Monday, June 25, 2001

Civil Rights and Wrongs

The good news about Black-Jewish relations is that there is no news. The subject has fallen off the public radar screen. I cannot recall when I last read an article importuning the two groups to join in common cause because they share a history of persecution and discrimination. Of course, they share nothing of the sort, while their separate experiences in suffering has resulted in raw nerves and super-sensitivity, factors that undermine the prospect for cooperation.

These days, the spurious claim that Jews and Blacks are natural allies is relegated to unread documents, such as the cliché-ridden Joint Program Plan prepared by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a publication that has no more utility than the fat dinner journals containing insincere love notes that many institutions regard as a virtual religious obligation. What have innocent trees done to deserve such a cruel fate?

As for Jews and Blacks, they have gone on their separate ways. There’s little cooperation and there’s little hostility and the one has to do with the other. However, while there is not – or should not be – any Jewish obligation to place the needs of Blacks on our communal agenda, we are each of us part of a society that has serious unfinished business to attend to, including the promotion of the rights and welfare of minority groups. I believe that it is right to insist that we Jews have enough of our own needs and welfare to attend to without taking on the problems of other ethnic groups and yet to insist at the same time that it is right for individual Jews to support civil rights and to work on behalf of the advancement of Blacks and other deprived peoples.

This distinction, which I first advanced in an article published in the mid-1960’s, has scant support and is readily misunderstood. The article was resurrected not long ago in a slender book – in size and intellect - published by a Hampton’s rabbi whose knowledge of public affairs is as negligible as his knowledge of Jewish subjects. Relying on the book, the Amsterdam News went after me in one of its standard anti-Semitic screeds.

With or without Jewish support, the old Civil Rights movement is scarcely alive. We celebrate its history and neglect its message and mission. Other human rights claims demand urgent attention, even when they are advanced by groups such as gays that are advantaged. There apparently is no room on the public agenda for a multiplicity of civil rights demands. As a consequence, the most needy lose out, in much the same way that we have expanded corporate welfare even as welfare for the poor is being contracted.

There is another reason why Blacks lose out. With the leaders that they now have, there is scant prospect for group advancement. I refer only marginally to Al Sharpton whose status depends far more on the willingness of the media and white politicians to showcase him than on the support of Black masses. For all of his cynicism and exploitation, he fills a vacuum, albeit in ways that are harmful to the people he claims to represent.

A greater problem for Blacks is the paucity of role models that provide vision and moral purpose. Black Americans desperately need leaders who go beyond the tawdry and accusatory, leaders who are able to take the masses into hopeful territory of the kind that has been discovered and cultivated by other ethnic groups. There are Blacks of distinction and accomplishment, many of them, but they serve as role models to only a small proportion of their community. Nowadays, the primary role models are entertainers and athletes and few of these are exemplary people.

At the lowest or worst end, there is the drug culture and the desire, too often fulfilled, to emulate the rapsters and their sick lyrics, as well as other performers who cynically market debased standards of behavior to vulnerable Black youth. At a more benign level, there is the instinct to favor cultural patterns, such as dress and language, that are certain to inhibit the advancement of Blacks. The slogan “Black is beautiful” has been replaced by behavior that suggests that ugly is beautiful.

After generations of slavery followed by generations of deeply rooted discrimination, Blacks have waited for their improvement to come from outside help in the form of governmental programs. This is both understandable and lamentable. Intervention through civil rights laws and their enforcement are, for sure, a moral and legal responsibility. It is truly awful that so little is being done by government at all levels to combat the ongoing bigotry faced by a good proportion of Black America.

But reliance on public benefits as the principal means of achieving group improvement is at best misguided and probably also counterproductive because it defeats the notion that Blacks can help themselves. For all of the wrongs that they have experienced, it remains that the surest means of exit of Blacks – especially those who are young – from the underclass morass that has trapped so many for decades are the doors that Blacks can open for themselves. These doors are not going to be opened by rapsters in baggy pants spewing out filth.

For far too long, organized American Jewry has smugly asserted that the public purse is a code word for civil rights. Substantial evidence to the contrary has not deterred our organizations from continuing to advocate that which has failed. I do not know of a single public policy area during the past fifty years on which the organized American Jewish community has rethought and altered its position. What we advocate for Blacks is only one of the many areas in which we are trapped in a reactionary mode.

Monday, June 18, 2001

Our Substitute Religion

The Wall Street Journal provides by far the most delightful editorial page anywhere, with its steady diet of loony right-wing conspiracy musings written in a perhaps unintended tongue-in-cheek fashion that is a welcome diversion from the more stressful world of business news that is the newspaper’s primary fare. The fellows who produce the stuff can write, even if they are caught in an ideological quagmire that warps their thinking.

In contrast, there is the New York Times, always super-serious, as if statesmen and opinion-makers everywhere are waiting breathlessly for its divine pronouncements and the weight of the world rests on its editorial shoulders. Nearly always liberal and often left of center, the Times is rarely off the wall as the WSJ frequently is, but it is trying to get there and, at times, it is succeeding.

When the Supreme Court ruled the other day that public schools must be rented out on an equal basis to religious groups, the Times went over the top with an editorial suggesting that the Republic itself is endangered by the decision. The overheated tone was apparent in the opening sentence: “Barely a year after its proud decision refusing to allow organized student-led prayers before public high school games, the Supreme Court lurched dangerously in the opposite direction yesterday.”

So there is apparently no difference between a diverse crowd in an open-air stadium or arena being pumped-up to join in a religious prayer and a quiet religious exercise in a public school classroom that has been leased by a faith group for the voluntary use of its members! I wonder whether it is really so difficult to differentiate between what is obviously a coercive environment and a neutral act by a public facility.

The editorial conveyed hostility toward religion and a blind eye toward reality, qualities that are abundantly shared by most of the organized American Jewish community. We American Jews have managed to jettison almost all of our religious tradition, the beliefs and practices that made us distinctive and ensured our survival. We have had no qualms about discarding that which we adhered to for centuries. We have forged in its place a surrogate religion whose first commandment mandates total separation of religion and state. For all of our fundamentalist cleaving to this doctrine and the secular commandments that flow from it, this bogus religion does not provide for our continuity or, for that matter, our well-being in the contemporary period.

Nor does it provide a realistic formula for the place of religion in society. There are thousands of religious groups in the U.S. and this in turn means that there is constant contact and interaction between religion and state. Each day there are transactions involving public officials and religion, many of which might raise questions that are more serious than the dubious issue posed by the Milford School District in upstate New York that was the focus of the Supreme Court’s latest church-state ruling.

The point is that whatever principles we can derive from the abstract, in life and society the notion of total separation is an impossibility, a mirage. Yet, we maintain a nearly fanatic devotion to a doctrine that is unworkable because this is our religion, really the only one that most American Jews now have, and fanatics are people of blind faith. It is also true that organized American Jewry apparently prefers that church-state interaction be conducted stealthily rather than under the cover of law.

There are hot-house areas of public policy – welfare, crime control, education – where experience and reflection have resulted in people of strong commitment altering their positions. When it comes to separation of religion and state, there is no room for reflection and modification of views. Experience is an unwelcome and irrelevant intruder.

For sixty years we have maintained a unitary position on religion and state, hardly changing a nuance in our public declarations. In this extended period, we have failed to come to grips with job and other discrimination against religious Jews, nor have we given attention to the serious escalating issue of how local authorities employ zoning rules to stifle religious institutions. This should be a ready-made issue for the strict separationists who might be expected to oppose governmental actions that often arbitrarily restrict the right of houses of worship and religious schools to build or renovate facilities.

This is an issue that today affects dozens of Jewish day schools and a great number of other communal institutions. I suspect that our community’s silence is a manifestation of hostility to religion, a hostility fed by the circumstance that in zoning battles quite often the neighbors that oppose Jewish institutions are themselves Jewish. I suppose that many are proud card-carrying members in good standing in our liberal organizations that carry the banner of strict separation between religion and state.

We delude ourselves in believing that we are an open community. We are not open to new ideas, nor to a reconsideration of long-held positions that need to be modified. We aren’t even able or willing to consider how the cherished principle of governmental neutrality toward religion is being violated willfully through arbitrary zoning decisions.

Monday, June 11, 2001

Is Israel Being Abandoned?

I am writing these lines in a three-quarters or more empty Jerusalem hotel, near the end of a working trip that previously took me to a spa in the north of the country. That place was packed, overwhelmingly with Israelis, while the prestigious and far less expensive Jerusalem lodgings are primarily used by foreigners and they aren’t coming. The economic consequences of the present Intifada are devastating.

What is already very bad may become a lot worse before long. The crucial summer tourist season is at hand and the cancellations are piling up. They come from Jew and non-Jew, individuals and groups. A columnist in Ha’aretz notes that Hebrew University’s Board of Governors has decided not to meet in Israel and that thousands of expected participants in July’s Maccabiah Games will stay away. Although it is understandably putting an upbeat spin on the numbers, Birthright Israel has lost about half of the collegians who signed up. In perhaps the harshest blow of all, Reform Jewry has just cancelled all of its summer youth activities in Israel.

Many Israelis want the Arabs to keep their distance – to stay away – and instead that’s what American Jews are doing in droves.

The Reform decision has evoked ferocious criticism from governmental officials and the media, as well as by leaders of the movement’s small Israeli operation. A Jerusalem Post editorial excoriated the Reform and particularly Rabbi Eric Yoffie for this decision and other actions, including sharp criticism of what Israel has done to combat Arab terrorism.

For all of the resulting economic harm, the question of trips to Israel under present conditions cannot be easily determined by fervent litanies of how important it is to support Israel at a time of crisis. The fact that there is a crisis raises practical and moral issues that need to be addressed by the persons who were planning to come to Israel or their parents. While coming to Israel during the Intifada is certainly a virtue, the decision not to come is not necessarily a vice.

I know parents who are not permitting their children to study next year in Israeli schools and I would not for a moment criticize them. They have a right, probably an obligation, to worry about their children’s safety and if they believe that being in Israel may put their children in harm’s way, we must respect their feelings. I happen to believe that Israel is safe territory, certainly if prudence and caution are exhibited throughout one’s visit here, but this belief does not give me the right to determine what others do.

As a practical matter, the Reform decision was dictated by the parents of the youngsters who were slated to go, they being the persons who through hundreds of individual cancellations made it nearly impossible for the movement to go ahead with the summer activities that had been planed. Likely, the more tenuous commitment of Reform Jews to Israel, as compared to Conservative and Orthodox families, had much to do with the outcome, but this factor does not alter the moral equation.

Where the Reform movement went astray was in its handling of the announcement. Intended or not, there was gusto to the public statement, as if Rabbi Yoffie and his colleagues were socking it to Israel. They were, in effect, telling everyone else to stay away and this has to have an adverse impact on many other prospective tourists, especially those who are not Jewish.

There seems to be a subtext, again perhaps unintended, that Reform leaders want to send a message of disapproval of Israeli policies, much like American organizations have sent a message when they cancelled conferences in states that fly the Confederate flag. Whatever the intent, it is evident that here, as in other recent decisions, Rabbi Yoffie has overreached. He has a tendency to preach all over the place, to seek publicity on issues that are peripheral to his movement. For good reason, his style is being compared unfavorably with that of the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, his much-respected predecessor, who wisely understood that at times leadership means not taking a position.

Hopefully, the Reform and other Jewish groups that have cancelled will compensate by vigorously organizing trips for adults. We need to recognize that it is safe to come to Israel and the right thing to do. As others have pointed out, how can we expect Israelis to sacrifice and suffer so much emotional and other pain if American Jews are unwilling to undertake a brief trip under controlled conditions that ensure the safety of those who come.

Because they can be justified in many instances, cancellations – except by leaders – do not constitute an abandonment of Israel. Yet it is also true that Israel has been largely abandoned by American Jewry during the past year. Our response to the virtual declaration of permanent war against Israel has been unfocused, even tepid. In previous crises, American Jewry was well-organized and committed and though we did not go to Israel, our support was real and effective.

Now, we are distant and not merely geographically. There is no sense of urgency, no special campaigns. Perhaps this is a reflection of divisions among American Jews regarding relations with Arabs and the response to the Intifada. Another explanation - and it is the one that I believe to be dominant – is that support for Israel is one more victim of the extraordinary Judaic losses and abandonment that American Jews have experienced. When commitment to Judaism is thrown overboard, so is the commitment to the Jewish State.