An article in the New York Review of Books by Peter Beinart entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” makes a strong case that American Jews are abandoning Zionism in favor of liberal values.
The article alludes to, but doesn’t directly deal with what may be the primary reason for the disconnect between American Jews and Israel. We are spending far too many resources building Holocaust museums (which are an entirely negative reason to remain Jewish, as in Emil Fackinheim’s 614th mitzvah, “Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.”) and birthright trips to Israel. Birthright has been a wonderful program, but the fact is that you cannot create a bond to Israel in 10 days unless there was something there before the trip.
We have failed to give our young generation a Judaism that is sophisticated and modern, but also maintains a connection to traditional Torah principles. Reform has embraced liberalism as a religious principle, ignoring the centrality of the practices of Torah as the glue that hold together Jewish community; Orthodoxy ignores modern political realities in favor of a messianic approach nibbling the edges of racism, that if we only hold on long enough God will reward us richly. I think the Conservative Jewish approach is perfect for finding the middle ground, although I see far too many of my colleagues falling into the sensationalist rhetoric of comparing Obama to Chamberlin, and the Middle East to 1939 Nazi Germany.
Don’t get me wrong — I am not a left wing peacenik. The security concerns are real – Israel is fighting for its life, and Iran is a dangerous enemy. The United States is pushing for a peace agreement as if both sides (Israel and Fatah/Hamas) were equally at fault and equally trustworthy. Israel without Judaism is a state without a moral center. However, the Judaism that is increasingly found in Israel lacks morality.
I want to see a Judaism deal honestly and openly with the texts of our tradition that disdain the “other,” while at the same time relying up them to do the work of maintaining our State on Shabbat, providing us with organs when we need transplants, and employing them as our menial laborers. I want to see a Judaism that believes that belief and practice are more central to our identity than genetics; a Judaism that is open to strangers; a Judaism that actively encourages seekers. This kind of Judaism will be able to speak compassionately to Palestinians while still building a security fence. This kind of Judaism will be able to treat the Moslem and Christian Arab citizens of Israel with dignity and equality. This kind of Judaism can teach young people how to be both passionate Jews and passionate Zionists.
I am open to comments, disagreement, questions. I realize that in a relatively brief essay, I have challenged Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews, Federation Jews, and Jews whose lives are defined by the Shoah to address the hard question of how they would respond to Beinart’s article. I am not arrogant enough to think that I personally have all or even most of the answers – but I passionately believe that without a compassionate Torah center, the answers are not to be found.