Rosner's Domain: A superficial treatment of American Jewry
On July 30, 2010, Ronen Shoval, the Chairman of Im Tirtzu, published, "The Death of Secular Zionism in Exile," a stinging attack on American Jewry, in Makor Rishon, a weekly newspaper which regularly features strong and thought-provoking ideological and cultural debate, and is widely read among the religious and nationalist communities. This response, written by Yehudah Mirsky, was published on August 13. Mirsky graciously agreed that I will post it:
Ronen Shoval's biting article on American Jewry takes the easy way out. Rather than deal soberly with a complicated, difficult, challenging and important phenomenon, he makes due with slogans that betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the history and deep processes which frame the entire story. There is indeed a grain of truth in what he says, but it's lost in animosity and simplistic analysis, which fail to advance the conversation at all.
The simplistic approach appears in his opening paragraph, which asks "How did 78% of American Jews vote for President Obama, who, according to (former New York mayor) Ed Koch is like Titus, in other words, likely to bring about the destruction of the third Israelite kingdom?" Ed Koch himself supported Obama, voted for him and worked to convince others to do the same - a fact well-known to anyone who even minimally follows American-Jewish politics. Does this mean that Ed Koch seeks, as Shoval writes of the vast majority of American Jewry "to subjugate Zionism to the fundamentals of postmodernism and American politically-correct culture"? Certainly not.
Ed Koch, has for decades been a consistent and committed supporter of Israel and the Zionist enterprise, and has for decades been an enthusiastic and consistent supporter of classic American liberalism. These facts are not in contradiction - nor do they diminish by a whit his current criticism of President Obama.
Of course the significance of this issue goes well beyond Ed Koch as such, but his story is testament to its complexity, a complexity which Shoval systematically ignores. The vast majority of American Jews identify as liberals. The roots of this identification lie in the fact that liberalism broke the barriers of discrimination and anti-Semitism which blocked them, and made possible a degree of social, economic, political and cultural achievement, and religious and spiritual freedom, unparalleled in Jewish history. Liberalism also gave expressions to stirrings of social justice of the sort which animated classical Zionism as well. Yes, there were steep prices to be paid for these successes, registered in assimilation in its various forms, and the progressive diminution in Jewish identity among younger generations. (It must also be noted that the American-Jewish establishment which Shoval so despises has, with others, succeeded over the years in developing ways to address these phenomena, without which the situation would be far worse.)
Another deep distortion in Shoval's thinking appearing in that opening line is his invocation of "the third Israelite kingdom." The State of Israel is not a kingdom. It is a Jewish democratic state whose very existence is an extraordinary achievement of the Jewish people, including the many ranks of Diaspora Jewry who have and do support it. I share Shoval's view that Zionism justifiably seeks to foster a revolution that will engender Jewish cultural and spiritual renaissance, but unlike him I do not dismiss the Zionist effort "to create a safe haven for a nation battered by fate." That humbler and less rousing goal took and takes fantastic effort. In this connection, American Jews have and continue to do much to guarantee Israel far-reaching economic and security aid; indeed, the about-face which President Obama has recently been trying to display (more, or less, convincing as it may be) is basically rooted in the pressures exerted on him by the same Jewish community which, according to Shoval "is transferring its support from Israeli Jews to Palestinian Arabs."
A kingdom can live in autocratic autism. A democracy, Jewish democracy included, may not. It must take in to account the needs and desires of all its citizens - even if it may grant preference to one nationality over others, so long as it does not infringe on the fundamental rights of minorities of other nationalities. Unease with Israeli policy which wounds democracy and the Jewish identity of the state, through the mounting annexation of millions of Arabs who, to put it very mildly, do not share in the Zionist enterprise or wish it to endure, is not treason, nor is it tantamount to turning one's back on Jewish identity or Zionism. Moreover, tuning one's back on Jewish and democratic values and to Zionism is by no means the exclusive property of the radical left, but leaves its mark on right and left as well. Shoval's wholesale denunciation of anyone who doesn't fall in line with his specific political views - rather than looking for dialogue, understanding, and honest and piercing debate - perhaps lets off steam, but is a marvelous recipe for rupture and alienation, in the Diaspora, and among we who live in Zion.
I too, like Shoval, am deeply worried by currents of thought and sensibility among American Jewry which express mounting reservations about strong national-ethnic Jewish identity. Yet Shoval errs when he characterizes this as exchanging a national Jewish identity for an American national identity. To be sure, the "melting pot" model of Americanization was in force decades ago, but today we awe talking about a different animal, a sense of unease with any strong national-ethnic identity, arising from the weave of globalization.
Shoval's harsh criticism displays not only a fundamental ignorance of Jewish existence in the US, it gets in the way of the truthful, honest critique needed to deal with relations between the State of Israel, a nation-state, with all that that implies, and Diaspora Jewish communities, like that of the US, which exist on a voluntary basis. This is no simple task, but it is essential to the continued existence of the State of Israel and of Diaspora Jewry. We need original and audacious thinking, precisely in this critical hour when the Obama Administration and a changing international scene pose very real challenges to the State of Israel and its supporters. If you will, Shoval, in precise contradiction to the teachings of Rav Kook, offers accusations of heresy, real or imagined, rather than increasing justice, faithfulness and wisdom. This is not the way.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor