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Are Jews a people, a race, an ethnic group, a nation, a state? All, or maybe none, of the above? A hardy perennial, the question’s just had another explosive public airing with Whoopi Goldberg’s badly-received comments about whether the Holocaust was “about racism.”
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular dust-up, anyone who thinks that Jewish peoplehood is a straightforward matter, or one that has ever commanded widespread agreement, can learn otherwise from Marshall Breger’s opinion column in our Winter issue, “A Jewish State, But What Kind?” Breger reaches back to the State of Israel’s earliest days and the start of a tug-of-war between Jewish religion and Jewish peoplehood that persists to this day in political arguments over “who is a Jew” and who can settle in Israel. Breger reminds us of the strange case of “Brother Daniel,” born Jewish in Poland, who converted to Catholicism during World War II, became a priest and in 1962 sought to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return to practice Catholic ministry. Who was entitled to rule on Brother Daniel’s Jewishness, and with reference to whose legal frameworks?
You’ll get quite another take on Jewish peoplehood from Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who starts her column “Dinners and Dialogues Are Not Enough” with the confession that “I’ve been obsessed with Black-Jewish relations for half a century.” A veteran of generations of idealistic dialogue and repeated fallings-out between representatives of two groups who you’d think would be natural allies, Pogrebin nowadays looks for hope in an aspect of the Jewish community that was until recently much underappreciated. The future of understanding, if there is one, she believes, lies with Jews of color, people who may carry both the Black and Jewish experience in their own histories and identities. Will the community as a whole finally listen and internalize these new dimensions of the Jewish people’s identity?
Even those who embrace Jewish identity in its most intense and vociferous forms are not immune to ambiguity and complication. Naomi Ragen’s “Blinded by a Black Hat” recounts the seeming inability of Israel’s police to muster more than a tepid response to allegations of truly heinous acts—sexual abuse, medical fraud, even incitement to murder—by a rabbi once seen as an inspirational Hasidic leader. And back in America, longtime sociological observer Steven Windmueller, who just edited a volume of essays called The Impact of the Presidency of Donald Trump on American Jewry and Israel, sits for an opinion interview in which he predicts that even pro-Trump Jewish Republicans may, just conceivably, be moving on.
Want more complexity? Us, too. It’s Moment’s appetite for complexity and shades of gray that keeps us asking questions. In this issue, we ask the rabbis, “Is compromise a Jewish virtue?” (Their response: Well, yes and no.) And in Moment Debate, we ask two experts—in this case, they’re also rabbis—whether an abortion ban would curtail Jewish religious freedom, in light of the generally nuanced view that even the most Orthodox and stringent Jewish rabbinical authorities take on permitting at least some abortions.
In my previous career as an editorial writer, I once threatened to have t-shirts made for the staff bearing the motto, “The Truth Lies Somewhere In Between.” While it’s not always true, keeping it in mind makes life (and journalism) more interesting. Happy reading!