Virtual Book Club: Crisis of Zionism Chapter Five

I am not sure why this chapter is in the book.  Actually, I am starting to have a sense that I do not actually know what this book is about.  Which is not to say that I didn’t find this chapter interesting—I did—but the larger argument (if there is one) has been lost, I think.  I ask again: what is this book about?  Is this book about American Jews and Zionism?  If so, the evolution of President Barak Obama (who is, as Adam Sandler might say, and contra the title of the chapter, not a Jew) and his views on Israel is interesting, but seems more about the pressure the establishment Jewish community can put on politicians than it is about American Jews and their relationship to Zionism.

In some ways, the far more interesting part of the chapter for me was the way prominent Jews are treated (if Beinart is correct) when they violate the basic consensus on Israel.  This is a strong indictment of the way American Jews talk about Israel, and I think this is Beinart’s best section of the chapter.  The story of Rabbi Wolf is fascinating and important, and it seems me using him as a case study might have made for a more interesting and relevant chapter than charting the course of President Obama’s position on Israel.  The fact that Beinart did not, in fact, write that chapter points again to what I take to be central weakness of the book: Beinart cannot seem to decide whether he is writing politics or sociology.  Does he care about how the American political system deals with Israel, and the way Jews (some Jews) influence that system, in the manner of a book like The Israel Lobby?  Or is he more interested in the alienation many (most/few/lots of?) Jews increasingly feel towards Israel?  Beinart seems to want to write both books, and they uneasily exist in this one book side-by-side.  You see it clearly in this chapter: is this chapter about Rabbi Wolff or about President Obama?  I know he tries to connect the stories, but the truth is the narrative of an American President’s evolution on Israel and a Zionist rabbi who is nonetheless seen as persona non grata in the establishment Jewish community are different stories, and they point towards different concerns and conclusions.  It’s almost as if Beinart could not decide which issue concerned him the most: what he sees as a pernicious influence on the American political debate by the core establishment Jewish groups, or what he sees as the closed and forbidding intra-Jewish conversation about Israel.

I wish he would decide.

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Don’t Let The Door Hit You on the Way Out

Not everyone in Israel was thrilled about the great news yesterday.

Minister of Religious Services Ya’akov Margi (Shas) blamed Reform Judaism for “centuries of assimilation,” in an Army Radio interview on Wednesday morning. He added that the Reform movement “thinks it is bringing a new spirit to Judaism, but in practice it is an evil spirit.”

His remarks come the day after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein adopted a recommendation that would for the first time allow non-Orthodox rabbis to receive state funding.

On Tuesday Margi said that if the High Court of Justice decided to recognize Reform or Conservative clergy as community rabbis, he would ask permission from Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to resign from the government.

I certainly hope Rabbi Yosef will give Minister Margi leave the resign from the government.  In fact, why doesn’t he just leave now, and save us all the trouble?

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Madness

I opened my Times-Picayune today to two stories, both of them tragic and tragically common.  But appearing in the very same newspaper brought the point home:

A 5-year-old girl and a 33-year-old woman died from gunshot wounds Tuesday afternoon in a fusillade in Central City, New Orleans police said. A 10-year-old boy had graze wounds to the face and leg, a 20-year-old man was wounded in the wrist and a 24-year-old man was shot in the face, police said.

“It was my grandson’s birthday party,” said a woman, referring to the 10-year-old boy.

It wasn’t the only fatal shooting in New Orleans yesterday, as the end of the article points out:

The shooting followed a series of three shootings across the city, one of them fatal.

A male was fatally shot in the head outside a body shop near the corner of Toulouse and Gayoso Streets about 3:30 p.m. He was transported to a hospital and died shortly afterward.

About 40 minutes earlier,  in the 7100 block of Deanne Street in eastern New Orleans, a 19-year-old man was shot in the neck, according to New Orleans police spokeswoman Remi Braden.

Another shooting occurred a few minutes later in the 4300 block of South Carrollton Avenue, near Baudin Street. There, a male was shot in the stomach.

And then, just two pages away from this front page story of death in a hail of bullets, we get this:

Louisiana voters will decide this November whether to amend the state Constitution to limit ability of the Legislature and other arms of government to restrict the right to carry guns. The Senate gave a final 34-4 approval to language that will give Second Amendment rights the benefit of “strict scrutiny,” a term used by the U.S. Supreme Court to require that government must have a compelling interest before regulating constitutional rights and that any limits must be narrowly tailored.

With the backing of the influential National Rifle Association and Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, pushed the measure to put Louisiana law in line with recent U.S. Supreme Court cases that struck down local weapons bans. Riser said the additional state protection is needed to clarify Louisiana law and protect gun owners from the actions of future lawmakers and jurists.

The amendment requires majority approval on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Jindal released a written statement after the vote: “We are adopting the strongest, most iron-clad, constitutional protection for law-abiding gun owners. It’s our own Second Amendment, if you will, and I look forward to voting for this amendment in the fall.”

I am not sure how having more guns would have protected the five year old who died at the birthday party, or the woman who was shot in her car just driving by.  I am not sure how we live in a world where this sort of thing does not even constitute a challenge the so-called guns rights lobby.  I understand that we live in a culture of guns and rights, but this mania for fewer and fewer common sense restrictions on firearms is madness.  And just to prove my point, here is the final nail in the coffin of sanity, also from today’s paper:

Handing the gun rights lobby another victory not long after approving Riser’s constitutional amendment, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to criminalize the reckless discharge of a firearm near residences in unincorporated areas. While exempting any action intended to protect life or property, the negligent discharge bill would have made it a crime to fire a gun within 1,000 feet of a residence in an unincorporated area. The bill would have set a maximum fine of $250 for the first conviction and $500 for repeat convictions.

That’s right: we couldn’t even agree to make it a $250 fine to recklessly discharge a firearm.  To do so, I suppose, would be an infringement of our rights.  That bill lost 1-33 in the State Senate by the way.

There is only one word for this: madness.

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I Might Have Spoken Too Soon in My Last Post (Updated)

Okay, maybe it’s half a good day for religious pluralism in Israel:

Fears of a historic rift between the Chief Rabbinate and Orthodox rabbis overseas have been sparked by the Chief Rabbinate’s recent decision not to recognize conversions and divorce decrees (gets) by most Orthodox rabbis abroad.

The Rabbinate confirmed that rabbinic courts in Israel have been instructed not to recognize conversions and gets authorized by overseas rabbis until those rabbis pass Rabbinate exams in Israel.

Dear Orthodox Jews in America (and everywhere else): it’s time to get together with the Liberal streams of Judaism and break the power of the rabbanut.  You can hold your nose while you work with us, we won’t mind.  Let’s just agree to tear the rabbanut down and start over.  It’s bad for everyone.

Agreed?

Update: This article is from 2006.  I apologize.  This happened awhile ago, and somehow it came up in my newsfeed to day.  It’s still wrong though.

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A Major Breaktrhough in Israel on Pluralism

More of this please:

In an unprecedented move, Israel has announced that it is prepared to recognize Reform and Conservative community leaders as rabbis and fund their salaries. Rabbis belonging to either stream will be classified as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities.” The attorney general advised the High Court that the state will begin equally financing non-Orthodox rabbis in regional councils and farming communities that are interested in doing so.

This is wonderful and amazing news.  One the major religious injustices in Israel is about money: Orthodox rabbis and institutions receive millions and millions of government dollars, while Liberal stream rabbis and institutions go begging.  (Literally, and it’s always worth giving a donation to Masorti.)  But now, things are finally changing.  Now, to be fair, it took a law suit and years of negotiations, and then there’s this:

The State held that the deal on Reform and Conservative rabbis will not be made via the religious council and will not be done via direct employment by the local authorities, rather via financial assistance. The Reform movement agreed to this. Financing will be the responsibility of the Culture and Sports Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry.

God forbid anyone should mistake these non-Orthodox rabbis for, you know, rabbis. Maybe if we pay them with the Sports Ministry’s budget we can think of them more as minor league coaches or something.

But you know what?  I’ll take it!  So will the Reform Movement in Israel, which has been working so hard on this issue:

The head of Israel’s Reform movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, said “the state’s decision to support the activities of Reform rabbis in regional councils, while clearly acknowledging their roles as rabbis, is an important breakthrough in the efforts to advance freedom of religion in Israel. This is the first, but significant, step toward comparing the status of all streams of Judaism in Israel and we hope the state will indeed ensure the court’s commitments are fully applied.”

Amen to that.  This is a good day for religious pluralism in Israel.

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In Which I Agree With The Co-Chair of Mitt Romney’s Miami-Dade Campaign

Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a fairly middle-of-the-road Democrat.  She is a congresswoman from Florida, and she is Jewish, and holds mainstream views on Israel.  As such, you would not think her appearance at a synagogue just outside her home district would cause much of a stir.  These sorts of appearances do not lend themselves to news.

But—in case you had somehow not noticed—we are in the middle of a national election (before which the cliché at this point is too append “hotly contested”) and nothing is that simple.  It seems one of the major benefactors of Mitt Romney’s campaign, a man named Stanley tate, is a member of the synagogue, and he objected to Wasserman Schultz’s appearance on the grounds that to have a Democratic Congresswoman speak is political.  Here are his words:

“She’s the chairperson of the Democratic National Committee,” he said. “The topic is the U.S.-Israel relationship. There cannot be any conversation on that topic, none, unless it has to do with the politics.”

Quite simply, Mr. Tate is absolutely correct.  And he’s correct even though I would suspect that he Wasserman Schultz, and for that matter Representative Wasserman Schultz and Mitt Romney all pretty much agree about the major aspects of American policy towards Israel.  But regardless of the fact that Mr. Tate, Representative Wasserman Schultz, Governor Romney (and President Obama as well) would all basically agree on Israel, the subject is absolutely still political.

I would just add that, in truth, anyone speaking about Israel—not just an elected official—in virtually any way is inherently political, it’s just that Jewish communities tend not to think of it that way because we assume a broad consensus on the certain issues.  That consensus renders Israel discussions non-political.  But of course, Israel is political, and it must be. It’s a contested nation in a difficult situation with unsteady borders and alliances.  And that’s just for starters.

Which is not to say that we should not talk about Israel.  We should! But we should be honest, as a community, that the ways in which we do so are political, by which I mean that people may agree and disagree in serious and profound ways, and that those disagreements are political disagreements.  And that is okay.

And here is where I disagree with Mr. Tate.  I think it makes no sense to exclude Representative Wasserman Schultz from the Temple on the basis that her talk may be political.  I am not even sure it makes sense to have a “response” to her speech from a Republican, since to do so would be an undue sense of partisan politics (Democrats versus Republicans) and opposed to just politics (Israel policies for example.)  I think this distinction matters because while synagogues cannot be entirely “non-political” they can (and should) strive to be non-partisan.  On the other hand, if Representative Wasserman Schultz is running in a contested (even hotly contested) election, her opponent should be invited by the synagogue to address them as well.  The more the merrier.

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Virtual Book Club: Crisis of Zionism Chapter 4

This chapter represents the core of much of criticism of Beinart’s book: that he understates, dramatically, Palestinian complicity in creating the current situation.  In this chapter, Beinart argues, essentially, that the narrative American Jews tell ourselves about the various failures of the various attempts at peace is not so much false as it is incomplete.  That is, from Oslo to Camp David to Gaza, the story American Jews tell is one of Israeli willingness and Palestinian intractability, of Israeli olive branches and Palestinian rockets.  Beinart’s claim is simple: it’s not that simple.  Beinart argues—persuasively to my mind—that these versions of events fail to account for actions and statements made by Israeli leaders that run counter to the narrative we are constructing.  It is, Beinart correctly argues, axiomatic among Jews that Ehud Barak offered a generous settlement to Yassir Arafat, who rejected it, and this version of events informs our view of the violence that followed the failure of those efforts.  Beinart claims that the offer Barak made never as generous as we thought it was, and further, that the continued expansion of settlements in the Oslo period undermined trust between the two sides.  (He makes similar arguments about the withdrawal from Gaza, questions the motives of Ariel Sharon and refusing to the eventual Hamas take-over in Gaza as “proof” that the Palestinians do not want peace. I tend to think that recent events in Israel—namely the rejoining in all but name of Kadima and Likud—tends to strengthen Beinart’s point that Sharon’s break with Likud was more over tactics than principles. )

I think this is Beinart’s strongest chapter so far, although I profoundly wish he had spent more time sourcing and arguing it.  This, it seems to me, is at the very core of his argument, and it is certainly true that the narratives each side tells about its efforts for peace are vital.  Try having a conversation in just about any Jewish context about the prospects for peace without the “approved” narrative about Camp David or the Gaza disengagement coming up.  The basic agreement among Jews on the contours of the failure of peace is remarkable, and I think Beinart is smart to complicate the story.  But I think—as I have in all chapters so far—that the actual argument feels a little too dashed-off, more of a sketch than an actual argument.  Beinart’s critics have largely argued that he places too much blame on Israel and not enough on the Palestinians, and I think this criticism is over-blown.  But I see how one could make it: this is an essential and contentious aspect of the book, and it simply is not well argued or deeply considered enough.  The question of the power of Hamas in Gaza is important and difficult, and he dashes it off in a couple of paragraphs.  The blockade, similarly, is a complex issue, and Beinart does not really engage it.  The narratives we tell about the Israeli and Palestinian culpability for the present situation are extremely important, and this chapter is the beginning of an important corrective in the Jewish narrative.  But it’s to important to just be begun.  He needed to go deeper.

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“This Wall is Mine, Too”

Just this past week, Israelis and Jews around the world marked the day that has come to known as Yom Yerushalayim, a semi-holiday celebrating the reuniting of East and West Jerusalem during the 6 day war in 1967.  Though Yom Yerushalayim is not an entirely uncomplicated commemoration (see, for example, Rabbi Jill Jacob’s critical comments on the day) one positive good that came from the victory of the IDF in Jerusalem over mostly Jordanian forces was the opening of the Old City to Jews.  For the first time I many years, Jews could freely walk through the Jerusalem’s Old City and could visit the kotel, a small section of a wall of the Temple courtyard.  This section of wall had long been considered an auspicious place to visit and pray, given its proximity to the Temple Mount.  In the years after 1967, the kotel became a full-fledged pilgrimage site for Jewish visitors to Israel, and any time of the day or night one can go there and find people engaged in prayer, contemplation or begging for money.

But the wall is also a contested space.  Having been declared a synagogue by the State of Israel, the wall has a rabbi, and functions as an Orthodox synagogue: there is a mechitza, and women are not allowed to engage in certain types of prayer.  Over the years, a group called Women of the Wall has tried to challenge some of these rules, and their efforts are often meant with anger and sometimes violence.  After a Supreme Court ruling prohibited certain types of prayer by women, attempts by Women of the Wall to challenge some of those rules have also been met with police action.

Such it was this past week, on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, when Women of the Wall gathered a group (as they do every Rosh Chodesh) to pray together at the Wall.  These women are not allowed to form a minyan, and they are not allowed to wear tallitot or tefillin.  That is the law.  This particular Rosh Chodesh, a few of the women were evidently wearing their tallitot a little too much like, well, tallitot.  This is did not go over well with the authorities:

Three women from the Women of the Wall organization were briefly detained by police Tuesday morning, the group said, for wearing prayer shawls, or talitot, at the Western Wall plaza…

According to Sarit Horwitz, 26, one of the women stopped by the police, a policewoman approached her during the group’s prayer service and told her to adjust the talit she was wearing because she was wearing it as a man does. A male officer then adjusted the talit for her without her permission.

That’s right, Sarit Horwitz (whom I know well) was violating Israeli law by wearing a tallit like one would normally wear a tallit.  She is not allowed to do so at the Western Wall because the Western Wall is classified as an Orthodox synagogue.  And thus Jewish history, tradition, ritual and culture become captured and held captive by a single strand of the Jewish people, who presume to impose their ritual decisions on everyone who wishes to approach the wall.  The absurdity of this situation is highlighted in the blog of another of the affected women, Ariella Rosen (whom I also know):

I arrived at the Kotel (Western Wall) about 15 minutes late, so I went right in to the women’s section, put on my tallit (prayer shawl), and quickly caught up on the service. At least half of the women present were also wearing tallitot. Right as I had gathered my tzitzit (corner fringes) together in preparation for the Shema prayer, a police officer approached me (and a couple of others) asking us to change the way we were wearing our tallitot. Apparently, it is illegal for a woman to wear a tallit at the Kotel, and the way of getting around that is to wear them like scarves. I promptly pulled my tallit down so that it was draped on my body, rather than folded over my shoulders in the customary way. She asked me to further make it look scarf-like, and I, stumbling in Hebrew, told her that I would as soon as this prayer was over, but that with my tzitzit wrapped around my fingers, that would be challenging. Without waiting to hear the end of my explanation, she called over to her fellow officer who was holding a video camera, and said in Hebrew “She doesn’t want to. Film her.” The second I released my tzitzit at the end of the Shema, I pulled the bottom of my tallit up and wore it like a shawl (the way I saw most of the other women wearing theirs), and wore it that way for the duration of the service at the Kotel.

What Ariella wants to do, in her radicalism, is say the shema the way Jews have been saying the shema for millennia: wrapped in a tallit and gathering the four tzit-tzit together, but she can’t because in doing so she is violating a law of the State of Israel.  After two thousand years living everywhere in the world but Israel, after two thousand years of hoping for a place where Jews could proudly and freely practice their religion, what we have created is a country whose police are tasked with preventing women from praying any damn way they please at an important historical site.  Sad to say, but Jewish women are less free at the Western Wall than they are on the Upper West Side.

We can—we must—do better.  Israel must re-liberate the Western Wall from the tyranny of the religious authority that currently occupies that holy place.  In no sane world should a woman be told how she can and cannot pray at the kotel.  In no sane world should the law of the State of Israel define how a woman should wear a tallit as she stands before the one of the great artifacts of our history.  A synagogue is one thing, a national monument is something else.  The law that allows for police harassment of women praying at the kotel is unjust and it should be treated as such.

As Ariella said so beautifully in the title of her post, “This wall is mine, too.”  Let us hope that by next Yom Yerushalayim Israel has found a way to free the Wall, and thus help make those words true.

This wall is mine, too.

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Comment of the Day

From my Dad, in response to the previous post:

Don’t blame us. I distinctly remember pointing out that the Pirates were leading vov to daled.

Of course, this cannot be true, since the Pirates were NEVER leading, not in Hebrew numbers, or in any other kind.

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Five Years On

This middle of May I marked five years since being ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.  In those five years I have held approximately 2.86 jobs: I was the full time Assistant Director at Camp Ramah in New England, while at the same time I worked as the part time rabbi-in-residence for the Student Conservative Rabbi at Harvard Hillel, while also teaching two classes at the South Area Schechter Day School.  I am currently the Chief Conservative Rabbi of the State of Louisiana.  In addition, I teach the Florence Melton Mini-School and I teach the Introduction to the Hebrew Bible at Tulane University.  I figure that’s about 2.86 jobs, but the numbers are flexible.  What’s interesting is that, as I look back at that short but sort of packed resume, I notice that I have been involved, since graduation, in just about every major area of Jewish education: camp, synagogue, school, Hillel, and formal adult education.  I seem to be some sort of Jewish Education Hero.

Seriously (that hero thing is a joke, in case that didn’t come across in the reading) I thought that five years out was a good chance to reflect on what I learned in the Seminary, or at the very least what I took out of the seminary, and how that experience has influenced my ability to be successful in the various aspects of my rabbinate, or has led me to stumble in my attempts for success.  First, I will give away the ending: I have generally felt that my time at JTS has served me extremely well in the various roles I have taken in the past five years.  I guess if you want to stop reading now, you can.  (Or, if you work for JTS Admissions, you can just excerpt that line for your brochure, and move on.)

First and foremost, there is this: JTS gave me the skills and the desire to read and engage with the traditional texts of the Jewish canon.  The skills were hard in coming: I arrived at JTS (in the summer of 2000, if you can believe that) with very little in the way of basic skills.  My Hebrew was “not impressive” (as one of deans who saw my Hebrew entrance exam put it to me less-than-delicately) and I had literally never seen a page of Talmud among many, many other things that I had never seen. (My first day of Talmud class the professor asked up to open to daf such-and-such, and I couldn’t, because I didn’t know that Hebrew letters were also used as numbers.)  Over the next seven (!) years, I slowly and at times painfully acquired the skills I did not have.  But the skills were really just a tiny part of JTS’ success, at least in my case.  What I appreciate much more is that the atmosphere at JTS gave me the desire to engage with those texts, to see them as living documents, vital for the Jewish future (not just for the study of the Jewish past) and therefore worthy of study.  When I think about what I enjoy most in my rabbinate, in all of my various roles, what I keep coming back to is preparing and (sometimes) successfully executing a text-based class.  I love the moment (which only happen occasionally) when you read a line of text in a class from the Mishnah, or the Talmud, or RAMBAM, or RASHI and there’s just that hum in the room, or the little intake of break, or the murmur of assent or recognition: these texts can speak to us.  They are hundreds, thousands of years old, and they are written in vastly different times and places, and all by men, and yet.  And yet.  They can reach us across those barriers.  These texts have something important to say.  Every once in awhile, I am lucky enough to facilitate one of those moments.  There is nothing better.  I love traditional Jewish texts, I love teaching traditional Jewish texts, and I cannot imagine my rabbinate without them.  JTS gave me that, and for that gift, I am eternally grateful.

On the other hand: I have virtually no idea what a successful rabbinate should look like for a Conservative Rabbi in the early part of the twenty-first century.  This uncertainty forms a part of every day of my working life (and I work weekends, so that’s every day) and I have no good tools by which to resolve this core instability.  I simply do not know if I am successful or not.  I don’t mean this as false modesty: I know I can deliver a reasonably good sermon, I know I am not terrible in pastoral moments, and I know (as I said) that I can teach a good class, at least sometimes.  This is not about the tactical successes of the rabbinate; this is a question of grand strategy.  What am I trying to accomplish?  How will I know if I am succeeding in longer-term, longer-lasting goals?  What are those goals?  When we learned “practical skills” at JTS (things like homiletics, working with boards, reading a budget etc.) the focus was always on what I think of as tactics: being a good speaker, successful non-profit manager, or being able to provide pastoral care.  I do not mean to denigrate these things, they are important.  But are they the goal?  What am I after in my life as a rabbi?  This question has plagued me in all of my 2.86 jobs, and I do not feel that JTS was serious enough about this starting this conversation with me while I was in school.  Of course I want to be good at the things that make a pulpit rabbi successful, but more than that, I want to understand what the definition of success should be.  Not being fired?  Being “liked” or “respected”?  Being named the Top Fifty Rabbis in America list?  Becoming the head rabbi of a humongous synagogue, or the Executive Director of some major organization?  I think this is a discussion that could have fruitfully begun while I was still a student, still surrounded by colleagues and friends who were heading out into the world.  Once the job(s) start(s) it is very hard to take time to think about such questions, and yet these are precisely the questions that keep me up at night.  Beyond the tactics, do I have a strategy?  I don’t expect that JTS can answer all those questions for me, but I would have liked a chance to ask them, to think them through, and to wonder if such questions can even be meaningfully answered.  If they can’t, I would have liked to know that (or at least had a sense of that) before I went out into the world.  On the days when I am not sure I having any success at all, it would be nice to know what others have done with those concerns, how they overcame them, or what happened if they could not.  I know that when JTS talks about practical skills, this isn’t what they mean, but, five years out, I find I really could have used some help in this answering this most practical of questions: how can I know if I am doing any good at all?

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Virtual Book Club: Crisis of Zionism Chapter 3

This is a short chapter, and it sets up what, it seems to me, should be a straw man, but actually isn’t: the argument that American Jews should never criticize Israel.  For Beinart the notion that American Jews should never criticize Israel flows from the same poisoned well of victimhood ideology that he has attacked in previous chapters.  Here, I think his argument is on sound footing.  I think it is indisputably true that the “we shouldn’t criticize Israel” argument only seems to work in very specific circumstances: when it’s Israel, and when Israel pursues right-of-center security policies. That is, Beinart is absolutely right that American Jews feel perfectly okay criticizing other countries (mostly around Israel) and there is way to make a meaningful distinction between criticizing say, Germany, and criticizing Israel.  In fact, one could argue (and Beinart does) that Jews have more responsibility to offer targeted criticisms of Israel given the huge amount of emotional, financial and political support our community lavishes upon Israel.  It’s true that we do not vote or send our kids to the IDF, but I think we are expected (and it’s an expectation I accept and promote) to show our support for the project of Israel in a myriad of ways.  Secondly, though Beinart does not make this point explicitly, I would argue for an additional double standard: right-wing governments in Israel are immune from criticism, but not left-wing ones.  When Yitzchak Rabin was pursuing peace with the Palestinians, or when Ehud Barak was, there was much gnashing of teeth in the American Jewish establishment.  My point is that when folks argue that we shouldn’t, as Jews, criticize Israel, they usually mean, “when Israeli policy or political leadership agrees with me.”  In some ways, it’s depressing that Beinart even had to write this chapter, because it shows how stunted the American Jewish conversation about Israel can be, especially among the establishment community.  In this chapter, Beinart is right on: Jews can and should criticize Israel, and to argue that we should not is to freeze the discussion in a profoundly unhealthy way.

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Virtual Book Club: Crisis of Zionism Chapter Two

Explanation of Virtual Book Club here.

Discussion of Introduction and Chapter One here.

This was a confounding chapter for me.  On the one hand, Peter Beinart wants to argue that the situation we are in right now is—as the title of the book suggests—a “crisis”.  The crisis, Beinart argues, is that young Jews are drifting away from Zionism and Israel because both have been kidnapped by what are essentially illiberal tribalist major Jewish organizations.  But in this very chapter Beinart traces this change to 1967, arguing that after the Six Day Way, the major American Jewish organizations (with the exception of the American Jewish Congress) moved to a victimhood/pro-Israel model that left most American Jews behind.  Leaving aside that his proof for this is somewhat spotty (high Jewish votes for McGovern and Carter) this does seem to indicate that the “crisis” of today is not so new at all.  After all, the Six Day War was over forty years ago.  That is, if the post-1967 generation of Jewish communal leaders began to destroy the liberal foundations of organizations like the ADL and AJC (a process which Beinart says accelerated in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the election of right wing governments in both the U.S. and Israel) than shouldn’t this crisis with young Jews have already happened?  Or is there something new about right now?  This is a case Beinart needs to make I think, and he does not.

I also found it odd that Beinart, in discussing the turn to victimhood ideology, does not mention the impact of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  In fact, unless I missed it, there is no mention of that war at all.  Now, I don’t know if that war—and the near defeat of Israel—had an impact on this story, but I would think that it did, and at the very least, Beinart must address it, since his position is that this story of Israel as a victim is basically unfounded.  I do think Israel is far more powerful today that it was pre-1967, but I also think one could have been forgiven, in the mid-1970s, for arguing that Israel still faced very real threats to its very existence.  I am not sure why Beinart would not want to address this issue.  After all, it is central to his thesis that Jewish organizations consciously and cynically chose to push a victim narrative, and he needs to show, I think, that this narrative was helped along by the 1973 war, or at least he needs to acknowledge that the ’73 war showed that Israel did face real threats, and that the move towards a victim identity was not without some connection to the real world.

I think the chapter also suffers by not continuing the story through the Camp David Accords in the late 1970s.  How did organizations like ADL and AJC and AIPAC (not a major player at that point, as Beinart notes) react to this treaty?  How did they interpret it for their constituencies?  This seems to me an important question, since it was the first time (and only time so far) that Israel gave land for peace.  How did that issue play in the American Jewish community, and is there different rhetoric now around giving up land for peace?  Has there been a change since 1979, and if so, is that the reason that Beinart argues that the gap between the establishment Jewish community and the young Jews he worries about is growing?

Finally, I still detect a confusion in the book about what exactly, Beinart’s most serious concern might be.  Throughout the chapter, as he talks about American Jews and Israel, he mentions again and again intermarriage, and even begins the chapter with the “private Jewish tragedy” of what he calls “the average large donor to a major American Jewish organization.”  This tragedy is not about Israel, it’s about the loss of Jewish identity, and I can’t help wondering if this is Beinart’s true concern: not Zionism and Israel, but how the increasingly strident definitions of Zionism and right-leaning of Israel are impacting the Jewish identities of American Jews.  In the end, this chapter isn’t really about Israel at all; and it’s not really even about American Jews.  This chapter is about how unrepresentative Beinart thinks American Jewish organizations are.  He may be right, he may be wrong, but I am not sure he made me think I need to care.

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Debate Reaction: Beinart versus Gordis

Last night in New York, Peter Beinart, author of Crisis of Zionism (the subject of our Virtual Book Club!) and Dr. Daniel Gordis (author of many, many, things, including this brutal review of said book) squared off in a debate sponsored by Tablet Magazine.  The debate itself was fairly uninspiring, with both men simply repeating bits and pieces of what we have already heard them say in print, either in the book or in the review.  And I am generally skeptical that these sorts of discussions can really change anyone’s mind.  But maybe I am too pessimistic.  In any case, I will embed the full video at the bottom of this post and you can watch it for yourself.  You can also check out my twitter feed here, where I lived-tweeted my reactions throughout the debate. Yes, I did just write “live-tweeted.”  Eat your heart out Rav Papa.)

One point I would like to make is about the vastly different styles between the two debaters.  Beinart brought fact and figures, quotes and studies; he was about argument.  Gordis, on the other hand, brought stories and anecdotes, wistfulness and loyalty, he was about emotion.  Fundamentally, these men claimed to agree on some key points: that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank, that there should be a Palestinian State, that Israel faces a difficult security situation.  It’s just that they totally disagree on how to understand the current moment.  Beinart sees an Israel about to go off a cliff into the abyss of Apartheid and moral dissolution because it is unable and unwilling to pull back behind the green line.  Gordis sees an Israel in grave danger from terrorism and international approbation and is therefore unwilling to give any concessions, and further, sees the pressure to give concession as a lack of loyalty to Israel in a time of great risk.  Both claim to love Israel, and want Israel to be Jewish and democratic, but whereas Beinart sees an addict in need of tough love, Gordis sees an abused child in need of tender and unconditional support.  Therein lies the conflict, and this is why neither man really engaged each other’s best points or even argued on the same ground.  Gordis evaded the issue of the settlements and the morality of occupation as best he could, and Beinart tried to avoid talking about the risky global situation Israel finds itself in at the present moment.  As I have written before, in my reaction to the Moment magazine feature “What Does it Mean to be Pro-Israel Today,” folks on the left tend to look at the internal struggles of the state, while folks on the right tend to focus on the external threats.  They have trouble engaging with each other, because each sees the other as hopelessly naïve and willfully blind about the “true” threat.

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A Response from Bend the Arc

In response to my recent post about the name of Bend the Arc, and the shuttering of the service learning division, I received an e-mail from Avi Smolen, the Communications Manager for Bend the Arc.  With his permission, I am posting his response to my concerns:

Dear Rabbi Linden,

 

I read your recent post “Unbending the Arc” and wanted to respond to your concerns.  First, thank you for caring enough about our organization and the work that we do to take the time to comment on our re-branding. 

 

I’d like to tell you more about the name and why we are excited about it.  Our board unanimously chose the name Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice because the challenges of our time are so great and our supporters want a powerful, unified Jewish voice that speaks out for economic opportunity and basic fairness.

 

Bend the Arc is a phrase that has inspired many, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (as you noted). As you also mentioned, it was coined in the 1850s by the abolitionist Theodore Parker, as he spoke out against the injustices of American slavery and thus harkens back to our Exodus from Egypt, the core of Jewish narrative. The name is a call to action to right the injustices and inequalities of our time.  Bay Area Regional Director Susan Lubeck elaborates on this in a thoughtful piece in the J Weekly. Many members of our community have expressed their excitement about the new name, and we hope to build on this so that Bend the Arc becomes synonymous with Jewish social justice.

 

I also would like to explain further why we are suspending our service learning work.  The decision is not in any way a reflection on the program or the people who ran it. In fact, the program was widely recognized as a model for best practices. We undertook Service Learning as a way to engage young Jews in these issues but, unfortunately, among the many ways we do this, including our organizing, community investment and leadership development programs, Service Learning was by far the most expensive. Just as many non-profits have to look strategically at their finances, we had to examine our budget and make this strategic decision to ensure the long-term sustainability of our organization.

 

We continue to be an organization that brings the Jewish community together to help hold America to its promise as a land of opportunity for all. I hope that you will join us in our enthusiasm for a name that we believe expresses the important role Jews have to play in furthering economic opportunity and social justice in America.

 

Sincerely,

Avi Smolen

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Virtual Book Club: “Crisis of Zionism” Intro and Chapter One

I have to admit that the Introduction to “Crisis of Zionism” made me nervous.  And maybe not in the way you might think.  Beinart opens the book with two formative experiences, one Jewish, the other—broadly speaking—liberal.  (Throughout the book Beinart uses the word ‘liberal’ in its most basic political sense as in “liberal democracy” and not in the American political spectrum sense.  I will do the same.)  He tells first of his grandmother, and of the sense of Jewish fate and destiny she instilled in him.  And then he tells of Khaled Jaber, a Palestinian boy who cries as his father is being arrested by Israelis.  His grandmother taught him to “sleep better knowing the world contains a Jewish state” (3) and the video of Jaber taught him that Zionism is in danger of becoming a Movement that “fails the test of Jewish power.” (4) This is a stark beginning, and I think, a powerful and important question: can Israel pass the test of Jewish power?  It is a question we have not—as Beinart notes—had to confront for two thousand years.  Jewish power, at least in the sense of armies and police, has always been purely conceptual, a game the rabbis could play without consequences.  When RAMBAM (Moses Maimonides) wrote the “Laws of Kings” as part of great code the Mishne Torah in the 11th century, he and his readers understood that he was writing for a time not yet emergent—just like all the laws about sacrifices.  In fact, later Jewish codes did not even bother to include laws for kings and sacrifices, under the rather plausible theory that legal codes should contain laws that people need to follow, not laws that have no immediate (or even horizonal) relevance.  It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century, with the birth of political Zionism, that the conversation about Jewish power became a conversation about something that actually could happen. And even then, one senses in the writings of the early political Zionist like Herzl, that the sense of what a Jewish army or navy might look like, and under what rules in might engage its enemies, were a bit hazy.  Thus, the question of what a Jewish state should do with its force of arms, and how that debate can be Jewish, or even the extent to which that conversation should be Jewish, is an important, and I think unresolved question for the modern State of Israel.  I thought Beinart was going to write about that.

But Beinart doesn’t seem as interested in that as he does in the conflict he himself embodies: Liberal American Jews facing Israel.  And thus he spends a lot of time in the introduction talking about what he calls “the American Jewish story”.  To Beinart, it’s a story of oppression and survival, of anti-Semitism and success in the face of hatred.  This story that we tells ourselves, Beinart says, is deeply flawed in that it overemphasizes our victimhood and our weakness.  We need, Beinart argues, “a new American Jewish story, built around this basic truth: We are not history’s permanent victims.” (8)  This too, I think, is an important point.  What is the content of American Jewish identity, and to what extent is it based on our sense of collective victimization and persecution?  What is the place of the Holocaust in the creation of American Jewish identity?  Do we as American Jews focus too much on victimization and not enough on other elements of identity?  These are important questions, but they are more about how the American Jewish community thinks about itself than they are about Zionism.  Beinart wants to argue that the prevalent notion of American Jewish victimhood is responsible for the narrowness of the conversation about Israel and Zionism.  (At least, I think that is what he will claim, he has not, as of yet, made that connection explicit.)  I think this may be a worthwhile argument, but he’s going to have to work to prove it, not just throw a few quotes around, like he did in the introduction.

All of which leads me to my big question through Chapter One and why the introduction made me nervous: is this book about Zionism, or is about American Jews?  It can be about both, but the first chapter seemed like a brief against the occupation in the West Bank (and, Beinart adds, in Gaza) having little to do with the U.S.  I see that the second chapter is called “The Crisis in America” so maybe that chapter will answer some of my questions.  I thought the critical question of the first chapter was: wither the West Bank?  Beinart is hardly the first to argue that an indefinite occupation of land Israel has not annexed creates an untenable legal situation for those Palestinians who live there.  And he is not the first to argue that Israel’s occupation is bad for Israel, as well as being bad for the Palestinians.  In fact, one of the interesting aspects of the first chapter was how much more concerned Beinart seems to be about the impact of the occupation on Israelis, as opposed to on the Palestinians.  This may be rhetorical: “it’s bad for us” is an argument rooted in self-interest but it also may be that we should take Beinart at his word (as, for example, Rabbi Daniel Gordis is loath to do) when he says he loves and cares about Israel, and wants it to succeed.

So, as I end chapter one, I am interested to see which book Beinart is writing, and, if he is truly trying to write both books, how that will work out over the course of the entire piece.

 

A Note About Comments: The comments will be moderated.  Please refrain from ad hominem argumentation.  Let’s be honest and forthright without being rude.  We can do this.

 

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