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
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.