Mubarak’s out. The kids in Tunisia and Egypt plotted on Facebook and Twitter, and shocked the world by organizing insurrections that have spread across the Arab world. Photos on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times depicted demonstrations in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain.
(The clerical rulers in Iran publicly lauded the protests against the Mubarak regime; but when their dissidents took to the streets, the authorities responded with “deadly force,” according to the Times. Can you spell “hypocrites”?)
The regime change in Egypt was familiar in one respect. A loyal ally of the United States, one who was supported with massive amounts of military aid over several decades, proved to be expendable when the popular tide turned against him. We have seen American administrations dump other despots in similar straits — Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah in Iran, Noriega in Panama and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. One day you’re Uncle Sam’s pal, on the U.S. payroll; the next day you’re exploring new employment opportunities.
In the midst of a sea change in the Arab world, members of the Jewish community, and others interested in Middle East affairs, gathered on Sunday at Mount Zion Temple for the (Re)Discover Israel Conference and Fair. The featured speakers were Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former member of the Israeli Cabinet during the premiership of Ehud Barak, and J.J. Goldberg, former editor-in-chief and current columnist for the Forward newspaper in New York City.
I had a chance to chat with Goldberg recently. He’s a keen observer of the organized Jewish world and relations between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. In addition to his participation in the Sunday conference, he was Mount Zion’s scholar-in-residence over Shabbat, and also took part in a discussion about Israel with local partisans of J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group.
At Friday night Shabbat services Goldberg spoke on “Wrestling with Israel: What’s an American Jew Supposed to Do?” What are we supposed to do and say about Israel when the subject is so emotionally fraught, even in a place as far removed from the conflict zone as Minnesota?
Goldberg allowed that the terrain here is changing.
“You’ve got the whole J Street phenomenon, you’ve got assimilation,” he commented during our telephone conversation. “The New York Times reports today about the group in the Bay Area — and we’ve seen it in New York, too — Jews who support boycotts against Israel — a real distancing. Where do we all come out of this? How do we preserve the relationship [with Israel]? What should our relationship be?”
The mishmash of Jewish views toward Israel these days reminds Goldberg of an earlier period in Jewish communal life, when there was a “lively debate among Bundists who were against Zionism, Zionists who were in favor of an Orthodox Israel, Zionists in favor of a socialist Israel, Orthodox Jews who were against Zionism; and all these views were legitimate because they were all about what’s good for the Jewish people.”
That “diversity of views” is emerging again, Goldberg commented, and added that support for Israel has supplanted the importance of Torah for many American Jews.
“What’s good for Israel is a very important question to me,” he said. “I don’t think boycotts of the State of Israel are any good. It hurts the State of Israel, it hurts my family, it puts them in danger.”
Regarding contentions about Israel among American Jews these days, Goldberg noted, “It’s always difficult to measure… What does American Jewry think? We’re a very diverse community. There’s a very small percentage that wants nothing to do with the community. There’s a larger minority… who are deeply involved, who go to shul regularly, most of them keep kosher, they send their children to day schools — that’s about 20 percent. Then you’ve got the broad middle that sends their kids to Hebrew school for Bar Mitzva, they light Hanuka candles… they have a [Passover] seder, they go to shul on Yom Kippur… they’re not stopping their connection, but they’re not that interested; they’re becoming somewhat less interested. The alienation between the deeply interested and the sort-of-interested is growing.”
The “deeply interested” cohort of American Jews is becoming “more insular,” while other Jews “are becoming more American every generation,” Goldberg said.
Regarding factors that could account for Jewish alienation from Israel — especially among young American Jews (who stayed away from the [Re]Discover Israel conference in droves) — Goldberg couldn’t cite a definitive cause, or combination of issues. Is it the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Who is a Jew controversy, or are Jews “simply adrift? I don’t know,” he admitted.
Goldberg said: “The answer to me is, first of all, to remember that we’re all Jews. I’ve got cousins that vote Republican. I don’t agree with them; but they’re my cousins, they’re my family. I’ve got in-laws who live in the West Bank; I love them very much, we talk all the time. That’s what it means to be a community, to be a people.”
At the same time, Jews should fess up about the distinct differences in the tribe.
“All of the talk about how ‘we are one,’ we are the same, we’re brothers and sisters under the skin, it’s phony,” remarked Goldberg. “We are different. We’re three or four generations, five generations from the shtetl, where we were all the same. They’ve grown one way, and we’ve grown another. But cousins are family, too, especially in a world where you’re alone.”
The (Re)Discover Israel conference at Mount Zion succeeded in engaging hundreds of local Jews with Israeli issues. It was a friendly, civil gathering that can be built upon. The sands of the Middle East are shifting, and American Jews should take an interest in what their Israeli cousins are doing.
— Mordecai Specktor / email@example.com
(American Jewish World, 2.18.11)