The American Jewish community is steeped in multiple crises. They threaten its present and its future. The crises that receive the most attention – skyrocketing intermarriage rates and communal positions on Israel, particularly in the face of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel – are a product of another, more basic quandary.
Throughout Jewish history, Jewish continuity and survival have been rooted in Torat Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael. Torah literacy, including familiarity with and at least basic knowledge of the biblical narrative and laws, including the Oral Laws, and the prayers was for thousands of years the basic pillar of Jewish exilic identity. It was through familiarity with the Torah and its laws that Jews were made aware of their uniqueness and maintained their ties to one another, to Jewish communities worldwide and to the Promised Land.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and with the rise of secularism in the US generally and among American Jewry in particular, Zionism and Jewish peoplehood became more prominent focuses in the formation and cultivation of Jewish identity for American Jewry.
The notion, which is doubtlessly correct, is that it is easier to teach Jews about Israel, and about non-religious aspects of Jewish history – first and foremost the Holocaust – than it is to teach a highly secularized community Torah with its concomitant laws of religious observance.
For a few generations, this reliance on Israel and Jewish peoplehood worked fairly well. It worked for two reasons. First, until the 1980s, intermarriage rates were relatively low. And second, until the 1980s, the Left, with which the vast majority of American Jews identified, was solidly pro-Israel.
With rising intermarriage rates, the basic acceptance of Jewish uniqueness became more difficult to maintain. After all, once families were forced to decide between Jewish heritage – including Halacha – and half-Jewish grandchildren, there was no question that Halacha fall by the wayside. It is inhuman to expect grandparents to support a law, particularly one with which most of them are entirely unfamiliar, over their grandchildren.
Then there is Israel. As the American Left has attached itself to anti-Israel narratives to ever greater degrees, the easy coexistence of leftist politics with support for Israel has ended. Partly in response to this trend, during the 1990s much Zionist education became conflated with peace studies. Support for Israel became conflated with support for the peace process with the PLO.
As a consequence, just as intermarriage rates were rising steeply among non-Orthodox Jews to the point where today almost all non-Orthodox Jews intermarry, new generations of Jews were entering adulthood with little familiarity with the history of Zionism or knowledge of Israel beyond its relationship with the PLO.
Today, as leftist hostility to Israel has become widespread, and that hostility has taken on an anti-Jewish character so blatant that even The New York Times is noticing, American Jews on the Left are feeling the pinch.
With little knowledge of Jewish texts besides what they may have learned preparing for their bnei mitzvah, with little knowledge of Jewish peoplehood due to the prevalence of intermarriage and cultural assimilation, with little knowledge of Israel and with little knowledge of Jew hatred beyond the Holocaust, many Jewish students on campuses today cannot understanding why they should defend Israel. Many Jewish students cannot understand why they should care about whether their date is Jewish or not. Many Jewish students cannot understand why people who reject the Jewish state’s right to exist are anti-Jewish.
Last week Jay Sanderson, the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles gave voice to their frustration – and that of their parents – when in an interview with Haaretz, he lashed out at the Israeli government for investing resources in fighting the BDS movement on US campuses.
Sanderson began by noting that divestment votes in university student councils have no effect on Israel’s economy. Since they have no real impact on Israeli GDP, he insisted, Israel should ignore them.
Israel should abandon the fight not only because it BDS is not a threat to its economy. As Sanderson sees things, by fighting BDS campaigns, the government actually diminishes American Jewish support for Israel.
By Sanderson’s telling, by defending itself against BDS assaults on the legitimacy of its existence, Israel polarizes American Jews, pushing Jewish students away.
“These are Jewish kids who could go either way [on Israel],” he argued. “But when the issue is so polarizing, with small numbers on the far left and on the far right – all that this loud noise does is take this soft middle and push them away from Israel altogether. And that’s the biggest problem in Jewish life and on Jewish campuses that’s getting completely dwarfed by the big BDS thing, which is not that big at all. While we’re worrying about the big BDS folks and whether J Street is a problem or not, we are leading that group of 75 percent completely adrift from the Jewish community and Israel.”
Sanderson continued that since Israel is polarizing, it must no longer be seen as the basis for Jewish communal affiliation on campuses.
“Israel’s too complicated,” he said. “So our approach has to be to connect these students to Jewish life and then find a meaningful way to engage them with Israel. In other words, first feel good about your Jewish self and then learn about Israel, as opposed to what it used to be, which was learn about Israel first, and then through Israel, find out about your Jewish self. This is a major change, which we have to learn to embrace, and which is not always easy.”
It is easy – and reasonable – to view Sanderson’s arguments as defeatist and counterproductive. After all, if these students were aware of Israel’s intrinsic importance for them as Jews, and its central place in the Jewish world, then they couldn’t help but strongly support Israel.
But more than they speak to Sanderson’s competence to lead his community, his remarks expose the depth of the crisis of Jewish identity. Indeed, Sanderson justified his position by noting that he cannot even convince his own daughter to support Israel. His daughter, he intimates, questions Israel’s legitimacy.
“If I tell her not to ask those questions or that her questions or feelings are wrong, then what is that going to mean for our relationship or her relationship to Israel?” In other words, just as opposition to intermarriage pits parents and grandparents against their children and grandchildren, so, increasingly, Jewish parents feel that their Zionism pits them against their children’s anti-Zionism.
It is hard to see a way out of this crisis.
Some have argued that the ignorance and concomitant rising alienation American Jews feel toward all aspects of Judaism will be remedied by rising levels of Jew hatred in America. This may have some truth to it. After all, nothing concentrates your mind like hatred.
But today you have Jews playing central roles in the anti-Israel movement. J Street-affiliated students support BDS. Jewish Voices for Peace, Americans for Peace Now and other Jewish groups play a key role in subverting wider Jewish efforts on behalf of Israel, including efforts to educate Jewish children about Israel and Zionist history.
These Jewish anti-Israel activists are doing more than prevent the community from rallying in support of Israel. They are making it increasingly difficult for non-affiliated American Jews to recognize the anti-Semitism which is supposed to bring them back to their Judaism, even when it smacks them in their faces.
Likewise, the emphasis that Jewish educators have placed on Holocaust education makes it difficult for Jews to understand that anti-Semitism is an enduring prejudice. Today Jews are hard-pressed to understand that anti-Semitism exists even when there aren’t death camps and that not all anti-Semites are Nazis. Some anti-Semites are their progressive professors.
The hard truth seems to be that the salvation of American Jewry can only come with the restoration, at wider and wider communal levels, of the three foundations of Judaism to their proper positions in a meaningful, substantive way. Torah literacy needs to increase. Jewish peoplehood needs to be experienced and advocated. And Zionism, and Zionist history, needs to be taught.
Maybe that is the answer to Sanderson. If he thinks it is too hard to instill Zionism in college students, then the time has come to teach them all of it – Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. No, in a culture where people expect instant and continuous gratification without knowledge, this won’t be easy.
But if American Jewish history teaches us anything, it teaches us that they are all necessary.