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Increasing Politicization Threatens Judaism’s Moral Integrity

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2010

There can be little doubt that Judaism’s increasing politicization is threatening its moral integrity.  
More and more, Jewish organizations are focusing their attention not on questions which are traditionally within the realm of religion, but on matters relating to the politics of the Middle East.  
How to live one’s life, what God expects of us, how to foster a greater degree of morality in our personal, business and public life are questions which are, more and more, absent in Jewish discourse. Instead, we see increasingly vocal campaigns seeking to influence U.S. government policy with regard to questions such as whether or not Israeli settlements should be constructed in East Jerusalem or whether or not a Palestinian state should be established on the West Bank.  
Those who have advanced the idea that Judaism, rather than being a religion of universal values, is, instead, a nationality and that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews, argue that the role of Jewish institutions is largely to advance the interests of that state.  
Represent Only Themselves  
It has become abundantly clear that those organizations which pretend to speak in the name of American Jews represent only themselves. American Jewish opinion is sharply divided, which even a cursory reading of the national media makes clear.  
A front-page article in The New York Times (May 6, 2010) carried the headline, “On Israel, U.S. Jews Show Divergent Views, Often Parting from Leaders.”  
The author of the article, Paul Vitello, writes that, “… the recent tension between the Obama administration and the Israeli government over the stalled Middle East Peace process … has raised serious questions about whether the traditional leadership of the American Jewish world is fully supported by the mass of American Jews.”  
The establishment organizations such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, criticized the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel and some even accused the White House of sabotaging Israel’s very foundations. Former New York City Mayor Edward Koch addressed an angry crowd outside the Israeli Consulate in Manhattan in a videotaped statement and declared that President Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem was nothing less than an orchestrated effort “to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel.”  
Other Jewish Voices  
At the same time, other Jewish voices are increasingly being heard. “Most Jews have mixed feelings about Israel,” said Rabbi Tamara Kelton of the Birmingham Temple, a secular humanistic congregation in Farmington Hills, Michigan. “They support Israel, but it’s complicated. Until now, you never heard from those people. You heard only from the organized ones who are 100 percent certain: ‘we’re right, they’re wrong.’”  
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of the Washington lobby J Street, the latest of several organizations representing the voice of liberal Jews who support Israel but not all of its policies, states: “People are tired of being told that you are either with us or against us. The majority of American Jews support the president, support the two-state solution and do not feel that they have been well represented by organizations that demand obedience to every wish of the Israeli government. If you had taken their word for it, Obama should have gotten 12 percent of the Jewish vote. But he got 80. That should say something.”  
The tendency of the Jewish establishment to label any criticism of Israel as “anti-Israel” or even “anti-Semitic” has produced a significant negative reaction, particularly on the part of young people.  
Attachment to Israel  
Professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College in New York, co-wrote a study last year charting a steep decline in attachment to Israel among younger Jews. He says that the younger and liberal-leaning are frustrated at being labeled “anti-Israel” for expressing opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.  
In an important article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” (The New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010), Peter Beinart, Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, writes: “Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world…And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generation, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster — indeed, have actively opposed — a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”  
Rather than fostering free and open discussion, Beinart points out, the organized American Jewish community has sought to stifle it: “In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world’s most respected international human rights groups. In 2006, Abraham Foxman (of the Anti-Defamation League) called an Amnesty International Report on Israeli killing of Lebanese civilians ‘bigoted, biased, and borderline anti-Semitic.’ The Conference of Presidents has announced that ‘biased NGOs include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid, and Save The Children.’ Last summer, an AIPAC spokesman declared that Human Rights Watch ‘has repeatedly demonstrated its anti-Israel bias’ … Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not infallible. But when groups like AIPAC and the Presidents Conference avoid virtually all public criticism of Israeli actions — directing their outrage solely at Israel’s neighbors — they leave themselves in a poor position to charge bias.”  
Taking Sides  
When American Jewish groups claim that they are simply defending Israel from its enemies, argues Beinart, “they are actually taking sides in a struggle within Israel between radically different Zionist visions.”  
At the very moment when the ADL opposed the Obama administration’s award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, because she had presided over the 200l World Conference Against Racism at which Israel was initially criticized (Robinson managed to expunge the defamatory charge), writes Beinart, “… an alliance of seven Israeli human rights groups publicly congratulated her on her award. Many of these groups, like B’Tselem, which monitors Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories, and the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights, have been at least as critical of Israel’s actions in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, as have Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. All of which raises an uncomfortable question: if American Jewish groups claim that Israel’s overseas human rights critics are motivated by anti-Israeli, if not anti-Semitic bias, what does that say about Israel’s domestic rights critics? The implication is clear: they must be guilty of self-hatred if not treason.”  
Peter Beinart, whose family attends an Orthodox synagogue, laments that, “This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience or what they have seen of Israel’s. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood — a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967 — strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce.”  
Critical Documentary  
Recently, leaders of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco learned that one of the film groups it supported sponsored the screening of an Israeli documentary critical of Israeli security forces, “Rachel,” about Rachel Corrie, an American woman killed in Gaza. They adopted new rules early this year prohibiting any of the cultural organizations it supports from presenting programs that “undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel.”  
This, in turn, produced a strong response, in the form of “An Open Letter to All Jewish Communities,” which appeared as an advertisement in The Forward of May 7, 2010. The letter declared that, “… our usually liberal community has set a dangerous precedent that may affect the range of American Jewish voices on issues concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … In the interest of human rights and civil liberties for all people, we strongly advocate unfettered freedom of speech, open-minded public education, respectful discussion, and willingness to engage in that time-honored Jewish tradition of fruitful debate and meaningful dialogue. The Jewish community is riven by a fateful debate over the future of Israeli democracy and the occupation of Palestinian lands. Attempting to curtail that debate will only drive it into the shadows, where it will become ever more extreme.”  
Among those signing this letter are Professors Robert Alter of the University of California at Berkeley, Joel Beinin of Stanford University, David Biale of the University of California at Davis, and Naomi Seidman of the Graduate Theological Union, filmmaker Alan Snitow, author Paul Kivel, Rabbi Lavey Derby and a host of others.  
Depth of Division  
Dueling full-page advertisements concerning Jerusalem show the depth of division within the Jewish community. In April, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel published an ad in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The International Herald Tribune calling upon the U.S. to stop pressuring Israel over Jerusalem in an effort to move Palestinians to the peace table. In response, J Street placed full page ads in Jewish weekly newspapers containing a statement by former Israeli Cabinet minister and political commentator Yossi Sarid.  
Addressed to Wiesel, Sarid writes: “I read the beautiful open letter you penned…From it I learned that you know much more about heavenly Jerusalem, but less about its counterpart here on earth. An outsider reading your letter would probably have concluded that peace has already taken root in the City of Peace. He would learn that in Jerusalem, Jews, Christians and Muslims worship their gods unimpeded, that ‘all are allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.’ Someone has deceived you, my dear friend. Not only may an Arab not build ‘anywhere,’ but he may thank his god if he is not evicted from his home and thrown out onto the street with his family and property. Perhaps you’ve heard about Arab residents in Sheikh Jarrah, having lived there since l948, who are again being uprooted and made refugees because certain Jews are chafing from Jerusalem’s space constraints.”  
Sarid continues: “’Jerusalem is above politics,’ you write. It is unfortunate that a man of your standing must confuse fundamental issues and confound the reader. Is it not politics that deals with mankind’s weightiest issues, with matters of war and peace, life and death? ... There is nothing in our world ‘above politics.’ Yes, politics creates problems, but only through it can those same problems be resolved. Barack Obama appears well aware of his obligations … Why then undercut him and tie his hands? On the contrary, let’s allow him to use his clout to save us from ourselves…Then he can push both sides to divide this city into two capitals … to give Jewish areas to the Jews and Arab areas to the Arabs — and assign the Holy Basin to an agreed-on international authority. Only then can Jerusalem be maintained as ‘the world’s Jewish spiritual capital,’ as you write. The Jewish spirit does not need Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, Abu Dis, and Shoafat to fulfill God’s command to Abraham to ‘Arise, walk through the land in the length and breadth of it.’”  
True Torah Jews  
Yet another ad appeared in The Washington Post (May 2, 2010) from an ultra-Orthodox group called True Torah Jews. This ad was a response to the ads in various newspapers about Jerusalem and declared that, “We, traditional Torah Jews are distressed and appalled by these ads, as well as by the Zionists’ tactic of abusing American Jewry to advance their agenda.” Two important “facts” are explained. The first is that, “Zionism is not Judaism.” According to True Torah Jews, “The Zionist ideology is fundamentally anti-Torah. Zionism has not only denied the fundamental Jewish belief in Heavenly Redemption: it has created a pseudo-Judaism which replaces the Torah with nationalism. Thus, the State of Israel cannot — and should not — claim to represent worldwide Jewry, nor should the Zionist state be identified as a Jewish state.”  
The second “fact” set forth is that, “Traditional Jews are loyal to the United States Government. At the time of the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish people, the great Biblical prophet Jeremiah proclaimed G-d’s message to all Jews: ‘Seek out the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray for it to G-d, for through its welfare will you have welfare’ (Jer. 29:7). For millennia, this has been a cornerstone of Jewish conduct. As American Jews, we pray for the well-being and prosperity of the government of the United States of America…. And, of course, we continue to pray for the safety and well-being of Jews all over the world, including those in the Holy Land.”  
The ad concludes: “The blurring of the boundary between Judaism and Zionism jeopardizes the safety of Jews living all over the world, including our brethren in the Holy Land.”  
Growing Dissent  
American Jews of a variety of persuasions — from the most liberal to the most conservative — find themselves at odds with the national organizations which speak in their name. Examples of growing dissent have escalated in the recent past, as this flurry of advertisements indicates.  
At Brandeis University, the selection of Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., to give the commencement address at this year’s graduation ceremony stirred opposition on the part of students charging that the ceremony was being politicized. Brandeis’s student newspaper, The Justice, deplored the choice, writing that, “Mr. Oren is a divisive and inappropriate choice for keynote speaker at commencement, and we disapprove of the university’s decision to grant someone of his polarity on this campus that honor.”  
Brandeis student Jonathan Sussman created the Facebook group “Commencement Was Supposed to be About US: Against Michael Oren as Speaker.” Sussman writes: “What this selection indicates is that Brandeis University, an institution which takes ‘social justice’ as one of its founding credos, is willing to send its new graduates into the world with the words of a … defender of (among other things) the war crimes and human rights abuses of the war on Gaza.”  
While acknowledging that the school is “a historically Jewish university with deep, abiding ties to the Jewish community” and “overwhelmingly of Zionist bent,” Sussman accused the university of marginalizing debate among American Jews about Israel’s actions in Gaza and elsewhere by inviting Mr. Oren. He declared: “Michael Oren’s selection as commencement speaker is clearly designed to send a message … our university administration wants everyone to know that it has no qualms about marginalizing dissenting opinions by bringing a partisan, divisive speaker to commencement.”  
Shalom Center  
A liberal Jewish organization, the Shalom Center of Philadelphia, placed a full page ad in The Nation (April 19, 2010), urging that U.S. aid to Israel be placed in escrow until settlers leave the occupied territories. At the same time, it calls for aid to “a nascent Palestine on condition that leaders of Hamas and Fatah join in a government of national unity, take vigorous steps to prevent attacks on Israel, and agree to take part in a regional peace conference with the hope of achieving peace among Israel, Palestine, and all Arab states within approximately the 1967 boundaries.”  
In this ad, the Shalom Center quotes the Torah: “Cursed be he who moves back his neighbor’s territory-marker.” (Deut. 27:17) and “When a stranger lives with you in your land, you shall not wrong him … He shall be to you as one of your citizens …You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the Land of Narrows.” (Lev. 19:33/34). It then declares: “The Government of Israel has shifted many territory-markers of its neighbors and has wronged them by occupying the West Bank and East Jerusalem, settling its own people upon the land thus grabbed, killing hundreds of Palestinians in an attack on Gaza and blockading civilian goods like food, fuel and medicine from entering Gaza.”  
What is becoming clear to more and more Americans is that those groups which have been speaking on behalf of American Jews have not, in fact, been representing their real opinions and values. Bruce Van Voorst, who was Middle East bureau chief for Time from 1979 to 1982, notes that, “For decades, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a few other major American Jewish organizations, extremely well organized and well financed, have dominated American policy toward Israel. These groups claim to represent the interests of all American Jews. In fact, they represent the hard right in Israel, the Likud party, many of whose members oppose any settlement with the Palestinians and are determined to expand Israel’s incursion into the West Bank.”  
Blind Support  
Blind support for Israel’s policies of occupation, argues Professor Tony Judt of New York University, an active Zionist in his youth, has eroded Judaism’s moral position. Writing in Tikkun (May/June 2010) he declares that, “If there is one cast-iron law of history, it is probably that occupations and other forms of colonial rule are sooner or later resisted, and when that point comes, the occupier has a straight-forward choice between leaving and allowing the native population to exercise its independence and self-determination — or staying. When the time came, Israel made the disastrous decision to stay. The rest was predictable.”  
When it comes to those American Jewish groups which have supported whatever Israeli governments have chosen to do, Judt asks: “How … does a reputedly intelligent people, with traditionally strong humanistic values, manage constantly to delude itself about what is going on, what lies in store and what needs to be done? And how has it allowed the Jewish Star of David, and by implication the Jewish religion and Jewish people, to become associated in the eyes of growing numbers of people with repression?”  
As we move further into the 21st century, American Judaism stands at a crossroads. It must decide what it wants to be. Shall it be a thoughtful religion, giving meaning and purpose to the lives of its adherents and have an influence for good upon our larger American society? Or will it become an inward-looking group focused upon the notion of Jewish “ethnicity” and dedicating itself to advancing the interests of the State of Israel, whatever that state may do? Is it to be part of our religious community or is to be part of the foreign policy establishment?  
Religion of Universal Values  
For more than sixty year, the American Council for Judaism has proclaimed that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality. Americans of Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion — just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim.  
This is the traditional view of the vast majority of American Jews. As early as l84l, at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Olohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Posnanski declared: “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple.” American Reform Judaism, in its l885 Pittsburgh Platform, declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.”  
The growing politicization of Judaism has alienated increasing numbers of American Jews, in particular in the younger generation. Its moral integrity is under attack. Surely, now is the time to take stock and change course. •

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