Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Israel's Shame

Congress has instructed the State Department to issue periodic reports ranking countries according to several categories of bad conduct. Perhaps the most notable of these report cards assesses the degree of hospitality to terrorism, with the drug trade being next in line in importance. Other reports deal with theft of intellectual property and money laundering.

I will not swear that these documents are the whole truth and nothing but. As with conventional report cards, subjectivity often comes into play, as do political considerations that may induce Foggy Bottom experts to use evasive language or, as likely, to give countries a better grade than they deserve. Allies - or countries that we want to be our allies - tend to pose a sticky problem when we know that their hands are in the cookie jar but political constraints prevent us from telling the truth. As an example, there is the ongoing dilemma of what to say about Mexico and drugs. More serious but less reported, at least until recently, is the question of Saudi Arabian involvement in terrorism, a matter that still is not being sufficiently addressed by Washington in the wake of September 11. We continue to fudge, lest we incur the wrath of the Sheiks with their many wives, many oil wells, many billions of dollars and also their barbaric practices and kinship to anti-Western fanatics. Invariably, although not always, reports err in the direction of leniency.

According to a recent story in Ha'aretz, not long ago "the U.S. State Department released a report naming Israel as one of a group of countries in which trafficking in humans has reached epidemic proportions." The article wasn't about mistreatment of Palestinians or foreign workers. The subject was prostitution and not merely prostitution, but about how women are literally being treated as slaves, as human chattel to be bought and sold.

The pattern is well known. Young women, mainly from the Former Soviet Union - and many not Jewish by any definition - are induced to come to Israel where they are forced into prostitution after they have been physically and psychologically abused and kept as prisoners. They are then sold and often re-sold a number of times among brothel owners and pimps. Women who have resisted are beaten and some have been murdered.

This is about as ugly and repulsive a picture as we can imagine. Can we feel anything other than revulsion and shame? It's a good bet that some will argue that it is wrong to criticize Israel on any grounds, particularly during the Intifada, and that it is better to turn a blind eye to the sordidness than to write about it because Israel's security is now endangered. I happen to believe that treating people as slaves endangers Israel's spiritual and physical security.

This story is not about Somalia or another sub-Sahara African country where slavery continues to be practiced. It is about Israel, for Jews the place of transcendent sanctity and the focus of our prayers and religious aspirations. Even for secularists, Israel is a country whose values must speak of freedom and human dignity. How can the practice of human slavery be tolerated in Israel?

There is admittedly disagreement about how many women have been sold into prostitution in Israel. Volunteer groups, mainly feminists who are attempting to combat this sordid practice, put the figure at 10,000, while the police cite the much lower figure of 3,000. Let's accept the lower figure because it too is a national scandal.

Without exculpating the low-lives who conduct this trade, much of the blame must be directed at the police and Israel's law enforcement apparatus whose ability to fight against criminal activity has been greatly compromised by poor training, dreadful leadership and misplaced priorities. The security situation obviously limits the capacity to combat ordinary crime, although before the Intifada and during periods of relative calm, the police had a strange habit of ignoring local criminal activity.

Israelis can readily testify to this because, especially before the Intifada, the country was awash in burglaries and car thefts. Prior to the Intifada, cars were being stolen wholesale off the street and shipped a few kilometers away to chop shops across the Green Line, some eventually to be used by suicide bombers. Except when they were caught in the act, few burglars or thieves were apprehended. It must be admitted, however, that the Israeli police have always been vigilant about illegally parked cars.

Instead of focusing on crime, the police give priority to crowd control, a function that allows them to swing at demonstrators, all the better if they are charedim. A more high profile activity is to go after politicians suspected of corruption, a function that has been conducted without much concern for the rights of the accused. Innocent people have been hurt and civil rights have been traduced.

For fifty years we have been conditioned to make excuses for the Jewish State. But slavery?

Israeli authorities know of the sordidness and they could readily take steps to curtail the slave trade. Israel's security depends on immigration and border control. Although a law was enacted in 2000 providing for more severe penalties for slave traders, it is scarcely enforced. Media attention is intermittent, without a sense of urgency.

Whatever else may divide us, we must insist that a continuation of this situation is intolerable. American Jewish groups and individual Jews must pressure Israel to eradicate this awful stain. The shame is Israel's, but also ours. The next time our dozens of major organizations meet with Prime Minister Sharon, they must let him know that we are all sickened by the existence of slavery in Israel and that immediate steps must be taken to stamp out the practice. We must demand a commitment from Mr. Sharon to take forceful action and we must then follow-up by monitoring the situation.

Monday, August 26, 2002

Jews as Republicans?

If certain analysts are to be believed, American Jews are in the process of becoming heretics, though of course not the religious variety since that form of heresy began more than a century ago and the majority of our flock has already attained this status. The primary orthodoxy – in terms of numbers – in our religious life is anti-religion, something that most American Jews are comfortable about.

The new heresy is more temporal, as it is in the political domain. It is said that as a consequence of President Bush’s strong support of Israel and the powerful survey data showing that Republicans are far more favorable to Israel than Democrats, Jews are or will be shifting away in droves from the Democrats and liberalism and become Republicans. Can this fairy tale or nightmare – depending on one’s ideological perspective – be true?

The question is too self-important. For all of our obvious ethnocentricity or, for that matter, the importance attributed to us by others, we are not much more than a drop in the political bucket. We may vote in higher proportions than most Americans, but our overall numbers are small and getting smaller as America’s population grows and the Jewish population remains static or declines. A Latino shift to Republican ranks, which seems to be occurring in some places, would be big news. A Jewish shift is a curiosity, something that is odd in view of our historic allegiance to the Democrats.

It’s true that President Bush is good to Israel, but his record is far from complete. Much more will happen and some of it unhappy before he leaves office. More critically, it’s doubtful that Israel alone can have so strong a pull on the American Jewish imagination and voting behavior as to generate a marked change in political identity.

Orthodox Jews have been edging toward the Republicans for some time, mainly because of a shared conservative outlook, rather than out of concern for Israel. As we are reminded often enough, the Orthodox constitute about 10% of American Jewry, a statistic that is insufficient to generate a seismic political shift. Also, the Orthodox voter turnout is relatively low and their interest in politics tends to be practical as support is given to candidates who have the best chance of winning and offer the best deals.

There has been for a while a fascinating neo-conservative clique within American Jewish life – Commentary, published by the American Jewish Committee, is one of its strongholds - but this is at most a mini-movement whose greatest impact is intellectual and not on the Jewish rank and file. For all of the prominence of the neo-cons, surveys show continued overwhelming Jewish support for liberal positions.

The most formidable barrier to Jewish political change is the changed character of Jewish commitment, a circumstance that is usually ignored when the subject is Jewish attitudes toward contemporary matters. There is a powerful disconnect between what we know about the inner structure of Jewish life and how we view Jewish interaction in the world around us. We know that we have lost half or more of American Jews, that a tremendous number of Americans who were born Jewish scarcely regard themselves as such. They are not especially concerned about Israel, except perhaps as critics, and they do not view politics in terms of Jewish self-interest or from any other ethnic perspective. Somehow, we manage to disregard this powerful development when we consider how Jews act politically.

If the contemporary Jewish story would be the persistence of diversity among American Jews who nonetheless continue to identify themselves clearly as Jews and regard Israel as central to their happiness, it would be possible to regard an administration’s support of Israel as having a strong pull on political affiliation. The reality of advanced assimilation and wholesale Judaic abandonment sharply reduces the prospect of Israel being a barometer of American Jewish political identity.

Since more losses are in the offing, there is no reason to believe that a greater number of American Jews will make their political choices on the basis of Israel or ordinary Jewish self-interest. It is more likely that a liberal social and political agenda will remain an orthodoxy for most American Jews. In the way of a surrogate religion, they will regard policies that come with the liberal or social justice hechsher as the right ideological and political position and the legitimate articulation of what Judaism ought to stand for.

Mr. Bush’s pro-Israel and pro-Sharon stance is not going to trigger a Jewish political make-over. For one thing, the President’s conservatism does not suit the large majority of American Jews. Besides, far more than we tend to acknowledge, there is in our community much unease about Mr. Sharon and his policies. A good deal of American Jewish criticism of Israeli politics is now muted because of the suicide bombers and the assumed obligation to demonstrate loyalty to Israel in a period of severe danger.

Change is inherent in all social settings. It is risky to suggest that the liberal and Democratic commitment will not be interrupted. Down the road, the question may be rendered moot if, as may be expected, the majority of American Jews go the way of the Ten Lost Tribes. Right now we have a community that we continue to label as Jewish that is willing, even eager, to discard beliefs and practices that have endured for generations and yet which is determined to maintain fidelity to liberalism and the Democratic Party. This loyalty has withstood the well-advertised contradictions and failures of liberalism, primarily its foolish faith in the notion that government spending leads to social improvement.

In a way, what keeps American Jews linked to liberalism and the Democratic Party is nothing more than the strong aversion to a conservative agenda which too often seems to be heartless and caring overly much about protecting the privileged.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

A Postscript to a Symposium

It’s understandable why Wellsprings’ symposium on Jewish education focused almost entirely on what happens inside of our schools. Education is, after all, primarily about the acquisition of knowledge and values and the molding of the young so that they will be properly prepared for fruitful lives when they become adults. These activities take place in classrooms where subject matter is taught and where the dedication and talent of teachers are powerful determinants of the success of the enterprise. It is a sufficient challenge to figure out how to improve the classroom experience.

I would like to add another perspective, one that is informed substantially by what happens in the world outside of the school. This far larger world inevitably affects the character and reach of Jewish education and may determine whether our core educational institutions can accomplish their religious and educational missions.

For a decade or since we were provided with the lamentable statistics of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, organized American Jewry has placed a large share of its Jewish continuity bets on day schools. Institutions that were once reviled by most American Jews as antithetical to the goal of adaptation to American life and perhaps also anti-democratic are now recognized as necessary and vital elements in the desperate effort to counteract advanced assimilation and Judaic abandonment. Day schools are in and it hardly matters whether they have the resources or the commitment to accomplish what we want them to accomplish.

Admittedly, this most favored status for day schools comes with strings attached, for it has not been translated into communal financial support. Our schools are in the aggregate badly underfunded. With key, but diminishing, exceptions within segments of Orthodoxy, day schools have come to embody the dubious and anti-historical proposition that Jewish education is a consumer product – something like a container of milk – and like all products it is to be paid for by the persons who are the consumers, namely the parents.

It’s also of note that while our communal rhetoric is now far more hospitable to the concept of full-time Jewish schools, the rank and file of American Jewry continues to regard these institutions as violations of values and goals that have long been central to the dysfunctional American Jewish ethos. Put simply, a substantial majority of American Jews continue to believe that public education, rather than intensive Jewish education, is the articulation of the proper approach to the schooling of our young. It is small wonder that despite considerable enrollment growth during the last decade – there are now more than 200,000 students in days schools in the U.S. – only a relatively small proportion, perhaps twenty percent, of American Jewish children of school age are in day school. It is small wonder that after a decade of huge emotional and financial investments in all sorts of continuity projects, advanced assimilation continues to take a frightful toll.

Still, day school enrollment has risen steadily and the prospect is for further growth. Much of this results, of course, from the high fertility rate among the Orthodox, notably in the chassidic and yeshiva world sectors. Non-Orthodox enrollment has arisen as well, as there is a new respect for day schools within Conservative Jewry and, far more tentatively, among Reform and uncommitted Jews. New schools have been established to serve these constituencies and non-Orthodox day schools that previously terminated before the full complement of grades were reached have been expanded into the upper grades.

This growth is reflected in the remarkable statistic that over the past four years perhaps as many as 200 of the 800 or so yeshivas and day schools in the United States have embarked on capital campaigns. These expenditures are an exception to the previous point about communal parsimony, although it is also the case that an inordinate share of capital costs are being met by parents and, as the case may be, out of the regular operating budget. Interestingly, the investment in new facilities has shown no sign of slowing down in the current period of economic downturn, the obvious explanation being that additional facilities are needed to accommodate enrollment growth.

Understandably, proponents of day schools are celebrating. We now, it is widely believed, have a sure-fire instrument to reverse the defections away from Judaism. Day schools have been an important part of my life for half a century and I have reason to be pleased because much of what I have advocated is coming to pass. But I cannot tear myself away from the statistics that tell a different and rather unhappy story. There are realities about day schools that call into question whether they have the capacity to do what we need or expect them to do. I am not eager to rain on anyone’s parade, but I am also not in the habit of proclaiming that emperors who are without clothing are splendidly garbed.

After visiting two hundred or more day schools I have come to believe that too many of them show advanced signs of becoming the Talmud Torahs or supplementary schools of the 21st century, institutions which for all of their veneer of Jewish commitment and the excitement they generate are likely to be the handmaidens for further Jewish loss.

The least troublesome part of the day school picture are the statistics that show that supplementary school enrollment continues to outstrip the day school sector. The gap, which is fairly narrow, would be huge if Orthodox enrollment were factored out. At least 80% of non-Orthodox children enrolled in formal Jewish education are in schools that primarily are keyed to the Bar/Bas Mitzvah experience. The incontrovertible evidence is that this attenuated form of Jewish education contributes little to a lasting Jewish commitment.

Far worse, hundreds of thousands of Jewish children receive no formal Jewish education. In the main, they are being raised in homes where Judaism has been excised and exiled. Every reliable survey of contemporary Jewish life shows that about half of American Jews scarcely regard themselves any longer as Jewish. They do not pay attention to our messages, contribute to our causes, join in our activities or care about Israel, which for them is just another country, though at times one whose policies they oppose. A small number may return to Judaism through serendipitous or unplanned circumstances. Overwhelmingly, they are our Ten Lost Tribes.

There is still a worse bit of news: half or more of the children in what are normally regarded as Jewish homes are being raised in another religion or no religion. Intermarriage has made a huge contribution to this phenomenon, but even in homes where both parents are Jewish there is so much abandonment or our heritage and traditions.

Day schools, it needs to be admitted and underscored, should not be judged by those who do not attend but by what they accomplish with children who are in their care. The record in this regard is favorable, for the growth of a vibrant religious Jewish experience on these shores could not have come about without the education provided by day schools. Here is where the external world comes into play in assessing whether day schools can fulfill their mission.

With the exception of many, but certainly not all, of the Orthodox, all American Jews are Jews at risk. This is true of day school attendees, although it is convenient to believe otherwise. One of the lesser known statistics to emerge from the 1990 NJPS is that of the adults age 25-45 who had attended day school, more than 20% of those who married had intermarried. It is clear that nearly all of these adults had attended an Orthodox institution. Yet the incidence of intermarriage was high, the lesson being that day school alone is not necessarily a formidable barrier to intermarriage.

Admittedly, this statistic was largely driven by an aspect of day schools that has sharply curtailed their effectiveness. Their enrollment is pyramidal, which is to say that it is heaviest at the pre-school level and then steadily tapers off as grade level rises. In many non-Orthodox schools, a large proportion of the children are there only for preschool. Not surprisingly, this brief day school experience has little beneficial impact on Judaic commitment in adulthood.

Until recently, American Jewry regarded intermarriage as entirely incompatible with Jewish identity. There has been an attitudinal sea change during the past decade which has a bearing on the character of day schools. A majority of American Jews, by which I mean a majority of Americans who readily identify themselves as Jewish, have come to believe that the intermarried and their offspring can be fully involved in our communal life. From the standpoint of our heritage and history, this attitude is bogus. Yet, it is today’s reality and it is powerfully affecting virtually the entire range of Jewish community activity, specifically including day schools.

The children of intermarried parents, including when the mother is the non-Jewish spouse, constitute a steadily increasing share of non-Orthodox day school enrollment. Inevitably, the composition of the student body and parental expectations as to how day schools should function have an substantial impact on the operation of our schools. Day schools that have reached out to intermarried families or to other families of dubious religious status have experienced attrition in their religious ambience and mission. Their Jewish studies curriculum which was never robust in terms of subjects taught and the allocation of class time has been further curtailed because schools feel compelled to accommodate their clientele. More than a few of our day schools are satisfied with a Judaic curriculum that consists of little more than Hebrew language instruction.

Minimalistic expectations must yield minimalistic results. We can confidently trumpet the value of day schools and this may inspire the notion that in many homes and places we have turned back the assimilatory tide. Like other fairy tales, this one is comforting; at the end of the day it is little more than a fairy tale because the truth is that a growing number of day schools are too feeble Jewishly to challenge the powerful assimilatory forces that are a constant in the lives of Jews at risk. Rather than being religious institutions too many day schools are no more than private schools operating under Jewish auspices.

The situation is worsening even as – or perhaps because – day school enrollment in threatened parts of our community has been growing. There is the dilemma, noted by several scholars, that as day schools become more popular among Jews of lesser religious commitment, there is likely to be a further watering down of the Jewish studies curriculum and religious ambience. The phenomenon is evident in certain trans-denominational or Community day schools. As they attempt to serve families across much of the American Jewish spectrum, their constituency encompasses parents and communal leaders whose notion of a day school is different from what these institutions traditionally represented. More and more, schools are attempting to accommodate the lowest common Jewish denominator and this finds expression in diluted forms of Jewish education.

In the most recent period, there has been a new source of pressure which further weakens the prospect that Jewish schools will contribute to the continuity of our people. While the subject has received little attention, day schools are being asked to admit applicants who are not Jewish by any definition or standard. I estimate that there are now as many as sixty schools, including some that are Orthodox, that have admitted non-Jews. The typical justification or explanation for this extraordinary development is that without these students, schools would not be educationally and financially viable because their enrollment would be too low and there would be too few students for particular grades and too little tuition income. I heard this argument from the principal of a small day school in the south that is listed in the directory of Torah Umesorah and the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools.

For all of these practical, albeit misguided considerations, it remains that in too many places a welcome mat is being put out at the school door for non-Jewish applicants. A financially-strong Community day school in Texas has a provision in its by-laws that mandates the acceptance of non-Jews. Recently, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) decided with very little dissent to support day schools that accept non-Jews. It is of note that this decision was made by philanthropists who presumably have joined in an effort to strengthen day schools! What they have done is likely to encourage additional schools to bolster their enrollment and perhaps also their fundraising activities by looking outside the Jewish community for students.

PEJE’s action may be shocking, yet it should not be surprising. As noted, American Jews have in great numbers come to accept intermarriage, not only in the sense that it is a fact that cannot be ignored but also as a development that is compatible with Jewish continuity. When we reflect on the contemporary situation of American Jewry and especially the constantly defining downwards of what it means to be a Jew, it would be surprising if day schools were exempt from the process of dilution. Of course, yeshivas are exempt, as are most other Orthodox day schools. However, in the educational sectors where new schools are being created to serve at risk populations, the story increasingly is about schools that are Jewish in name and not in performance.

It follows that the news about day schools is not all that good and some of it is terribly bad. But day schools continue to be the best hope we have as we seek to stem further losses. Besides, there are schools that are effective, both as educational institutions and as the setting for the strengthening of Jewish commitment. Additional schools, even in the at-risk sector, could perform far better if they only had the will to do so.

In looking at day schools, we ought to keep the following points in mind.

1. We need to have truth in labeling. When a school is called a “Jewish day school,” we know little about its Jewishness, about its curriculum or mission or whether it cares at all about bringing Jews at risk toward a safer harbor. There are day schools that care next to nothing about Jewish commitment and some may leave their students worse off Jewishly than when they entered. This unexpected point was made not long ago in an article in the Wall Street Journal that told of a girl from a traditional Conservative home where Shabbos was observed who abandoned religious observance after being switched to a Reform day school. I have seen data about this school that points powerfully to the conclusion that students from homes that were seeking to become more Jewish would have been better off Jewishly had they stayed away.

2. Because they serve Jews at risk, day schools must be imbued by a sense of religious purposefulness. They must strive to elevate the religious commitment of their students, perhaps not too quickly and perhaps not to the extent that some within Orthodoxy may want. If they are content to leave their children in their care as they were when they enrolled, these schools will contribute little to our desperate goal to salvage remnants of American Jewry. Again, minimalistic expectations yield minimalistic results.

3. While day schools are the best we have, they are not all that we have. It’s important that the potentially meaningful day school experience be constantly reinforced by other activities that strengthen Jewish identity. These activities include camping, youth groups, Shabbos programs, synagogue participation and more. Activities ought not to be conducted as separate experiences; the goal must be to achieve linkages among activities. Day school educators can accomplish more if they recognize that there is a world out there beyond the classroom that can be either hostile to what schools want to achieve or they can add to what is being taught at schools.

4. What this means is that the separation between chinuch (Jewish education) and kiruv (outreach) undermines the effectiveness of both kiruv and chinuch.

5. The most effective day schools are the Orthodox. There was a time when even nominal yeshivas were willing to accept at-risk Jewish children. This has changed entirely, to an extent for good reasons. Nowadays, except for immigrant and explicitly kiruv schools sponsored by the Orthodox, few at risk children are being taught in the Orthodox schools. As a consequence, there is a disconnect between the rhetoric employed by the Orthodox as they trumpet the value of a Torah education and the actual road that many of them take. Disconnects do not provide fruitful ground for the fulfillment of noble missions.

Finally, we need more open discussion about day schools and, generally, about Jewish education. We are too prone to employ clich├ęs which mask the difficulties facing our schools as they seek to accomplish their vital mission.