Silly Season, Part 2

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As the controversy over the Israeli conversion bill heated up, in other corners of the Jewish world, too, ‘twas the season to be silly. In a New York Times opinion piece so rife with howlers that a “Corrections” note of several paragraphs would not suffice, a Jewish magazine editor suggested that future historians would wonder why “as Iran raced to build a nuclear bomb to wipe the Jewish state off the map, did custodians of the 2,000-year-old dream of the Jewish people choose such a perverse definition of Jewish peoplehood, seemingly calculated to alienate supporters outside its own borders?”

It’s good the writer is concerned enough about the Iranian nuclear threat to make the rather strange connection between it and, of all things, the Israeli conversion controversy. Perhaps her next article can muse about what future historians will say about why the American Jewish establishment and its constituents — including her magazine’s readership — who are an important part of Barack Obama’s liberal base and are, even as his popularity plummets, still among his staunchest financial and political backers, failed to object strenuously — or at all — to his reconciliation to the reality of an Iranian bomb.

And perhaps those scholars will find confirmation of Santayana’s aphorism about repetitive history in the genuflection of American Jews — with those attacking the Orthodox over conversion prominent among them — before Obama’s Iran policy. It is, after all, an eerie replication of the “miserable failure” of Stephen Wise – that’s Hebrew Union College head David Ellenson’s phrase – to overcome his adulation of FDR to work for the salvation of European Jewry.

Then there is the writer’s invocation of the “alienation” meme, the notion that, in her words, neither “the Jewish diaspora nor Israel can afford a split between the two communities. . . .” As if in a giant echo chamber, this charge reverberated through the secular Jewish world, from former AIPAC head Tom Dine, whose memorable reference some years back to “smelly Orthodox diamond merchants” tends to diminish his moral clout, to Reform bigwig David Saperstein, who bemoans that among the “unaffiliated who identify with the Reform and Conservative movements, the message that the government . . . does not recognize their commitment does alienate people. . . . “ I’m trying to follow Saperstein on this: The “unaffiliated” — read: those who don’t even join a temple at least until their kid’s bar mitzvah and aren’t among the 15% of Jews who have visited Israel even once — are alienated because Israel doesn’t recognize their “commitment?! Whatever.

It’s hard to know if, in claiming that Israeli suppression of the non-Orthodox movements has alienated American Jews en masse, Sapirstein is engaging in cynical manipulation or really believes this stuff. Either way, I have a solution: He ought to take up reading his own movement’s eponymous publication, Reform Judaism. Its Spring issue featured a panel of Reform clergyfolk in Israel, and among them was David Forman, who passed away in May at age 65, while awaiting a liver transplant. Although his liberal and heterodox credentials were solid – director of the Israel office of the Reform movement for 27 years and a founder of the left-wing agitators’ group Rabbis for Human Rights – he was not a company man, and was often strikingly independent-minded about Israeli politics and candid about the Jewish scene.

Responding to the question “Has Reform Judaism become more accepted among Israelis?, Forman had this to say:

The Reform Movement’s inroads into Israeli society have been marginal at best – and I believe that we have erred greatly in trying to garner support among our Diaspora brothers and sisters by telling them how dreadful Israel is in respecting the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. We have basically turned off many North American Reform Jews to Israel.

The truth is, the cup is half full. Our Reform settlements . . . would never have been founded or maintained had it not been for Israeli government subsidies. Our educational institutions receive government aid as well. . . . Its time we start telling these positive stories instead of blaspheming Israel.

In an earlier article in the Jerusalem Post, Forman took aim at those in America who look for something to “be held liable for the comatose state of American Jews”:

Who stands in the dock? The usual scapegoat: Israel. Israel’s actions are alienating Jews abroad not only from Israel, but also from Judaism. The Jewish state has failed to fulfill its promise of being a “holy nation” It has demeaned Jewish values to such an extent that Jews around the globe are embarrassed and fleeing in droves from their Jewish roots.

Who are the leaders of this transference movement – that is, those who look to find fault elsewhere for their own failures? Surprisingly, but on close examination not unexpectedly, . . . the liberal Jewish community. If only Israel were faithful to its prophetic tradition and also a reflection of the great social movements of the West, American Jews would identify with their Jewish heritage. . . .

I was shocked when [on a recent trip to America] I spoke to 10th graders at a synagogue’s Sunday school. It is amazing what they do not know. . . . [F]ew knew that Abraham preceded Moses, few could name one prophet, few knew in what part of the world Israel is situated. They all know who Jesus’ parents were –but they do not have the slightest idea whose were Moses’. . . .

Why should [American Jews] be interested in anything that has to do with Israel if they have no knowledge of anything that has to do with Jewish life? Liberal Jews should display a little humility before lecturing us that our country does not reflect what they expect of a Jewish state. . . . So stop using Israel as a scapegoat for the ills of the American Jewish community.

An important point emerges from this last piece: even without conversion crises on which to blame the spiritual and demographic unraveling of American Jewry, there’ll be plenty other things to blame it on, unless Israel is willing to shed its Jewish identity almost entirely and remake itself in the image of J Street and its ilk.

Too high a price to pay, methinks.

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3 Responses

  1. L. Oberstein says:

    “was shocked when [on a recent trip to America] I spoke to 10th graders at a synagogue’s Sunday school. It is amazing what they do not know. . . . [F]ew knew that Abraham preceded Moses, few could name one prophet, few knew in what part of the world Israel is situated. They all know who Jesus’ parents were –but they do not have the slightest idea whose were Moses’. . .”

    There is an anecdote about Jewish ignorance in America 100 years ago .The visitor asks the child in Hebrew School, who knocked down the walls of Jericho? The frightened child answers “I didn’t do it?” The visitor looks as the teacher who says “he’s a good boy, if he said he didn’t do it I believe him” This goes on for several more people until it reaches the President of the shul, who says “how much does it cost, I’ll pay for it.”This joke is called a bitter joke (bittere gelechter) amd describers the low level of Jewish education 100 years ago. We are now manay generations after that story and the amazing thing is that the Jewish People did not disappear and that these same ignorant Jews built the infrastructure of American Jewish life. Today, we are facing grave challenges but we will survive and even thrive.

  2. Jacob T says:

    Sabba Hillel: given how many olim (especially grandchildren of Holocaust victims)are forced to marry in Cyprus because they don’t have access to their maternal grandmother’s ketubah (let alone birth or death records for great-grandparents…the Nazis didn’t exactly draw up documents for the kedoshim killed in the gas chambers), there might be more truth to your joke than you first realized.

  3. Sabba Hillel says:

    If Israel remakes itself in the image of J Street, the Eastern border of the state would be 20 miles west of Tel Aviv.