American Jews, following American liberalism, have abandoned belief in the nation-state, non-voluntary communities, and religion in the public square
In his essay “Why Many American Jews are Becoming Indifferent or Even Hostile to Israel,” Daniel Gordis lists, as key sources of tension, four major differences between the American and the Israeli political projects. His analysis strikes me as largely accurate, yet I think he misses something important by treating the differences as longstanding and perhaps even inherent. In fact, most are of recent vintage, and there is nothing inevitable or intractable about them. They are the product, first, of dramatic changes in the tenets of political liberalism, and second, of a collective decision by many American Jews to follow the new liberalism wherever it leads—even when it contradicts longstanding axioms of both American politics and traditional Judaism.
Take, for instance, the issue of universalism versus particularism. It’s true, as Gordis notes, that unlike Israel, America was not founded to serve a particular ethnic group. Nevertheless, throughout most of its history, America has viewed itself and functioned as a nation-state. Thus, despite promoting supranational projects like the European Union, which entail forfeitures of sovereignty, America has shunned any such project for itself, preferring jealously to preserve its own sovereignty. This preference traces straight back to the founders’ distrust of “entangling alliances.” Even today, there is bipartisan agreement that America’s first responsibility is to itself, whether or not the “international community” agrees; that’s why even a thoroughly liberal president like Barack Obama didn’t hesitate to launch strikes against anti-American terrorists worldwide without waiting for UN approval—something few European countries would deem thinkable.
Of course, the agreement isn’t wall-to-wall. In recent decades a vocal subset of American liberals, mostly housed in the left wing of the Democratic party, has come to believe that—in the words of Walter Hallstein, first president of the European Commission—”the system of sovereign nation-states has failed.” As perhaps inevitable corollaries of this belief, they argue that national decisions require “global legitimacy,” and that one’s fellow citizens have no more claim on one’s allegiance than do citizens of other countries.
Princeton University, my alma mater, exemplifies this evolution. When I graduated in 1987, the university’s motto was “Princeton in the nation’s service,” which nobody considered problematic. A decade later, the idea that a university should dedicate itself to serving its own country in particular had become unacceptable in advanced liberal circles. And so, in 1996, the motto was changed to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Two decades later, even this was deemed too particularistic; last year, the university’s trustees recommended a new version: “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”
The change is hardly trivial. Americans who view their country as a nation-state, even if not the state of a particular ethnic group, have no trouble understanding why, when Israeli and Palestinian interests clash, Israel puts its own interests first: why it is reluctant to cede more territory to Palestinians when every previous such cession has massively increased terror, or ready to fight wars to stop rocket fire on its civilian population. Only for liberals who believe that countries have no right to prioritize their own citizens over other human beings are such decisions unacceptable.
Yet, even today, this latter view, however dogmatically held in elite circles and by American Jews, is a minority one in America at large. That’s precisely why polls consistently show that most Americans still strongly support Israel.
The same goes for a second difference highlighted by Gordis: namely, the place of religion in the public square. A few decades ago, few Americans thought twice about crèche scenes in public venues at Christmastime or public-school choirs singing Christmas carols. Nor has the legal situation changed since then. In a series of rulings in the 1980s and 1990s, the Supreme Court largely upheld the constitutionality of public displays of crèches and other religious symbols, only occasionally nixing them due to very specific circumstances. As recently as 2014, it also upheld a decision by a town in upstate New York to have volunteer chaplains open local board meetings with a sectarian prayer. To this day, politicians from across the political spectrum, including the last three Democratic presidents, continue to speak openly about their own faith.
This is most obvious with regard to the issue of voluntary versus non-voluntary communities. Traditional Judaism, which is passed down from mother to child without the child having any choice in the matter, is buttressed by a complex legal system of obligatory commandments and formulates even the most basic values in terms of obligation rather than rights. For instance, the poor don’t have a “right” to assistance; rather, everyone else has an obligation to assist them. Nor do the sick have a “right” to care; rather, the rest of us are obligated to care for them. Granted: in practice, the difference may be minimal, since rights by definition create an obligation on others to fulfill them. But to jettison the concept of non-voluntary commitment—the “must”—is effectively to jettison 3,000 years of Jewish teaching and behavior.
Similarly with religion and the public square. Traditional Judaism is fundamentally a public rather than a private religion. Some biblical commandments, like the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, must be performed in public, and public violations of the commandments are regarded as far more serious than private ones. (When the prophet Jeremiah castigates the nation for failing to observe Shabbat, for instance, he singles out commerce at the city gates: a highly public violation.) One can argue about how much Judaism belongs in Israel’s public square, and Israelis do. But the idea of barring it entirely, of building a wall of separation, is alien to Judaism.
Finally, traditional Judaism is designed to be observed in a sovereign nation-state. Numerous commandments (primarily though not exclusively agricultural) can be performed only in the Holy Land. Others, like the laws governing the conduct of the ruler and the judiciary, can be observed only in a country with a sovereign government and court system. Moreover, despite its many universal principles, Judaism prioritizes local obligations: a famous talmudic dictum on charity, for instance, asserts that “the poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city.” The flipside of this is that Judaism doesn’t demand that the rest of the world (or even non-Jewish residents of the Jewish state) become Jewish; rather, it envisions a Jewish nation-state surrounded by other nation-states (a point expounded brilliantly by Gordis in a 2010 essay on the story of the Tower of Babel).
Even 50 years ago, before American liberalism diverged so sharply from American tradition, it was never as fully compatible with Judaism itself as liberal American Jews liked to believe (and I’d enter a similar caution regarding the full compatibility of Judaism with American conservatism). But, at least before liberalism abandoned the concepts of the nation-state, non-voluntary communities, and religion in the public square, the differences were more easily papered over, allowing American Jews to be at once committed Jews and committed liberals without experiencing severe cognitive dissonance.
Today, that is no longer possible; liberalism’s differences with Judaism have become too glaring. And, forced to make a choice, non-Orthodox American Jews have increasingly chosen liberalism over Judaism. In some ways, Israel is mere collateral damage in this contest, being simply the most visible symbol of the religion that liberal American Jews have chosen to reject. But that symbol is of the essence. Despite being a secular country, Israel’s character, as Gordis writes, has been informed by Judaism since its inception; nor could it be otherwise without effectively eliminating the “Jewish” from the Jewish state.
For all of these reasons, I see little prospect of a rapprochement between the two communities without a dramatic change in American Jewish attitudes toward liberalism, toward Judaism, or toward both. Ultimately, I do believe this change will happen, if only because, in my view, modern liberalism itself is too radical a departure from centuries of political and religious tradition to be viable over the long run. Sadly, however, I’m far less certain that the needed change will occur in time to save American Jews’ relationship with Israel.
Originally published in Mosaic on May 18, 2017
Regardless of whether you support or oppose a new law allowing Israel to bar entry to prominent supporters of anti-Israeli boycotts, one outcome was eminently predictable: Israel would lack the guts to enforce it even when doing so was most justified. That was amply proven by Wednesday’s decision to grant a one-year work visa to Human Rights Watch researcher Omar Shakir. By this decision, Israel eviscerated the one crucial point the law got right, despite the many it got wrong: You cannot wage an effective war on the BDS movement while giving the people behind it a pass. As the old truism goes, people are policy.
The arrest of a Jewish American-Israeli teen for making hundreds of bomb threats against American Jewish institutions in recent months seems to put paid to the favorite explanation advanced by both American Jews and the broader American left–i.e., that Donald Trump’s election empowered right-wing anti-Semites, leading to an upsurge in anti-Semitic acts. Yet the fact remains that the number of threats did jump dramatically following Trump’s election, to a degree that seems hard to attribute to mere coincidence. Now, new disclosures by the Israeli police provide a way to square that circle. It turns out the sudden increase was, in fact, connected to Trump’s election–not because of anything Trump did or didn’t do, but because of media’s hysterical reaction to it.
Despite 23 years on repeated failure, Martin Indyk remains convinced that he knows exactly how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without a trace of embarrassment, he unveiled his latest plan in the New York Times last week, a “Jerusalem first” approach that calls for the Old City to be run by “a special regime that maintained the religious status quo and ensured that the three religious authorities continued to administer their respective holy sites.” But with characteristic disdain for reality, he ignored the elephant in the room: The status quo he seeks to preserve, especially on the Temple Mount, is actually unacceptable to both sides–and should be unacceptable to anyone who cares about the fundamental right of freedom of religion.
Unlike many veteran peace processers, Indyk doesn’t pretend that Jews have no connection to the Mount. He admits that it contains “the ruins of Judaism’s holiest of holies.” He simply seems to think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Jews to forgo any contact, even the most tenuous, with their holiest site in perpetuity. Not, of course, that he puts it that bluntly. But when you consider what’s happening on the Mount even today, when Islamic authorities don’t yet have absolute control, it’s hard to imagine his “solution” producing any other outcome. And it’s equally hard to see why anyone should consider the current situation acceptable.
Just last week, for instance, Palestinian guards employed by the Islamic Waqf (religious trust) that runs the Mount’s day-to-day affairs tried to eject an Israeli archeologist from the site merely for daring to use the term “Temple Mount” in a lecture to American students. They demanded that he use the Mount’s Islamic name instead, and when he refused, they demanded that Israeli policemen on the site eject him. Other tour guides subsequently told the Times of Israel that this isn’t an uncommon occurrence.
Disgracefully, the Israeli police–who have long since decided their job on the Mount isn’t protecting Israelis’ rights, but kowtowing to the Waqf’s every whim to prevent Arab rioting–seconded the request that Dr. Gabriel Barkay stop using the site’s Judeo-Christian name. But at least they also told the Waqf guards that they couldn’t evict him merely for using the term “Temple Mount.” Under full Islamic control, even uttering that name would evidently be a punishable offense.
Or consider what happened to Jerusalem Post reporter Lahav Harkov when she visited the Mount in September 2015. As usual, the Waqf guards harassed her nonstop, over everything from the length of her skirt (below the knees, but not ankle length) through taking pictures to standing still for longer than the guards deemed proper. But the climax came when, moved by thoughts of the Temple, she unexpectedly began to cry. A Waqf guard promptly started shouting at her in Arabic. And once again, an Israeli policeman disgracefully seconded the Waqf’s complaint: “You can’t close your eyes and cry. That’s like praying.”
Yet at least the Israeli police didn’t kick her off the Mount. Had the Waqf had its way, she would never even have been allowed to enter.
In a 2014 report for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, journalist Nadav Shragai, an expert on Jerusalem’s history, detailed all the ways the “status quo” on the Mount has eroded to the Jews’ detriment since 1967. Jewish visiting hours have been drastically curtailed; Jews can no longer enter the mosques, even as the portion of the Mount occupied by the mosques has expanded greatly; the Waqf has been allowed to destroy Jewish archaeological relics with impunity; and so forth. All this has happened even though Israel nominally controls the Mount.
But to Palestinians, even the one right Jews still retain on the Mount, the right of a strictly limited number to pay strictly controlled visits–as long as they don’t mind nonstop harassment and refrain from doing anything offensive to the Waqf, like praying, tearing up, or using the term “Temple Mount”–is unacceptable. The consensus Palestinian position today, as memorably articulated by their “moderate” leader Mahmoud Abbas, is that Jews who ascend the Mount are “defiling” it with their “filthy feet.” In short, the Palestinians aren’t interested in preserving the Mount’s status quo; what they want is to ban any Jew from ever setting foot on it again.
Yet the status quo is equally unacceptable to a growing number of Jews – and rightly so. There’s no reason why Jews shouldn’t be allowed to visit their holiest site whenever and in whatever numbers they please, aside from, say, during Muslim holidays or Friday prayers at the mosque. There’s no reason Jewish visitors to the site should be unable even to shed a tear or use its Hebrew name. And there’s especially no reason why Jews should be denied the right to pray at their holiest site, as long as they don’t do it in the mosque itself – which they wouldn’t want to do anyway, since Jewish law forbids entering the area where the Holy of Holies once stood, and its exact location isn’t known. Thus Jewish prayer would be possible only in peripheral areas, where there’s no risk of violating Jewish law.
Nor can one credibly argue that it’s impossible for Jews and Muslims to share a holy site; at Israel’s insistence, they’ve been doing it at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron for decades. The only thing that makes the Mount different is that there, Israel has shied away from enforcing a similar equal-access arrangement.
Thus, instead of sanctifying the “status quo,” it’s long past time to admit that this status quo grossly violates basic religious rights, that the violations are only getting worse, and that this deterioration will continue unless Israel takes steps to reverse it. In short, it’s time for Israel to scrap the status quo and finally start protecting Jewish as well as Muslim rights on the Mount. And it’s time for America, whose own constitution enshrines freedom of religion, to fully back Israel in doing so.
Originally published in Commentary on January 11, 2017
Writing in Haaretz this week, sociologist Eva Illouz wondered why many Israeli and American Jews, usually so sensitive to any hint of anti-Semitism, seem untroubled by the undeniable anti-Semitism of some of Donald Trump’s supporters. It’s a fair question that deserves a serious answer, which Illouz signally failed to provide: She resorted to the lazy leftist’s favorite tactic of stigmatizing her opponents as racist ultra-nationalists, thereby absolving herself of the need to try to understand what they actually think. But since her pseudo answer doesn’t negate the validity of her question, let me try to provide a real one.
A good place to start, ironically, is with the misplaced Holocaust analogies liberal American Jews have been spouting ever since Trump’s election, like ADL director Jonathan Greenblatt’s statement last month that anti-Semitic rhetoric in the U.S. has reached levels unseen since 1930s Germany. Jonathan Tobin has explained in detail why such analogies are ludicrous, but two of the reasons why are crucial to understanding Jewish Trump supporters.
In Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism was propagated and orchestrated by the government, not by a vocal minority. That obviously isn’t the case in America today. But it is the case in another significant part of the globe: the Arab and Muslim world.
Throughout the Muslim world, Nazi-style anti-Semitism is both rampant and government-sponsored. State-owned media, state-appointed clerics, and government officials all spew it day after day: Jews – and it’s always “Jews,” not “Israelis” – are “sons of apes and pigs” (an official spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party); they are “defiling” Islamic holy sites with their “filthy feet” (Abbas himself); Hitler killed them “so you would all know that they are a nation which spreads destruction all over the world” (an essay in a PA-funded children’s magazine); rabbis are instructing their followers to poison wells (Abbas again). And that’s from Israel’s official “peace partner.” Avowed enemies like Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas use even more openly genocidal rhetoric.
Moreover, whereas anti-Semitic Trump supporters are armed mainly with Twitter and spray paint, Middle Eastern anti-Semites, even assuming Iran never gets nukes, are already armed with hundreds of thousands of state-of-the-art missiles, along with suicide bombers, stabbers, car-rammers, etc. Terrorist quasi-states, like Hezbollah and Hamas, have used their weaponry to target Jews directly, and not just in Israel (remember the AMIA bombing?), while countries like Iran have so far preferred to do so indirectly, by funneling arms and cash to terrorists. Either way, the combination of high-tech weaponry with Nazi-style anti-Semitism constitutes a clear and present danger to millions of Jewish lives, one far greater than the danger posed by even the most noxious Trump fans.
So if your goal is to protect the maximum number of Jewish lives, your top priority is arguably electing a U.S. president who will provide strong backing for Israeli self-defense and strong opposition to murderous Muslim regimes. It should not be to support an American government that will, say, stop arms shipments to Israel in the middle of a war, help turn Iran into the Mideast’s dominant power, or reward Palestinian incitement and terror by blaming the stalemated peace process on Israel – all things Barack Obama actually did.
There’s no guarantee that Hillary Clinton would have done the same, or that Trump will be different (though his actions so far have been encouraging). But Obama’s former secretary of state was clearly the more likely to continue his policies. Thus, faced with a non-ideal choice between one candidate who had anti-Semitic Twitter followers and another who seemed poised to continue empowering well-armed anti-Semitic governments, you don’t have to be a racist or an ultra-nationalist to prefer the former. You just have to think protecting Jews’ lives is a higher priority than protecting them from nasty rhetoric.
The second relevant difference between Nazi Germany and Trump’s America is that even before it started murdering Jews, the Nazi government had moved beyond mere rhetoric: It organized boycotts of Jewish businesses, kicked Jews out of universities, threw Jewish doctors out of hospitals, etc. In modern-day America, the government obviously isn’t doing any such thing. There is, however, an organized nongovernmental effort to do so – not on the so-called the alt-right, but on the far left.
As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, anti-Semitism didn’t suddenly erupt out of nowhere after November’s election. Back in 2015, long before anyone dreamed Trump could win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency, anti-Semitic acts accounted for a whopping 51 percent of all religious hate crimes recorded by the FBI, even though Jews are less than two percent of the American population. Such acts have spanned the gamut from swastikas painted on Jewish frats to signs like “YALE IS A JEW HOLE–LET’S ROUND THEM UP” to physical assaults. And many of these acts were perpetrated by the far left rather than the far right. American Jews simply preferred to focus on the latter because they overwhelmingly lean left themselves.
So far, however, only left-wing anti-Semites have tried to oust Jews from universities or organize boycotts of Jewish businesses. Granted, they often hide behind the fig leaf of “anti-Zionism.” But when, for instance, left-wing students burst into a Brooklyn College faculty meeting last year and demanded “Zionists off campus,” does anyone seriously think they were targeting evangelical Christians?
And sometimes, they don’t even bother with the “Zionist” fig leaf. When BDS advocates denied Rachel Beyda a seat on the UCLA student council’s judicial board in 2015, for instance, they did so because they deemed her Jewishness disqualifying in and of itself. True, after a faculty advisor ruled this unacceptable, the council held a revote and elected her. That’s precisely why grassroots hate is so different from the officially sponsored variety. It’s no accident that, as a study released last year shows, campuses where BDS groups are strong also tend to experience more anti-Semitism, because BDS activists are among the main perpetrators of campus anti-Semitism.
Left-wing anti-Semites are a vocal part of the Democratic Party’s base, even if most preferred Bernie Sanders to Clinton. So faced with a non-ideal choice between two candidates who both have anti-Semites in their base, you don’t have to be a racist ultra-nationalist to prefer the one whose supporters aren’t yet engaging in Nazi-style boycotts; you just have to think that protecting Jews’ livelihoods is a higher priority than protecting them from nasty rhetoric.
Rhetoric obviously does matter; every serious genocide scholar considers it the first step on the road to genocide. That’s precisely why Jews have always been so sensitive to anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Jewish Trump supporters are no exception. They’re far from untroubled by alt-right anti-Semitism. They simply consider the left-wing version more troubling still.
Originally published in Commentary on January 3, 2017
A regular reader of Odeh Bisharat’s op-eds in Haaretz might reasonably conclude that the Israeli Arab author doesn’t like his country very much. So I was stunned by the advice he offered his fellow Israeli Arabs in his latest column. Aside from being something you rarely hear Israeli Arab intellectuals say, it’s good advice–not just for his own community, but also for both Israeli and Diaspora Jews:
The time has come for the Arab leaders of public opinion to say outright: In spite of everything, we have it good here. It’s true that there’s a mountain of problems, but we want to be citizens of the state. Here we can fight to improve our living conditions, to protest, mobilize Jewish public opinion and conduct a battle against the extreme right. After all, the program that unites most of the [Israeli] Arab movements is based on the principle that Arabs are citizens of the state in which they will realize their national and civil rights. And in that case, it’s important to convey that the Arabs care about the state, because they care about themselves and their future.
The irony is that even though you never hear their leaders say so, most Israeli Arabs already agree with Bisharat. Polls have shown this repeatedly (here and here, for instance). The latest evidence came from last month’s Peace Index poll, a monthly survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. It found that Israeli Arabs are actually more optimistic than Israeli Jews about the country’s situation–in sharp contrast to what one would expect to find if, as both Israeli and foreign media outlets like to claim, Israel was suffering from a rising tide of anti-Arab racism.
Fully 40.3 percent of Israeli Arabs deemed Israel’s current situation “very good” while another 22.7 percent deemed it “moderately good,” meaning that 63 percent offered a positive assessment. By comparison, only 9.7 percent of Israeli Jews rated the current situation “very good” and 34.0 percent “moderately good,” for a total positive assessment of 43.7 percent. Israeli Arabs were similarly bullish about the future, with 32.9 percent predicting that Israel’s situation would be “much better” in the new Jewish year that began in October and another 21.5 percent expecting it to be “a little better,” for an overall positive assessment of 54.5 percent. The corresponding figures for Israeli Jews were 7.5 and 15.0 percent, for a total positive of just 22.5 percent.
Arab optimism extended across every field the pollsters checked: military-security (where 39.9 percent of Arabs forecast improvement), political-diplomatic (42.3 percent), socioeconomic (42.6 percent) and “disputes between different parts of the public” (31.6 percent). In every category, the proportion of Arabs who expected improvement far surpassed both the proportion of Jews expecting improvement and the proportion of Arabs expecting deterioration. Indeed, the proportion of Arabs who foresaw deterioration ranged from just 2.8 percent on socioeconomic issues to 13.2 percent on “disputes between different parts of the public.” Those last two figures are particularly noteworthy. If Israeli Arabs really felt threatened by rising racism, they would hardly predict improvement in “disputes between different parts of the public” by a ratio of almost 3:1 and improvement in the socioeconomic realm by more than 15:1.
Nevertheless, there’s one very real barrier to further improvement: Israeli Jews largely believe that most Israeli Arabs care more about the Palestinian cause than about their own country’s wellbeing, for the very good reason that this is what they hear, over and over, from Israeli Arab leaders. This obviously encourages anti-Arab sentiment and impedes integration. And as Bisharat correctly noted, it will be very hard to change this perception as long as Arab-Israeli opinion leaders refuse to say publicly that it’s false – that despite the “mountain of problems” Israeli Arabs face, and especially their deep disagreements with Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, they nevertheless feel they “have it good here” and really do “care about the state.”
Bisharat’s advice, however, is no less applicable to the Jewish world–there, too, the refusal to “say outright” that things are good in Israel despite the problems is causing serious long-term damage.
As evidence, consider Sara Hirschhorn’s op-ed in Haaretz last week, with the self-explanatory title “Liberal Zionists, We Lost the Kids.” In it, the Oxford University lecturer lamented that young British Jews are turned off by Israel–not, as so frequently claimed, by “the occupation or the settlements,” but by “the very premise of a self-defining State of the Jews, back to 1948.” And to her credit, she acknowledged that liberal Zionist adults are largely responsible for this development: If liberals are to convince their children that a Jewish state is worth having, she wrote, “Above all, we can’t only catalogue the (many) shortcomings—we must constantly and convincingly express what still makes us proud—in spite of it all—in the State of Israel today.”
But of course, they rarely do. All you hear from most liberal Zionists nowadays, both in Israel and abroad, is a vile caricature of Israel: occupation, settlements, racism, discrimination, every evil in the modern pantheon. And when that’s all the kids have ever heard, why wouldn’t they end up thinking a Jewish state is a bad idea?
Problems obviously shouldn’t be swept under the rug; Israel is a good place to live precisely because it tries so hard to keep improving. But you can have too much of a good thing, and with regard to obsessing over Israel’s flaws, that point was passed long ago for both Israeli Arabs and Diaspora Jews.
Thus in both communities, as Bisharat and Hirschhorn correctly pointed out, the road to beneficial change begins with ceasing to focus only on the negative and remembering the highlight the positive as well. Saying outright that even Arabs “have it good” in Israel, unlike in so many Arab countries, might be an excellent place to start not just for Israeli Arabs, but also for Diaspora Jews.
Originally published in Commentary on November 11, 2016
Once in a great while, Peter Beinart writes an article I actually agree with. It happens whenever he takes a break from Israel-bashing to write about Judaism, which he usually does around the High Holidays. His thesis this year was that the High Holidays are a bad way to introduce children to Judaism, because the lengthy synagogue services bore them. A much better idea, he argued, is to let them experience fun holidays like Sukkot or Purim, which involve activities most children love: eating and sleeping outside (Sukkot) or wearing costumes and exchanging goodies (Purim). But while he’s completely correct, his idea is probably unfeasible. And the reasons why it’s unfeasible make clear what the only feasible solution is.
Beinart’s proposal is impractical because only parents who are already very Jewishly committed are likely to be willing to celebrate such holidays. Those who already aren’t generally know next to nothing about these holidays, not even when they occur. Moreover, observing any Jewish holiday in America often means taking a day off from work and school, which parents who aren’t already very Jewishly committed won’t be willing to do more than once or twice a year, on the High Holidays. Finally, unless you already live in a Jewishly active neighborhood and/or send your kids to a Jewishly active school, observing any of these holidays means doing something nobody around you is doing–an experience many people find unpleasant.
If you could somehow eliminate these obstacles, getting Jews to observe other holidays would be much easier, as the Israeli experience shows. Though only around 20 percent of Israeli Jews self-identify as Orthodox, a whopping 85 percent attribute importance to celebrating Jewish holidays “in the traditional manner,” i.e. by doing some traditional activity associated with the holiday. As one example, around 82 percent of self-defined secular Israeli Jews attend a Passover seder, compared to just 47 percent of U.S. Jews of no denomination (the closest American equivalent).
But that’s precisely because in Israel, celebrating holidays like Purim and Sukkot is easy. First, all Jewish holidays are automatically days off from work and school. Second, kindergartens and primary schools (and sometimes higher grades) all teach about and have activities relating to the holidays before they occur–for instance, kids always come to school in costume before Purim. So the whole community is celebrating together, rather than observance making your child the odd man out. Finally, the combination of those first two factors means there’s never any doubt about when the holidays occur or how to celebrate them; all parents keep track of when their child has school vacation, and the child himself comes home with instructions: Send me to school in a costume tomorrow; hang up the sukkah decorations I made. In other words, all the obstacles that exist in America don’t exist in Israel.
There is, of course, a way to replicate all these conditions, aside from the days off work– sending children to a Jewish day school. And that solution works in Europe, where many nonobservant Jews do send their kids to Jewish schools, because they like the combination of Jewish content with excellent secular studies. But in America, that, too, is unfeasible: Most American parents can’t afford the sky-high day school tuition, and therefore, there isn’t enough demand even to justify starting such a school in many non-Orthodox communities.
In short, a proposal like Beinart’s is unfeasible unless you first build a Jewish community that makes it easy. And the only way to build such a community is to make Jewish day schools affordable.
In much of Europe, day schools are affordable because parochial schools get government funding. But in America, the only way to make this happen would be for American Jewish leaders–those who understand just how serious the crisis facing American Jewry is–to finally reverse their opposition to school vouchers and start actively lobbying for them.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that making Jewish schools widely available and affordable could have. The Israeli experience offers one example. But for another, consider something that happened almost 100 years ago: An Orthodox woman went to her rabbi and told him he had to back her in starting a Jewish school for girls, because girls at that time were already getting secular educations, and a girl who was secularly educated but Jewishly ignorant wouldn’t stay Jewish for long. The rabbi agreed, and today, Sarah Schenirer’s Bais Yaakov schools are widely credited with helping to fuel the stunning revival of Haredi Jewry after the Holocaust.
Most American Jews aren’t Haredi, but Schenirer’s insight is no less relevant to them: A child who is secularly educated but Jewishly ignorant won’t stay Jewish long. That, unfortunately, describes the vast majority of American Jews today, and the result is just what Schenirer would have predicted: Intermarriage rates have soared, to 71 percent of all non-Orthodox marriages, and so has the percentage of Jews defining themselves as “Jews of no religion”–who, as a 2013 Pew Poll showed, are on a fast track to leaving Judaism altogether.
Jewish day schools are one of the only ways — along with Jewish camps and trips to Israel — to ensure that American Jews don’t grow up Jewishly ignorant. And the only way to make Jewish schools widely available and affordable is through vouchers that can be used at parochial schools. Consequently, school choice is literally a matter of life and death for American Jewry; without them, even sensible proposals like Beinart’s will be to no avail, and the American Jewish community will continue to hemorrhage. Yet rather than supporting vouchers, American Jewish organizations have consistently opposed them.
Still, a new year is a good time to turn over a new leaf. So let’s hope the new Jewish year that began this month will finally be the one in which American Jewish leaders stop trying to make Judaism hard and instead start lobbying for the one policy that would make it easier.
Originally published in Commentary on October 16, 2016
The ban on wearing burkinis at the beach, which was recently enacted by some 30 French municipalities and even won support from French Prime Minister Manual Valls, was rightly deemed an unconstitutional infringement on several fundamental liberties by France’s highest court this weekend. Yet the French controversy highlights something about Israel that is too often overlooked: the degree to which being a Jewish state, far from undermining Israel’s democracy, actually reinforces it.
The burkini ban was enacted in explicit reaction to Islamist terror attacks in France and the concerns they have raised about the integration of the country’s Muslim minority. As Christian Estrosi, the deputy mayor of Nice, told the New York Times, these full-body swimsuits, worn mainly by religious Muslims, constitute “unacceptable provocations in the very particular context that our city is familiar with,” referring to a July 14 terror attack that killed 86 people.
Yet Israel has suffered far worse Islamist terror and over a far longer period of time. Terror attacks in France have killed 234 people over the last 18 months, according to one British newspaper’s tally. That is just over half the 452 Israelis killed by terror during the single worst year of the second intifada (2002). And since France’s population is 7.6 times the size of Israel’s, that means that as a proportion of the population, Israel’s losses during that one year–without even mentioning all its losses to terrorism in other years–were almost 15 times as large as France’s have been over the past 18 months.
Moreover, as a proportion of the total population, Israel’s Muslim community is much larger than that of France. Muslims comprise an estimated 7.5 percent of France’s population, but almost 20 percent of Israel’s population–and that’s counting only Israeli citizens and legal residents, i.e. the Muslims who would still be there even if Israel quit the West Bank tomorrow.
Finally, though Israel’s Muslim population has largely shunned terror, its leadership is actually far more radical than France’s Muslim leadership seems to be. Israeli Arab Knesset members openly back anti-Israel terror organizations, actively incite to anti-Israel terror, and tirelessly libel Israel overseas. The head of one of the country’s largest nongovernmental Muslim groups–Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, which has tens of thousands of supporters–routinely spews anti-Semitic blood libels such as accusing Jews of baking matzo with Christian blood. And all that is without even mentioning the Palestinian leadership in the territories, where both the main political parties, Fatah and Hamas, routinely deem killing Israelis to be their main accomplishment.
In other words, if any country were going to lash out in response to Islamist terror by restricting Muslims’ freedom to observe their religion in public, one would expect it to be Israel, not France. But in Israel, no one has ever even suggested banning burkinis. Nor has anyone ever suggested forbidding civil students or schoolgirls to wear headscarves, as stipulated by other French laws that the courts have upheld. Nor has anyone ever suggested barring mosques from building minarets–a law approved by popular referendum in Switzerland, even though that country has so far had no Islamic terror problem at all.
Clearly, Israel’s religious tolerance can’t be attributed solely to its democratic norms. After all, France and Switzerland have impeccable democratic credentials, but that hasn’t stopped either from passing anti-Muslim laws. Nor is it because Israeli Arabs are a powerful enough minority to prevent such legislation: Arab Knesset members’ anti-Israel positions make them unacceptable as coalition partners in any government, and they would actually have no power to block anything the coalition majority wanted to pass. And it certainly isn’t because Israelis are saints who remain serenely forgiving of Arab terror and anti-Israel incitement; there’s plenty of anti-Arab sentiment in Israel.
Rather, the main reason why Israel never has and never would consider legislation like France’s bans on burkinis and headscarves is precisely because it is a Jewish state. In other words, it was created to take Jewish interests into account, and those interests include the freedom to observe traditional Jewish praxis. But the moment a democratic country starts making allowances for one religion’s traditions, those allowances inevitably spill over to other religions as well.
For instance, Israel could never ban headscarves in the civil service, because religious Jewish women also wear head coverings. It could never ban modest swimwear because religious Jews also insist on modest clothing. It could never ban minarets because the analogy to banning synagogues would be all too apparent. In contrast, France and Switzerland can do all those things, because they have no interest in accommodating any religion in the public square.
In short, Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state is the main reason why Islamist terror has never prompted the kind of anti-Muslim legislation that it has in secular democratic France. So the next time someone tells you Israel’s Jewish identity is inherently at odds with its democratic identity, remember the burkini. And remember that sometimes, Israel’s Jewish identity is precisely what protects its democratic one.
Originally published in Commentary on August 29, 2016
Reading the Israeli headlines lately, one can see why many American Jews are convinced that ultra-Orthodox extremism is getting worse. On Monday, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties got the coalition to pass legislation barring non-Orthodox converts from using state-run ritual baths for their conversions; earlier this month, the Haredi-dominated rabbinical courts refused to recognize conversions by an esteemed American Orthodox rabbi, Haskel Lookstein; and for months now, the Haredi parties have blocked implementation of Natan Sharansky’s sensible compromise on non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall. Yet to look only at these headlines is to miss a crucial part of the story: Younger Haredim, while remaining passionately committed to Orthodox Judaism, are increasingly rejecting their rabbinic leadership’s hardline positions on numerous issues, including work, army service, academic study, and communal isolation.
Let’s start with work. Officially, the rabbinic leadership still holds that men should study Torah full-time. But the proportion of Haredi men entering the workforce is rising steadily, and last year, it exceeded 50 percent for the first time since Israel started tracking the data. It’s now 51.2 percent, and the government hopes to raise it to 63 percent by 2020.
As for Haredi women, anyone who thinks they’re confined to the kitchen is way behind the times. Last year, 73.1 percent of Haredi women worked, up from 61.5 percent just five years earlier; that’s already far above the government’s target of 63 percent by 2020. And since the Haredi community can’t provide enough jobs for all these women, they are increasingly integrated into the broader economy, including high-tech. This obviously entails more contact with non-Haredim.
New attitudes toward work are also influencing a new generation of Haredi politicians. Today’s Haaretz has a fascinating profile of Yisrael Porush, the 36-year-old mayor of the Haredi city of Elad, whose father and grandfather were prominent Knesset members and deputy ministers. The elder Porushes focused on traditional Haredi concerns. But the young mayor has a different goal: In the words of reporter Meirav Arlosoroff, it’s “for as many of the city’s residents as possible to work.” To this end, he has not only brought business ventures like a software development center into town, but has negotiated agreements with two neighboring local governments–a secular Jewish one and an Arab one–to create joint industrial parks.
On education, the change is equally dramatic. Not only did the number of Haredim in college jump by 83 percent, to 11,000, from 2011-2015, but attitudes toward secular studies in high schools are also changing.
You wouldn’t guess this by looking at the older generation of politicians: On Sunday, at the Haredi parties’ behest, the coalition agreed to repeal a law imposing financial penalties on Haredi schools that don’t teach the core curriculum.
But the next day, the Jerusalem Post quoted a new survey which found that 83 percent of Haredi parents would like their sons to attend high schools that teach secular subjects alongside religious ones, as Haredi girls’ schools already do. Another 10 percent would consider this option. Moreover, the article noted, the number of Haredi boys attending yeshiva high schools, which prepare students for the secular matriculation exams, has doubled since 2005. Though the number remains tiny (1,400 enrollees last year), the survey results indicate that this may be due less to lack of demand than to lack of supply: Today, just over a dozen such schools exist.
The survey also lends credence to Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s claim that coercive legislation isn’t necessary to solve the secular studies problem. Helping other such schools get started, instead of putting obstacles in their way, might be equally if not more effective.
On army service, too, change is apparent. In 2014, 2,280 Haredim enlisted – about one-third the number that would have enlisted if all Haredi men joined the army at 18. And in some places, the numbers are higher: In Porush’s Elad, about 40 percent of men do army service.
Moreover, the stigma against army service is rapidly crumbling. As Rachel Levmore, a member of the government panel that appoints rabbinical court judges, noted recently, until this month, Israel’s highest rabbinical court had never included a judge who served in the army. But following this month’s round of appointments, fully half its judges are now veterans, including two Sephardi Haredim and one Ashkenazi Haredi. The latter is particularly noteworthy because army service is much less common among Ashkenazi Haredim.
As Levmore wrote, these appointments send an important message: Army service no longer disqualifies Haredim for prominent rabbinical positions. Today, you can serve and still be appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, with the unanimous approval of a panel that includes the Haredi chief rabbis and a Haredi Knesset member.
Admittedly, these changes in Haredi society won’t lead to changes in attitude at the top anytime soon. The leading Haredi rabbis are in their nineties, and their replacements will be men of similar age. In other words, they are products of a very different world – one where the Holocaust had wiped out most of European Jewry, where Israel’s army and school system actively sought to create “new Jews” in the mold of the ruling secular elite, where rebuilding the Torah world was the overriding imperative, and where isolation from secular knowledge and secular society was deemed essential for achieving this goal. This is the worldview they imbibed in their formative years, and they won’t abandon it in their old age.
But younger Haredim grew up in a very different world–one where Torah study is flourishing, the religious population is growing, and state institutions from the army to the universities now welcome Haredim without trying to make them stop being Haredi. Consequently, this generation feels less threatened by the secular world; it’s confident of its ability to work, attend college and even do army service without losing its Haredi identity.
Bottom-up change is usually slower than the top-down version, but it also tends to be more lasting. And therefore, the headlines of recent months are misleading: Developments in Haredi society as a whole actually provide strong grounds for optimism.
Originally published in Commentary on July 27, 2016