rates on the horizontal axis and fertility rates on the vertical axis, Israel stands alone in the upper left quadrant among the OECD countries.
The constant threats to Israel’s existence force most Israelis to deal with reality as it is, not as they would like it to be. I’m reminded of that hard-headed realism every time I leave the country without being forced to remove my shoes or clutch at my pants for want of a belt. Those threats to our existence also provide a degree of national cohesion and common experience, in the form of near-universal army service, unknown in the increasingly balkanized United States.
Israel is well poised to take advantage of the shift of the center of world economic activity from Europe, destined to become an extension of the Maghreb, to the Far East. Far Eastern countries are unburdened by a long history of Jew hatred, Holocaust guilt projected onto modern-day Israeli Jews in the form of accusations of committing genocide against Palestinians or large Muslim populations. The discovery of large natural-gas and oil deposits, after the development of a dynamic economy not dependent on natural resources, also bodes well for the future.
Finally, intra-religious tensions in Israel will decline without the defunct American heterodox movements to roil things. And the growing integration of the Haredi population into the general economy and some form of national service will tap some of Israel’s greatest human resources. That integration is dictated both by economic necessity and the realization within the Haredi community that a single social model of long-term Torah learning cannot suffice for a large heterogeneous population.
Life among co-religionists will prove increasingly congenial for identified Jews living in beleaguered communities around the world. And Israel will remain the greatest center of Torah learning since the great academies of Babylonia.
Jonathan Rosenblum is the author of seven biographies of modern Jewish leaders and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, Mishpacha magazine, and Yated Ne’eman.
Charles Dickens did not have the Jewish people in mind when he penned the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”
Darkness pervades. Barack Obama is the most hostile U.S. president to Israel in its 67 years of existence. He has defamed its prime minister, blamed it for a breakdown in the “peace process,” condemned its self-defense in the Gaza war (which inevitably resulted in civilian casualties despite the Israel Defense Forces’s heroic efforts to spare civilians), threatened to leave it defenseless from the UN’s anti-Israel resolutions, and entered into a monstrous deal with a genocidal regime bent on Israel’s destruction. Obama and his allies then reconstituted anti-Semitic tropes in defense of his flawed Iran agreement. “Donors,” “foreign interests,” and “big money” were unmistakable throwbacks to ancient dual-loyalty canards, rhetoric so venal as to shock supporters and critics alike.
Meanwhile support for Israel among Democrats continued to decline in the United States. Polls confirm that the more liberal an American is, the more hostile to Israel he is likely to be. According to a 2013 Pew poll, the intermarriage rate is still rising (pegged at over 70 percent among non-Orthodox American Jews), while the percentage of Jews who travel to Israel and observe major Jewish holidays is shrinking.
There is Darkness aplenty around the globe. Violent anti-Semitism, culminating in the Paris slaughter of Jews in a kosher supermarket, is all too frequent in Europe. From France, some 9,000 Jews are expected to emigrate by the end of the year, up from 7,200 in 2014. At this pace, Islamic terrorists may finish Hitler’s work—effectively making France Judenfrei. Life for Jews elsewhere in Europe is also bleak. Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe rose in 2014 by 40 percent.
We should not despair, however. Consider four critical developments differentiating the 21st century from the first half of the 20th.
First, Israel thrives—despite wars, the BDS movement, overt hostility from the U.S. administration, and the constant drumbeat for Israel’s delegitimization from the UN. Israel is more prosperous, more militarily sophisticated, and more diverse than ever before, a beacon of democracy and tolerance in the Middle East. Its relations with Asian powers, African countries, and its Sunni neighbors have never been stronger while Jews from Europe, Africa, and South America find a haven there. Ironically, global dangers for Jews and the Obama administration’s unprecedented betrayal make the case for Zionism, the promise of an independent and strong Jewish homeland as a refuge for world Jewry.
Second, despite Obama’s presidency, U.S. support for Israel has never been higher. That support is seen in the houses of Congress, where keeping close ties with the Jewish state remains one of the few truly bipartisan issues.
That support is largely due to a third phenomenon: the overwhelming devotion of the evangelical Christian community to Jewry and to the State of Israel. In August, when anti-Semitic marauders terrorized Jews in San Antonio, Texas, it was Pastor John Hagee, founder of the 2 million–strong Christians United for Israel who rushed to the Jews’ defense. Support for Israel among U.S. evangelicals is off the charts, and given Christian conservatives’ strength in the Republican Party, they have made support for Israel a litmus test for national candidates. (Since the number of Christian conservatives dwarfs the number of Jewish Americans, the math is reassuring.)
And finally, any evaluation of American Jewry must recognize the Orthodox community’s tremendous demographic growth, intellectual vitality, and political influence. In November 2013, Pew reported that the Orthodox population gains 5,000 Jews a year while non-Orthodox Jews lose 10,000. A separate study showed 60 percent of Jewish children in the New York City area live in Orthodox homes.
The second decade of the 21st century, we can hope, is the Darkness before the Light. If fewer Jews live in Europe, the population of Jews in Israel and North America (at least among Orthodox) will grow. This administration may be unremittingly antagonistic toward Israel, but the Congress, the American people, and future presidential candidates (if 2016 contenders are any indication) will not be. If American liberals abandon Israel, legions of Christians will increase Zionist ranks. And if nonobservant Jews are declining in number, the Orthodox community, whose devotion to Torah and the Jewish state are rock-solid, will continue to flourish. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
Jennifer Rubin is author of the Right Turn blog for the Washington Post.
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The Jewish Future, Part 4
Must-Reads from Magazine
And it long predates Trump.
The latest NATO summit got underway in Brussels this week, and President Trump brought all of his signature rhetorical subtlety to the Belgian capital. Off the bat at a meeting Wednesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump accused Germany of being “captive” to Russia. The remark ruffled diplomatic feathers in the Western alliance and touched off a predictable freakout among reporters and pundits back home.
When Trump insults Merkel and Germany, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tweeted, “Putin wins.” Mitchell’s horror was shared across the foreign-policy establishment. Many American liberals like to think of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel as a one-woman bulwark against populism and Putinism at a time when the putative leader of the free world—Trump—is an unabashed populist and, they suspect, a crypto-Putinist.
Reality is a lot messier.
Yes, Trump’s suggestion that Germany is “captive” to Russia was a bit much. But it is true that, among the top NATO powers, Berlin has often struck a wobbly pose in response to Russian aggression and other threats to the West. With few exceptions, the country’s leaders view Germany less as a member of the Western military alliance and more as a commercial and diplomatic intermediary between East and West. Germany’s drift toward Moscow—there is no other way to describe it—began long before Trump came on the scene.
Start with the Nord Stream II pipeline, which provided the immediate context for Trump’s barb. The project—a joint venture of Gazprom, the Vladimir Putin-linked energy giant, and several European firms—would allow Russia to deliver some 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly to Germany. Running on the Baltic seabed, Nord Stream II would bypass existing land routes, which is why it has nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe up in arms.
Nord Stream II would allow the Kremlin to expand its energy dominance and isolate the likes of Poland and Ukraine, which not only lose out on transit fees but also the strategic leverage they enjoy over Moscow—i.e., the fact that they can block the westward flow of Russian gas and therefore a significant share of Putin’s energy income. The Merkel government, which backs Nord Stream II vigorously, is deaf to the ominous historical echoes of Germany and Russia dividing the region among themselves.
The Trump administration, like its predecessor, is opposed. As Richard Grenell, the American envoy to Germany, told me recently, “The U.S. shares widespread European concerns about projects like Nord Stream II that would undermine Europe’s own energy diversification efforts.” Grenell also warned that firms working on “Russian energy export pipelines are operating in an area that carries sanctions risk.”
A senior Republican congressional staffer, who has repeatedly met with the Germans on these issues in recent months, was blunter still: “Nord Stream II is Germany making money by putting Europe under Russian energy hegemony. The Trump administration has been fighting tooth and nail to stop it. So have bipartisan coalitions in Congress. But the Germans say it’s in their national interest and won’t budge.”
Then there is Germany’s less-than-serious response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Encouraged by President Obama to take the lead in talks with Moscow, Berlin softened the Western line in word and deed. In 2015, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country’s most serious newspaper, called the German position on Russia’s encroachments a “pink line.” That was after an especially brutal Russian rocket assault against eastern Ukraine that left 30 civilians dead.
Germany’s response to the attack? It was serious, said then-Foreign Minister (now-President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but not one signaling a “quantitative change in the situation.” The previous year, as some 15,000 suspected Russian troops poured into eastern Ukraine and another 40,000 amassed by the border, then-German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was quick to warn NATO that “the impression must not be given that we’re playing with military options even in theoretical terms.”
Time and again, Gabriel, Steinmeier, and other German leaders have denounced NATO exercises meant to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe as “saber rattling” and “war cries.” Their proposed alternative: dialogue and cooperation and, well, gas deals. Berlin also reportedly opposed plans to rotate NATO armored forces through Poland and the Baltic States, and German leaders weighed on the Obama administration not to arm Kiev (not that the 44th president needed much persuading to abandon embattled allies).
To be fair, all this reflects popular sentiment in Germany. Opinion polling consistently shows that the majority of Germans don’t view Russia as a military threat, don’t support economic sanctions against Moscow, and don’t want German troops defending Poland and the Balts if Putin attacked them.
The reasons for this German ambivalence are complex. Not all of it can be attributed to cowardice or greed for euros. But it would be nice if the American reporters and pundits who imagine that Merkel can do no wrong, while Trump can do no right, would brush up on history—which did not, in fact, begin in 2016.
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Trading sanity for energy.
Generally speaking, the Trump era has been defined by two contrasting phenomena: Republican disunity leading to occasional episodes of tactical incompetence, and Democratic discipline and reconstruction. When it comes to judicial appointments, however, the parties trade their roles. From non-governmental organizations, to media figures, to Congress and the White House, the right has been united, strategic, and remarkably effective at nominating and confirming originalist judges to federal court appointments. Democrats, meanwhile, have been tactically maladroit, schismatic, and irrational. Owing to their lack of foresight, Democrats are now stripped of the minority privileges that would allow them to effectively oppose Donald Trump’s overqualified nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. Thus, in their impotence, they are left with one option: radicalize their voters.
Since Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced, Democrats have preached a variety of implausible doomsday scenarios. The strategy, MoveOn.org’s Washington Director Ben Wikler told the Associated Press, was to terrify Democratic voters with three messages. “The essential message is Roe,” he said. “The secondary message for most folks is ACA and health care. . . . The third messaging plank is, ‘choose your own adventure.'” Democrats have already plowed through messages one and two with an abandon that suggests these cookie-cutter attacks on any and all conservative justices were not sticking to a nominee as conventional and well-liked as Kavanaugh. And so, by breaking the glass around message three, the Democratic Party has chosen to slither through the left’s most fetid fever swamps.
The latest line of attack goes something like this: Donald Trump selected Kavanaugh not because he served for over a decade on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, has a long record of conservative jurisprudence, and is well-liked and occasionally cited by the Supreme Court’s current justices, for whom many of his former clerks now work. No, he was picked because he is most likely to shield Donald Trump from the legal consequences that might arise from Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe.
The support for this bizarre claim is found in a 2009 article Kavanaugh wrote for the Minnesota Law Review in which he said that presidents should be protected from indictments while serving in office because “a president who is concerned about an ongoing criminal investigation is almost inevitably going to do a worse job as president.” He added that the prosecution of a president could undermine the separation of powers in the Constitution. And, after all, the nation’s founding charter already provides Congress with a remedy for “dastardly” presidential behavior in the form of impeachment. His article concluded with a recommendation that Congress, not the judiciary, take measures to ensure that a sitting president is properly protected from prosecution. These sentiments comport with a 1998 article Kavanaugh wrote for the Georgetown Law Review in which he said it is “debatable” as to whether a president can be indicted, and Congress should clarify that debate in law.
This perfectly reasonable opinion is not only consistent with what the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel under Bill Clinton concluded about a sitting president’s immunity, but it also captures Kavanaugh’s belief in the limits of judicial power. But perhaps because Democrats do not share Kavanaugh’s apprehension about executing political imperatives from the bench, they have decided that his Obama-era recommendation amounts to a desire to shield Donald Trump from the law.
“Why did the president stick with Kavanaugh?” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked. “Because he’s worried that Mr. Mueller will go to the court and ask that the president be subpoenaed.” Senator Ed Markey, too, said that it is “not a coincidence” that Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court given his views on a presidential indictment. Senator Cory Booker concurred. “That should raise enormous red flags,” he wrote. The Democratic Party’s newest star, self-described Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, claimed that Kavanaugh’s views on indictment represent “an automatic disqualification” for appointment to the high court.
The activist left’s media ecosystem has taken its cue. “Kavanaugh was the right pick if Trump’s top priority was protecting himself from criminal investigation,” wrote Vox.com’s Ezra Klein. “He can, and he will, shield Trump from grand jury subpoenas, civil suits, and any/all other investigations,” the University of New Hampshire Professor Seth Abramson declared. And so on.
These addlepated expressions of anxiety don’t dwell much on the scenarios that would lead to a clash between the president and the Supreme Court over Mueller’s work because those scenarios do not satisfy the left’s conspiracy theorists. There’s an outside chance that the Court could take up an appeal from Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort if he is convicted on charges of tax and bank fraud, among other offenses. The Court might have to weigh in on whether the president can decline a subpoena or a request for a deposition by the Mueller probe, but this is not untrodden ground. Some have even dredged up a theory promulgated by the likes of Roger Stone that the Supreme Court can be goaded into ordering the dissolution of the special counsel’s office.
In reality, Kavanaugh’s writings suggest that Democratic trepidation is entirely misplaced, not that any Democrats will be delighted by the good news. George Mason University law professor and Cato Institute scholar Ilya Somin noted that Kavanaugh seems pretty clearly to be saying that “the Constitution by itself doesn’t bar” investigations into the president. “He does not say it is unconstitutional for the president to either be charged with a crime while he’s still in office,” Somin added, “or to be investigated for a civil offense.” Of course, congressional Democrats know perfectly well that Kavanaugh’s argument is an argument about policy, not law. And the number of fair-minded observers calling Democrats out on their opportunism and hypocrisy is approaching critical mass.
And so, the Democrats’ latest choose-your-own-adventure is set to lead readers into another dead-end. But the fevered fantasies that compelled Democrats along on this wild speculation are the same ones that compelled the party to filibuster Neil Gorsuch, even though everyone knew it would result in the end of the judicial filibuster and the predicament in which Democrats now find themselves. The party is cultivating a fanatical base, but it is sacrificing sanity in the process. That’s a tradeoff Democrats will one day soon regret.
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But the freak-out continues.
As Noah has pointed out, the left has made a fetish of abortion, as though it were a positive good, like the polio vaccine, instead of something that should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
With the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, the left is now howling that his joining the Supreme Court would mean the end of Roe v. Wade and that “millions of women will die.”
This, of course, is nonsense. For one thing, while Kavanaugh is a practicing Roman Catholic, so is the man he would be replacing, Justice Kennedy. So are Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor. Justice Gorsuch was raised Catholic but now attends the Episcopal Church. Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Breyer are Jewish. So the religious balance on the court would be unchanged. Adding Kavanaugh and subtracting Kennedy is a wash.
So even if Kavanaugh were gung-ho on overturning Roe, he couldn’t do it without the help of at least four other justices, none of whom seem in any hurry to do so. As recently as 2016, the court struck down, 5-3, a Texas law whose effect would have been to close down many of the state’s abortion clinics.
What the court has been doing is nibbling away at Roe v. Wade, allowing increasing restrictions, but sustaining Roe. This is strikingly reminiscent of the history of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the doctrine of separate but equal when it came to segregated state institutions. Plessy was upheld over and over again for almost the next sixty years, but its scope was almost continuously narrowed. For instance, one Southern state had no law school for black students and paid for them to go out of state to attend law school. The Court ruled that that was not separate but equal and the state had to admit black students to its law school or establish a black law school.
Finally, in 1954, the Warren Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was inherently unequal and overturned Plessy. And Chief Justice Earl Warren, realizing the political uproar that would ensue, was very careful to make sure that the decision in Brown was 9-0. Chief Justice Roberts would undoubtedly be equally careful to have a large majority of the Court on board before overturning Roe v. Wade.
So, until there are, at the very least, seven justices on the Court willing to overturn it, nothing is going to happen to Roe; except, possibly, further nibbling. With two out of three Americans opposed to overturning Roe, that could well be years from now, if ever. Even then, the Court would have to wait until a suitable case came along. The Court accepts only about two percent of the cases appealed to it each year, and it would be very picky about accepting one that would undoubtedly cause a political firestorm.
So while the left is screaming that the sky is falling, the blue dome of heaven, at least as regards Roe v. Wade, remains firmly in place.
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The cult of personality corrupts.
Pro-Trump constituents in the press have a peculiar preoccupation with the president’s conservative critics. Specifically, they’re concerned with the amount of credit Donald Trump receives for his achievements, which presumes those achievements are self-evident. Objective accomplishments—for example, how the Republican Party under Donald Trump has methodically nominated and confirmed originalist judges to federal courts—demand no hectoring from the credit police. Principled conservatives are as happy to heap praise upon Trump for his stewardship of the courts as are #MAGA brigades. It’s only the president’s more dubious feats that raise the hackles of Trump’s enforcers, and for a good reason; they’re not accomplishments at all.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board exemplified the genre on Monday when its members took aim at the “pearl-clutchers among foreign-policy worthies” who, they alleged, stubbornly refuse to “admit” how Donald Trump’s hectoring of America’s allies has yielded tangible and positive results. The Journal uncorked its contempt for students of foreign affairs for failing to say that raising defense budgets among America’s European allies is a product of Trump’s antagonism. This elides the possibility that students of foreign affairs know that they are not. In fact, making this flimsy assertion requires a substantial commitment to forgetting facts that Republicans used to know almost intuitively. Among them that talk is cheap and nations are moved to action not by badgering presidents or institutional utopianism but hard-power realities. And today’s hard-power realities aren’t just unworthy of praise; they’re deeply disturbing.
The Journal editorial noted over half of NATO’s 29 members will soon meet the arbitrary threshold of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of national GDP on defense by 2024, “compared to four or five in a typical year before 2014.” It is, however, important to make note of precisely what nations met their commitments in 2014: the United States, Great Britain, and Greece. In other words, nations with significant deployments abroad or nations directly threatened by an aggressive neighbor. In 2015, that list expanded to include Estonia and Poland—two countries that were moved to action by the invasion and annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory by neighboring Russia. This year, the list will grow still more to include Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Non-NATO allies like Sweden and neutral parties like Finland are similarly increasing their defense budgets in the second half of this decade. See the pattern forming yet?
It isn’t just the threats metastasizing in the region but politics in America that have compelled prudent Europeans to look to their own affairs. Two consecutive American presidential administrations have now made their preference for retrenchment clear. Barack Obama spent six of his eight years attempting to “pivot to Asia” and spent most of his tenure withdrawing American soldiers and the last armored divisions from European soil until—you guessed it—hard power realities forced him to abandon his vision.
Donald Trump has continued his predecessor’s habit of antagonizing American allies through costly and needless hostilities over trade relations, and he has been just as clear about his desire to see forward deployments scaled back. “NATO benefits Europe far more than it does the U.S.,” Trump wrote this week. It’s hard to think of a presidential pronouncement burdened with more historical and strategic ignorance. NATO and institutions like the International Monetary Fund are American constructions that enforce an American-led global order. These are long-lived institutions by historical standards, and they’ve managed to stave off great power conflict of the sort that typified the early 20th century.
The prospect of European rearmament serves American political sensibilities but not America’s strategic interests. Conflicts abroad have a gravitational pull on the world’s only superpower and allowing them to flourish inevitably sets the stage for American involvement. There is no coalition of European allies that can allow the U.S. to outsource its role as lone superpower. That was a lesson Barack Obama learned too late. Those who allow Donald Trump to harbor the delusion that American security is advanced by weakening its allies’ reliance on it as the guarantor of geopolitical stability are giving the president license to make Obama’s mistake.
American lawmakers from both parties have long sought to inculcate in their European counterparts a sense of ownership in their own security. If that sense of obligation has finally arrived, it is due to circumstances that no Republican with a healthy appreciation for America’s global mission could possibly welcome. Republicans used to know that hard power was the ultimate arbiter of geopolitical events and of nations. They used to know that talk—be it of the tough or amicable variety—was worth exactly what you paid for it. They used to know that barrier-free trade produced peace and that rewarding criminal despots for making illusory commitments was a reckless misuse of the presidency. Those are undying principles of statecraft that will survive Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s unfortunate that we cannot say the same of all principles.
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“To be sure” is one of the slipperiest expressions in the journalistic lexicon. There are legitimate uses for it, to be sure. But an unscrupulous reporter will drop a “to be sure” just before he launches a nasty, underhanded attack on his subject, all while giving the appearance that he (the reporter) is all too sensitive to nastiness—that he is not making the claim he is plainly making.
The Daily Beast’s legal-affairs columnist, Jay Michaelson, demonstrated this practice on Monday with his hit piece on Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society executive who has played an outsized role in shaping the judiciary under President Trump. About a third of the way into his profile, Michaelson offered this classic “to be sure”: “To be sure, none of this is to repeat the odious claims of anti-Catholicism of papist conspiracies and dual loyalty.”
Yet the article was nothing more than a collection of claims of “papist conspiracies and dual loyalty” designed to create the impression that Leo seeks to impose his sinister Romish superstitions on the rest of the nation via the courts. The only thing missing was one of those 19th-century newspaper cartoons that depicted a grotesque papal octopus, its slithering legs marked “ignorance,” “corruption,” “infallibility,” and so forth. In fact, Michaelson at one point evoked the octopus image with a reference to “Leo’s octopus of organizations and influence” (my emphasis).
Mostly Michaelson, who doubles as a Buddhist rabbi of some sort, revealed his acute ignorance of the Catholic faith.
In attempting to cast his subject as a dangerous fanatic, for example, Michaelson noted that “Leo is a member of the secretive, extremely conservative Knights of Malta, a Catholic order founded in the 12th century that functions as a quasi-independent sovereign nation with its own diplomatic corps (separate from the Vatican), United Nations status, and a tremendous amount of money and land.”
Actually, there’s nothing secretive about the Sovereign Order of Malta. It came together amid the First Crusade in the 11th century—not the 12th, as Michaelson claimed—to defend Christians and provide medical help to people of all faiths in the Holy Land. Today, the order operates much like any other nongovernmental organization—think of the Red Cross or Oxfam—with more than 100,000 staff and volunteers delivering health care and disaster relief worldwide. It also enjoys diplomatic relations with 106 countries, owing not to any nefarious reason but to the fact that it won sovereign recognition in the centuries after its founding.
Is the Order of Malta “extremely conservative?” Not really. It is a lay religious order as well as a sovereign state. Therefore, its leaders owe religious obedience to the pope. Some of the order’s chivalric and aristocratic elements have also persisted through the ages, but the “knights” don’t go around the world assassinating the Church’s enemies or anything of the kind. They are mostly older gentlemen who take their Catholic faith and the Christian commitment to the works of mercy seriously. Ooh, creepy!
The article also took a potshot at Opus Dei, which it described as an “extreme, ultraorthodox Catholic sect,” whose members mainly engage in “self-flaggelation [sic] and other body-mortification practices.” Outside the fervid imagination of Michaelson and novelist Dan Brown, Opus Dei is an officially recognized personal prelature of the Catholic Church that promotes holiness among the faithful by encouraging practices of intense daily piety and charity. The Church under John Paul II canonized Opus Dei’s founder as a saint. Today, Opus enjoys warm relations with Pope Francis, who appointed one of its members, former Fox News correspondent Greg Burke, as director of the Holy See Press Office. So why did Michaelson take a gratuitous swipe at Opus Dei? Because the husband of one of Leo’s onetime associates may or may not have been a member.
Then there was the quotation from Tom Carter, an embittered former colleague of Leo’s, who apparently served as the story’s sole source. “Leonard’s faith is paramount to him,” Carter told Michaelson. “When he traveled, staff members had to find him a church near where he was staying so he could say Mass every day” (my emphasis). But as anyone minimally familiar with the faith knows, lay Catholics like Leo don’t, and can’t, say the Mass. That privilege is reserved for ordained members, i.e., bishops and priests. The factual lapse—neither Michaelson nor his editors at the Daily Beast caught the error or clarified the quotation—lays bare the religious illiteracy that pervades liberal media today.
Catholics have grown especially accustomed to such media ignorance and hostility. Carter’s observation about Leo—that he attends daily Mass—wasn’t meant as a compliment. Rather, it was supposed to raise suspicion about the worldview of the man who helps the administration pick judicial nominees. But can anyone imagine the Beast ever giving voice to similar sentiments regarding, say, a faithful Muslim? He prays five times a day. Allah is at the center of his life. Yikes!
None of this is to suggest that Michaelson is a partisan hack and an anti-Catholic bigot. To be sure.