Wednesday, March 10, 2010
THE VANISHING AMERICAN JEW
Scapegoatism – American Jewish style
By DAVID J. FORMAN
The ‘Blame Game’ – a frantic search to seek out those who should be held accountable for the disappearing act of American Jewry, and the finger is pointed at Israel.
It has been three months since I returned from my last speaking tour in the US. In an article I wrote prior to that trip, I indicated that I would most likely address two different Jewish communities: an over-60 crowd with nostalgic memories of Israel’s history; and a 30-something and younger generation of Jews whose memories of Israel are razor-thin, shaped by very negative images that fill their communication airwaves – TV and the Internet.
For the most part, my travels proved my initial insights accurate. However, there is a third grouping of Jews: those who do not have Israel anywhere on their radar map, whose identity as Jews is not even marginal. Sadly, this is becoming more and more accurately descriptive of the American Jewish scene. For example, in Los Angeles, it is estimated that between 10 percent and 15% of the Jewish community is affiliated with any Jewish organization, religious or secular.
Acculturation is explained by the sociological reality of living as a minority in a free society. As for interfaith marriages, they are a fact of American Jewish life. These two natural progressions of assimilation have many within the organized Jewish community scrambling to understand this phenomenon. Unfortunately, an inordinate amount of time is spent assessing responsibility for this steady dissolution of Diaspora Jewry rather than finding a helpful prescription to deal with it.
BEING BACK in the US for another round of lectures, I have encountered what I call the Blame Game – a frantic search to seek out those who should be held accountable for this disappearing act.
The Orthodox population claims that this breakdown is due to the disregard for Jewish tradition. Yet there is an emerging element within the Diaspora Jewish community that looks for some other internal force in the Jewish world that can be held liable for the comatose state of American Jews.
Who stands in the dock? The usual scapegoat: Israel. Israel’s actions are alienating Jews abroad not only from Israel, but also from Judaism. The Jewish state has failed to fulfill its promise of being a “holy nation.” It has demeaned Jewish values to such an extent that Jews around the globe are embarrassed and fleeing in droves from their Jewish roots.
Who are the leaders of this transference movement – that is, those who look to find fault elsewhere for their own failures? Surprisingly, but on close examination not unexpectedly, it comes from new quarters – the liberal Jewish community. If only Israel were faithful to its prophetic tradition and also a reflection of the great social movements of the West, American Jews would identify with their Jewish heritage.
For example, I heard Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, say that Israel’s policies – internationally and domestically – are responsible for Jewish apathy in the States, the reason that assimilation is so prevalent. Israel has essentially turned off American Jews. B’rit Tzedek V’Shalom, newly merged with J Street, would most likely mimic a similar view.
Ben-Ami and his fellow ideological travelers seem to be burying their heads in the sand. Either that or they are trying desperately to entrench their position as the great hope of the Diaspora community with the claim that their “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace” platform will save the day. While it is true that the vast majority of Jews in America are socially and political progressive – and important organizations like J Street and the New Israel Fund represent the worldview of these Jews regarding Israel – their reasoning is skewed if they expect Israel to stop American Jews from vanishing into the woodwork, given that they live in a sea of Christians.
Even as they utter words that are pleasing to our ears – if you are engaged with Israel, you will be involved in Jewish life, collectively and personally – a stinging accusation immediately follows: If Israel behaves in shameful ways, any involvement will be weakened to the point of disenfranchisement. Such a theory defies logic, as it only applies to those who are actively engaged in Jewish life. Under the slightest scrutiny, this cart-before-the-horse approach simply does not hold up.
I WAS shocked when I spoke to 10th graders at a synagogue’s Sunday school. It is amazing what they do not know. After so many years of religious school education, few knew that Abraham preceded Moses, few could name one prophet, few knew in what part of the world Israel was situated. They all know who Jesus’ parents were – but they do not have the slightest idea whose were Moses’. What are they being taught, or rather not being taught? The state of Jewish education in synagogue life is depressing. This condition relates to those who are affiliated with a religious institution; so one can imagine the dismal Jewish state of affairs in an unaffiliated household.
Because of a total lack of Jewish awareness, it would never cross the minds of these typical Diaspora Jews to think twice about going shopping on Shabbat; attending a baseball game on Shavuot (Shavuot – what’s that?); or for that matter, eating a bacon cheeseburger on Pessah or dating a Zen Buddhist. Why should they be interested in anything that has to do with Israel if they have no knowledge of anything that has to do with Jewish life?
Liberal Jews abroad should display a little humility before lecturing us that our country does not reflect what they expect of a Jewish state. They should also be less smug about American democratic values, especially when Israel’s policies, in so many areas, are far more progressive. On gay and lesbian rights, universal health care (we dare to call it “socialized medicine”), maintaining an incredibly critical press, sporting an impressive number of human rights organizations for such a small country and even comparing the ratio of innocents to combatants killed in war, Israel morally dwarfs the United States.
So stop using Israel as a scapegoat for the ills of the American Jewish community. The most effective way to rejuvenate Jewish life for Diaspora Jews is by providing them with a healthy dose of Israel, warts and all, without overlooking the many positive aspects of Israeli society.
Indeed, it has been proven over and over again that the singular most powerful tool to create Jewish identity is Israel itself. The question is: Is it possible to salvage these unrecognizable assimilated Jews; or is it too late? If it is the latter, don’t blame Israel. Blame the biological accident that these Jews grew up in a geographical locale other than a Jewish state.
The writer is a Reform rabbi, author, lecturer and ongoing contributor to The Jerusalem Post Magazine.