Scenario 1. The year is 2050. Jews have left Europe. So dangerous did it become to wear signs of Jewishness or express support for Israel in public that Jews quietly decided to leave. A hundred years after the Holocaust, Europe became Judenrein after all. In the United States the only significant group of Jews are the ultra-Orthodox. Outside Orthodoxy, outmarriage and disaffiliation rates became so high that the rest of Jewry became the new lost 10 tribes. In Israel, a beleaguered population clings grimly to life. Iran, having won its confrontation with the West, used its newfound wealth and legitimacy to surround Israel with proxy powers armed to the teeth, its nuclear arsenal the ultimate threat against any decisive response. Many Israelis left, knowing that you can find oranges and sunshine in Florida and California. You cannot bring up children under the shadow of fear.
Scenario 2. The year is 2050. Jews in Europe are flourishing. Europeans finally realized that the threat of radical Islam was not just to Jews and Israel but to freedom itself. They took action, and now Jews feel safe. In the United States, Jewish life is on the rise, leaders having decided to subsidize Jewish education and invest seriously in Jewish continuity. Israel, meanwhile, having made strategic alliances with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the face of a nuclear Iran and apocalyptic Islamism, has finally found in the Middle East de facto acceptance if not de jure legitimacy.
Either scenario is possible. Jews make prophecies, not predictions. The difference is that if a prediction comes true, it has succeeded. If a prophecy has come true, it has failed. We don’t predict the future; we make the future. Ours is the world’s most compelling faith in free will.
What is unique about the present moment is that Jews currently enjoy a situation they have never experienced in 4,000 years of history. We have independence and sovereignty in Israel, alongside freedom and equality in the Diaspora. There were brief periods in the past when Jews had one or the other, but never both at the same time.
Today Jews have overachieved in every field except Judaism. The most striking findings of the Pew study from 2013 were that 94 percent of American Jews are proud to be Jews, while 48 percent of American Jews cannot read an aleph-bet.
Meanwhile in Israel many find the public face of Judaism deeply alienating. Israel itself, a nation of almost miraculous achievements, has lost much of the support it once enjoyed. Jews were once the world’s great storytellers. Today our enemies are better at telling their story than we are at telling ours.
Our ancestors had a dream that sustained them through 20 centuries of exile. One day they would create in the holy land a society of justice and compassion, maintaining the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of human life, where love of God translated into love of the neighbor and the stranger and religion itself was the prime driver of social justice and inclusion. They dreamed of inspiring the world by the simplicity and grace of Judaism as a way of life. It was a utopian vision, but the mere act of aspiring to it lifted our ancestors to spiritual, intellectual, and moral heights. Bounded in a nutshell, they counted themselves kings of infinite space.
That is the future that beckons us now. Yes, there is anti-Semitism, yes, there is Iran, and yes, we have enemies. But we outlived them all in the past and we will do so again in the future. In the meantime, every dream our ancestors once had is today within our grasp. What we need is the courage to be unashamedly ourselves, to educate our children in Judaic literacy, and to create in Israel a society of such moral force and spiritual generosity that it speaks to all those whose minds are still open. The time has come to honor the trust our ancestors had in us, that when we had the chance we would light the dark places of the world with the radiance of the faith for which they risked life itself. The sooner we begin, the better.
Jonathan D. Sarna
Nobody in 1945 would have predicted that, 70 years hence, the State of Israel would become a significant economic and military power home to more than 6.2 million Jews; that well over 90 percent of the world’s Jews would live in just five First World countries; that the Jewish population of Eastern Europe would drop significantly below 400,000; and that the fastest-growing Jewish religious movement in the world would be Chabad. Prophecies about Jews, 70 years ago and throughout history, have been notoriously prone to failure. In looking ahead, there is therefore every reason to be prudent. “Prophecy,” an old adage wisely warns, “is very difficult, especially about the future.”
With that in mind, what do I think will be the condition of the Jewish community 50 years from now?
First, the Jewish community will continue to consolidate at an unprecedented rate, so that instead of being a worldwide people, an am olam, spread “from one end of the world even unto the other,” Jews will become an overwhelmingly First World people, living primarily in Israel and North America. Already, some 93 percent of world Jewry lives in First World countries—those with advanced economies, worldwide influence, high standards of living, and abundant technology. Half of world Jewry actually lives in just five metropolitan areas: Tel Aviv, New York, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and Haifa. By 2065, I expect that almost all Jews will live in the First World, and as many as three-quarters of them will live close to one another, in a few sprawling metropolises.
The upside of consolidation is that Jews will be physically safer (there is security in numbers), and that it will be easier than ever for them to interact, learn from one another, and help one another. First World people, in addition, tend to share both common values and elements of a common culture. The downside is that Judaism will no longer be a world religion on par with Christianity and Islam. It will, at best, be a regional or First World religion. Those in the rest of the world—especially in Third World or so-called majority-world countries—will have no direct knowledge of Jews and Judaism at all. They will conjure up instead a mythical Judaism, and there will be no “Jews next-door” to set them aright.
Second, in 50 years, Judaism may well be experiencing a totally unexpected religious awakening. Every religious downturn since the 18th century, at least in America, has been followed by a “great awakening.” These cycles, historian William G. McLoughlin has explained, reflect the ebb and flow of culture: Periods of disruption (“crises of beliefs and values”) are followed by periods of reorientation and renewal. In our day, disruptive forces—new technologies, incendiary ideas, changing social mores, and the like—have plunged religion into a period of recession. Fifty years from now, if not sooner, the descendants of those who have intermarried and drifted off may be seeking to rediscover the spiritual heritage that their parents cast away. They will look to a renewed Judaism to provide them with meaning, order, and direction.
Jews in 2065, whatever their condition, will not likely be sanguine concerning the future of the Jewish community. Like so many before them, they will worry that theirs will be the last generation of Jews, that the Jewish community will disappear unless it changes. Paradoxically, the fear that Judaism might not survive will help ensure that it does.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His most recent book, with Benjamin Shapell, is Lincoln and the Jews: A History.
Jacob J. Schacter
The prominent Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said (or was it Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel?), “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But, having been honored to receive an invitation to share my views about the Jewish future, I will proceed to do so, albeit with due diffidence and humility.
First, we should not under-appreciate the fact that there will be a Jewish community in 50 years. In spite of the fact that, throughout history, we have repeatedly faced demographic dispersion, political disintegration, economic dislocation, social alienation, psychological oppression, subtle as well as crude discrimination, and, at worst, brute physical annihilation, we have survived, and even flourished. This almost incomprehensible fact has confounded many throughout the centuries, some of whom have sought explanations for it. In the words of the 20th-century Russian political and religious writer Nikolai Berdyaev: “Indeed, according to the materialistic and positivist criterion, this people ought long ago to have perished. Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination.” Exactly what that is was made clear by Maimonides, who wrote: “We are in possession of the divine assurance that Israel is indestructible and imperishable, and will always continue to be a preeminent community.” And, in a most striking assertion, he continues: “As it is impossible for God to cease to exist, so is Israel’s destruction and disappearance from the world unthinkable.” We cannot take the survival of the Jewish people for granted. It defies logic. It is, simply, a gift from God.
But it is not for Klal Yisrael, the nation of Israel, that I am concerned. It is for “Reb Yisrael,” the individual Jew, that I am concerned, very concerned. What will that individual Jew who will still identify as a Jew in 50 years look like? I believe that only those for whom Jewishness is a central—if not the central—defining value of their lives will withstand the challenges of the most welcome and blessed freedom that Jews experience in America. Only those who are prepared to sacrifice for their Jewish identity—to pay (a lot) for day school and yeshiva education, to pay (a lot) to support schools, synagogues, mikvahs, and to live by the values they represent—will constitute the majority of Jews at the end of the next half-century.
The Torah (Exodus 34:29–30) informs us that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai carrying the second set of tablets, he was endowed with a special radiance. In seeking the source for Moses’s radiance—and in providing for us a source for our own personal and national “radiance”—the Midrash (Yalkut Shim‘oni, Ki Tisa #406, end) writes that the tablets were six cubits long, roughly 21 inches. God, it continues, grasped on to the top two cubits and Moses grasped on to the bottom two cubits, and the radiance that emanated from Moses came from the middle two cubits. I understand this as follows: “Radiance,” or fulfillment, or optimism, for Moses—and for us—cannot come from the top two cubits held by God. They are too holy, too transcendent, too suffused with pure divinity, too otherworldly. It will also not come from the bottom two cubits; they are too earthly, too physical, and too mundane. Radiance and meaning for our lives will come from the middle two cubits only, the cubits that are neither heaven nor earth, that are, in fact, both heaven and earth. It will come from a sincere and serious effort to bring earth a bit closer to heaven and heaven a bit closer to earth, to extract ourselves from our physicality and strive to elevate ourselves to reach meaningful levels of spirituality and to grasp on to a piece of the divine and bring it a bit closer to us. For me this means living meaningful, serious Jewish lives, in practice and in spirit; this means deep and robust engagement with Torah and mitzvoth and hesed. Judaism will not survive for those who consider it a vague ethnic identity; it will survive for those who embrace it fully and passionately.
In the second half of his poem “Tourists,” the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:
Once I sat on the stairs at the gate of David’s Tower and put two heavy baskets next to me. A group of tourists stood there around their guide and I served as their orientation point. “You see that man with the baskets? A bit to the right of his head, there’s an arch from the Roman period. A bit to the right of his head.” But he moves, he moves!! I said to myself: redemption will come only when they are told: You see over there the arch from the Roman period? Never mind: but next to it, a bit to the left and lower, sits a man who bought fruit and vegetables for his home.
There is much wisdom here, of course, but I suggest that Amichai is wrong. At the end of the day, those who will constitute the Jewish people in 2065 will be those who recognize that both the “arch from the Roman period” (the tradition) and the “man who bought fruit and vegetables for his home” (the contemporary) need to be celebrated and affirmed.
Jacob J. Schacter is University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University, where he is also a senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future.
The Jewish community is indeed experiencing the best of times and worst of times.
On one hand, the 2013 Pew study paints a picture of an American Jewish community in the throes of transformation: Jewish religious observance is on the decline, young Jews’ interest in traditional institutions is waning, and Israel’s standing within the Jewish community and on the world stage continues to face mounting challenges.
On the other, “Jewish” as a descriptor is on the upswing. Young Jews continue to identify as Jewish, even if “in name only,” and families of mixed faith are embracing their Jewish roots. A rapidly growing number of Jews, moreover, consider themselves to be a part of the Jewish people without devoting themselves to religious practices.
So what does this portend for the future? Challenges will remain, to be sure, but I believe the positive trends we see today will give way to a stronger, more vibrant, and sustainable community.
Even in a saturated marketplace of ideas, Jewish thought has demonstrated its extraordinary potential to speak to an increasing number of people. Many Jews—by birth, marriage, and, especially, choice—are weaving “Jewish” into their daily lives and drawing on their Jewish identities to inform who they are as global citizens.
The onset of this trend is spurred by the transcendence of Jewish values. Distilled from Jewish text and tradition, Jewish values are more relevant than ever. They call us to serve others, to build strong families and communities, to love and cherish Israel as a centerpiece of the Jewish experience, to defend justice, to ensure all have the opportunity to learn and treat everyone with mercy, kindness, care, and respect. They call us to play our part in making a positive difference in the world. Many of these are universal values, but it is their connection to Jewish thought and their call to action that serve as the strongest ties binding the global Jewish people together.
These values also create the basis of “conscious Judaism,” what I see as a rising form of Jewish expression. Conscious Judaism stems from the desire to live with Jewish intention. From Buenos Aires to Warsaw, young Jews are thinking critically, taking action, exploring their spirituality and finding solutions to complex problems through a Jewish lens. Their involvement in Jewish life is not cultural or habitual, but rather borne of an impetus to live with meaning in a community of others doing the same.
Fifty years from now, I believe the number of conscious Jews will vastly outnumber strict adherents of religious Judaism, redefining our concept of who is a Jew from one based solely on descent to one more broadly defined by connection and choice. In turn, there will be more opportunities for people to make Jewish thought and values part of how they live and love and engage with the world.
Admittedly, many questions remain. Just as the number of conscious Jews rise, the number of religious Jews outside of the ultra-Orthodox community will probably decline. If today is any indicator, there will continue to be tension between religious and secular counterparts, both of whom constitute the sum of the Jewish people. How will the two groups interact? How do we remain at once united and truly inclusive? And as a people who have been defined by our religion for millennia, how will we shape our role in the world moving forward?
We are headed for a new era of Jewish life, one in which individuals can express who they are and what they stand for in a way that is directly supported by their Jewish identities and a diverse global Jewish people.
This shift, however, is not inevitable. Our challenge over the coming years will be to ensure that all those interested have the opportunity to engage with Jewish tradition and peoplehood in meaningful ways.
It will take hard work to get there. It will require creativity, risk, and unprecedented partnership among emerging and existing institutions. It will require broad acceptance that there is no singular way to be or define Jewish.
But I also know that we have a choice. We can give in to the negative forces at play or we can use every opportunity to bring the positive forces to the fore. By choosing the latter, we can help more and more people embrace Jewish life and values and, in doing so, shape a brighter future for the Jewish people. Consciously.
To have the power of prophecy today, states the Talmud, is to be a fool or a child. So while I make no claim to prophetic powers, I’m confident regarding the future of the Jewish world.
On January 1, 2000, the New York Times printed a Millennium Edition featuring its front cover from January 1, 1900, the actual cover of that day’s paper, and a fictional one dated January 1, 2100.
For some time, the Times had been running a weekly ad each Friday on its front page. The little box—sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch—noted that week’s Shabbat candle-lighting time and encouraged Jewish women and girls to take part. With the Times’s fictional cover a century hence falling out on a Friday, its editors included the same little box in the corner calling on Jewish women and girls to light the Shabbat candles.
Urban legend has it that it was an Irish-Catholic editor at the paper who pushed for its inclusion. “We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100,” he reportedly said. “But of one thing you can be certain . . . in the year 2100 Jewish women will be lighting Shabbat candles.”
This story illustrates why I’m optimistic about the Jewish future. Despite gloomy studies and predictions, I believe we will be strong as a people precisely because of the Shabbat candles and tefillin and the many other mitzvoth of the Torah. For the key to Jewish survival and continuity has been, is today, and will remain, our study of Torah and practice of mitzvoth. Quality Jewish education, Shabbat candles, kashrut, tefillin, these are the practices that connect us to G-d Almighty and sustain us as a nation. They always have, and always will.
A quick look at our history will prove as much. Movements within Judaism that parted with traditional practice did not survive the test of time; they are simply gone. Today, seeing their participation rates declining as members either drop everything or turn to more traditional options, liberal denominations have chosen to move closer to the traditional Jewish practices they wrote off as outdated and shunned for decades.
Jewish continuity has never been very far removed from practice, a few generations at most.
Torah and mitzvoth are the tools that we have to make the mundane around us sacred, to fulfill our missions as individuals and as a nation, and ultimately the only authentic way for us as Jews to connect to the Divine.
While the story of our survival is ultimately miraculous, we have always been an optimistic people. Centuries ago, Maimonides included the belief in the arrival of Moshiach and the messianic era in his Thirteen Principles of Faith, practically mandating optimism according to Jewish law. More recently, following the devastation of the Holocaust and a general malaise within the Jewish world, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, insisted that a bright future lay ahead for the Jewish people, and he worked incessantly to make it a reality.
It remains in our own hands to shape the Jewish future. We need to take responsibility for our future by acting now to increase our own Jewish practice, because if as individuals we are not growing as Jews, then we are receding. It doesn’t need to start big; it can begin with a single mitzvah. Take ownership of that mitzvah in a way that it becomes one with us and then share that mitzvah’s beauty with others. Inspire others to find their mitzvah. Then find another mitzvah and repeat.
It’s this small, step-by-step approach that has allowed the Jewish people to survive and ultimately thrive. Hand-wringing about the future and pouring millions of dollars into studies and committees—as well-intentioned as these efforts might be—will not find a new, shiny answer to the problems of continuity. We have the answer. Doing a mitzvah ourselves, encouraging our friends and families to do so as well, that’s what works.
Fifteen years have passed since the Times Millennium Edition, and the state of Jewish observance is strong and growing. The same can’t be said about the ad revenue for the New York Times print edition. The millions who once saw the candle-lighting notice in print in the paper of record have been replaced by millions more who find candle-lighting times on Chabad.org via their tablets, smartphone apps, and social media.
The condition of the Jewish people will only get stronger in 50 years, but it is up to us to accept the responsibility to make that the reality.
Motti Seligson is a rabbi and the director of media relations at Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center.
Throughout history the Jewish people have had a disproportionate impact on the intellectual, moral, and economic development of civilization.
As a people, our greatest impact has often been through unpopular ideas. For example, in the ancient, pagan world, we stood against idolatry and child sacrifice. When we went into exile, we did not disappear like most defeated peoples but managed to preserve our identity over two millennia.
Can Jewish contributions to the world be sustained over the course of the next half-century?
They certainly can, but the key to sustaining Jewish exceptionalism is in sustaining Jewish continuity, particularly in the face of growing trends of assimilation. Outsized contribution to the world is not a sufficient condition for Jewish strength, but it is a necessary one. This means it’s impossible to imagine a great future for the Jewish people without the central place of Israel in Jewish life. Roughly half of our people live in the Jewish state, and the fate of Jews cannot be separated from the fate of Israel. Israel’s contributions to the modern world are countless, but perhaps the underappreciated story is its radiating effects on technological modernization and Israel’s penchant for solving complex global problems, such as water droughts, cyber insecurity, and widespread medical challenges. Israel may be shamefully vilified by other nations on security matters, but it is increasingly admired and sought after as a partner in innovation.
Fifty years from now, the developing and developed worlds will be unrecognizable. Health care, energy, education, employment, transportation, agriculture, and life-sciences sectors will be dramatically altered. And Israel and the Jewish people are perfectly positioned to lead this global transformation. The power of Israel’s innovation revolution, in turn, will strengthen Israel’s position in the world. We can already see how the early phase of this revolution directly affects the Jewish state.
Imagine you were told of a Western country whose population had the highest percentage in the West of those in the 20–40-year-old age bracket, among the highest fertility rates in the world, and skyrocketing rates of immigration, with most of the immigrants young and skilled, and entrepreneurial workers relocating from Europe. And imagine if this same country had one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, the only Western economy with both falling debt levels and a rising labor-participation rate, and a growth trajectory immune to regional security threats and global economic crises.
These trends are exactly what Israel has been experiencing for some time—and it can be the future of the Jewish state for the next half-century. For Israel, economic success is a strategic—indeed, an existential—issue. Economic stagnation would make it impossible to sustain the national power necessary to deter and confront Israel’s enemies while exacerbating social tensions. Economic growth and widespread prosperity can cover a multitude of deficiencies.
The Israeli economy will continue to be largely immune to worldwide slowdowns because of the flexibility of its thousands of technology start-ups that export and are dispersed across many industries. Israel’s percentage of GDP that comes from exports is one of the highest in the world (more than 30 percent) and is not based on commodities exports, which can be volatile in times of global crisis.
Will Israel continue to attract talented and entrepreneurial immigrants? Absolutely. In addition to the spiritual, cultural, and Zionist attractiveness of building a life in Israel—which has always been a draw for Israeli immigrants—now and going forward there is also an economic pull. Israel’s economy is growing while most other Western economies are flat on their back. Indeed, Israel has overcome the 2008 crisis better than, and its population is younger than that of, any other major economy in the developed world. Israel’s GDP growth gap with the rest of the world—especially with aging populations in the West—will help Israel offer Jews around the planet work and prosperity that other economies are failing to offer.
Israel also offers a unique combination of technological and intellectual-cultural contributions. Silicon Valley has the former; many European capitals have the latter. But nowhere outside of Israel do technology, entrepreneurialism, history, and culture all thrive in one place. The Jewish state is home to both the highest density of start-ups in the world and the highest number of museums and world-class universities. All these aspects of Israeli life reinforce one another and turbocharge Israeli society. It is a nation distinguished by its dynamism.
The future belongs to nations that combine creative energy, talent, knowledge, and ability to get things done. This is Israel’s sweet spot. It’s what so many countries are trying to emulate.
If Israel is increasingly seen as a “light unto the nations” in innovation terms, Israel will be strengthened economically, diplomatically, in the quality of life it offers to its people and the example it offers to the world. As the basis for Diaspora engagement with the Jewish state becomes less about survival, less about Israel as a charity project and more about a bracing place to live and to build and to dream, the Jewish state will not only be a light unto the nations but to the Jewish people themselves, strengthening their attachment to and identification with their homeland.
Dan Senor is co-author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. A former adviser to the administration of George W. Bush, he is currently an executive at Elliott Management.
What will the situation of Israel and the Jewish people be in 50 years, when Commentary celebrates its 120th birthday? I can envision three possible scenarios, one utopian, one pessimistic, and one realistic.
Fifty years from now, the free world will have completed its first post-national, postmodern century. During this period, the liberal states of Europe, seeking to move beyond parochial nationalism, first deliberately weakened their religious and cultural attachments and opened their borders to throngs of outsiders, many of whom did not share their core beliefs. Having thus abandoned identity for the thin freedom of moral relativism, these societies will ultimately find that they lack a sense of purpose and the determination to survive as liberal states. Under threat of collapse from the weight of millions upon millions of new citizens and refugees, they will come to look admiringly or enviously at one nation—Israel—that took a very different path, proudly preserving its historical identity alongside its liberal commitments and thereby remaining a vibrant, modern democracy.
Meanwhile, the other nations of the Middle East will have undergone a catastrophe of even greater proportions, a result of their choice to eschew freedom for security and identity. For decades, secular dictatorships in the region sustained a form of stability by denying their citizens the most basic rights. Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism, operating in an ideological vacuum, grew by speaking to those citizens’ unfulfilled need for belonging and meaning. As the old dictatorships crumble and fall, the fundamentalism they helped stoke will completely destroy any chance of freedom. The desperate struggle between secular tyranny and religious extremism will erase borders and destroy entire countries, and will force those who desire liberty to flee or look wistfully at the one country in the region—again, Israel—that managed to support it.
It might seem, looking at this projected state of world affairs 50 years hence, that the two most basic human needs—to be free and to belong, to have a sustaining identity—are irreconcilable. Yet I believe that one nation will continue to successfully combine them despite innumerable challenges. The tiny Jewish state will not only continue to be a beacon of liberty, preserving fundamental rights for all its citizens, but will also stay true to its historical purpose as a home for the Jewish people and a guardian of its civilization. The increasingly acute failures of other nations to strike such a balance will, I believe, confirm to more and more Jews the distinct merit of Zionism and help strengthen their commitment to it.
The remaining question is whether other nations will recognize this merit as well. The ideal scenario, the first of three, is that the world will come to see Israel as a model for the successful union of freedom and identity, and regard the Jewish state with corresponding warmth and admiration. Alternatively, it is possible that our success will only grate, generating resentment and familiar arguments about the Jewish role in causing other people’s problems, from the loss of self-confidence in Europe (“Postmodernism was a Jewish-Marxist innovation!”) to the rise of fundamentalism in the Middle East (“The result of Zionist occupation!”). The third and most realistic scenario is that Israel’s steadfast commitment to its historical path will generate a mixture of respect and scorn, deep support and virulent criticism. And Israel, as it has already learned to do, will have to live with both of its roles: light unto the nations and global scapegoat.
Meanwhile, Zionism will continue to provide a bulwark against Jewish assimilation, as the unfolding of world affairs confirms time and again its necessity and virtue. The Diaspora will become smaller in absolute numerical terms, while the Orthodox sector within it grows proportionally larger. Those in the Diaspora who chose not to move to Israel yet whose commitment to the Jewish people is not defined solely by faith will become more closely connected to the Jewish state, finding new ways to be a part of life here or even splitting their time between Israel and homes abroad. Meanwhile, we will see the development of more streamlined institutions to allow cooperation between the two communities, including, I hope, a second chamber in the Knesset giving Diaspora Jews a voice and even a vote on certain issues, along with a more direct stake in the relationship.
In short, we have much to look forward to.
Natan Sharansky is Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency. He was a human-rights activist and former political prisoner in the former Soviet Union and minister and deputy prime minister in four Israeli governments.
American Jewry feels like a community in decline. Lower birthrates, later marriage, and high rates of intermarriage are the norm among most American Jews. In the next generation, not only will there be many fewer Jews, but there will be fewer committed, educated, philanthropic, and politically engaged Jews. We are witness to a steady erosion in both the quantity and quality of Jewish life in the United States. Of course the exception to the grim demographic picture is the explosion of life in the Orthodox community. There, higher birthrates, earlier marriage, and negligible intermarriage are the norm. But Orthodoxy, no matter how robust its growth or how great its confidence, remains too parochial to take on the mantle of leadership for the whole of the American Jewish community. Reading today’s evidence, the question of the hour becomes: Can there be a viable non-Orthodoxy to serve future generations? If there can be, what would it look like and how can it be fortified and nourished to change this rather bleak future?
This year, I glimpsed such a Judaism, and I would like to offer a distillation of its essential elements. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the local Jewish Community Center hosts an annual gathering for the holiday of Shavuot. Traditionally, Shavuot is spent all night in the study of Torah, eagerly reenacting the anticipation the Jews felt before the revelation. At the JCC, there are such traditional classes, but there are also lectures, book readings, discussions, and all manner of dance, music, and poetry. The environment allows for a more traditional observance but is clearly pitched to a knowledgeable but more cosmopolitan milieu. All night, these thousands of people share time and space, experiencing a Jewish holiday, studying Torah (broadly construed) together.
These people seem to represent a Jewish life that transcends denomination but has a seriousness and depth of substance at its core. What brings such a huge, variegated swath of people together? Not politics or social causes. There is far too great a range of opinion on these matters. Nor are they unified by belief, philanthropic commitments, or ritual practice. There is no one common language spoken—I had conversations in Hebrew, English, and Spanish over the holiday. Here is what these people seem to have in common:
Jewish social networks. All the participants have Jewish friends. This is not to be underestimated. Young Jews are among the most hyper-social human beings to ever live on earth. And yet most young Jews today have one Jewish parent, not two, and two Jewish grandparents, not four. Most do not live in a Jewish neighborhood or go to a Jewish school. It is difficult to imagine how one builds a serious Jewish life without having a rich social network.
Jewish community. The Shavuot gathering is not a small subset of friends, but the interlocking of many, many groups of friends. These people chose to be in community together.
Jewish calendar. These people chose to celebrate a Jewish holiday on the traditional calendar rather than give Jewish flavor to more global, American values. This gathering was unabashedly Shavuot, on the correct day with its proper name and observances.
Love of Torah. This gathering demonstrated a voracious love of Torah study. An infinite variety of classes, lectures, study sessions—some traditional and some radical—nonetheless testified to a commitment to content. This was not Judaism-lite.
Rich diversity. The Shavuot gathering featured Hasidim and secularists, straight and queer, Israeli and American, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. It allowed for deep, rich encounters between Jews of different stripes.
I am arguing that these features constitute not only a description of the vibrant Jewish life of Manhattan, but that they can be a prescription for building a viable non-Orthodox Judaism in the future. What if we were to take seriously the priorities of social networks, communities, living the calendar, love of Torah, and rich diversity as the sine qua non of a flourishing non-Orthodox Judaism in the United States? A few policy implications might emerge. First, we would take seriously the idea of building rich Jewish social networks. Much of the Jewish community is animated by the idea that Jews will participate in community if it is meaningful. This is only half true. Judaism must be meaningful, but it needs social support. Second, we would internalize the idea that people want more content not less. Jews seek a serious, deep Judaism, not just a Jewish patina—a biblical verse here, a Talmudic quotation there—to plaster on their more worldly values. Third, we would recognize that living according to the traditional calendar provides a common framework that can be deepened or repurposed but should not be supplanted.
These principles could guide both the far left and moderate right. They could create a shared basis that could provide for both the continuity and cultural vitality of the Jewish people in North America. They could point to a future beyond the dark horizon before us.
Dan Smokler is a rabbi and the chief innovation officer of Hillel International.
December 1, 2065
Moab, Utah—Amid the natural arches, desert landscapes, and mountain views of the American west, Yoav Ascher is re-creating his homeland as a sprawling 105-acre resort, complete with its own River Jordan, Masada fortress, and Tel Aviv, the former name of the city known today as Tal Al-Rabia.
“I want to give Americans the full Israeli experience as I remember it,” says the Jerusalem (Al Quds)-born Ascher, 72, who came to Utah 14 years ago, shortly after the former Jewish state voted to nullify its own independence. “It had positive elements, too, you know.”
To that end, guests of the Holy Land Experience and Adventure, or HLEA, are greeted at his art deco–style village and hotel by a staff dressed in the olive-green fatigues of the old Israeli army. A large courtyard wall is designed to resemble a scaled-down version of historic Jerusalem’s Western Wall, complete with little cracks in which to stick scribbled prayers. Kosher wines from California are served at all three of the resort’s restaurants, each named after a former Israeli city: The Jerusalem (serving traditional Middle Eastern cuisine), The Herzliya (high-end European), and The Eilat (casual seafood).
Built on the banks of the Colorado River, the resort also seeks to capture the varied landscapes of Palestine. A specially designed high-salinity pool allows bathers to float in the water as if they were in the Dead Sea. A copse of trees by the river shades a natural baptismal pool, into which Ascher has built stone steps for religious occasions. The Masada complex, built on a flat hilltop across the river, “minutely reproduces the archeological site before its complete destruction in 2051,” Ascher claims. He is also planning a high-end shopping arcade that he says will capture the spirit of old Tel Aviv. “It’s hard to believe today, but it really was this modern, cosmopolitan, easy-going place.”
For more outgoing guests, Ascher offers the Negev Tour, which whisks them by zodiac boat up the river for two days of Bedouin-style luxury camping near Arches National Park. Camel-riding is a popular activity for clients of all ages.
Ascher was not always as enthusiastic about his native land as he is today.
“When I was young I thought that Israel was the source of the problem in our neighborhood, and therefore we held the keys to the solution,” he says. “I thought that if we could share the land, our problems would end, not begin.”
Ascher’s idealism was put to the test as a young diplomat when he served in the Israeli Embassy in Palestine—located in East Jerusalem, just a few miles from his childhood home on the western side of the city. Ascher was one of six diplomats rescued from the embassy massacre in July 2021, in which 43 Jews were killed.
Ascher later served as a diplomat in Stockholm, but left government service after the Scandinavian states severed relations with Tel Aviv at the outset of the second Israeli–Iranian war. The war, a pyrrhic victory for Israel, led to the first mass exodus of Jewish Israelis after a nuclear weapon destroyed the coastal city of Ashdod (known today as Azdud).
“Constantly having to fight our enemies in our neighborhood, constantly having to argue with our friends in the West, constantly wrestling with our own consciences, our doubts, our guilt—it just became psychologically exhausting,” Ascher explains. “After Ashdod, anyone who could find a way to get out took it. Anyway, the demography wasn’t on the Jewish side, even in our downsized state.”
In 2051, the Israeli parliament, by then evenly split between Arab members, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and a dwindling Zionist minority, voted to dissolve the state in favor of a union with its Palestinian neighbor. In a signature act, the U.S. Congress agreed to extend U.S. citizenship to any former Jewish-Israeli requesting it. Seven million Jews have now settled in the United States; another million went to Canada and approximately 500,000 to Australia.
As for historic Palestine, all that remains of the Jewish population is a small religious community in the historic town of Safed, under the formal protection of the Shiite Alliance of Galilee and the Beqaa.
Though Ascher misses his homeland, he is philosophical about its fate. “The Crusader kingdoms lasted for about a century, and we lasted about the same,” he says. “History has its logic. The small cannot survive the big. Smart people can’t outrun dumb facts. Could we have changed our destiny? Only by a little. At least most of us survived.”
Even today, the controversies of the past have not faded from the present. Hannah Levin, a graduate student in international relations at the University of Utah, led a small protest last Wednesday in Moab against HLEA. “Mr. Ascher’s fantasy hotel glorifies colonialism, it glorifies racism, it glorifies an aspect of Jewish identity which shames me and which I reject,” says Ms. Levin.
Most Moabians, however, seem pleased with Ascher’s resort and look forward to its expansion. “It’s a cool hotel, I love the food,” says local resident Brigham Johnson, 27. “And Utah is the promised land anyway.”
Bret Stephens, the foreign-affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, now just out in paperback.
Jonathan S. Tobin
The challenges facing world Jewry always make pessimism seem smart. Yet a sober look at Israel’s progress against the odds compels us to believe optimism is warranted. The same cannot be said about Jewish communities elsewhere.
As a nation that has been perpetually at war, Israel’s future has always been a function of crisis management. These crises will continue as the rise of ISIS and a nuclear deal that strengthens Iran are altering the strategic equation in the Middle East for the worse. When one considers the nonexistent prospects for real peace with the Palestinians, it becomes clear that Israel will have to be as heavily armed and on guard against external threats in 2065 as it is today.
Yet contrary to the laments from the Jewish left and the hopes of those who wish for Israel’s demise, that is no cause for pessimism. Israel has thrived under such circumstances throughout its history, and there is no reason to believe that this will cease to be the case. The 2014 war with Hamas proved again the cohesiveness of Israeli society and the willingness of its people to defend their country. The prospect of a continued stalemate with the Palestinians is a dismal one, but, as in the past, the coming years will show that Israelis have the ability to continue to wait until their foes give up the dream of their elimination and prosper as they do so.
From a historical perspective, Israel is an experiment that is still in its infancy. Its problems, though serious, will not sink it. It has gone from being an economic backwater burdened by socialist myths to a First World economic power. The exploitation of natural-gas and shale-oil reserves will, if properly managed, accelerate that transformation. And though the secular-religious conflict poses an existential threat, the assumption that Haredim are monolithic and will always resist modernity may prove mistaken.
The Israel of 2065 will be different from the one we know today, just as contemporary Israel is unrecognizable from the perspective of 1985, let alone 1948. But it is the future of the Jewish people, and the recent past compels us to have faith in it. Though new trials await Zionism in the next half-century, no one should doubt that Israelis will continue to meet those challenges.
But such optimism about the Diaspora is unfounded.
The rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout the world gives the lie to the idea that Jewish life can thrive in Europe. If even in the capitals of enlightened Western Europe, Jews are forced to give up identifying themselves in public, and to renounce support for Israel in order to retain their standing in elite circles, there is little hope that the reconstitution of Jewish existence there is viable.
As for the United States, I believe we can count on the persistence of American exceptionalism to ensure that the virus of anti-Semitism doesn’t take root here as it has elsewhere. But the demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry that was documented by the 2013 Pew survey means that by 2065 the community here will be much smaller, less imbued with a sense of Jewish peoplehood, and no longer able to sustain its infrastructure or political influence. It might have been possible to halt or even to reverse the toll of assimilation and intermarriage had drastic measures been undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the release of the Pew report. But the shameful failure of the organized Jewish world to respond to this crisis with even a tone of alarm, let alone the necessary action, means this process will continue to its unfortunate yet logical conclusion.
A thriving Orthodox sector and the persistence of core groups of other denominations ensures Jewish life won’t disappear in America. But in 50 years a critical mass of those with Jewish ties will not be affiliated with the community or even be, in any meaningful sense, Jewish. In the past century American Jewry was an engine of Jewish revival. Its decline will have a negative impact on Jewish civilization as well as the security of the international community, making Israel and Zionism even more important to the Jewish future.
Although I am not an anthropologist or sociologist, as a rabbi for almost 50 years I have often reflected not only on contemporary Jewish life, but on what Jewish life could look like years from now. With this forward-looking attitude, I have always tried to be a step ahead, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.
In short, I predict a reconfiguration of affiliated Jewry into three new camps.
On the right side of the religious spectrum, the various Haredi communities—Hasidim, Mitnagdim, Sephardim, as well as the more extreme wing of Chabad—will recognize that they have more in common than not. The “neo-Haredi” Roshei Yeshiva from RIETS (Yeshiva University) will find more common ground with this faction. United, their power will increase.
But with the world increasingly becoming a global village through the Internet and social media, we will witness a drop-off rate in these communities. Young Yeshiva students exposed to outside ideas and influences will in larger numbers abandon their insular worlds. The up-till-now astronomical growth rate of the Haredi community, moreover, will slow down as the Haredim will find it more difficult to sustain larger families in this economic climate. Finally, Haredi women employed in higher-powered jobs will be inspired to be more assertive and vocal in their respective communities.
On the other end of the spectrum, we will witness an amalgamation of the liberal communities. The Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal denominations will overcome their differences and unite. Among their followers we will encounter two strands: those in the Diaspora and those in Israel. Liberal Jews in the Diaspora will place a greater emphasis on ritual as the religious anchor of their community.
Despite the present ambivalence of many in the liberal community toward Israel, in the coming decades a dramatic shift will occur as thousands of liberal Jews who identify more nationally than religiously will move to Israel. This boon in non-Orthodox aliyah will occur because many liberal Jews will realize that Israel—whose very rhythm is Jewish—is a more conducive place to express their Jewish identity.
A third camp, in the middle of the spectrum, will be made up of a growing community of halakhically committed Jews. From this camp—one with which I identify—there will emerge an inclusionary Orthodoxy that empowers women to be more involved in Jewish ritual and spiritual leadership; invites religious questioning; promotes dialogue across the Jewish spectrum; welcomes people regardless of sexual orientation or level of religious observance; and looks outward, driven by a sense of responsibility to all people.
We are seeing the fruits of this growing camp already in the International Rabbinic Fellowship, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and JOFA in America. There are parallels in Beit Hillel, Yeshivat Ma’alei Gilboa, and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah in Israel. I predict that we will also witness the more conservative wing of Hadar and the more progressive graduates of Chabad, Yeshiva University, and Yeshivat Har Etzion (the “Gush”) joining this community. Indeed, in my travels I have found that young Jews are searching for a Judaism that is rooted but not stagnant, open but with boundaries.
Among what may be the largest group of Diaspora Jews, the unaffiliated, I believe that, contrary to the pundits and the Pew-type reports of the death of the search for God among young Jews, in the next 50 years we will see a renewed search for God. In a world where technology has brought people closer together yet further apart, there will be a backlash as people will yearn to find meaning in their lives. Many more young Jewish men and women will be attracted to spiritual leadership to meet this desperate need.
In Israel, too, the emerging search for greater religious meaning beyond the Orthodox community will continue to spiral. This will be enabled by the dramatic dissipation of the centralized power of the Chief Rabbinate. Each community will be given the right to choose its own spiritual leaders.
The Jewish population in Israel will increase dramatically. In the short run, Israel will continue to face serious physical challenges, but in the long run, threats against Israel will recede. Jews worldwide will not be coming to Israel out of fear, but to live more meaningful Jewish lives. A significant number of these olim will come from the inclusionary modern and open Orthodox, cutting into the vibrancy of this community in America. In addition, third and fourth generations of Israeli yordim (émigrés from Israel) will return home. Finally, with the likelihood of shorter travel time between Israel and the United States, many more people will commute to work between the two countries. As this upsurge evolves, Israel will become more open to embracing converts, especially those born to Jewish fathers.
Whether there will be one or two states between the Mediterranean and Jordan River, Israel will continue to be a Jewish state, with Diaspora communities—much smaller in number than today, all over the world. Israel will be the place where the national destiny of Am Yisrael will be realized. It will be the only place where we, as a people, will have the sovereignty and autonomy to drive our own course, carve our unique path, and join others in bringing light to the world.
If someone would have asked me 50 years ago, after the Holocaust, when we stood with signs that read Never Again, whether Jews would face the challenges we face today, specifically a virulent anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Israelism, I would have said “never.” And yet, here we are.
Despite our physical threats and spiritual challenges, I continue to remain optimistic.
I know I will not be around to see whether any of these predictions come true, but I offer the following blessing: God created a beautiful world, a world that too many are trying to make ugly. And we have been blessed with a Torah and a land of promise and hope.
And so, whether my predictions here come true or not, it’s our sacred responsibility to do all we can to light the darkness, for our people and the larger world.
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat, and co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.
The contours of American Jewish life 50 years hence are not difficult to imagine if we project current trends forward. A much smaller population than today will engage actively with Judaism and the needs of the Jewish people. Within this group, the Orthodox will play an outsize role. Owing to their strong pro-natal norms and commitments to perpetuating Jewish life, they will bear children well above replacement level and retain enough of their offspring to maintain strong communities. Alongside them will live the descendants of Conservative and Reform Jews, who will fashion eclectic Jewish identities from cultural, Hebraic, Israel-centric, and religious/spiritual elements. Whether most will identify with a particular religious denomination is an open question. But in any event, local cultures, not national movements and organizations, will prevail. Innovative and energetic communities will attract enough of the shrunken Jewish middle to sustain a vibrant non-Orthodox life in perhaps as many as a dozen urban centers.
There also will be millions of Americans of partial Jewish ancestry with no sustained connection to Jewish life. Like their counterparts in today’s Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, these descendants of intermarried Jews may attempt to reconnect with some aspect of Jewishness episodically, but only a minority will rejoin the Jewish people. A legion of outreach workers will strive to draw more of these people into Jewish engagement, probably with only limited success. At best, the descendants of most intermarried Jews might contribute to a philo-Semitic climate in American society, but they will not reverse the dramatic loss of Jewish political and economic influence once active Jews constitute less than half of 1 percent of the American populace.
Such would seem to be the future, assuming a straight-line evolution of current trends. Judging from the past, though, it is highly unlikely that anything of the sort will occur. We need only think of how even the most farsighted person living a century ago and projecting trends in Jewish life 50 years into the future could not have anticipated what remade the world between 1915 and 1965—the two world wars, the Communist oppression of Eastern Europe and much of Asia, the remarkable technological and scientific advances, the generally constructive leadership role of America on the world stage, and the attendant rise of its Jewish community as a force in international Jewish affairs, coupled with the miraculous establishment of a Jewish state for the first time in nearly two millennia.
Instead of imagining what American Jewish life will be like in 50 years, we might ask more productively: What is necessary to ensure that, come what may, Jews will have the means to persevere? Here the past may serve as a guide. Our ancestors prepared for the future by putting in place a number of essential building blocks. First, they regarded Judaic literacy among males as a fundamental birthright. We need to expand the range of thoroughly literate Jews to include females and males, older and younger people. Grounded in a deep understanding of Jewish civilization, these literate populations will develop creative and Judaically resonant responses to new circumstances. Second, Jewish life thrives when Jews inhabit communities infused with a “thick” culture. Socializing in extensive Jewish networks, engaging passionately in matters of concern, and contributing to Jewish conversations—these are all vital for sustaining Jews in good times and bad. And third, in order to bring meaning to the lives of Jews, Judaic culture must be understood as a counterculture, not merely a pale imitation of prevailing ways of thinking. To be Jewish means to view the world through a distinctive set of spectacles. And that requires Jews to ground themselves in the formative texts of their tradition and to find meaning in alternative ways of being and thinking offered by Judaism. Engaged Jews will not shrink from addressing the wider society unapologetically, even as they assert their special responsibility to one another.
American Jews can forecast their collective future no more than each of us can know the trajectory of our own lives. History will continue to unfold unpredictably, giving rise to both destructive upheaval and extraordinary human ingenuity. Our task is to ensure that 50 years hence, the engaged population of American Jews will have the tools to respond with confidence, common purpose, and Jewish understanding.
Jack Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Ruth R. Wisse
When the 2065 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Israel Defense Forces, it merely confirmed what Israel had learned and tried to teach others for a half century: Democratic societies encourage peace by protecting whatever they achieve. Unless they invest in defense the same resources they do in self-improvement, they incite meaner cultures to target them for conquest.
The Jewish people had learned this lesson the hard way. As a self-defined minority, its need for acceptance by surrounding nations made it eager to compromise and reluctant to go to war. This reputation for acquiescence originally helped to foment Arab and Muslim ambitions against a country that had been under foreign occupation for 2,000 years and against a people that had not been able to recover its sovereignty, much less protect its members, for the greater part of its history. With such images of frailty in mind, the more Israel prospered, the more fanatically some of its neighbors determined to destroy it.
Indeed, in its early decades Israel fell back into familiar Jewish patterns of political accommodation. Forced into wars that won it sustainable borders, its leaders were lured into phony deals with catastrophic consequences. In 1993, when Israel conceded authority to Yasir Arafat, it became the first country in history to arm its enemy with the expectation of gaining security. Subsequent retreats from hard-won territory inspired the explosion rather than promised termination of Arab attacks. Sobered finally by the expansion of anti-Jewish hate propaganda, terrorism, and cyberwarfare, and Iran’s intention of making Israel a “one-bomb state,” Jews realized that God protects only those who do it themselves. The disciplined power of the IDF gradually damped down at least some of the region’s carnage, and only thus did hostilities begin to subside.
The 10 million Jews of Israel now living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River do not yet equal and perhaps may never equal the almost 17 million of 1939, but they are far more secure in body and spirit than those of 2015. Although economic advantages were not enough to persuade local Arabs to accept the eternity of Israel, many Arabs were heartened by the establishment of the Jordan-Palestine Confederation that offered citizenship to those who preferred it to living in the Jewish State. There have been joint ventures between the two polities on water, transportation, tourism, trade, and industry. Educational collaboration, cultural interchange, and reciprocal diplomatic and security measures have been transforming the once suicidal-homicidal Palestinian-Arab population into a competitive-cooperative society.
None of this could have begun until Israel’s security was attained and acknowledged. It therefore augurs well for the international community to have the Nobel Peace Prize Jury recognize the merits of a soldiering democracy. Citing the high standards of Israel’s military code of ethics, the conduct of its soldiers in battle, and the crucial role of the IDF in protecting its citizenry, the testimonial affirms, “Discouraging aggression paves the road to peace.” Would that America had followed Israel’s example.
The pincers of medievalism and defensiveness will continue to narrow the mentality of part of the Jewish people who mistake rigidness for faithfulness, copying the worldwide fundamentalist wave. Another coterie of Jews, prideful in their universalism that tosses aside the hard-hewn beauty of our ancestor’s legacy, will vanish.
God will bless those who hold the center. They are the future of the Jewish people. Neither Karaites nor Hellenizers, they represent the rabbinic tradition in its truest sense; firm but flexible, faithful but skeptical, genuinely modern Jews who disdain neither the insights of science nor the wisdom of Torah. Some will have been trained in old-style institutions (the faithful of Lakewood, New Jersey, are educating the next generation’s conservative Jews, after all), and others will come from nothing, the shofar having struck a deep and surprising note in the once secular soul. No matter their initial training—the desire to embrace an unblinkered but passionate Judaism will prevail. The rabbinic spirit will reinvigorate an ossified, over-institutionalized remnant, bringing new sparkle to the blank stare reproduced in a thousand religious-school classrooms.
Does that seem improbable? Modern yavnehs, pods cast from the mother ship, are incubating just such tough-minded Jews. The social movement is systolic and diastolic: The center is shrinking and then will expand. So long as Israel and the United States stay strong, Jews can revivify their inexhaustible texts, practices, theologies, and communal ties. It is unfashionable to be an optimist. But then, it is unfashionable to be a Jew.
Much of the Jewish world slips gently away, it is true. But faith in our tradition is not only faith in God, but in the self-renewing powers of our people. I may not live to see it, but “many that sleep in the dust shall awake” (Daniel, Chapter 12). Remember, as Rebbe Nachman teaches, the greatest sin is despair.
David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. His most recent book is David: The Divided Heart.
It is 2065, and the Jewish people are doing just fine.
The Jewish world is radically different from what it was a half-century before. America and Israel are the only Jewish communities of any consequence. About 100,000 Jews live in France, and nearly as many in both Great Britain and Germany, but Jewish populations elsewhere have dwindled into insignificance. The great Jewish Diaspora, outside of America, is no more, having given way to assimilation and aliyah to Israel.
But Jewish life in America flourishes. The Jewish community of 7 million souls is contentious and wildly diverse, but also Jewishly vibrant. Jews continue to do what they have always done in America: create a Judaism that works for them.
Orthodox Jews have more than doubled to 34 percent of the Jewish population. Almost two-thirds of these are Haredim, who live in enclaves apart from the American mainstream, mostly in the New York area. Their families are large and their devotion to Torah admirable, but the majority are quite poor and want mostly to be left alone.
Non-Haredi Orthodox Jews, modest in number, are split into two major factions and several minor ones. One major group ordains female rabbis, encourages conversion, finds a way to free agunot, and participates in theological dialogue with non-Jews. The other major group is uncomfortable with, but does not always oppose, each of these positions. Each faction has its own halakhic institutions, which disagree about almost everything, including about who can be called Orthodox.
Reform Jews are no less divided than the Orthodox. The “re-ritualization” of Reform, begun in the late 1900s, has continued unabated. In that sense, Reform Judaism is more “traditional” than it has ever been. Mikveh, kashrut, and tefillin have a place on the Reform spectrum, and serious Shabbat observance, liberally understood, is a central pillar of Reform life.
But Reform has also continued on a path of theological radicalism. Hostile to theological norms of any sort, it takes pride in its radical inclusivity. It is reluctant to define its borders and red lines, and who is in and who is out. Some Reform Jews are distressed by this absence of definition, while most are proud of the creativity and openness it engenders. Nearly 40 percent of American Jews still call themselves Reform, without agreeing on the meaning of the term.
American Jewry’s political clout has shrunk as its percentage of the general population has declined. It is no longer the political powerhouse it once was. But Jews are secure in America, and while their numerical growth is quite slow, the passionate pluralism of their religious life allows them to thrive.
American Jewish ties with Israel remain strong, due in some measure to Israel’s “Religious Revolution of 2025.” Prior to that time, religious turmoil was at its height; a third of Israelis left the country to have their marriages performed, and conversion to Judaism was essentially impossible. Finally, fed-up voters had had enough, a government was formed without the religious parties, and a far-reaching bill was passed that de-established synagogue and state. It called for each municipality to elect its religious leader and for the establishment of a single school system for the “secular” and “religious” populations.
Over the next 40 years, this law changed the face of Israel. Orthodox and non-Orthodox children came to understand one another, and hotly contested rabbinical elections pushed all candidates to moderate, centrist positions. When a Conservative rabbi was elected chief rabbi of Beersheba in 2031, it made headlines, but such developments soon became commonplace.
Orthodoxy, and especially the national religious camp, benefited most from the newly created “free market” in religion. Settler influence faded after the Saudis and the Arab league pushed the Palestinians into a two-state solution. But no longer held hostage by a coercive religious monopoly, national religious institutions flourished, contributing greatly to the spiritual vitality of Israeli life.
And the Reform and Conservative movements, while relatively small, shared in the general religious renewal, and all Israelis benefited from vigorous debates among the movements.
Israel today is not a religious utopia. But it is a country in which an end to Orthodox hegemony has produced a revived Orthodoxy, a growing progressive Judaism, broad pockets of religious commitment, serious Jewish education, and a major challenge to the spiritual emptiness that had so long characterized Israeli society.
Judaism is strong in 2065 in both Israel and America, and Jews in both countries look to each other for inspiration and spiritual sustenance.
Eric Yoffie, a lecturer and writer, was president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.
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The Jewish Future, Part 5
Must-Reads from Magazine
Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time donald trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
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Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
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The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
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The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
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It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disburse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandparents play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in Defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.