Monday, October 27, 2003

Jews Who Hate Jews

I am confident that the Jewish student at Rutgers who threw a pie at Natan Sharansky believes in freedom of speech, as do the too many Jewish academics and students who have disrupted pro-Israel speakers at other campuses, and I am equally certain that the Neturei Karta members who have joined in anti-Israel demonstrations held on Saturdays believe in keeping the Sabbath. Doubtlessly, the temporary suspension of these fundamental beliefs in order to put on display hatred of Israel was extremely distressing for these activists. They sacrificed in order to be faithful to their convictions.

From our first days of peoplehood in Egypt, we have been afflicted by fifth columnists and some of these have been quite nasty as they bonded with our enemies. We need only think of the Inquisition and the suffering caused by turncoats. But it is no solace that what we are now experiencing echoes painful history, especially when the frum scum of Neturei Karta publicly make common cause with those who openly call for the destruction of Israel and applaud the murder of Israelis. This group has sunk to new levels of indecency.

Being anti-Israel has become one of the new forms of radical chic, a posture that embraces extreme positions that almost always include exaggerated fault-finding with the U.S. and its government. It is to be regretted that in its various incarnations, radical chic has undermined both the legitimacy and attractiveness of liberalism. This country sorely needs a vibrant liberalism which challenges practices that favor the advantaged over the disadvantaged. But for too long, liberalism has had a bad name because too many of its activists have advocated positions, such as we are now seeing with respect to Israel, that turn off many Americans.

There are sufficient grounds to criticize Israel, whether for actions taken against Palestinians or actions taken against charedim. Criticism of Israel is not off limits. What we are now seeing on campuses is the willingness of Jewish faculty and students to go beyond rejecting particular Israeli policies as they join forces with radical Islamic groups. Overwhelmingly, these Jews are secular and far remote from religion. Their abandonment of Israel’s Jews can be seen as the logical outgrowth of their abandonment of Judaism.

We are now hearing much about the alleged vitality of secular Jewish life in the U.S. The fact is that when Jews reject traditional practices and beliefs, there is a strong prospect that sooner or later they will reject Israel and even turn against Israel. There are obviously many secular Jews who identify closely with the Jewish State, but the majority are, at best, lukewarm or turned off. Worse yet, the trend is strongly in the direction of further abandonment and hostility.

Hatred toward Israel has become an obsession in certain Jewish quarters. Those who are obsessed feel compelled to be true to that which obsesses them, even at the cost of encouraging those who give aid and comfort to terrorism and extreme Islamic groups that are not bashful about announcing the plans they have for Israel. We are being afflicted by a kapo syndrome that is frightening.

Paul Krugman, an Op Ed page contributor at the New York Times, is afflicted by an obsession with President Bush, assigning to him blame for nearly all that has gone awry in the world. The President’s policies are, for sure, fair game and there is much that deserves criticism on both the domestic and foreign fronts. But it is breathtaking to read that the hyper-anti-Semitism of Mohammad Mahathir, the Malaysian autocrat who went deep into the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” territory to conjure up a Jewish conspiracy to control the world was somehow a response to what the White House has been doing. Krugman’s apologia gave cover to the single most blatant anti-Jewish statement uttered publicly by a world leader in at least fifty years.

Although the Jewish reaction to Mahathir’s message has been sharp, so far as I know our organizations have not taken Krugman to task. Perhaps we are all getting tired of beating up on the New York Times. What becomes routine loses effectiveness and there is inevitably a law of diminishing returns to our criticism of the record of our newspaper of record. It’s also the case that we have become hypersensitive, that we have lost the ability to distinguish between the hardcore and dangerous stuff and incautious remarks of the kind that abound in ordinary speech. Mahathir’s speech was hardcore, Krugman’s column was outrageous and it’s one more blot on the Times’ record regarding Jewish matters and Israel.

We also need to respond more vigorously to the thuggish atmosphere that has arisen on campuses and which is being tolerated by officials who previously were ultra-sensitive to even the slightest criticism of Blacks and other minorities. I am not for political correctness but it’s time to challenge the curtailment of the basic right to speak on behalf of Israel. As Sharansky has written, ninety percent of the Jews on campus have become Jews of silence, at times because of intimidation. If the only voices that are heard are anti-Israel, inevitably young Jews in the middle will gravitate toward hostility. For the good of Israel and also to salvage what we can among college-age Jews, it’s necessary for our community to be proactive and tough.

I am not suggesting that nothing has been done. Alan Dershowitz has emerged as a powerful advocate, using his abundant skills to make Israel’s case and to confront Israel’s enemies. Malcolm Hoenlein, the gifted leader of the Presidents Conference, has developed an Israel advocacy project which includes an attractive weekly newsletter that is circulated on college campuses. There are others who have awakened to the necessity to speak out and not to be afraid. Just the same, more needs to be done, for Israel’s sake and for ours.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Rethinking Outreach

Outreach has been our primary domestic concern and activity for nearly a generation. Most of what we now do includes, at least to an extent, the goal of bringing unaffiliated, secular and marginally observant Jews closer to their heritage and our religious traditions. This is evident in all forms of Jewish education, formal and informal, as well as in synagogue life, youth programming, campus activities, camping, community centers and Israel experiences.

It’s probably impossible to statistically assess the efficacy of these activities. After all, we can no longer figure out how many American Jews there are. Our sociology needs to move away from the numbers games that have become our surrogate scholarship and focus on qualitative studies that describe what is happening across Jewish America.

We are taught that the saving of a single life – and this teaching encompasses a spiritual life – is equivalent to saving the entire world. It follows that from the perspective of those who are engaged in outreach, the statistic of how many have returned to Judaism though it is important cannot serve as the only yardstick by which to measure outreach success. The communal perspective is different, in part because so much has been invested in outreach and, more importantly, because this investment is a race against time, a desperate effort to keep hundreds of thousands of Jews from drifting further away from identity and commitment.

We need to know what the record is, whether in the aggregate our efforts have been successful. We also need to figure out which approaches have the optimum prospect for beneficial outcomes. In short, we need to rethink outreach in a spirit of admiration for outreach professionals and respect for their accomplishments.

The contours of kiruv or outreach were essentially set a generation ago by the Orthodox when two somewhat antithetical insights intersected. We suddenly awoke to the realization that unless we acted to prevent further losses, one day American Jewry would wake up to the shocking news of staggering defections. At about the same time, we sensed that contrary to long experience in the Diaspora, we could bring Jews back to Judaism, that the Tshuva movement was real and significant.

Because this movement was inherently religious in nature, the stress was on teaching religious texts and encouraging religious practices. Outreach meant a return to tradition and heritage, not merely remaining somehow connected to communal life. Indeed, in the early years of outreach activity, most of those who were reached out to were already connected to Jewish life.

Those who devoted themselves to kiruv have seen their labors rewarded, as tens of thousands have embraced a more Jewish, a more religious life. These returnees have strengthened our people. It remains, however, that Judaic abandonment has continued, in fact at an escalating pace. The powerful assimilatory forces that affect nearly all American Jews have taken a terrible toll. Our losses in the recent period dwarf our gains. There is no way to read the latest data without being appalled.

As American Jews have accepted intermarriage and secular versions of Jewish identity, outreach outside of Orthodox life has taken a secular turn, the message being that intermarriage and advanced assimilation, including Judaic abandonment, are not barriers to Jewish continuity. The idea is that if a whole loaf is beyond reach, a half loaf or quarter loaf or even less is worth having. Nearly everywhere Judaism is rapidly being defined downward in a desperate effort to stem further losses, the hope being that minimal expectations will maximize prospects for the disaffiliated to remain.

Outreach obviously has come a long way from when it was an Orthodox activity. If numbers count, the largest outreach enterprise by far is the Reform, which in addition to minimum expectations of those who are Jewish also includes a welcome mat to many who are not. Even Chabad or Lubavitch has adjusted its sails. While some who are attracted to its activities become observant, overwhelmingly the movement now accepts Jews as they are, making no more than a small effort to influence those who participate to become more religious. There is no other way to explain the remarkable paradox of Lubavitch’s enormous growth during the same period that has seen Jews being lost wholesale.

Orthodox outreach clings to a mindset that was forged before we lost a couple of million Jews and before another couple of million said that they do not care. Small comfort can be derived from statistics about the Orthodox. They constitute no more than ten percent of American Jews, this despite their extraordinarily high fertility rate. I have suggested that aliyah has significantly reduced the number of American Orthodox; still, the figure should be higher if the number of returnees to Judaism were as great as exuberant outreach workers have suggested.

Perhaps there isn’t anything that the Orthodox can do to improve the outreach landscape. This is an open society and those whose connections to us are tenuous may have greater incentive to leave than to remain. We live in a Jewish world that is radically different from the world that existed when many of today’s outreach activities were conceived. It’s time for re-examination.

Without abandoning any individual Jews and in full acceptance of the value of saving a single spiritual life, it may be time to acknowledge that outreach cannot in a statistical sense counteract the larger story of abandonment and loss. Even so, it would be useful for outreach groups to rethink their approach, to consider whether activities that are not text oriented but rely on, for example, music or the wonderful array of Orthodox programs that help the needy may offer greater hope for successful kiruv.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Ticket Prices That Are El Al

Sukkos is our most joyous holiday and this year there is an additional reason to celebrate because a great number of Jews have come to Israel for the chag. Flights were packed and hotel rooms, especially in Jerusalem, hard to get. Suicide bombers and the fear of terrorism have not been deterrents, as they were during the past three years of Intifada. Tourism is up by 50% in 2003, nearly all of it from the United States.

What’s more, a synagogue-based campaign urging more of us to go to Israel has just been launched with the attractive slogan, “I care. And I’m Going.” There is a powerful mood in the circles I travel in to demonstrate love and support for Israel by being there. This rise in tourism is certain to be a morale booster and also to boost Israel’s economy which has been in rotten shape.

Campaigns to lure customers usually provide an incentive, something like a special sale or a bonus. This is always true of airline attempts to attract passengers. The one for Israel is different because the appeal is emotional and also because it is accompanied by sharp increases in fares. For Sukkos, economy tickets on El Al ran as high as $1,500, which I believe is an all-time high. This is a strange way to reward loyalty and affection. I know what el al means; I didn’t know that the words referred to ticket prices.

There is a school of thought that insists that everything with the “Israel” label should be immune from criticism. If we accept this, we should also accept what Israel’s national airline does, even when what it does would not be tolerated elsewhere. There certainly is much to be grateful about El Al, notably its extraordinary security. But we have a right to kvetch about the reconfiguring of Boeings to squeeze in more seats than other airlines do and about a frequent flyer arrangement that can scarcely be fathomed and which frequently seems to be stacked against those who fly frequently. We also ought to be able to complain about protekzia in seat allocations and favoritism toward Israeli travelers who often pay less than American tourists for their tickets.

Worst of all is the recent experience with fares and indications that seats were deliberately held off the market as demand rose in order to drive up prices. That would be an improper business practice.

It’s true that El Al is adhering to the eternal economic rule of supply and demand. As demand rose in the recent period, supply remained stable or perhaps decreased as the Intifada resulted in some airlines curtailing flights to Israel. At best, this arrangement would be acceptable if there wasn’t a deliberate effort to manipulate the supply of seats.

Even without manipulation, there is something errant about applying the supply and demand formula. If the new campaign to promote tourism is successful, the formula would result in American Jews who go to Israel being forced to pay substantially higher fares because of the rising demand and the limited supply. It’s the obligation of those who are promoting this campaign to see that this does not happen.

Tourism (along with charitable giving) is vital to Israel’s economic well-being. Those who come are, for the most part, spenders in hotels, shops, restaurants and wherever else they can be made to part with their dollars and they directly affect thousands of essentially small businesses and benefit hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Few countries rely as heavily as Israel does on tourism, which is why the fair pricing of airline tickets is more than a matter of fares but an issue that is important to the country. If the laws of economics apply to Israel, the high cost of travel will ultimately be a disincentive to some.

For Sukkos and throughout the year, the Orthodox whom we are told are fewer than ten percent of U.S. Jews constitute by a substantial margin a disproportionately large share of tourists, whether they come for a few days or, as is true for yeshiva and seminary students, for a year or longer, serving thereby as magnets for their parents to make the trip. We hear frequently about how a major event or a sports team is important to the local economy. I suppose that we cannot figure out how much Orthodox visitors contribute to Israel’s economy. The sum must be tremendous and usually disproportionate to the number of American Jews who are Orthodox. It expands considerably if we include the American Orthodox who have made aliya throughout nearly the entirety of Israel’s existence, again disproportionate to their numbers in the U.S.

We can also factor in the amount of charity that flows from the Orthodox outside of Israel into the coffers of literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of religiously-oriented Israeli institutions and causes.

What emerges from this is a picture that is sharply in variance with the big lie promoted by journalists and others that the Orthodox and especially charedim are parasites who take from the State and who give very little in return. There is much that can legitimately be argued about in charedi life, including military service for men and the need for better career training. But whatever the shortcomings of charedim – or for that matter any other group – there is no justification for the lies that have come to be part of the vernacular of secular oriented Jews as they speak about those who are fervently religious.

It’s noteworthy that even as the Intifada drove many thousands of American Jews away from Israel, the yeshiva and seminary students kept coming, the Orthodox who made aliya remained and an even higher percentage of tourists were religious Jews. These are truths that need to be recognized, for truth’s sake and also in order to properly understand Israel’s economy.