The Netanyahu Tragedy

Binyamin Netanyahu was one of Israel’s greatest leaders.

No more. Within the past year he has begun to take decisions based on his personal interests, even when they may conflict with the needs of the nation. The last (unnecessary) election and the one that is coming in March were driven by his desire to protect his position as Prime Minister, the better to weather the storm of his criminal indictments.

That is a very serious accusation, but I am not the one who is making it. That is Ze’ev Elkin, a former Netanyahu confidant, a man that held several ministerial positions in Netanyahu governments, and headed several important Knesset committees. Elkin recently announced his resignation from the present government and intention to join the newly-formed party of longtime Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa’ar. As reported in the Times of Israel,

Elkin accused Netanyahu of “destroying” Likud, claimed many in the party quietly agreed with him, and said he could no longer tell Israelis to “support someone that I’ve stopped believing in” and place their fate in his hands. …

“You know well the simple truth: For personal reasons, you have once again taken the country to its fourth election in two years… in the midst of a pandemic” while “trying to place the blame on others,” Elkin said.

“We’re going to these surreal elections because you want to influence [the appointment of the] state attorney and the attorney general, and because of your hope for a French law [to stop your corruption trial].

Elkin stressed he had great respect for Netanyahu’s achievements in the past, including his contributions to “Israel’s security, world standing and economy.” …

“ [But] as someone who is watching this dangerous process from up close, I see how his personal considerations are getting mixed up with the national considerations, and even triumphing” over the national interest, Elkin said.

“Prime minister, you have destroyed the Likud movement… and turned it into a personality cult” where critics are scared to speak ….

I can’t call for Israeli citizens to vote for you and be certain that you will act on their behalf rather than your own.

In an interview with a reporter for Israel Hayom published on 1 January, Elkin said that Netanyahu was too much influenced by his “environment,” which included his wife Sara and his son Yair. He said that Netanyahu had become overwhelmed by the feeling that he is being persecuted, and will “grasp at any straw” to protect himself. Elkin added that Netanyahu would never willingly give up power, either as PM or as leader of the Likud party. Netanyahu, he said, was holding the Likud “hostage,” and like the Pharaohs of Egypt who were buried with their possessions, would take it with him to his grave.

This coming election was triggered by Netanyahu’s refusal to allow the passage of the national budget, something which has had serious consequences for the economy and even security of the state. Because he wants to maintain leverage over the police in connection with his prosecution, he has refused to allow the appointment of a permanent head of the police agency, which is currently in disarray and facing serious challenges, especially in dealing with an explosion of crime in the Arab towns.

Over the years Netanyahu has pushed out of the Likud numerous outstanding personalities like Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Gideon Sa’ar, who has formed the “New Hope” party that is challenging the Likud in upholding the standard of the secular Right. And now the well-respected Elkin has joined Sa’ar.

Ze’ev Elkin made aliyah to Israel from Ukraine at the age of 19 in 1990. He studied mathematics at the University of Kharkov from 1987 until his aliyah, received a BA in Mathematics and Jewish History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1994, and an MA in Jewish History at the same time. He also studied at the Har Etzion Yeshiva until 1995, when he was elected to the Knesset. He is described as a serious “amateur chess enthusiast” who recently played Anastasia Waller, the 10-year old European champion in her age class (he lost). Along with Bennett and Sa’ar he is considered honest and dedicated to the good of the country.

Since the last election, the Likud has fallen in the polls, from its present 36 seats to 28 or 29. Its partner in the unity government, Benny Gantz’ Blue and White party, has imploded; its 15 seats have dwindled to only 4 or 5, and various important figures in it have deserted to other parties or dropped out of the race entirely. Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party is at 13, up from 5.

Ran Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, has formed a new center-left party hubristically called “The Israelis” that has snatched some of Blue and White’s members, as well as reprising Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, probably two of the worst politicians in Israel’s history. Huldai will probably try to make a coalition with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, as well as the extreme left-wing Meretz party, and to get support from the Arab parties.

But Netanyahu is not finished.

His die-hard supporters still control the Likud. By far the most accomplished manipulator of Israeli politics ever, he hopes to put together a coalition including the Haredi parties, and possibly Bennett’s Yamina – Bennett has not ruled out ever joining Netanyahu – and some other players. He is even courting Arab voters, who have been recently showing signs of putting aside nationalist considerations for more pragmatic benefits. It looks like it will be a contest between Netanyahu, the anti-Netanyahu Right, and the Left. Netanyahu will then argue (as he has done successfully in the past) that unless voters support him, the Left will prevail.

The possibility of yet another deadlocked election, especially now when leadership is desperately needed, is unthinkable. But we’ve said that at least twice before.

The demonstrations near PM Netanyahu’s residences have become more disorderly, sometimes violent. If the leaders think they can pressure him into quitting, they are probably wrong. They are led by people who, to put it mildly, are not my favorite people. Their concerns are not my concerns. But in the final analysis, they are right. I appreciate what Netanyahu has done for the country, and I see the tragic elements in the situation. What should have happened perhaps a year ago was a deal that would have dropped charges (many of which are, in fact, trumped up) in return for an agreement that this would be his last term as Prime Minister. He deserves at least that.

Instead, he appears to be prepared to fight to the last. As Ze’ev Elkin says, he is going to take the Likud down with him. Let us hope that by dividing the Right and giving the Left an opening, he hasn’t put the country at risk as well.

Posted in Israeli Politics | 2 Comments

Jonathan Pollard is a Litmus Test. But for What?

The arrival of Jonathan Pollard in Israel 35 years after his arrest for espionage on Israel’s behalf has made me think about the position of the Jew in the diaspora, particularly in America.

There are facts about Pollard’s case that are shrouded in mystery (for example, the still-secret Caspar Weinberger memo that in part convinced the judge in his case, Aubrey Robinson, to abrogate his plea bargain and sentence him to life imprisonment).

There is very little impartial material written about his case. Did he do what he did out of Zionist motives or did he do it for the money (or both)? Was Judge Robinson influenced by accusations that Pollard had aided the apartheid South African regime? These questions are discussed here (from a pro-Pollard perspective). Was the sentence outrageously unfair or, as some say, was it too light? Was his sentence, like the one given to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, intended as a warning to disloyal ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews? It is possible to find documentation of various degrees of trustworthiness to support disparate narratives.

It is certain that Pollard provided a great deal of useful information to Israel about her regional enemies that had been withheld by the US. It is also certain that Pollard was abandoned by Israel, expelled from the embassy in Washington where he sought asylum, into the arms of the FBI. And it is certain that he received the harshest sentence by far ever handed down to someone for spying for an American ally, harsher yet than what some who spied for the Soviets received.

Early Wednesday morning, Pollard was met at the airport by PM Netanyahu, who said the shehecheyanu with him and personally handed him his Israeli identity document. This of course immediately made him a political football in Israel, to the extent that he wasn’t already. But that’s not what I want to discuss.

What interests me today is the attitudes of American Jews toward Pollard, and what that tells us about how they see themselves and their position as diaspora Jews.

The diaspora has generally not been a friendly place for Jews since their expulsion from Judea after the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt by the Romans on Tisha b’Av, 135 CE. Always outsiders, they were often exploited, expelled, oppressed, and even exterminated by their hosts. But – especially between the end of WWII and the beginning of the 21st century – the USA has been different. Although there are examples of anti-Jewish riots and lynchings, and discrimination in employment, education, and residence, the position of Jews in America for a long period has probably been as good as or better than anywhere else in the diaspora.

Like Homer Simpson, an American Jew has two tiny creatures that sit on his or her shoulders and whisper. One says, “you are an American like other Americans, even if you are Jewish. This is your home. You have rights here.” And the other says, “never forget that you are a Jew. Your existence is precarious. Keep your suitcase packed.” I think that American Jewish attitudes toward Pollard are derived from the interaction of these voices.

On one occasion, a friend told me that “Pollard should have been executed, like the Rosenbergs.” This from a liberal American Jew who, I’m certain, opposes capital punishment in general. “America was good to him and he spit in its face,” he continued. “He was a traitor both to his country and to other Jews, who will always be suspected of having dual loyalties.”

This particular Jew is more knowledgeable than most Americans about Israel, a strong Zionist and supporter of causes related to Israel. But at the same time he was one of the approximately 69% of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama’s second term, when it should have been obvious to anyone that he was far from a friend of Israel (unlike his opponent, Mitt Romney). Needless to say, President Trump’s remarkably strong pro-Israel stance doesn’t sway my friend from his strong antagonism to the president.

When I listen to him, I hear both voices. My friend is proud of being American and takes what he sees as patriotic American positions. His center of gravity is in the US. But at the same time, there is that other small voice, the one that reminds him that as a Jew, he is less than entirely secure in America. He worries that Pollard’s actions might cause an increase in antisemitism among non-Jewish Americans. And maybe sometimes at 3 AM, he wonders if he shouldn’t have a packed suitcase under his bed.

So it is very important for him to let everyone know that American Jews in general, and he in particular, are good Americans. Maybe better Americans than some non-Jews.

This is a position fraught with cognitive dissonance.

There are American Jews that strongly support Pollard. Some (unlike my friend) are Orthodox Jews, like Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the former head of the National Council of Young Israel, an organization of Orthodox synagogues. Lerner visited Pollard in prison countless times, and helped obtain financial support for him after his release when he was unable to work. Pollard “got religion” in prison, and that may be part of it. But I have also heard some Orthodox Jews strongly denounce Pollard in words like my friend’s. And, on the other side, the Reform Movement passed a resolution to ask President Clinton to commute Pollard’s sentence in 1993; its president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs (whom I usually love to criticize), visited him in prison along with representatives of the Conservative movement.

Pollard is a litmus test of some sort, but it is not either one for Right vs. Left or Orthodox vs. (religiously) liberal. It’s something else. I know that my grandmother, who lost siblings in the Holocaust and from whom I inherited much of my sensibility, would have instinctively stuck up for Pollard, despite the fact that she was very proud of the paper that said she was an American citizen.

I think it’s related to what I called “center of gravity” above. If your center of gravity is in the diaspora you have to worry that someday you will be uprooted. If it’s located with the Jewish people, you may be less comfortable in the diaspora, but you have fewer illusions.

Where is your center of gravity?

Posted in American Jews, The Jewish people | 2 Comments

Israel’s Awful Electoral System

Recently I’ve struggled with some technical issues on one of my computers. It’s always a similar process: there is a small problem, but there is supposed to be a solution. Unfortunately the solution doesn’t work, but there is a solution to that. And then when the solution to the solution fails, I try to fix it by doing something really stupid, and my original small problem can be forgotten because now I have a really big problem.

Life is like that.

Today in Israel we are solving the problems caused by elections with more elections. We will have yet another, the fourth in two years, in March. This is particularly unpleasant now in the middle of an epidemic, but fixing things always seems just around the corner. After all, there are only two blocs, Right and Left. The great majority of Jewish Israelis fall somewhere on the right; and even if Arab voters are taken into consideration, there is a right-wing majority. If there were just two parties like in the USA, our “Republicans” would beat our “Democrats.” But unfortunately, in the last election (this March) there were eight parties that passed the threshold to enter the Knesset, out of 29 that ran.

I think these elections can’t produce stable governments because of the structure of our system. Members of the 120-member Knesset are elected by a party-based proportional system. The parties choose their lists of candidates by primaries or other means, and the voters vote for the party of their choice. Each party gets a number of seats in the Knesset according to the proportion of their votes in the total. Unlike the US Congress or British Commons they are not elected from specific districts.

No single party, or even two parties, is able to control more than half of the seats in the Knesset, so every government must be a coalition of numerous parties. Coalition negotiations go on for weeks after an election, and involve the head of the ruling party giving out promises and ministerial portfolios to get other parties to sign on. When one of the two main blocs can’t even get 61 seats together, you get a “unity” government, like the one that just fell apart. In that case the number of promises, portfolios, and jobs given out can become expensive. The ridiculous unity government had 36 ministers. Probably half that would be sufficient.

Historically, even before the founding of the state, Israelis were strongly connected to parties with specific ideologies. Laborites, Revisionists, communists, members of religious parties, etc., all had their ideological stances, and they voted for the parties that best matched their views. But as time went on, voters and politicians alike became more pragmatic, and sometimes personalities or specific issues were as important or more than ideologies.

It also happened that the parties themselves changed. The Israeli Left was originally strongly security-oriented (while still socialist or communist), but as the kibbutz movement faded and it began to become clear to everyone that private enterprise was more productive than state-owned monopolies, it changed into a movement focusing more on peace efforts and social justice. The bloody failure of the Oslo Accords, the Second Intifada, and the rise of Hamas in Gaza, caused a great deal of disillusionment with the program of the Left, and much of its strength was sapped by the rise of new, centrist, parties that were almost entirely ideology-free and pragmatic.

An extreme example is the Blue and White Party, which is splintering as I write, made up of disparate and mutually antagonistic politicians united only by a desire to replace Bibi Netanyahu. At the same time, Netanyahu’s Likud has subjugated its formerly strong right-wing ideology to Bibi’s personal goals. It’s significant that the most serious opposition to Netanyahu today is led by two men, Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, right-wingers who were forced out of Likud by Netanyahu – not because of ideological differences, but because Bibi would not allow any challenges to his leadership.

Voters often change which party they vote for from election to election, although they generally stay within the two major left-right blocs. Politicians jump from party to party in a way that would have been unimaginable in the past. Because of the way they are elected, they are  not accountable to the people or even to the party leaders.

All of this is a mismatch for a system designed for parties with determinate ideologies. Instead of a government coming into office with a program, we get a collection of politicians looking out for their own parochial, sometimes personal, interests. Netanyahu is a master of controlling the system, and most of his real opposition comes from outside of it, in the unelected legal, media, academic, and cultural arenas that all lean left.

His opponents claim that his control of the political system is “destroying democracy,” but they leave out the undemocratic consequences of the power of the unelected elites that override the wishes of the PM, the will of the Knesset, and the desires of the general population. This is what gives rise to the complaints that the public “votes for the Right but gets the policies of the Left.”

Even the question of who will be PM may be determined by extra-democratic means, if the elites succeed in taking Netanyahu down by legal maneuvers aided by an unrelenting media assault.

At the risk of proposing solutions that will create big problems, I think that our system needs fundamental change, in order to adapt to the political reality in an advanced first-world country (which we have almost but not quite become).

Some things are easy. There should be term limits on the position of Prime Minister. At the same time, he should be immune from prosecution for most crimes during his time in office. That would keep the legal and enforcement establishment at bay, while preventing any one man from building a political empire.

Other things are harder, such as the change from proportional voting to a system in which some or all of the candidates stand for election in geographical districts rather than as a member of a party list. There are many complications here – particularly in drawing up the districts fairly – but the great advantage is the personal accountability of the candidates to the voters.

It’s true that nobody wants to change a system that is working to their advantage. But with election number four coming up, I think everyone should be able to agree that the only ones truly benefiting from this system are our enemies.

Posted in Israeli Politics, Israeli Society | 1 Comment

The Biden Administration and the “War of Return”

Judging from the few public statements made so far and what is known about his appointees, the Biden Administration will take the same stance toward Israel and the Palestinians as the last Democratic administration, led by Barack Obama.

That means that it will return to the idea of establishing a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria more or less on the pre-1967 lines. It will go back to financing the Palestinian Authority, which will find a way to pay terrorists and support their families while pretending not to, in order to circumvent the Taylor Force Act which requires the US to deduct such payments from aid to the PA. The administration will likely close its eyes to the subterfuge. It will go back to funding UNRWA, the agency that supports the exponential growth of a stateless population made up of the descendants of Arab refugees from the 1948 war, despite the fact that it exists to perpetuate the problem posed by this population, not to solve it.

I believe that it will return to the principle that the main reason the conflict has not ended is that Israel has not made enough concessions to the Palestinians, and that the way to end it is to pressure Israel to give in to Palestinian demands: for Jew-free land, for sovereignty without restrictions, for eastern Jerusalem, and perhaps even for the “return” of the refugee descendants. Although not directly part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will probably reduce pressure on Iran and possibly even return to the JCPOA, the nuclear deal.

It’s too early to tell if it will also adopt the open hostility to the Jewish state that characterized Obama’s reign. That will depend on who influences Biden, both among his official advisors as well as the numerous think tanks, lobbies, and pressure groups that have an interest in the conflict – including the one operated by Barack Obama himself.

I suspect that the administration will have its hands full with other matters and so will not immediately launch a new “peace” effort. But one never knows. Sometimes rationality goes out the window when the subject turns to the Jews and their state.

Although nothing can be done with those who take a position because they see it as a step in the direction of the ultimate elimination of our state, there are still “people of good faith” who believe that the Land for Peace paradigm that inspired the Oslo Accords does provide a path to ending the conflict. If the new administration is dominated by the latter type of people, there is hope that correcting their fundamental misapprehensions might lead to a more productive policy.

These misapprehensions are spelled out persuasively in a recent book, The War of Return, How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream has Obstructed the Path to Peace, by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf (All Points Books, 2020). Schwartz and Wilf fall on the left of the Israeli political spectrum (Wilf was a Member of the Knesset for the Labor Party), and they still favor a two-state solution. But unlike most of their comrades, they have listened to the Palestinians, and understand their actual concerns and objectives. In their book, they explain why the traditional approach has failed and propose the initial steps that are necessary for any settlement of the conflict.

All previous Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have miscarried because Israelis and Western interlocutors have failed to realize the paramount importance of one issue – the “right of return” demanded by the Palestinians. This is possible because they have systematically misunderstood the language – whether English or Arabic – used by the Palestinians. The “constructive ambiguity” that often characterizes diplomatic language and allows parties that don’t quite agree with each other to nevertheless sign agreements has made it possible for the same words to have diametrically opposed meanings when uttered by Westerners or Palestinians.

The prime example of this is the phrase “a just solution to the refugee problem.” To an Israeli or Westerner, this can include the normalization of the refugees* in their countries of residence, their emigration to other countries, or their resettlement in a Palestinian state, should one be created. This has been the approach taken by the international community to the numerous refugee populations, including Germans living in Eastern Europe after WWII, Holocaust survivors, Jews who were forced out of Arab countries after 1948, and so on. But the Palestinian position is that there is only one “just solution”: anyone with refugee status has the inalienable right to “return” to his “home” in Israel if he wishes to do so, or to receive compensation if he prefers. And that is what this phrase means when they use it.

Naturally, given the numbers of Arabs who claim this “right,” such a mass return would change Israel into an Arab-majority state, even assuming Jews were prepared to leave their homes and peacefully give them to their “rightful owners.” The absurdity of the demand is evident. Yet Yasser Arafat walked away from Camp David precisely because Israel would not agree to it.

Another phrase whose ambiguity has prevented agreement is “two-state solution.” Virtually every Israeli that favors this understands it as “two states for two peoples.” But the Palestinians want one totally Jew-free Palestinian state, and one state in which the right of return for Arab refugees has been implemented (and which theoretically might contain Jews, at least for a while). They have never accepted the idea of any Jewish sovereignty between the river and the sea, and hence reject the formulation “two states for two peoples.”

Schwartz and Wilf explain that Western and Israeli negotiators have always assumed – perhaps because the demand is so extreme – that the right of return was a bargaining chip that the Palestinians would cash in for the currency of borders, the removal of settlements, or rights in Jerusalem. But they were wrong. The demand for “return” is the essence of the Palestinian movement.

Palestinian children learn about it, down to the particular locations to which each has the “right” to return, in UNRWA schools where they are taught by Palestinian teachers (99% of UNRWA’s employees are Palestinians). Someday, they are told over and over, they will return. Guaranteed.

Everything UNRWA does is geared toward increasing this population of angry people, convinced that a massive injustice has been done to them, and that the only solution will be for them to return, and through this return, wipe the Jews from the face of the land they are convinced we stole from them.

UNRWA was created after the 1948 war with the intention of providing temporary assistance to the refugees until they could be resettled and normalized the way all other groups of refugees had been. But the only country that cooperated was Jordan, which gave the Palestinians citizenship and allowed them to integrate into their own populations. In Lebanon there were especially harsh restrictions and poor conditions. Little by little, the Arab nations changed the temporary UNRWA into a permanent tool to mold a refugee army that they hoped would ultimately do what their conventional armies could not: eliminate the Jewish state.

Today UNRWA is the main obstacle to solving the refugee problem. But it need not be. Schwartz and Wilf provide a relatively detailed, step by step program for phasing out UNRWA in the various places that it operates, and providing solutions for the refugees from the host countries and other agencies. For example, in the Palestinian Authority areas, they propose shifting both the responsibility for the refugees, and the money that supports UNRWA, to the PA. Former refugees would study in PA schools, go to PA health clinics, and so on. There are similar programs for Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon where the remaining refugee “camps” (today mostly neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities) are located.

Real peace can only be achieved when the consciousness of the Palestinians changes and they understand that the dream of return will not be realized. This would be a long and difficult process that could only begin with the elimination of UNRWA. But it has to start before it can finish. It will require cooperation of all of the Western donor countries that have been supporting UNRWA. Perhaps the fact that from a financial standpoint UNRWA will soon be unsustainable (after all, the number of “refugees” is growing exponentially) will encourage them to cooperate.

In the short term, it’s essential that everyone involved in relations between Israel and the Palestinians understand the real issues that underlie the conflict. And it would be a good thing if all parties could agree to use words the same way. Schwartz and Wilf say that “constructive ambiguity” should be replaced by “constructive specificity.” If the European Union, for example, believes that the State of Israel should be replaced by a Palestinian state, it should say so. Otherwise, it should unambiguously oppose a right of return, and work to dismantle UNRWA as quickly as is practical.

Back to the incoming Biden Administration. I hope it will resist the attempts of the anti-Israel Left to revive the hostility of the Obama days, and instead choose to be a force for real peace.

To that end, I will be sending Joe Biden a copy of this book, with a suggestion that he read it and pass it around among his foreign policy team.

________________________
*From here on, I use the word “refugees” by itself, although it refers to those descendants of the approximately 550-700,000 original refugees who have been granted this status by UNRWA. There are more than 5 million of them today, and the number grows every day. No such refugee status has been granted to any other population; the UNHCR agency which takes care of all non-Palestinian refugees, grants refugee status to those individuals who cannot return to their country of origin due to well-founded fear of persecution (see the full definition here), and to their children. Unlike UNRWA’s refugee status, it is not hereditary.

Posted in 'Peace' Process, American politics, Israel and Palestinian Arabs, US-Israel Relations | 3 Comments

Birthright and Jewish Continuity

Since 2009, the Jewish Futures Project at Brandeis University has been following participants in the Birthright Israel program to try to see how the program affected their Jewish identity. Since those who choose to take Birthright trips to Israel would be expected to have a greater Jewish connection than those who don’t, they compared those who actually took the trip to those who applied to the program but did not go.

All of the JFP surveys since 2009 have indicated an effect on the choice of marriage partner by Birthright. The 2020 survey found that “Birthright participants are much more likely to have a Jewish spouse or partner compared to similar nonparticipants: 55% versus 39%.” While one might expect that going on a Birthright trip might affect a person’s attitude toward Israel, it also turns out that the likelihood of having Jewish friends and spouse also increases.

In America, where the rate of intermarriage is high and increasing (a 2013 Pew poll showed that between 2005 and 2013, 58% of marriages of Jews were to a non-Jewish partner, a number which rises to 70% or more when only non-Orthodox Jews are considered), and where some have used the expression “a silent Holocaust” to describe the results of intermarriage, one might expect that the data about Birthright would be welcomed by all American Jews.

But if one expects that, one would be wrong.

In addition to the unease in the progressive Jewish community caused by Birthright’s positive vision of Israel, even the fact that it appears to reduce intermarriage is problematic for some. People in interfaith relationships are often insulted by the suggestion that there could be anything negative about the fact that they chose their partners because they fell in love with them, and not because of what they see as outmoded, even fanatical, beliefs that were developed in past times when Jewish life was more precarious. They insist that they are no less Jewish for having a non-Jewish spouse. They still may attend a (non-Orthodox) synagogue, light candles on Shabbat, observe some Jewish holidays, and of course enjoy “Jewish” food. They are, in other words, no different from non-intermarried Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Jews.

Indeed, an interfaith family, they argue, is actually capable of being advantageous to the Jewish community, because “Non-Jewish partners often become very engaged in and bring new insights and energy to the Jewish community. Intermarriage increases tolerance and respect for Jews…” (Edmund Case). Leonard Saxe, lead investigator on the Birthright survey, said that “It’s not necessary that people need a Jewish partner, or two Jewish parents, in order to engage in Jewish life. Interfaith families absolutely raise Jewishly engaged children.” And they suggest that this implies that they are not a danger to Jewish continuity.

But the numbers are against them. The 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews showed that 83% of children of marriages with one non-Jewish partner married a non-Jew, compared to 37% of those who have two Jewish parents. This means that regardless of the worthiness of interfaith families or how Jewishly engaged their children are, there will be significantly fewer non-Orthodox Jews in a few generations if the present trend continues.

Affluent Jewish parents don’t have many children, less than two per family on the average. That in itself will reduce the number of Jews in the next generation. And while some of the children of intermarried parents may go on to observe Judaism, others, who grew up with both a Hanukah menorah and a Christmas tree, will either prefer the tree – and will be encouraged by the majority culture to do so – or just grow up as secular Americans.

I understand that the question “what is legitimate Judaism” is fraught with difficulty. And I am not going to characterize any particular movement as “real” or “fake” Judaism. But if you are interested in Jewish continuity, I think it’s necessary to have some criteria beyond whether a person identifies as Jewish. For example, I would exclude “Jews for Jesus.” And I think that I would also exclude Rabbi Deborah Reichmann, rabbi and spiritual advisor for the Interfaith Family Project in Washington, DC. Reichmann objected to the Birthright survey’s lack of “nuance.” “Jewish people express their Judaism and Jewishness in many other ways than by marrying another Jewish person and having Jewish children,” she reportedly said. “People could be volunteering for environmental groups or social justice groups. Maybe they are involved in their school. They are doing tikkun olam in their own way.” Perhaps, but it’s a stretch to call this being Jewish (I call it “Tikkunism”).

Over the centuries, as the Jewish people sojourned in its many diasporas, it absorbed genetic material from its surroundings. Even Moshe Rabbeinu was intermarried, and since then many non-Jews became part of the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and King David were all descended from converts. Naturally, Judaism changed and evolved as well, and today there are Jews of every color, and numerous different traditions of observance. All this was a gradual process that took generations.

What is happening in America today is different. It may have been cruel for previous generations of Jews to stigmatize intermarriage, but that kept the process of absorbing non-Jews slow, and gave the culture time to assimilate them. They may have deliberately made conversion difficult, but that tended to weed out those who saw Judaism as the religious flavor of the month. But today the non-Orthodox movements, who welcome intermarriage and actively seek converts, have presided over an influx of new Jews at a rate unprecedented in Jewish history.

There is nothing wrong with these new Jews, as individuals. But the combination of a rapid influx of great numbers of people from other cultural groups, the lack of rigor (as in every other aspect of American society) of the conversion process, the replacement of Jewish ethics by liberal politics, and the replacement of Jewish ritual by political activism, has changed the face of the American Jewish community almost beyond recognition.

At the same time, the politicization of the non-Orthodox movements has turned many American Jews, regardless of their genetic backgrounds, against Israel. American Jews are found in the forefront of the anti-Israel movements there. The disconnect from the Jewish homeland is yet another way in which the non-Orthodox American Jewish community has separated itself from the Jewish people as a whole.

And this is precisely why Birthright has a positive effect on Jewish engagement of all kinds, including the choice of life partners. In Israel, the perception of all the diverse kinds of Jews as part of a unified people is inescapable. Being here awakens the feeling of peoplehood that is denied, even crushed, by the progressive universities that these Jewish students attend, and which is not nourished by the institutions of liberal Judaism.

Israel is not only the refuge of persecuted Jews, it is the repository of the culture – or perhaps I should say cultures – that make individual Jews part of the Jewish people. Birthright is more than a free ticket to a vacation; it can be a life-changing experience.

Posted in American Jews, American society | 5 Comments