Commentary Magazine


Topic: Shaul Magid

American Jewry, the Holocaust, and the End of History

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and with it will come the usual raft of stories that fall into two categories. There are the stories marking the day’s solemnity, and the stories in which grouchy academics tell Jews, not in quite so many words, to get over it. Today also marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a stark reminder of the aging of the generation of survivors. And this year it’s Shaul Magid who has stepped into the fray to tell American Jews that they are not Europeans and they are not Israelis, and so they should stop frowning so much.

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and with it will come the usual raft of stories that fall into two categories. There are the stories marking the day’s solemnity, and the stories in which grouchy academics tell Jews, not in quite so many words, to get over it. Today also marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a stark reminder of the aging of the generation of survivors. And this year it’s Shaul Magid who has stepped into the fray to tell American Jews that they are not Europeans and they are not Israelis, and so they should stop frowning so much.

In an essay at Tablet, Magid, author of American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society, takes up the cause of Jacob Neusner and what he believes is Neusner’s “central thesis on American Judaism: The reception and in some cases mythicization of the Holocaust in American Jewry prevents American Jews from actualizing the distinct potential that exists for them to move beyond an identity founded on oppression and persecution, or ‘negative Judaism,’ and toward a new identity that trusts the world enough to view itself as an integral part of an open society.”

It’s a long essay, so I hesitate to try to summarize it here. It’s also meandering, unsteady, and not quite able to stand on its own two feet, so I don’t want to attribute to it a clarity it doesn’t possess. But here is a coherent enough excerpt to get the point:

What is perhaps more distinctive to American Jewry is the second condition: the way the disappearance of anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism as an imminent threat has obviated the need for a parochial social structure (I do not speak of the diminution of anti-Semitism worldwide, but only in America). When the need for social cohesion is removed, the perpetuation of collective identity must be generated from within. … Neusner argues that contemporary America, a society not plagued by anti-Semitism, is a new landscape that Jews must navigate in order to find resources other than pure ethnicity (ethnos) or negativity (the Holocaust) so as to construct a lasting sense of Jewish identity.

Given these two conditions, Jews in America have not abandoned the need, or desire, for a Jewish identity or “survival”; in fact, ironically, the notion of survival has arguably become an American Jewish obsession, as we can see by the collective Jewish hand-wringing that followed the 2013 Pew Poll. That is to say, survival becomes the primary concern, and even a dogma, of a collective void of any positive raison d’etre.

We’ll come back to the false, though mostly irrelevant, claim that survival is not a “positive raison d’etre.” The key here is that this argument is based on the conclusive idea that America is different. On its face, this is inarguable. But Magid, perhaps unintentionally, reveals what is so dangerous about this. He writes of the “Holocaust-Israel nexus” supposedly holding American Jews back: “it creates a Judaism whose foundations lie elsewhere (prewar Europe or Israel) making American Judaism ‘a spectator sport … spectators at someone else’s drama’.”

Well yes, American Judaism’s foundations lie elsewhere: Judaism is more than a few centuries old. American Judaism isn’t a separate religion—though many left-wing Jews in America do follow a politicized “Torah of Liberalism,” as Norman Podhoretz so accurately termed it. Judaism is not just its own history; Judaism is, in many ways, history itself. “Writing a history of the Jews is almost like writing a history of the world, but from a highly peculiar angle of vision,” wrote Paul Johnson in the introduction to his History of the Jews. “It is world history seen from the viewpoint of a learned and intelligent victim.” What’s more, Johnson adds that writing a history of the Jews enabled him to reconsider the very question, “what are we on earth for?”

He was able to do this, he writes, because he was examining a history spanning 4,000 years. Pace Magid and Neusner, a Judaism that looks back on its history is not a “negative Judaism.” It is a Judaism of self-knowledge and inspirational, miraculous persistence. And a Judaism that looks ahead (to Israel, for example) is not a Judaism unhappy in its present moment but rather one that embraces the future and its own capacity for turning darkness into light.

In the Mishnaic book Ethics of the Fathers, the Jews are taught: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” This is precisely what an American Judaism that self-consciously differentiates itself from the Jews of Europe and the Jews of Israel would do. Magid, Neusner, and others may see in Jewish history a depressing series of calamities. But that’s an incomplete interpretation that stems from giving up the “obsession” with survival. The full Jewish story is one of repeated triumph, courage, and piety against all odds.

That story is not a version of “negative Judaism,” and neither is a focus on survival. Too much intellectual and emotional distance from the Holocaust would not only erode Jews’ ability to see danger coming, if indeed it does. It would also downplay the real theme of Jewish history: our people’s ability to come out the other side.

Non-Jews tend to see this better than we do ourselves—historians like Johnson, but also politicians like Britain’s Daniel Hannan, who yesterday wrote that “Israel has its problems, but it will still be around when the EU is one with Nineveh and Tyre.” That is the lesson of both Europe and Israel, dismal as the landscape might appear at times. Today we commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz. Critics of American Jewry’s Holocaust commemoration habits would be well served by remembering not only Auschwitz, but its liberation.

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Beinart’s Universalists Strike Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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