Opinion // Agreeing to Disagree
There is no reason for the Jewish community to be monolithic in our opinions.
If the mantra of the Jewish Federation, “We Are One,” was ever true, it is sadly not the case these days. The ties that bind Jews together are fraying, if not frayed.
Take the organized American Jewish community, which tolerates as acceptable an increasingly narrow range of opinions on Israel. Just about any group critical of Israel’s present government is read out of the kehillah, including groups in America that are heirs of the Labor Zionism tradition in Israel. A few with long histories seem to be grandfathered in—such as Ameinu, the former Labor Zionist Alliance—but new organizations with not dissimilar views on foreign policy are excluded. Groups critical of Israel are painted (whether correctly or not) with the broad brush of being part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to justify making them herem, forbidden.
There have been efforts to ensure the “purity” of the Jewish collective throughout history. In earlier generations, the rabbis drew sharp distinctions with the Samaritan and the Kara’ite communities, underscoring that they were not part of Judaism. Today we have adopted similar principles of purity on matters pertaining to Israel. A liberal Zionist group like J Street is kept out of the supposedly umbrella Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. A public intellectual and engaged Jew, Peter Beinart, is disinvited from a talk at the Atlanta Jewish Foundation because his book The Crisis of Zionism does not pass big-donor muster. Curious and engaged college students who believe that their Jewish home, Hillel, should be open to everything Jewish are deprogrammed from the collective.
The belief that the Jewish community must have a defined set of political beliefs emerged most markedly in the debate over the Iran nuclear deal. A rabbi I won’t name told me he was asked by his local federation to set up a synagogue program opposing the deal. He offered to set up a discussion where differing Jewish perspectives would be presented to his synagogue membership, but was told that there is only one Jewish side to this debate.
Some in the community of Jewish federations—which raise money to fund a wide range of local Jewish institutions—have argued that Iran was a one-off and that, with the debate over, all Jews will again unite in the bosom of one community. They are fooling themselves. Do the continuing efforts to wreak political revenge on Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) for supporting the Iran deal, or on Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for not opposing it loudly enough, suggest reconciliation and unity? More telling, does the continued homogenization of federation-funded programming on the Middle East (I can vouch only for my own federation) suggest a broad Jewish tent?
And the fragmentation goes way beyond Middle Eastern politics. A 2014 Pew study showed that Orthodox Jews—about 20 percent of the community—have political and cultural attributes closer to evangelical Protestants than to other Jews. They are not the first: The 1983 decision of Reform Judaism some years ago to accept patrilineal descent for Jewish identity has, whatever its virtues, created separation between denominations. Few Orthodox young people nowadays will marry a Reform Jew or even a Conservative Jew without recourse to a virtual genealogical chart, just as in the days when the Rambam forbade marriage between Jews and Kara’ites in medieval Egypt.
And this fragmentation may be even greater in Israel. In a much-noted speech to the Herzliya Conference last June, President Reuven Rivlin argued that Israel today consists of not of one nation but of four tribes—secular, Arab, national religious and haredi. “Each tribe has its own media platforms, newspapers they read, the television channels they watch,” he said. “Each tribe also has its own towns: Tel Aviv is the town of one tribe, just as Umm el Fahm is the town of another, as is Efrat, and Bnei Brak. Each represents the town of a different tribe. In the State of Israel the basic systems that form people’s consciousness are tribal and separate, and will most likely remain so.” In Israel, of course, this fragmentation is a potentially existential danger, as it raises the question of Israeli national identity.
The early secular Zionists saw themselves as creating a new Jewish identity, one radically different from the “ghetto identity” of diaspora Jews. In the late 1940s, a group of rebellious poets in Palestine declared themselves “Canaanites” after the early inhabitants of Palestine. More recently, intellectuals like Bernard Avishai have sought to understand Israel as a “Hebrew nation.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that Israel be identified as a “Jewish state,” but nobody seems to agree on what is Jewish about a Jewish state except that a majority of its inhabitants are Jews. And even among Israeli Jews there is raging political and cultural conflict about different “Jewish” views of kashrut, conversion, divorce and much else.
What is to be done? The suggestion by some Jewish Agency affiliates for a “world Jewish conclave” to restore unity between Israel and the diaspora amounts to no more than “jobs for the boys.” The American federations’ efforts to promote outreach and “in-reach” will fail as long as their leadership is subordinate to big-donor red lines, as well as to the seeming need for continued invitations to the Israeli prime minister’s office.
Whatever our political and religious views (and however strongly held), we must accept that Judaism is a civilization—a pluralistic civilization with wide varieties of views, right and left, Orthodox and Reform. On that understanding, we may well jettison the myth that we are One. Instead we may just possibly flourish in the reality that we can still cohere.