[ Mensch – Yiddish, literally a human being. Understood to commonly mean “a good person” ]
The American Council for Judaism is the oldest secular anti-Zionist Jewish organization in existence. In its recent edition of its periodical, ISSUES, Winter 2001, Mr. Allan Brownfeld, exec.dir; reviews a new study entitled THE JEW WITHIN: self, family and community in America by Steven N. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, Indiana U. Press.
As I was reading Mr. Brownfelds review of this important work, I felt as many of the things I had empirically felt over the past two decades had been vindicated by this study. This work also is an excellent compliment to an important book which was released last year, JEW vs. JEW-The Struggle For the Soul of American Jewry by Samuel G. Freedman of Columbia University. This work was last years recipient of the National Jewish Book Award.
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Both books serve as narratives of the quantum changes that have taken place among Jewish Americans since the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th Century.
Mr. Brownfeld begins his review by stating:
The organized American Jewish community has issued various alarms in recent years about assimilation, intermarriage and diminishing population.
These are indeed the three boogeymen of concern to the organized American Jewish community. Some things must be understood here prior to continuing. Number one, is that what is known as the organized American Jewish community is populated by approximately 35% of all Jews in North America. The current population estimates for those professing to be Jews in N. America is 5.5 6 million. This means that those Jews who have bothered to become members of a synagogue, a Jewish Community Center (JCC), a charitable, or political Jewish organization falls somewhere between 1,925,000 and 2,100,000 Jews. The vast majority, 65% of all Jews belong to no organization whatsoever. Secondly, it has been shown in studies of attendance at religious observances that the religious community with the poorest attendance are Jews. Why this is so, is out of scope of this discussion, and of course it is of pressing concern to theologians as well as rabbis, cantors and educators who minister to Jews with regard to their religious upbringing.
Assimilation, or to use a more accurate word, acculturation, is the capacity for an individual to merge himself into the general societal culture and not appear as a permanent outsider. Thus, all immigrants to this continent, be they Irish Catholics of the mid-nineteenth century, fleeing the potato famine, Germans fleeing from the Franco-Prussian war, Swedes looking for fertile lands, Italians, Greeks, Poles and the Jews from the Pale of Settlement of Eastern Europe; all took pains (especially the men) to learn English, to learn about the history of their new country, to learn about the peculiarities of the greater society, while at the same time maintaining their own particular cultures from their former lands. By the second generation, their children were fully fluent in English, and usually lost the old-world accents of their parents, and developed the accents peculiar to the particular region of North America in which they lived. The second generation engaged more in the commonality of the greater culture than their parents, while at the same time shedding more and more of the old world ways, the cultural markers which their parents had brought with them. This process, a normal process, has continued through the third generation (of which this author, a “boomer, the post WWII babies, is a member) and the fourth (my children, the great-grandchildren of the two couples, one of whom came from Russia, and the other from the Austro-Hungarian empire.).
In her book, Embracing The Stranger, Ellen Jaffe Gill (written under the surname McClain), writing about intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles, has remarked that what is significant is not that Jews in the third and fourth generations are engaging in assimilation and intermarriage, but that it took so long. All other groups began this process in the second generation. However, it was a particularity of Jews, whether by custom or by religious dictates, to frown upon marrying out of faith, until the past three decades.
Moreover, if one examines, the early writings of Herzl, the father of political Zionism, his goal for Jews would have seemed to have been to make Jews normal. He viewed Jews as unassimilable and permanent outsiders.
It was these two premises, which were a mirror image of the racist and herrenvolkist German nationalism of the 19th Century, with which he despairingly believed, and thus set out on his quest to find a land that Jews could call their own, so that they could become normal. Thus, it is ironic that the great North American experiment has proven both Zionist premises wrong. For not only have Jews assimilated into general American society with great success, but the current rate of intermarriage, estimated at anywhere between 45-65% of all marriages in which one spouse is a Jew, belies the notion of Jews as permanent outsiders. This would seem to most individuals, a contemplation devoutly to be wished. Jews have become eminently normal on these shores. They are not permanent outsiders, and are found at all levels and branches of society in which many individuals who are Jews have made outstanding contributions to the overall society. One need not post a bragging list of these people, as many are wont to do, so as to bask in reflected glory. The important point is that the two great premises of Zionism have been disproved over and over by thousands and thousands if not millions of individual Jews.
The third thing Mr. Brownfeld points to as a point of hand-wringing by the organized Jewish community is diminishing population. By diminishing population is meant that over the course of time, less people are identifying as Jews, for various reasons. Some are non-believers in Judaism, some have adopted the religion of their spouses, some do not choose to identify with group dynamics or perceived corporate entities. Yet, for whatever reason, I have often questioned why should anyone care what another individual chooses to believe or not to believe with regard to their religious convictions? As a matter of fact what has been demonstrated, in The Jew Within, as well as prior studies, is that the observance level of Jews has remained constant over the past three generations, but that other markers of identification have changed.
It is precisely those markers that have the self-appointed leaders of the organized Jewish community worried, for this community, since 1942, a formal date I choose since it is the year of the Biltmore Conference, which was attended by prominent Jewish American Zionists, as well as world Zionist leaders, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and other leaders of the Yeshuv of Palestine at that time; that marks the starting point for the total co-optation of the Jewish community of North America by the Zionist agenda and program.
What really and truly has leaders of the organized Jewish community scared, is not the loss of faith, for there has been none, but the loss of identification with the Zionist state of Israel, the self-described Jewish State; a supranational entity for Jews all over the world, and not a typical country responsible only to its own citizens and resident aliens but to a perceived corporate entity known as THE Jewish People. This has actually reached a level approaching panic inter alia in the circles of power such as The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and has led to such programs as The Gift To Israel, the brainchild of Seagrams fortune heir Edgar Bronfman. This program offers virtually free trips to Israel to unaffiliated young adult Jews, in the hopes of improving their Jewish identity. The true agenda is the hope of keeping an identification with the State of Israel alive. Why would this be important to someone? It is important because what the Zionist leadership realizes is that the less the Jews of North America identify with the State of Israel, as did the second and third generations, both of which lived through the Nazi holocaust against the Jews of Europe; the less power The Jewish Lobby can exert on U.S. foreign policy with regard to Israel. If the new generation of Jewish Americans do not identify with The Jewish State then AIPAC has nothing to offer but smoke and mirrors, and members of Congress respond not to magic tricks but to votes.
Thus, as Brownfeld states, Programs have been adopted to address such questions and they have tended to stress a return to tradition and an increased identification with Israel. In many instances the freedom and openness of the American society HAS BEEN PRESENTED MORE AS A PROBLEM THAN AS A GIFT WHICH PROVIDES ALL AMERICANS, OF WHATEVER BACKGROUND, WITH THE OPPORTUNITY TO SEEK THEIR OWN INDIVIDUAL IDENTITIES [ caps mine for emphasis, because this is the exact negation of the original Zionist premises].
Professors Cohen and Eisen investigate the Real Concerns of American Jews. The findings reveal that the concerns of individual American Jews are entirely different than the concerns of the leadership of the organized Jewish community. What is even more of interest to note is that those surveyed were at least nominally members of this organized community, but whereas the leadership is focusing for the reasons I have stated, on the evils of assimilation, intermarriage and (a presumed) diminishing population; todays generation of Jews, like their peers in other religious traditions, have turned inward in the search for meaning (in their lives). There is a rejection of the notion of Judaism as an ethnic identity rather than as a religious tradition. There is a rejection of particularist loyalties, i.e.; the much touted Zionist phrase, all Jews are responsible for one another; and an acceptance of the universalist notion that Jews are no more obligated to other Jews THAN TO THE HUMAN FAMILY AS A WHOLE. Rather than viewing the Nazi genocide as sui generis to Jews alone, they drew universalist lessons from the Holocaust far more than they related to it AS A JEWISH TRAGEDY with consequences for the survival of the Jewish people. Moreover, the study showed a significant diminution in attachment to the state of Israel than only a few years ago.
Moreover, in spite of the constant remonstrance of such ilk as Abraham Foxman, with regard to being ever vigilant against a rise in anti-Semitism; there is almost a total lack of anxiety with regard to Jew hatred, which is logically consistent with acceptance into general society. Moreover, in spite of isolated and relatively small groupings of white racists, neo-Nazis and other bigots; other statistics have shown anti-Semitism in this part of the world to be at an all time low. As a matter of fact, the country that was formed as a safe haven for Jews, turns out to be the most unsafe place in the world at the current time for a Jew to be a Jew. Moreover, prior to the development of political Zionism, it is well known that the old Yeshuv , the community of Jews living in Palestine and other parts of the Arab and Muslim world, were treated better and with more respect than their co-religionists were in Europe. It was political Zionism and the insistence on the maintenance of a particularistic Jewish State in the middle east, by imposition of the will of great powers, which has generated the animus; not some ingrained genetic predisposition on the part of Palestinians or other Arabs or Muslims to hate people who are Jews. As a matter of fact, Palestinian intellectuals are the first to point out that the problem is not Jews who act according to classic Judaic traditions, or those Jews who act on universal humanistic principles, but Jews who have been taken under the spell of the golden calf of political Zionism, which has wreaked such havoc on the native population since its institutionalization in Palestine with the British Mandate, beginning in 1920.
Brownfeld goes into an extensive description of how in the past, before the modern period the authors describe how Jews took for granted a conviction of essential Jewish difference from non-Jews. It was taken then almost as axiomatic that there was a difference between the pagans and the Jews, as I once heard a Reform rabbi state about thirty years ago during a High Holiday sermon. At the time he had given this sermon he was already well into his eighties, and had come from a generation where this notion was accepted as true.
However, within Judaic tradition, there has always been a dynamic tension between universalism and particularism and the current generations of Jews in North America seem to be opting for universalism. This acceptance of universalism is a result of observations within the democratic society in which they have been raised.
In 1990 , Charles Liebman observed that conceptions of Judaism may be arrayed on a continuum ranging from a pole that combines universalism and moralism to one that combines particularism with ritualism. Universalism refers to the tendency to see Judaism as advocating lessons shared by the larger society and rejecting any notions of giving special preference to fellow Jews. Particularism refers to the opposite of these notions.
Thus, the ideal values of a pluralistic democratic society has impacted more on Jews of these shores, based on their experiences, as well as the values that have been instilled in them, than the old tribalistic notions of inherent Gentile hatred of Jews. Yet, undeniably there are still Jews who harbor these views of the world as being against the Jews. Many of these people are found living in illegal settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan, in the Gaza Strip and on The Golan Heights of Syria. There notions have been promoted by such rabbinical sages as the first chief rabbi of the state of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook, his son Zvi Yehuda Kook; as well as followers of these two exemplified by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the spiritual leader of these settlers known as Gush Emunim (the block of the faithful).
Levinger once distinguished himself by shooting an Arab shoe merchant who was closing his store in downtown Hebron becausewell.he felt like it. For this crime, his sentence was less than one would get in the United States for driving while intoxicated.
In a column discussing the support of Israel in the United States, Charlie Reese of the Orlando Sentinel recently remarked that he felt that support for the Zionist state in this country was eight miles wide and a quarter inch think. When Chaim Weizmann was negotiating the precise wording of the Balfour Declaration, he was always fearful that the British Cabinet would ask him to produce his supporters for he was painfully aware of how few there were at the time, and so noise was everything.
Yet now, there is not even noise. After the start of what was initially called the Al-Aqsa intifada last autumn, there were significant protests by pro-Palestinian partisans in numerous venues, and repeatedly. This writer was present at the Times Square, NY protest, which many feared was on the verge of turning violent, primarily as a result of the skittishness of the NYPD who were pulling people out of the barricaded four block long crowd of protesters at the least sign of potential trouble. I was also at the protest sponsored by the NY Arab and Muslim Merchants Association which took place in Dag Hammarshjold Plaza just across the street from the United Nations complex. The police estimates for the size of the latter was given at about 25,000 for the course of the demonstration, and that seemed to me to be accurate.
This demonstration had occurred the day after a staged demonstration of support of Israel by the World Jewish Congress just across the street from the Israeli Mission to the United Nations located on 2nd Ave. between 42nd and 43rd streets. This demonstration, which bused in supporters, the vast majority Jewish, from the surrounding NY metropolitan area, claimed 15,000 to 18,000 in attendance. Also in attendance at this rally, but decidedly not at the pro-Palestinian rally the next day, were local politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio who were competing for the NY senate seat vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan; Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who once decided to prove his Zionist credentials by not allowing Yassir Arafat to attend a public function, no doubt for security reasons; former mayor Ed Koch who now writes pro-Israel opinion columns for the Rupert Murdoch owned New York Post. What is important to note about this demonstration is not that there were between 15-18,000 Jews who showed up in support of Israel, but that there WERE ONLY between 15-18,000 Jews who showed up. In a metropolitan area in which there are upwards of 3.5 million Jews, that number is pathetically small. If the issue of Israel were so compelling, especially at that time, to American Jewry, hundreds of thousands would have taken off on that Thursday workday to stand in support; BUT THERE WERENT.
The lack of broad and deep support, suspected by Charlie Reese, is confirmed by the Cohen-Eisen study:
When asked about their emotional attachment to Israel, just 9% of the respondents answered extremely attached, as opposed to 13% in a similar survey in 1988; and only 18% said very attached, vs. 24% in 1988. Thus a total of just over of all respondents defined themselves as at least very attached to Israel.
Various factors were cited for this quantum change in attitudes towards the Jewish State, certainly since the post WWII era, Israels conduct with regard to the Palestinians and its refusal to permit non-Orthodox forms of Judaism to be freely practiced have alienated many American Jews. As a matter of fact, let us be a bit more precise on the irony of that last fact the only country in the world that purports to be a Western styled democracy in which ALL DENOMINATIONS OF JEWS ARE NOT TREATED EQUALLY is in THE JEWISH STATE!
A few of the respondents to the survey are quoted as to their reasons for their attitude, One respondent, Joy, said: I think there are many different cultures that can lay claim to Israels soil as their own. I think the Palestinians have been displaced. I think that is terribly unfortunate and I dont think it should happen. Another respondent, David points to the perceived prominence of right wing-political forces, especially when associated with the Orthodox lunatic fringe in Israel, the Kach groups, and Ariel Sharon (this being stated before his ascendancy to the Prime Minster post). I have to say that when Israel does something like that, thats not my Israel. Im not responsible for that.
A rather small protest, about 150 in total, had occurred in December in the same spot across the street from the Israeli Mission. It was the combined effort of two Jewish grassroots organizations; the recently formed loose aggregation of mostly college and graduate students known who decided to call themselves Not In Our Name; and another organization calling itself Jews For Racial and Economic Justice. www.jfrej.org
What was important here was not the number of people, but the fact that this was the very first time that Jews in the United States actually held a protest outside of an Israeli consulate or embassy located here. In spite of efforts by NION to get some rabbis from the progressive movements in Judaism to show up, all passed on the invitation. Such is the hold that the organized Jewish community has on their clergy. Were any brave enough to do so, they would have placed their jobs, be it on the pulpit somewhere, or at some institution of learning, in jeopardy. One rabbi did show up, Rabbi David Weiss who represents the Neturei Karta as an NGO observer at the United Nations. I had met Rabbi Weiss a year earlier at another protest held by an Arab group at the same location. What was notable, and what was reported by Stanley Heller of the Boston group known as The Struggle, www.thestruggle.org was that he saw one counter demonstrator feverishly trying to get some compatriots to show up to counter our own protests towards injustice.
What this observer also found notable was that there was only one police officer present. Apparently New York Jews are not perceived as troublemakers. This was in stark contrast to the protest in the same location, the day of the Times Square rally, at which there were by my count, one Paddy wagon, two vans of the Tactical Patrol Force, 24 uniformed police officers lining the barricades behind which the mostly Arab protesters stood, as well as several members of the brass who congregated across the street in front of 880 2nd Ave, speaking with the consular head, who was surrounded by what were obviously Israeli security people.
The Cohen-Eisen study stresses that, it is no longer uncommon to find lukewarm-to-cool attitudes to Israel coexisting with warm-to-passionate feelings about being Jewish.ISRAEL IS NOT CENTRAL TO WHO AMERICAN JEWS ARE AS JEWS AND SO THE NEED TO VISIT IT, OR LEARN ABOUT IT, OR WRESTLE WITH ITS IMPORTANCE TO THE JEWISH PEOPLE, IS FAR FROM PRESSING.
Compare this attitude with the proclamations of the CCAR 1999 Declaration of Principles, which was in a previous essay of mine, The Devolution of Reform Judaism in which the centrality of Israel is presumed of consummate importance to Reform Jewry.
There is of course a dirty little secret, well known, which a respectable academic survey will deliberately omit, but which I will be bold enough here to enunciate, as it is part of my personal experience as a Jewish American. That dirty little secret is that if you take a fellow Jew into a quiet little corner and question there attitude towards Israelis they have met (and yes I am definitely generalizing here, I am not referring to every Israeli who has sought to build a better life for themselves AS INDIVIDUALS in the United States or Canada) one will find that many American Jews do not even like Israeli Jews. It is not that the latter on in any way bad or criminal; it is a remarkable cultural disparity, that is not discussed. Words that pop up in casual conversation are discourteous, pushy, opinionated, coarse and not like us. Indeed, one finds that expatriate Israeli Jews even have a tendency to form their own congregations and own associations, where they sequester themselves from their third and fourth generation compatriots.
Once, when we were living in the borough of Queens, a new couple had purchased the house next door. They were Israeli, and both were professionals by occupation. As good neighbors they invited us over for coffee. What I recall more than anything else is that they themselves took pains, without our even saying anything, to tell us how they were not like the other Israelis we have met. And they werent like some of the other Israelis we had met, who fit the profile described above. They were courteous, welcoming, eager to hear other opinions, and most gracious to us. However, they knew that an unflattering reputation of Israeli Jews had preceded them.
You will not find this in any official academic studies. You will not find this mentioned in the media. It will not be discussed on Oprah or any Sunday morning pundit shows. Take a chance, find a Jewish American friend, and just ask them.
One of the reasons for the loyalty of American Jews in past generations towards Israel, aside from the very real collective trauma of the Nazi holocaust against the Jews of Europe, and a feeling of impotence towards being able to do anything about it; was that the Jews streaming into Palestine were perceived to be just like us. And in truth, the vast majority were just like us. They had come from the same cultural background of the now destroyed Eastern European Ashkenazic culture; and indeed many were in truth blood relatives.
These people presented themselves as believing in democratic ideals, even though the laws passed by the leadership belied that notion. However, few Jews here bothered to even learn about those restrictive laws, or about the history behind the war of 1948-9. Moreover, the propaganda machine of the Zionist Organization made sure that they and their children, many of whom in the 50s were attending afternoon Cheder (Hebrew School) to prepare for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons were taught the party line. We were taught about how we made the desert bloom and how we cleared the swamps. The truth, that the Negev is still the desert, and the swamps were cleared mostly by hired African labor from such places as the Sudan, was never mentioned. Moreover, Israelis now understand that that clearing of swamps, more properly these days described as wetlands, created ecological problems for the region. But of course, this was generally not well understood at the time these things were in fact done. As far as we were concerned, Arabs were no more than semi-nomadic Bedouin, living in tents and herding their flocks from place to place. There was no mention of the urban society, the merchants or the professional classes among the dispersed Palestinian population.
The reinforcement that they were just like us, was personified by golden tongued, the Queens English speaker, Abba (born Aubrey) Eban, who represented Israel as UN Ambassador. Heck, those damned Arabs couldnt even speak proper English. As Marshall McLuhan had once pointed out, the medium was the message. It did not matter what Eban said in contrast to what a representative of an Arab state opposed to Zionism said. What mattered was HOW IT WAS SAID.
I also recall a time when debates from both sides occurred on news and talk shows on television. At first, eminent Professor of English, Edward Said, would be called upon to represent the Arab point of view, against some representative from the World Zionist Organization to give the Zionist point of view. Invariably, Saids force of intellect, and his pre-eminent command of the English language, would make his opponent appear not only ill informed, but disingenuous as well. Once this became apparent, Dr. Said, suddenly disappeared from the screens of U.S. TV to represent the Palestinian and Arab point of view. (Were this not enough, the recent hatchet jobs done on an honorable man who has persisted in his writings, in spite of his brave struggle with a brutal and unforgiving disease are absolutely deplorable.) Out came the kind but hapless Mohammed Mehdi, who was everything the pro-Zionist media wanted. The late Dr. Mehdi was very knowledgeable, however his foreign accent, was off-putting to viewers, and so ultimately the message was lost, precisely because HE WAS NOT LIKE US.
Things are now changing and changing rapidly. Jewish Americans have come for the most part to believe in universalist ideals. The people who are just like us may not be Israelis, they may be gentiles, they may be racially different. What counts now is the respect for others, living up to the American ideal of e pluribus unum; out of many one. Yet what counts above all for Jews on these shores, is not any separatist or particularist notions of how to live ones life, but rather that one conduct ones life, in the way my dear mother would put it, as a Mensch, as a decent and good person.