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Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2022

by Robert Mnookin  
Public Affairs, Hachette Book Group  
208 pages, $28.00  
The American Jewish condition, in the view of Harvard law professor and director  
of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project Robert H. Mnookin, is deeply  
paradoxical. While Jews have achieved unprecedented integration, influence and  
esteem in every facet of American life, this diverse community now faces a number  
of diverse challenges. Among them, Mnookin argues, is weak religious observance,  
widespread intermarriage, diminished cohesion, and deeply conflicting views about  
This book asks many questions. Among them are these: Can the community pass on  
to the next generation a sufficient sense of Jewish identity in light of these  
challenges? Who should count as Jewish in America? What should be the  
relationship of American Jews to Israel?  
It is Mnookin’s view that the answers of the past no longer serve Jewish  
Americans today. He calls for a radically inclusive Jewish community, one where  
being Jewish can depend on personal choice and self-identification, not simply  
birth or formal religious conversion. Instead of preventing interfaith marriage  
or ostracizing those critical of Israel, he envisions a community that embraces  
diversity and debate, and in so doing preserves and strengthens Jewish identity  
into the next generation and beyond.  
The “Matrilineal” Rule  
In discussing intermarriage and the “matrilineal” rule, he provides this  
assessment: "The matrilineal rule did not exist in biblical times and can’t be  
found in the Torah or the rest of the Hebrew Bible. In biblical times children  
inherited their Jewish status through the paternal line. Many Israelite men took  
foreign women as wives and ‘there was never any doubt that the children were  
Israelite,’ according to Harvard history professor Shaye Cohen, who has studied  
the pedigree of the matrilineal rule in detail. The Old Testament is filled with  
tales in which ‘Israelite heroes and kings married foreign women.’ “  
The Bible tells us that Judah married a Canaanite, Joseph an Egyptian, Moses a  
Midianite and an Ethiopian, David a Philistine, and Solomon women of every  
description. Mnookin shows that, “There is no claim that the children of these  
patriarchs were not members of the tribe because their mothers were not. The  
Bible contains no suggestion that these gentile wives had to convert to Judaism;  
the idea of conversion to Judaism did not yet exist.  
When it comes to interfaith marriage in contemporary America, Mnookin points to a  
Pew Research Center study which found that a rising share of adult children of  
intermarriage were choosing to identify as Jews. He cites Brandeis University  
Professor Leonard Saxe who noted that, “We may be at a moment in time when  
intermarriage…is actually promoting the expansion and renewal of American Jewry.”  
To those who view intermarriage as a threat to the Jewish future, Mnookin writes,  
“Although intermarriage is…a challenge, the increasing ‘thinness’ of Jewish  
engagement generally, even among people who have two Jewish parents, is a more  
pressing concern. The larger challenge, as I see it, is how to increase the  
quality of Jewish engagement in a world where intermarriage is not likely to  
decline. What’s the primary message we should be imparting to today’s Jewish  
children? I have two grandchildren who are children of intermarriage and two  
grandchildren who have two Jewish parents. I would give all four of them the  
same message: ‘The issue is not whether you marry ‘in’ or ‘out.’ The issue is:  
Do you make the Jewish tradition a meaningful part of your life, and do you pass  
that tradition on to your future children.’”  
Nature of Jewish Identity  
The nature of Jewish identity has been a subject of disagreement. One group has  
called it a community of faith, and another has viewed it in terms of ethnicity.  
The idea of ethnicity, Mnookin argues, is relatively new: “it emerged in Europe,  
roughly between 1750 and 1900…New Jewish intellectual movements developed during  
this period. One school of thought argued that Judaism was simply a religion,  
and that Jews were not a distinct people or nation. The claim is associated with  
Moses Mendelssohn and the Jewish Enlightenment and later with the leaders of  
Reform Judaism. Another school of thought, led by the Zionists, made essentially  
the opposite claim: that Jews were a people who were entitled to their own  
homeland….In America…progressive rabbis rejected the idea that they had any  
desire to join a Jewish ‘nation.’…In 1869 a conference of American rabbis made a  
point of restating Judaism’s messianic mission: it was no longer to create a  
Jewish state in the biblical holy land but instead to build on the prophetic  
ideals of Judaism for the benefit of all peoples.”  
In a chapter entitled “Can We Survive Acceptance,” Mnookin points out that, “Jews  
are more accepted and better integrated in America today than they have ever been  
in any time or place…The United States was the first modern nation to grant Jews  
full political equality. In Europe Jews had to struggle for emancipation. They  
won political equality in France in 1791, but not until the nineteenth century in  
Switzerland, Great Britain, Italy, Germany and Sweden and not until the early  
twentieth century in Spain, Portugal and Russia.”  
Unlike some European nations, Mnookin points out, “The United States has never  
had an official national religion. Although the population of the original  
thirteen colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant, they were of different  
denominations. Once the nation was formed, the First Amendment to the  
Constitution prohibited the establishment of a national religion. Another source  
of protection for Jews was the First Amendment’s guarantee of ‘free exercise’ of  
religion. Even in colonial times Jews were generally allowed to practice their  
religion without governmental interference…America has long viewed itself as a  
nation of immigrants from many different countries and cultures. This feature of  
American ideology has mitigated a tendency to see Jews as not ‘real Americans.’”  
Can Jews Survive Acceptance?  
He points to the fact that, “Since World War II, institutionalized anti-Semitism  
has virtually disappeared. Jews no longer face discrimination in education,  
housing, and other areas, and they are thriving in virtually every field of  
public life…According to the Pew Research Center, Jews are the nation’s most  
highly regarded religious group. And yet most American Jews still see anti-  
Semitism as a problem.”  
Here, of course, Mnookin is not referring to anti-Semitic attacks and statements  
from extremist groups and individuals, such as the attack by a far-right  
individual on a Pittsburgh synagogue. Of the overall situation, he notes that,  
“…the decline of anti-Semitism may pose the greater challenge to Jewish identity.  
Many Jews in my daughter’s generation have never experienced a single act of  
anti-Semitic discrimination. For my grandchildren’s generation, anti-Semitism is  
largely an artifact of history. As the memory of the Holocaust recedes, American  
Jews may lose this reason to identify as Jewish—-and the community may lose an  
important form of social cohesion. How will we adapt to the fact that few  
Americans hate us anymore? We have long survived affliction. Can we survive  
Despite this reality, American Jews seem to see anti-Semitism as being  
widespread. Mnookin cites a 1985 poll of San Francisco Jews. They were asked  
whether they thought a Jew could be elected to Congress from San Francisco. One  
third said it could not be done. At the time, all three members of Congress from  
the city and its contiguous districts were Jewish.  
Alarmist Approach of Jewish Advocacy Groups  
An important factor in Jewish assessment of anti-Semitism, writes Mnookin, “…may  
be the alarmist approach by Jewish advocacy organizations, especially the Anti-  
Defamation League (ADL). The ADL plays an important part in keeping both Jews  
and policy makers aware of the risks of anti-Semitism …but it often exaggerates.”  
He points to the ADL’s approach to the 163 bomb threats to synagogues in 2017:  
“Although virtually all of them had been attributed to the disturbed Jewish  
teenager in Israel (who has since been indicted), the ADL included them in its  
‘harassment’ statistics for 2017 and insisted they were evidence of anti-  
Semitism…By including these threats in its 2017 report, the ADL was able to claim  
a dramatic 41/per cent spike in harassment cases in just one year…I don’t think  
the Jewish community is well served by such hype.”  
One reason that the ADL and others report a growth in anti-Semitism, argues  
Mnookin, is they have redefined the term to include criticism of Israel and  
Zionism. He states that, “To me ‘anti-Semitic’ does not mean ‘critical of  
Israel’ or ‘opposition to the Zionist project’; it means having prejudice against  
or hatred of Jews.” When it comes to the BDS movement in behalf of Palestinians,  
which has been called “anti-Semitic” by some, he declares, “Rather than engage  
in name calling, it would be far better to address their claims on the merits.”  
When it comes to Israel, Mnookin sees it as a divisive rather than a unifying  
question for American Jews: “It was once thought that pride in and support for  
the State of Israel would serve to unite a diverse American Jewish community and  
buttress Jewish identity in this country. Today I fear the opposite is coming  
true. Certain present-day policies of the Israeli government now fuel intense  
conflicts among American Jews and reinforce deep divisions within the American  
Jewish community. In the words of Professor Dov Waxman, ‘Israel used to bring  
American Jews together. Now it is driving them apart.’”  
Israel’s Expansionary Policies  
Mnookin believes that, “At issue are two aspects of government policy: First,  
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the continued Israeli occupation of the West  
Bank, and second, the exclusive role of the Orthodox rabbinate in defining for  
Israel what is authentic Judaism. Both are political issues that illustrate what  
I see as Israel’s core challenge: managing the tension between being Jewish and  
democratic…In recent years the political center of gravity in Israel has shifted  
to the right on both issues, favoring increasingly ethno-nationalist and  
expansionary policies with regard to the West Bank and the treatment of  
Palestinians there as well as increasingly Orthodox views of Judaism.”  
He notes that, “The political and religious center of gravity in America is very  
different, meaning that our Jewish community is no longer well aligned with  
Israel’s…Many are troubled by Israel’s continued military occupation of the West  
Bank, its continued expansion of Jewish settlements and its discriminatory  
treatment of Palestinians.”  
Israeli political and religious leaders regularly show their contempt for non-  
Orthodox streams of Judaism, to which the overwhelming majority of Jewish  
Americans are affiliated. Mnookin writes that, “…members of the Israeli  
government regularly make stunningly insulting comments that outrage many  
American Jews. One conspicuous example occurred in 2015 when the Minister of  
Religious Services suggested that Reform Jews were not really Jews at all. ‘The  
moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, let’s say there’s a  
problem,’ the minister, David Azoulay said in a radio interview. ‘I cannot allow  
myself to call such a person a Jew.’”  
Reform Jews Are Called “Idolators”  
This, Mnookin points out, was not an isolated example: “Israel Eichler, a member  
of the Knesset affiliated with an ultra-Orthodox party, compared Reform Jews to  
mentally ill patients. Moshe Gafni, head of the Knesset’s Finance Committee,  
said that “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah,’ adding  
that ‘there will never, ever be recognition for the group of clowns, not at the  
(Western) Wall or anywhere else.’ Rabbi David Yosef claimed that Reform Jews are  
‘Idolators—-simply and literally.’”  
When it comes to the role played by pro-Israel lobbying groups such as AIPAC,  
Mnookin writes: “My problem with AIPAC is its determined silence on the  
continued expansion of the settlements and its view that all supporters of Israel  
should follow its lead…As long as the Israeli government can postpone making  
tough choices on the settlements it will. Indeed…the coalition seems to prefer  
the status quo to any negotiated agreement. That’s why I consider silence from  
American Jews and the U.S. government to be so dangerous; it tacitly condones  
the status quo. By failing to speak out on the settlement issue and trying to  
prevent others from doing so, AIPAC is making the situation worse….Most American  
Jews are distressed by the West Bank which has gone on much longer than anyone  
anticipated in 1967. Most are distressed by the seeming intractability of the  
conflict and the position in which it puts Israel as an occupying power. They  
are ashamed of Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and think  
Israel is failing to live up to its democratic ideals. They don’t think either  
side is doing all it can to achieve a two-state solution.”  
Concerning the American Jewish future, Mnookin has this advice: “First, maintain  
perspective. Recognize that America is different from other countries and that  
the nature of anti-Semitism here—episodic, on the fringe—does not pose a  
‘serious’ threat to Jewish well-being. By all means, be vigilant and fight  
bigotry wherever it appears…But don’t allow your feelings about past persecution  
to mislead you about the healthy status of American Jews today. Second, confront  
what this means for the future of American Jewish identity. For today’s young  
Jews, being a member of a persecuted minority is not a strong foundation on which  
to build a Jewish identity. They have never personally experienced persecution,  
and our tragic history is not a good reason to choose to be Jewish today. We  
should teach that history to our children and grandchildren so they can  
appreciate the exceptional conditions in which they live, but we should not ask  
them to build a Jewish identity on a collective memory of Genocide. Nor should  
we expect the American Jewish community to be united on that basis. If Americans  
of Jewish heritage are going to identify as Jewish, it will need to be for  
positive reasons.”  
Thoughtful Meditation and Rigorous Analysis  
This book is both a thoughtful meditation on faith and a rigorous analysis of the  
dilemmas facing Jewish Americans. The author makes a powerful case that Judaism  
should be a welcoming umbrella, which, he points out, it has not been in the  
past. Hunter College historian Harold Holzer recalls that, “My whole Jewish  
education was based on what you cannot do, what you cannot eat, when you cannot  
drive, play ball, etc. In an optimistic, almost nondoctrinal evangelical spirit,  
this book focuses on what you can do.” It is a powerful consideration of faith  
and the dilemmas facing the American Jewish community. Mnookin’s positive  
prescriptions for the future represent an important contribution.

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