November 3, 2016 § Leave a comment
When I was fifteen, my family went to Israel for Passover in order to celebrate my younger brother’s bar mitzvah, and like many bar mitzvah-celebrating American families in Israel, we did it at the Western Wall. While walking toward the plaza next to a secular Israeli relative a couple of decades my senior, I asked him when he had last been to the Western Wall. I could barely comprehend it when he told me that this was his first time, and that he had never had any interest in visiting the site because he had no emotional or religious reason to do so. I was then bowled over when this same leftwing Tel Aviv-dwelling secular Israeli artist cousin immediately expressed his unalloyed view (during the very height of the debate over the Oslo process) that sovereignty over the Temple Mount could never be ceded to any other country or group because the site represented the core of Israeli identity. Here I was, an American Jewish teenager who had been brought up to revere the Western Wall for its religious significance and spiritual power and viewed praying there as a holy obligation but had never considered it in any way as a political symbol, and my Israeli cousin cared so little about the Wall’s religious significance that he had never even bothered to see it in person but was adamant that Israel must always control its environs. The ways we related to the Western Wall were about as far apart as they could be, and that anyone could view the site in the way he did was something that I had never considered or even encountered.
I recount this story in light of yesterday’s clash at the Western Wall between activists seeking to make the site more religiously pluralistic and (mostly) ultra-Orthodox worshippers seeking to maintain the site’s Orthodox status quo. It is helpful to me in framing and understanding the enormous gap that appears to exist between American and Israeli Jews over the importance of this issue, and the reactions by some on the left to whether the energy that liberal American and Israeli Jews are expending on this issue wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere on what they view as more pressing human rights violations.
The twin Pew surveys of American and Israeli Jews highlighted a number of clear distinctions between the two communities, with the most glaring one being that Americans view their Judaism as being more culturally universal and Israelis view theirs as being more religiously particularistic. This explains why despite the fact that Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel are the groups at the vanguard of religious pluralism at the Western Wall, this issue has been embraced far more strongly and widely by Diaspora Jews than by Israelis. Israelis, whether religious or secular, view Judaism through a more traditional religious lens that leads them to see religious observance as the Orthodox path, whether or not they are Orthodox. My secular Israeli cousin could not have been more indifferent to the Wall’s religious value and saw it as a political and nationalist symbol instead, but the fact that prayer there is regulated according to Orthodox custom also did not seem to bother him at all. The thorough dominance of traditional Orthodox Judaism over religion in Israel means that most Israelis do not see anything irregular about treating religion traditionally. This is particularly the case when it comes to purely religious activities, such as prayer, versus areas like marriage and divorce that are governed by religious law and custom despite being social institutions.
Speaking at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto in September, the prominent American-Israeli writer and public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi took exception with the American Jewish community for its support of the Iran deal. Speaking of his feelings in the aftermath of the agreement, Halevi said, “I wasn’t disappointed in the administration, I was disappointed in the American Jewish community. I felt deeply let down. Ninety percent of Israelis, according to polls, opposed that deal. For many of us, this was an existential threat. And I always felt that at an existential moment, for all of the differences between us, I could depend on the American Jewry….And the American Jewish community as a whole, I feel let down by them.” For many American Jews, the lack of religious pluralism in Israel – perfectly encapsulated by the government not implementing an agreement from January that creates a completely separate pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall – is a source of equivalent disappointment. Given the enormous premium placed on support for Israel in American Jewish synagogues, communities, and institutions, American Jews see the rejection of their Jewish observance and the denial of their religious rights at the Western Wall as a devastating insight into how the Israeli government views them, and exhortations for them to be more patient or to express their hurt more quietly add insult to injury. Very few people in the Israeli government understand what a big deal it is and just how much it imperils support from the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not pray or observe in the Orthodox tradition, and who are not accustomed to being told that they must simply acquiesce to the situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rebuke of American Jewish leaders and his appeals to the maintenance of a religious status quo to which they never agreed or accepted is as tone deaf and short-sighted as it comes, ignoring Israel’s critical need for Diaspora Jewish support in order to lock in some illusory domestic political gains by mollifying his Haredi coalition partners.
Of course, it is not only those on the traditional right who don’t grasp what the fuss is about. Many prominent and well-known liberal Israeli activists and writers took to social media yesterday to question why those on the left are wasting their time and effort on the Western Wall issue when the far graver human rights violations against Palestinians must be battled. The irony here is that it is the same argument that many on the right use against anyone who criticizes Israel, since there are always other countries that act far worse and commit actual genocidal atrocities; after all, spending time highlighting Israel’s misbehavior when Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people right next door seems like gravely misdirected energy. The obvious response to this is that humans are thankfully pretty capable beings who can focus on more than one thing at one time, but the deeper reason is that people tend to get worked about the things that are meaningful to them. I spill far more critical ink on Israeli illegal outposts than I do on Iranian executions of dissidents because Israel is much closer to my heart and has a special emotional and cultural resonance for me that is central to who I am. Similarly, for American Jews who view their Judaism not simply as an expression of universal values but as an expression of their religion, the discrimination at the Western Wall is as important as any other issue because it strikes directly at the core of their identity. Criticizing activists fighting for the Western Wall because they should instead be fighting separation walls misunderstands the fundamental thinking motivating those whose animating liberal passion is a more pluralistic Judaism in the Jewish state.
Like my cousin who didn’t see why he should pay the Western Wall any heed, these critics find it hard to see why this is a pressing civil rights issue. But if they don’t do a better job of understanding why this is important to American Jews, they will be sorely disappointed when American Jews become less receptive to the issues important to them.
January 21, 2016 § 5 Comments
Why are American Jewish organizations predominantly silent on Israeli illiberalism? This is the question posed and answered by J.J. Goldberg in a much-discussed piece this week on Martin Luther King Day tying the American Jewish organizational voice on Israel to the breakdown of the black-Jewish partnership on civil rights. Goldberg’s theory quickly summed up – and you should really read the piece in its entirety if you haven’t yet – is that the biggest factor in how American Jewish organizations relate to Israel today is the collapse fifty years ago of the alliance between blacks and Jews on civil rights. As black activists increasingly called for blacks to fight for their civil rights by themselves, and as Jews got to a point where their own equality seemed secure, Jewish organizations that were built to fight for civil rights needed another battleground. This coincided with the Six Day War, which imparted the lesson that Israel was living in a neighborhood where its neighbors wanted it gone and could be wiped out at any time, and American Jewish organizations thus pivoted to devoting their time to supporting Israel as their primary mission. Despite the liberal bent of American Jews, they are passive on the Israel issue because they learned to live without a collective voice that was connected to group self-interest.
There is a lot to mull over in Goldberg’s piece and many typically keen insights. He makes a strong historical argument, but as strong as that argument is, I am not sure that the fracture in the civil rights movement is what is primarily driving today’s dynamic. To begin with, Goldberg rightly points out a number of organizations that do not fit into this picture of checking their liberalism at the door when it comes to Israel, and their number is not insignificant. Furthermore, the three most prominent Jewish organizations that were involved in the civil rights movement were the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League. The American Jewish Congress has all but folded and the ADL is one of the organizations that Goldberg identifies in his piece as not being afraid to speak out on Israel today, so the historical institutionalist argument that he sketches doesn’t appear to apply in scale to the organizations operating today. In addition, the organization that most people would point to as driving the American Jewish organizational stance on Israel is AIPAC, which does not fit into Goldberg’s theory.
I would instead point to two other variables that I believe are causing the dissonance between a very liberal American Jewry and a far less liberal American Jewish organizational stance toward Israel. The first fits into the structure of Goldberg’s overall argument about a crisis in mission leading to a new focus on Israel, but rather than point to civil rights, I would point to the decline of Judaism itself. As traditional religious observance waned over the course of the 20th century, Israel was elevated into a religious cause that became for many American Jews their primary way of expressing their Judaism as a religion, as opposed to their embrace of Judaism as an ethnicity or a culture. Support for the Jewish state became de rigeur at synagogues of all denominations, prayers for the Israeli government and the IDF were adopted into the Shabbat morning liturgy, and Israel itself became intertwined with Judaism so that it became a focal point of the American Jewish religious tradition. Support for Israel was the equivalent of fasting on Yom Kippur or holding a Passover seder; even if your religious observance was minimal, Israel was a part of it. For many American Jews, Israel was what bound them to Judaism, rather than the religious practices of their parents and grandparents. For Jewish organizations that needed to stay relevant, pivoting to supporting Israel was an obvious move, and naturally any organization devoted to advocating for something is going to be reluctant to be overly critical, even when there are things taking place that are particularly unpalatable.
The second variable is political trends in Israel. In the twenty years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israelis have only once voted a left of center prime minister into office, and Ehud Barak did not last even two years. Going back even further to the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, which marked a revolutionary shift in the Israeli political landscape, Rabin’s election in 1992 was the only other time since then that Israelis have voted a Labor prime minister into office (Shimon Peres’s first term in 1984 was part of a rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir and Likud). In other words, for nearly four decades Israelis have displayed a clear rightwing preference when it comes to their leaders. Is it any surprise then that American Jewish organizations, both those that deal primarily with Israel issues and those that don’t, take those cues and reflect what is taking place in Israel itself?
This is not, incidentally, applicable only when a rightwing government is in power in Israel. When Rabin began the Oslo process, AIPAC did in fact support it, even if begrudgingly. The major American Jewish organizations that now seemingly fall in lockstep behind the Netanyahu government were not out front challenging the Rabin government on its priorities, even though he represented a major break from the previous fifteen years of Israeli government policy. It would be fascinating to see what American Jewish organizations would look like with regard to Israel policy were Israel to spend an uninterrupted decade under the control of left of center governments; my instinct is that American Jewish organizations are shaped by the structural environment of Israeli politics in a significant way and would presumably change with the times.
There is no question that the priorities of the bulk of American Jews appear out of sync with the priorities of many American Jewish groups. I think that Goldberg is definitely onto something in looking back at historical trends and moments that shape today’s environment, but I would point to a different set than the ones that he has identified.
October 9, 2015 § 5 Comments
The eminent Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri published a long essay in Ha’aretz last week arguing that the failure of Oslo can be attributed to the fact that Israel views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle between two national movements while the Palestinians view it as a struggle against colonialism, explaining the inevitable failure of negotiations. The piece deserves a long response of its own as there is much to unpack, but Avineri published a companion op-ed yesterday arguing, among other things, that given how negotiations are doomed to fail, Israel should ask Diaspora Jews to shoulder the costs of relocating and compensating settlers inside the Green Line. I am very much on board with relocating and even compensating settlers in order to get them out of the West Bank as expeditiously as possible. It is the other part of this formulation with which I take issue. To quote Avineri directly:
One could initiate, possibly with the support of Diaspora Jews, a generous plan for evacuation and compensation for settlers in the West Bank who would be willing to return to Israel in its pre-1967 borders. The right in Israel has managed to recruit Jewish donors around the world for expansion of settlements and for purchasing land and buildings in East Jerusalem. Why can’t the left follow suit and mobilize moderate Diaspora Jews in order to achieve something concrete – not just declarative – in order to further alternative policies? Perhaps even J Street could help in achieving something positive, not just criticizing Israel’s policies?
In 2010, as a forest fire spread out from Mount Carmel and caused enormous devastation, the Jewish National Fund called on American Jews to donate money for firetrucks and basic fire fighting equipment. Jeff Goldberg wrote an excellent post pushing back on this campaign, asking “What sort of country — what sort of wealthy country — schnorrs for basic public safety equipment? At some point, Israel is going to have to learn to stand on its own, and fund its national security and public safety needs without the help of Diaspora Jewry.” Goldberg’s point was that some causes are legitimate and just – such as schools and hospitals, or aiding the victims displaced by the fire – and others are Israel asking someone else to cover for its self-imposed mistakes, a category to which chronic underfunding of firefighting services most certainly belongs.
I couldn’t help but recall this episode when reading Avineri’s call for Jews around the world to bail Israel out of its predicament. I find his suggestion to be both morally and practically problematic and downright offensive. It speaks to the worst of Israeli instincts, and illuminates the crux of the divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.
I believe that American Jews should support Israel to the extent that they believe strongly in the need for a Jewish state (which I certainly do), and that a strong and healthy Israel benefits not only Israelis but Jews worldwide. Nevertheless, there is a distinction between supporting Israel and Israeli Jews in need, particularly in the early days of the state when Israel was not in good economic shape, versus funneling money to a state that brands itself as the Start-Up Nation and boasts of its economic strength and innovation in order for it to disentangle itself from a set of self-imposed policy disasters. The former, which would include things such as JNF campaigns to plant trees, assist in resettling Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and donating to victims of terror, are clear cut examples of supporting the Zionist vision. They involve building a Jewish homeland and helping Jewish brethren in need who have been placed in situations beyond their or the Israeli government’s control, and I have no problem at all with Israel turning to Diaspora communities to help support such initiatives.
In contrast, the latter is a clear cut example of American Jews being used as suckers. As it is (and you will excuse the simplified stereotype here), oftentimes Israelis view American Jews as little more than piggybanks who should provide money but keep their mouths shut. Asking Diaspora Jewry to provide the funding for an overtly political predetermined course of action only reinforces that corrosive dynamic, particularly given that Israel is an OECD country that ranks 19th on the UN’s Human Development Index and 25th in GDP per capita according to the World Bank and can more than afford to cover the costs of its own internal policy decisions. More saliently, asking non-Israeli Jews to shoulder the financial burden for the evacuation of the West Bank encourages the Israeli government to pursue bad policies such as settling the West Bank under the assumption that there will always be a safety net from American Jews who won’t abandon the state under any circumstances and will pay to reverse Israeli mistakes. It creates a dangerous moral hazard that incentivizes risky behavior, and perpetuates a culture of dependency on outsiders. It is a terrible idea that makes Israel look like a third world country and diminishes the vision of a strong and independent state.
Furthermore, there is a logic of unintended consequences involved that Avineri fails to consider. From my perspective, the support of rightwing American Jews in the settlement project has been an unmitigated disaster that has only perpetuated bad policies, and in some ways has even rendered the Israeli government impotent. There is little to prevent Sheldon Adelson or Irving Moskowitz from pursuing their own goals precisely because the Israeli right has relied on outside money, and a government that wanted to prevent further building in the West Bank or Silwan would have a difficult time shutting things down because funding is coming from other sources besides the government. Just because Avineri wants to gin up financial support from Diaspora Jews for a policy that is in my view a good one doesn’t make it a good idea. There is no predicting how these types of things develop down the line, and there are likely to be unforeseen consequences that arise. Introducing more outside funding into the equation in response to unhelpful outside funding on the other side isn’t going to balance the ledger, but will instead contribute to a further spiral out of control.
I agree with Avineri that Israel should be evacuating the West Bank and relocating settlers. I agree that marshaling the moral and rhetorical support of Diaspora Jews would hasten that along. But treating Diaspora Jews as dollar signs and watering down Israeli ownership of its own policies is an unwise suggestion.
January 14, 2013 § 2 Comments
We are only two weeks into the new year, but if these two weeks are any indication of what is yet to come, then 2013 is going to mark a large shift from 2012. If 2012 was dominated by talk of Iran, 2013 is going to be dominated by talk of settlements. While the constant worries over what the government would do about bombing Iran did not always resound to Israel’s benefit, it was a conversation that at least focused on Israel’s security and the proper response for Israel to take against threats from Iran. The conversation about settlements, however, is not one that is going to focus on threats to Israel or Israeli security, but rather on Israel’s problematic behavior in the West Bank, and it is an issue that is bound to be a losing one for Israel.
Much of last year was filled with speculation about whether Israel would strike Iran until Bibi Netanyahu put an end to that with his speech at the United Nations. Lots of ink was spilled both trying to predict what would happen and analyzing whether bombing Iranian nuclear facilities would be a smart move or not. All of this undoubtedly caused some degree of negativity toward Israel because many folks – including the bulk of the Israeli defense establishment – felt that bombing Iran would be reckless and unnecessary, and in the end this pressure was at least partially responsible for derailing Netanyahu’s evident plans to do just that. Nevertheless, keeping the focus of the discussion surrounding Israel on the potential bombing of Iranian nuclear sites was in other ways good strategy, which is why Netanyahu kept on stoking the fires. Yes, it entailed observers railing against Israel for contemplating setting the region on fire with a strike on Iran, but it also forced people to think about Israel’s security, the threats that it faces, and the virulent hatred of Israel and Jews – no, not Zionists, but Jews – expressed by the Iranian government.
When it comes to settlements, Israel gains no such benefits. Despite the fact that the Israeli government claims that settlements are a security issue, nobody really buys this excuse. A bunch of settlers armed with rifles along with their families are simply not going to serve as the last line of defense against a horde of Arab tank battalions rolling over the border from Jordan, not to mention that such an assault is not coming. 350,000 Israelis scattered around the West Bank are also not a defense against Palestinian rockets, which don’t come from the West Bank because Fatah is not yet in the rocket shooting business and because the IDF – rather than settlers – is also currently positioned to stop them. In the 21st century, the line that settlements are a defense against anything is just not credible or believable. When settlements become the main issue that people focus on when it comes to Israel, the spotlight is trained not on threats to Israel but on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and desire to hang on to the West Bank. Literally nothing good comes out of this conversation for Israel, and all it does is highlight the worst possible side of Israel and its government. For an extremely small subset of people it serves as a reminder that Israel has a strong historical and cultural heritage in the West Bank, which is after all the land of the Bible, but for most people it serves as a reminder that Israel is militarily occupying the West Bank and that this situation is looking more and more permanent every day.
The response to the Bab al-Shams outpost in E1 is a perfect example of why the Israeli government is destined to lose when the focus is all settlements, all the time. After the outpost was illegally erected, the government evicted the Palestinians who had set up camp there and claimed that this was a necessary security measure and that the area was now a closed military zone. Nobody really believes that this is a security issue, and the glaring double standard in which illegal Israeli outposts are left to stand for months and years or even retroactively legalized has been noted far and wide. The domestic politics aside, this is an unambiguous losing issue for Israel, but because it has proved an effective tactic for the Palestinians, it is guaranteed to play out over and over, with Israel looking increasingly inept and even foolish in the process.
Lest you think that settlements are not going to be the talk of 2013, just take a look around. Bab al-Shams and E1 have taken on a life of their own, Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi – advocating an annexation policy – are a near lock to be in the next coalition, future Likud MK Moshe Feiglin has called for paying Palestinians to leave the West Bank, a significant swathe of Likud MKs favor annexing Area C or permanently maintaining the current status quo, and settlements and the settlement budget are expanding rather than slowing down. The craziest part about this is that on the right there is a desire to have settlements become even more of an issue rather than tamp down the settlement talk, as they see it as good politics and as a way of putting a dagger through the heart of the peace process for good.
It doesn’t matter that settlements are not the original cause of Palestinian discontent, or that there are larger obstacles to an effective two-state solution. The focus on settlements is very bad for Israel, and the longer it goes on the worse off Israel becomes. This is not an issue of public relations but of policy, and the Israeli government needs to understand that sooner rather than later. 2013 is well on its way to being a year in which the world, American Jewry, and Western policymakers hear a lot more about Israel creating a situation in which there is no Palestinian map than about Iran threatening to wipe Israel off it.
December 27, 2012 § 11 Comments
I really didn’t want to write about Chuck Hagel since I don’t think there is much to say that hasn’t already been said (although for the record, I have no problem with him as defense secretary based on what he has said about Israel, and in over an hour with him last September at the Atlantic Council he didn’t say one thing about Israel that raised a red flag), but reading James Besser’s op-ed in today’s New York Times compels me to weigh in. Besser’s thesis is that mainstream American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are either silent on Hagel or complicit in trying to torpedo his nomination because they are afraid of extremist voices on the pro-Israel right such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, and that this radical fringe is setting the pro-Israel agenda and pushing more mainstream voices to adopt extreme positions. He says American Jewish leaders “increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy,” and he compares them to the leaders of the Republican Party in warning that a movement driven by extremists is bound to fail since it will run afoul of public opinion. Besser is basically arguing that the institutional pro-Israel movement is headed toward irrelevance because it is adopting positions that do not line up with the bulk of American Jewry, and he uses the Hagel nomination as his hook to make that argument.
I agree with Besser that more extremist voices such as the ECI are driving the conversation on Hagel, and that this is not a good trend, although I am not as confident as he is that American Jewish leaders don’t themselves hold the same convictions and are rather being prodded along into taking positions with which they don’t agree. That aside though, there are two major problems with his argument, one specific to the Hagel issue and one general one. First, Besser is assuming that opposition to Hagel is going to provoke some sort of popular backlash because the anti-Hagel position is so extreme, but this seems to me to be a stretch. To begin with, while there is lots of support for Hagel within the foreign policy community, opposition to Hagel is emanating from too many quarters to make the anti-Hagel position the equivalent of denying evolution. I also don’t think this fight is really registering much among the general public, as Hagel’s name recognition is pretty low and this is the kind of Beltway fight to which most people pay little or no attention. As far as I can tell from a quick search, Hagel’s name recognition is actually so low that nobody has even bothered to do any polling on his potential nomination. The idea that opposing Hagel is so extreme and will provoke such outrage that it will cause the pro-Israel community to go into a death spiral is pretty far-fetched at best.
The bigger issue though is with Besser’s argument that it is the views of American Jews that empower pro-Israel groups and will ultimately determine their success or failure. This betrays a lack of understanding of what makes AIPAC and other similar groups successful, which is not that Jews support them, but that the majority of the overall population supports them. Aaron David Miller pointed this out earlier this week and Walter Russell Mead does it all the time as well, but when the former Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week still doesn’t get how things work, it bears some repeating. American public opinion has been favorable toward Israel since its founding, and support for Israel is relatively constant within a set range. This works to create pressure on politicians to espouse a pro-Israel view. In the years spanning the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, Israel’s favorability ratings as measured by Gallup ranged from 45 percent to 71 percent, and in only in four out of twenty-one instances did less than 50 percent of the public indicate holding a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. When asked to rate countries as close allies, Israel consistently ranks behind only the Anglosphere countries of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, with those describing Israel as a close ally ranging from 26 percent to 47 percent from 1982 through 2008.
Furthermore, when looking at the preferences of the issue public – citizens who have strong feelings on the issue of the U.S. relationship with Israel and Israeli behavior generally – people in this category are even more supportive of Israel and Israeli policies than the general public by more than twice as much. A pluralist model of politics predicts a correlation between the views of citizens who have a strongly held view on an issue and public policy, since ignoring strong or intense preferences will erode democratic legitimacy over time, so it makes sense that politicians respond to the pro-Israel wishes of the most vocal subset of citizens. Support for Israel among the U.S. populace is both broad and deep, which means that the pro-Israel sympathies of the general public are reinforced by the more intense feelings of support expressed by a vocal minority of both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. When taking into account the importance that Jewish and Christian voters assign to Israel, combined with the public’s affinity and support for Israel in general, the pluralist model that equates strong public opinion with corresponding policy explains why AIPAC and other groups are successful.
None of this means that this situation is static. Support for Israel is driven by a sense of shared values, and so if that perception erodes, Israel is going to be in trouble. One of the reasons I pound away at Israel’s myopia in hanging on to the West Bank – aside from the fact that I find it morally questionable, to say the least – is because I am pretty sure that it is going to spell doom for Israel long term as it relates to U.S. support. However, focusing on the opinion of just American Jews is going to tell you very little about whether mainstream American Jewish organizations are going to remain strong or not. American Jews are probably the most liberal group of Americans that exist, so if the rest of the country ever catches up to them, then the ADL and the AJC are going to have something to worry about. Putting up a fight over Chuck Hagel though is just not going to be the issue that relegates mainstream Jewish organizations to obsolescence.
June 13, 2012 § 3 Comments
In many ways, New York is a quintessentially Jewish city. The enduring image of New York Jews was famously captured by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, and New York’s liberal, secular, hyper-educated Jewish population has for decades set the tone for American Jewry as a whole. According to a new survey, however, the stereotypical New York Jew is becoming an endangered species. New York City’s Jewish population is growing after years of decline, and the growth is being fueled by Orthodox Jews, and particularly Hasidic and black hat Jews who are conservative, do not have college degrees, and are relatively poor. Over at Commentary, Jonathan Tobin writes that this signals the end of American liberal Jewry since the New York Jewish community (the largest concentration of Jews anywhere in the world outside of Israel) and the American Jewish community itself are slowly dividing into two large blocs of Orthodox Jews and entirely assimilated and unaffiliated Jews, which means that the Jewish community will be more politically and religiously conservative.
On the religious aspect, I think Tobin is right, but I think he is overlooking two important points when it comes to where the American Jewish community is headed politically which makes his prediction of liberal Jewry’s demise premature. First, while the Hasidic and yeshivish communities – and to a lesser extent the modern Orthodox community – are unquestionably more politically and socially conservative than their non-Orthodox counterparts, they have a different set of concerns. As the New York Times notes, they take different positions than secular American Jews on abortion, gay rights, the peace process, and a host of other issues, but the question is whether they are going to be as active as the rest of the Jewish community in pushing these issues to the fore and putting their money where their mouth is.
My bet is that they will not. The ultra-Orthodox (for lack of a better term) care more about social services and government subsidies than they do about traditionally political issues because they are generally an impoverished group. The poorest place in the entire United States is Kiryas Joel, a village 50 miles outside of New York City populated almost exclusively by Satmar Jews. Kiryas Joel votes as one bloc, and so it is awash in federal and state grants and poverty assistance, and its residents care far more about making sure that this continues than they do about whether gay marriage is legal in New York or not. Kiryas Joel is a political microcosm for the ultra-Orthodox in general, and while they are undoubtedly as socially and politically conservative as you can get, they simply don’t have enough skin in the game to move the debate. The things they care about transcend and supersede their political conservatism, which is why local Democratic Brooklyn politicians such as Joe Hynes and Dov Hikind receive overwhelming support from the Orthodox community. They are a lot like the Israeli Haredi parties such as Shas or UTJ in this sense, since their number one issue is patronage and winning state benefits and everything else is secondary and thus perpetually fluid and malleable.
Second, Hasidic and black hat Orthodox Jews are uniformly insular. The divide between these two groups and modern Orthodox Jews primarily revolves around the issue of engagement with the outside world. Hasidim and black hatters purposely construct figurative walls around themselves so that they barely have to interact with the outside world or engage with people outside of their immediate religious community. They go to their own schools, marry within their cloistered world, and shelter themselves from the impurities of secularism by shunning tv, radio, the internet, and even basic news. They spend their lives inside a bubble of their own creation, and are not terribly interested about what is taking place outside the cocoon. If 95% of American Jews were Hassidic or black hat, the 5% who were not would still be the ones driving the perception of Jewry among the rest of the population because they would be the only ones engaging in politics, culture, and the general debate. In this vein, it doesn’t much matter how conservative the Orthodox are because they keep to themselves and aren’t really interested in impacting American politics in any way. When Tobin writes that the assumption of American Jews being secular liberals to the end of time has just been proven false, he is technically correct but missing the forest for the trees. The segment of American Jewry that engages with the world and is ubiquitous in the media and pop culture and donates money to political campaigns is still overwhelmingly secular and liberal, and that is what matters. American Jewry as a whole may become more religiously and politically conservative, but the silent majority is so silent as to render them essentially invisible.