Prophets and Protectors

Posted at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

The discourse about Israel – that conducted by those who see themselves as Israel’s friends -- seems to come in either of two varieties.

One variety of Israel-related discourse focuses on Israel’s shortcomings, usually entailing mistreatment of one or another group – women, immigrant workers, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and, most prominently, Palestinians, both those who live within the Green Line (once known as, “Israeli Arabs”) and those who live in Gaza or the West Bank (the “real” Palestinians).

The other variety of discourses focuses on Israel’s moral virtues in the context of its struggle for peace and security. This variety emphasizes Israel’s claims to democracy, progressive social values, industriousness, ingenuity, sensitivity and respect for human rights in the midst of a protracted, existential struggle. Often, in this discourse, Israel is compared with other Western democracies, the Palestinians, and the Arab or Muslim worlds.

Why do these two types of discourse -- both conducted by Israelis, Zionists, pro-Israel Jews and their non-Jewish friends and allies – seem so dissonant, so disconcerting, and so mutually distasteful?

I’m reminded that I am not the first to take note of the disparate discourse on Israel. Almost 30 years ago, in September of 1982, during a temporary lull in the (first) War in Lebanon, and just before the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, Leonard (“Leibel”) Fein wrote these words in Moment:

There are two kinds of Jews in the world.

There is the kind of Jew who detests war and violence, who believes that fighting is not ‘the Jewish way;’ who willingly accepts that Jews have their own and higher standards of behavior.  And not just that we have them, but that those standards are our lifeblood, and what we are about.

And there is the kind of Jew who thinks we have been passive long enough, who is convinced that it is time for us to strike back at our enemies, to reject once and for all the role of victim, who willingly accepts that Jews cannot afford to depend on favors, that we must be tough and strong.

And the trouble is, most of us are both kinds of Jew.

Although Leibel later partially re-thought or re-canted (having developed doubts that most of us had both sorts of Jews within us), the distinctions are still resonant.

Thirty years later, these two kinds of Jews are alive and living, and they have been with us for some years, if not centuries. And the destiny of the Jewish nation has been at the heart of the contention between the two camps. One camp speaks with Judaism’s prophetic voice; the other primarily acts out of protective concerns. Both draw upon a wellspring of Jewish moral values and both see themselves defending the interests of Israel and the Jewish People.

The historic (if fanciful) images of Yochanan ben Zakkai and Simon bar Kokhba come to mind. Faced with the Roman oppressor, the former counseled surrender in 68 CE; 70 years later, the latter led a rebellion that was crushed. (Truth be told, history has judged some Jewish Protectors far more kindly than bar Kokhba.)

Nearly two millennia later, Jewish Prophets and Israel’s Protectors emerge once again, loosely associated respectively with Labor Zionists and Revisionist Zionists. In the last generation, we saw them denoted as, “doves” and “hawks” or, more broadly as the “Peace camp” and the “National camp.”

And today? The pro-Israel world is still divided between a more Prophetic and more Protective camp. Among the former, loosely speaking, we have: the New Israel Fund, J Street, Ha’aretz, Jewish Democrats, and Israel educators who call for “hugging and wrestling” with Israel’s complexities. Among the latter: ZOA, AIPAC, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Republicans, and the Israel advocacy industry who see advancing Israel’s cause in the public arena as a moral imperative.   

The lines may be blurry, but the impulses are still present. The two camps feel thoroughly justified and deeply worried. And the more they raise their voices, the more the other side feels vulnerable, if not defeated. Protectors see Prophets as doing grave harm to Israel’s image and security: Who needs Israel’s friends – let alone its enemies – reading stories alleging sexism, religious intolerance, human rights abuses, fascist tendencies and racist motives?

For their part, Prophets see Protectors undermining Israel’s security as well. They ask, how are Israelis ever to confront the hard and fateful decisions to make risky concessions for peace (or at least more security), if they are told that 1) all is right with them and their leaders,  2) that the world is uncaring to unsympathetic, and that 3) the other side is inherently hostile, untrustworthy and fanatical? And, in the interim, how does the Protectors’ discourse reeking with self-righteousness motivate  Israelis to avoid committing the most egregious abuses in several spheres – and in particular in conducting the Occupation – abuses, that are wrong morally, and harmful politically?

Reconciling Prophets with Protectors is not in the cards. But perhaps each can begin to see the value of the other – or even draw upon the sensitivities and world views that each bring to the pro-Israel discourse.

Defining Distancing

Matthew Ackerman's post "The Silent Young Jewish Majority" on Commentary's Contentions Blog argues against an "accepted point of Jewish communal debates in recent years that young American Jews are 'distancing' from Israel." The post prompted this response from BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen.

As one of  the leading progenitors of the "Distancing Hypothesis" (along with Prof. Ari Kelman, now of Stanford), I must say that we have been consistently misinterpreted in two respects. One misinterpretation entails the defintion of "distancing," and the other entails its cause. We said very clearly that distancing is about growing apathy about or disengagement with Israel. It means not thinking about, talking about, or caring about Israel. It does NOT mean opposition to Israeli government policies or criticism of Israel's policies, both of which are signs of closeness and attachment, and not distancing and detachment.

Second, we stated that the prime mover in promoting distancing was intermarriage -- the Jewish children of the intermarried and the Jewish spouses of non-Jews are VERY distant from Israel. Hence, surveys of skewed samples of engaged Jews with high rates of inmarriage or in-married parents cannot serve as a test of the distancing hypothesis. Distancing occurs among Jews who are hardly visible in Jewish life. Not the ones who conduct surveys, write articles, and post comments.

American Jewish Liberalism, Affiliation, and Denomination

Obama '12

The JTA reports that President Obama's approval rating among American Jews has remained about 14 points higher than the general public's according to the latest Gallup numbers, despite some public disagreement and distrust between the Administration and Israel's government.

This may come as something of a surprise to many Jews who feel, based on anecdotal evidence or personal experience, that the Jewish community is becoming more conservative, or at least more trusting of conservatives when it comes to Israel. Dr. Steven Windmueller conducted a survey earlier this year of some 2,300 Jewish respondents, finding "a distinctive Jewish conservative voice emerging on Israel-related matters and an array of domestic social issues." He also noted "that among highly engaged Jews, those who are active within Jewish religious and communal life, there is a sharp divide on political attitudes and policies."

The emphasis is mine, and it brings up an important factor to keep in mind when bandying about anecdotal evidence among committed and connected Jews: the "feel" of where the community is among strongly affiliated Jews is not accurately going to reflect American Jewry as a whole, because a large portion of American Jewry is not in the rooms we're getting the "feel" for. (Of course, anecdotal evidence is always the weakest kind of evidence, if it can even be called evidence at all.)

Marc Tracy, reacting to the Gallup news, points to a different distinction as one of the more interesting angles to this story:

 About half of one group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while more than one third of the same group disapproved of him; more than two-third of another group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while only one quarter of this group disapproved of him. The two groups? The former, who are not as bullish on Obama, attend synagogue weekly or nearly weekly; the latter, who do still like the president by and large, attend synagogue rarely or never. The observance gap, to my mind, is the more fascinating dynamic.

Tracy is right to highlight the interplay of the religious and political spectra as deserving more attention, but I might caution him against assuming that observance per se is the critical factor. A reminder is in order regarding the findings of my esteemed boss Steven M. Cohen, along with Sam Abrams and Judith Veinstein, in their 2008 study of American Jewish political opinion. "[T]he truly significant gap," they found, "is the one that separates Orthodox Jews from all other Jews." Orthodoxy is closely correlated with observance, but as a not-insignificant number of ritually observant Conservative, Conservadox, Reconstructionist, trans-denominational, and even Reform Jews will tell you, the two are not synonymous.

Importantly, the Cohen/Abrams/Veinstein study broke down political preference not only by denomination, but by sub-groupings within denomination based on the proportion of respondents' friends who were Jewish. The result, at least to me, is partially counterintuitive:

Among Orthodox Jews, those whose close friends are all Jewish, almost universally support McCain over Obama (90% vs. 10%), far more than those with mostly, or even fewer, Jewish close friends (60% McCain vs. 40% Obama). However, the impact of having many Jewish friends is the reverse for the non-Orthodox. Among the vast majority of Jews who are not Orthodox, having more Jewish friends is associated with greater support for Obama (and less support for McCain). Support for Obama grows from 68% among those with mostly non-Jewish friends to 77% for those with mostly Jewish friends. In similar fashion, it grows from 68% among those with non-denominational identity (“just Jewish,” “secular,” etc.) to 77% among those who identify as Reform.

Tribal insularity, it seems, has opposite effects within Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy! For the Orthodox, the further isolated one is from non-Jewish attachment, the more conservatively one votes, while for the non-Orthodox, insularity tends to perpetuate the liberal politics which have dominated American Jewry since Franklin Roosevelt.

Another helpful reminder from this 2008 study is that Israel is not the one and only issue that concerns American Jewry. "Jews do care about the Israel-Palestine conflict more than other Americans," write Cohen, Abrams and Veinstein:

Yet, with that said, the Israel issue ranked 8th out of 15 issues in importance as a presidential election consideration for Jewish respondents. Aside from the economy (a prime issue of concern for the vast majority of respondents), ahead of Israel on Jewish voters’ minds were such matters as health care, gas prices and energy, taxes, and education. Ranking just below Israel in importance for Jewish respondents were appointments to the Supreme Court and the environment. In fact, when asked to name their top three issues, just 15% of Jewish respondents chose Israel as one of the three, and these were heavily Orthodox Jews.

From the J-Vault: An American Zionist Vision from 1948

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This week from the J-Vault: Implications of the New Developments in Palestine for Jewish Culture (September 1948)

Today Israelis, Jews, and Zionists all over the world (both Jewish and non-Jewish) celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, and this week's J-Vault selection was published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service in September 1948 during a cease-fire between the second and third phases of Israel's War of Independence. In the midst of that uneasy lull in battle, which would yield to open war again one month later, Alexander M. Dushkin focused not on the immediate military, diplomatic or humanitarian situation of the newly declared State, but on the place of that new State in the wider scheme of Jewish history and culture, as well as in Diaspora life -- particularly in America.

"My thesis," wrote Dushkin, "is that the reconstituted Jewish Homeland—both in the State of Israel and in international Jerusalem— will have a three-fold effect on Jewish cultural development in America. It should help us (a) clarify the character of our culture; (b) change our attitude toward it and (c) enhance our own cultural creativity." The result, he predicted, would be that world Jewry will assume a new overall shape. "Our Jewish world of today and tomorrow is like a great ellipse with two foci—one focus is in ourselves, in American life and effort; the other is in the Hebraic cultural center in the new Palestine. Culturally, they are both necessary to each other, and their spiritual symbiosis is our grand task in the days ahead."



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Steven M. Cohen on the HUC-JIR Rabbinical Student Year in J'lem

A post from BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen:

A recent (and very admirable) JTA article by Sue Fishkoff on the strengthening of Reform Judaism in Israel contains a rather peculiar observation by an anonymous individual, as follows:

“One World Union for Progressive Judaism leader, who spoke anonymously, suggested that the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical program is partly to blame for its policy of sending first-year students to Jerusalem where they “live in an American ghetto,” and return home convinced that Israel is hostile to Reform Judaism.”

I am a part-time resident of Jerusalem, a member of the HUC-JIR faculty, a life-long Zionist, and hold dual citizenship, and am as concerned as anyone with the attachment of young Jews to Israel. From my perspective, it is positively loony (i.e., meshuggeh) to think that having first-year rabbinical students spend a year in Jerusalem -- where the 25-acre HUC-JIR campus is located -- is somehow responsible for convincing students that "Israel is hostile to Reform Judaism." Had they only spent the year, instead of Jerusalem, in, say, Afula, or on Shenkin Street, or the beaches of Eilat!

A very long literature on the impact of travel to Israel demonstrates two effects with respect to Israel. One is that people grow more attached to Israel (see “Beyond Distancing,” by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, or “Still Connected,” by Charles Kadushin, et al). The other is that they learn to be more critical of Israelis as individuals and of Israel as a society. In other words, they come to resemble Israelis, developing an unromanticized and non-idealized portrait of Israeli life (for an evidence of these trends as early as 1983 , see Survey of American Jews and Communal Leaders).

Steven M. Cohen

Cohen's Comments: Birthright & J Street

This week, Birthright Israel rejected J Street's bid to operate its own Birthright trip presenting Israel from a progressive viewpoint. (See this article.)

In the first installment of a BJPA original video series we're calling Cohen's Comments, BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen says Birthright is wrong not only for rejecting J Street in particular, but for its stance on the broader question of operating trips which present particular values and perspectives. Watch the video!



Suddenly there was a voice from the corner of the room. An Israeli, part of the contingent of soldiers who joined the group for five days, spoke in halting English: "Don't you understand? If there were a war in America against the Jews, I'd fight for you. The people of Sderot-- they are our people. We are one people."

That's the vision of Jewish peoplehood - and of Zionism - that I was raised with. As a youngish North-American-raised Jew, sentiments like these seem to put me firmly in the minority.

At least, that's the impression one gets from the discussions in the BJPA and the UJA-Federation of New York Commission on the Jewish People's four part seminar on "Interrogating Jewish Peoplehood," held over the course of 2010. In the context of an urgent anxiety about the future of Judaism in general and the American Jewish community in particular, a group of committed, and mostly older, Jewish leaders discussed their understandings of the notion of Jewish peoplehood and how that notion can or should or will be played out in the next and coming generations.

At the conclusion of the seminar, Clare Hedwat, Planning Manager of the Commission, produced a report that summarizes and reflects on some of the content, questions, and conclusions that arose over the course of these conversations. The quote above frames the report.

It is fitting that the report would open on that note since the issue of the Jewish state, its meaning for young Jews and the meaning and consequences of the rift between generations on the proper role of Israel in Jewish identity and activity runs throughout the report:

We fail as a community if we unwittingly ask the younger generation to make a choice between universalism and particularist Jewish concerns. If we ask young people to decide between the two, intentionally or otherwise, we are not guaranteed they will stay within our pews. 

Our greatest communal challenge lies with those who don’t care enough, don’t know enough or are too turned off to voice any opinion at all. JStreet does not constitute a problem of Jewish peoplehood. J Streeters voice criticism of Israel: put simply, they take Israel seriously enough to critique and aspire to change. The real problem for Jewish Peoplehood in our time is presented by those who totally reject the notion that the Jewish People or the state of Israel has any claim whatsoever on them. In our conversation, Prof. Steven M. Cohen referred to such Israel-rejectionists with the rabbinic term, Rasha, referring to the wicked son in the haggadah who claims to see no value in Judaism’s precepts and commandments.

The issue of Jewish responsibility to the Jewish state, Israel, flows into a discussion of responsibility to the Jewish "nation,"... beginning with a Biblical passage about the Gadites and the Reubenites and how they came to participate in the conquest of the land of Israel without coming to permanently settle there. And so even the scriptural-based discussion of what it means to be on the inside of the Jewish/not-Jewish boundary and Jewish responsibility to Jews is, at least, framed by the relationship of the People to the Land.

In the scheme of history, the decades since the founding of Israel constitute the shortest blip. But whatever combination it is of the prevalance of concern with Israel (whether positively or negatively) in the American Jewish community and the thousands of years of religious tradition connecting the People to the Land scripturally and liturgically, it seems nearly impossible to talk about the notion of Jewish peoplehood apart from the Jewish land, even when the mission statement of the seminar barely referred to that whole can of worms at all.

The other theme that arose was kinship and family - the idea that our connection to each other as Jews can best be understood,and presumably emotionally experienced, the way we experience and accept the notion of family.

We may question aspects of Israeli society without doubting the inherent link between Israel and world Jewry and the responsibility we have to Israel as a Jewish people. On the other hand, we intuitively understand that Messianic Jews (who believe in Jesus), or Jews who do not recognize the state of Israel, are effectively ‘outside’ of the family and the Jewish peoplehood conversation. Halachically speaking, one cannot “de- Jew” oneself. In terms of Jewish peoplehood, we are able to identify those who have removed themselves from normative discourse on issues pertaining to the Jewish nation. As David Mallach noted, we recognize what peoplehood is not. As Rabbi Gordon Tucker elaborated, we understand the implications of kinship.

It does seem true that we viscerally understand the implications of kinship. But modernity is also challenging the notion that 'you can't choose your family.' Our understandings of family, both cultural and legal, don't necessarily seem static enough to rely on even as a metaphor. And too, how much work can a posited shared emotional 'understanding' do in making connections among Jews, if not defining them?

The report concludes, as many good Jewish efforts do, with the promise of more questions and more talk:

Perhaps the greatest challenge as posed by the series is how to provide venues in which the conversation can continue, and how we may channel them in ways that provide new directions in which we may work, increasing the opportunities of engagement with Jewish peoplehood in relevant and creative ways.

I do get the sense that in the mean time, at least, we do seem stuck being the People Israel, and the people of Israel - but of course that may well be due to my bias because of the emotional standpoint where my particular Jewish family experience  has stood me.

The full report is available on BJPA, as are more resources on Jewish peoplehood, Israel-Diaspora relations, and Jewish attachment to Israel.