Monday, September 24, 2001

The World is Changing. What About American Jewry?

In our transformed world we see or should see things that we previously chose not to see. Since human activity is dialectical, perhaps some good will come from an incomprehensible tragedy that now conveys only loss and pain. Perhaps our values will be elevated, certainly we will be less caught up in the frenzy of making money and spending it. Perhaps, as well, we will reconsider attitudes that are deeply ingrained in our belief system.

For as long as any of us can remember, American Jewry has ardently embraced and advocated extreme liberal positions. Our liberal ideology has been our surrogate religion, a belief system to be followed with complete faith. It has replaced the beliefs and practices that defined Judaism for generations. They could be discarded – and have been – but we have not tolerated any tampering with our new religion. In a sense, our identification with this ideology has been fanatical.

There were, of course, doubters and some of them have been important. What came to be known as neo-conservatism is largely a Jewish product. For decades, Commentary, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, has taken aim at virtually all of the canons of liberal thought. Though direct hits have been scored, there is scant evidence that AJC leaders have paid heed or, as another example, that the centrism of The New Republic which is widely read by Jews has had any impact. Much the same can be said about the major shifts within the Democratic party or changing attitudes about welfare and crime. None of these has penetrated the thick ideological armor that protects our organizations against political heresy. We continue to worship at the same liberal altar and we mouth the same litany. We are true believers that there is nothing that can shake our faith.

It also has been of no import that some of the warmest support for Israel comes from conservatives and fundamentalist Christians. It means nothing at all that liberal Protestant denominations have been virulently anti-Israel, at times coming close to advocating the delegitimization of the Jewish State. Nor has it registered that the nation’s most liberal newspapers have been uniformly hostile to Israel. We who preach tolerance and spend a fortune on defense organizations have stood idly by as Jewish groups on college campuses have been vilified and intimidated, while deprecations against Jews, Judaism and Israel have been given free rein as Arab and Islamic preachers of hate have been abetted by left-liberal elements.

We have been perfect in our obedience to our new religion, bogus as it is. We have proclaimed, this is our god and we shall praise and glorify it.

Now we are in a changed world, but not entirely. After the terror and trauma, it remained for the most liberal writers and editorialists to suggest that Islamic terrorists acted because of Israeli policy and U.S. support for the Jewish State. The same ideological core has sparked demonstrations on campuses at which Israel has been attached.

Isn’t it time for some reconsideration, or at least some open discussion of whether our ideological commitment has given us bedfellows who are not merely strange, but are also our enemies? It may be – and this is increasingly true – that Israel is not important to many liberal Jews. But for our organizations who avow support for Israel as they ritualistically affirm every ideological cliché that they can find in their psalter, it is necessary to ask why they cannot abandon ideological relationships that are no longer justified.

I do not advocate that Jews do an about face and embrace conservatism, whether neo or hard core. There are right-wingers and conservatives aplenty for whom anti-Semitism is boilerplate and who are second to none in their hostility to Israel. We Jews should never be comfortable with the right wing. The fact is that a great deal of conservative talk radio is hateful and repulsive. There is also much on the liberal agenda that certainly merits support, such things as workers rights, civil rights and environmentalism.

What we need to do is separate ourselves from all ideologies, to become in a sense Israel firsters. We need not have a position on every public issue. At times, communal silence is golden.

Israel is in crisis. Individual Jews are free to make their ideological and political choices, for good or for ill. But the organized community has a moral obligation to act with restraint on all issues, except those that concern Israel or the welfare of Jews. This moral obligation means at least that we should not constantly alienate those who support Israel and we certainly must not constantly give aid and comfort to ideologues who are hostile to Israel.

A policy of ideological neutrality is not novel. Leaders of other ethnic and interest groups routinely curb their involvement in extraneous issues because they know that their primary responsibility is to the people and causes they serve. I believe that Martin Luther King refused to take a position on the Vietnam War, arguing that to do so would detract from his leadership of the Civil Rights movement. Unfortunately, for Jewish leaders to make an adjustment and abandon long held ideological commitments might require a transformation that exceeds the transformations already wrought by the World Trade Center tragedy.