Friday, December 31, 2010

An American Disgrace

In retribution for his serious crimes, Jonathan Pollard has been severely punished to the point that the wrongs committed by him are matched by the wrongs committed against him by our government. Spying for Israel is apparently a far worse offense than spying for the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War or, more recently, for Russia. If for no other reason, this is why the Pollard story is an American disgrace.

It requires no justification of Pollard’s deeds or even sympathy for the man to recognize that he has been confined to a fate unprecedented in U.S. history. He is, metaphorically, a man in an iron mask, someone to be locked away until death frees him. His prosecutor was duplicitous, his original lawyers were incompetent, his sentencing judge was cruel and unjust and, to top all of this off, there was his wife’s ill-conceived Sixty Minutes interview and also Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s secret and fundamentally dishonest sentencing memorandum. Pollard had the further misfortune that his appeal was heard by a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel that included two Jewish judges, one extremely liberal and the other extremely conservative, who over a powerful dissent by the one non-Jew blithely ignored the inappropriateness of the process that resulted in a life sentence. Fate hasn’t been kind to Pollard.

If this sounds paranoid, with perhaps the charge of anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure, it is assuredly is anything but that. A fair assessment of the case forces the conclusion that Pollard’s sentence was excessive and now should be commuted to time served. In the time-honored tradition applicable to freed spies, he should be sent to the country for which he did his spying. A surprising number of congressmen, a breed not known for courage under fire, and Lawrence Korb who was an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, have called for commutation.

What will now happen cannot be known. It is hard to figure out why Pollard has never caught a break. It may be his fate to fall through the cracks. Anti-Israel sentiment, which is not quite the same as anti-Semitism, in high government positions may be a contributing factor, as his continued imprisonment is a way of striking back at Israel by those who believe that Israel has been the recipient of too much support by successive administrations.

Israel hasn’t helped. True, in the Clinton years and during the Wye Israel-Palestinian peace talks – they seem ages ago – Benjamin Netanyahu who was in his first term as Israel’s Prime Minister, pressed the Americans for Pollards’ release. President Clinton went along, only to be vetoed by CIA Director George Tenet who threatened to resign if the President commuted the sentence. Mr. Clinton backed down, which was wrongful because a president should never yield to such threats. Worse yet, because he backed down, Tenet stayed on, playing a key role in the intelligence failures that preceded 9/11. For incompetence bordering on misfeasance, George W. Bush awarded Tenet our nation’s highest civilian honor.

Although Mr. Netanyahu has asked for Pollard’s release, he invariably has dropped the request when the U.S. said no or simply ignored the issue. Nor has release been advanced as a formal Israeli government position. This has just changed, increasing the prospect of commutation, although doubtlessly the CIA and the Pentagon will object. A more critical barrier is President Obama’s determination, amply on display during the past two years, not to be seen as soft on American security. His Press Secretary, the glib Robert Gibbs, has already said that Pollard’s release is not on the horizon.

Mr. Netanyahu should be insistent because nations ought not turn their backs on the spies they recruit. Unfortunately, Israel does not have chips to swap in the form of American operatives who have spied on Israel. They exist, for sure, although for sure it would be impolitic, even risky, for Israel to arrest CIA agents who have engaged in such espionage.

What should our major organizations and rank and file do? Over the years, most American Jews have been mute, leaving pro-Pollard advocacy to fringe elements, including too many who believe that Pollard did nothing wrong. Our organizations have also stayed away. Now calls for commutation are coming from the American Jewish mainstream. It is now legitimate to advocate for Pollard, which is why there is congressional support.

It may be better for us to refrain from public advocacy, as a public campaign could backfire, serving as a wake-up call for those who want Pollard locked up for life, with the keys thrown away. If Mr. Netanyahu is serious about Israel working to secure Pollard’s release, at some point he will have to decide whether to yield to American pressure on some Palestinian issue. About a month ago, there was what he could offer without undermining Israeli security, notably another two-month freeze on settlement construction. Now that the U.S. is no longer asking for a moratorium, that option does not exist. Presumably there are other issues that can serve as bait. The key obligation is to see that Pollard’s release is on the U.S.-Israel agenda.

The call is Mr. Obama’s not Mr. Netanyahu’s. Of note, except at the time of his arrest and a bit thereafter, Pollard has not been on the American public radar screen. If the President decides to commute, it is doubtful that there will be much of a reaction. He should commute because that is the right thing to do. Continued imprisonment adds to America’s disgrace and not at all to America’s security.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Expanding World of Anything Goes Judaism

Lindsay Lohan, the troubled starlet who has had numerous run-ins with the law, is no poster girl for virtue and certainly not for Judaism, yet as the Times has reported, she is a poster girl for American Jewish World Service, along with several other celebrities, making a pitch for contributions, saying that although she isn’t Jewish the cause deserves support. The campaign, a compound of camp and celebrityship, is apparently doing well. What this says about contemporary Jewish life is another matter. We are again in the ever-expanding world of anything goes Judaism, a world that bears little – at times, no – resemblance to the world of our fathers, including the world of Jewish fathers who weren’t religious but who strongly identified as Jews.

In this brave new world, Judiasm is to a great many, including non-Jews, what anyone says it is. This attitude is dynamic, so that the inventions that we have been witness to are prelude to additional formulations that shall have not even a residual connection to the beliefs and practices that have sustained us.

A useful definition of anything goes Judaism was provided earlier this week by Steven M. Cohen, the noted demographer, when he accepted an award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry. Steve spoke of his relationship with Calvin Goldscheider, a sociologist at Brown University, who according to Steve believes that “whatever Jews do in a manner or frequency different from others, whether they agree to call it exclusively Jewish or not, is by definition Jewish culture and Judaism. Intra-group ties and social boundaries are at the core of Jewish vitality and continuity. If so, then Jews can (and do) change the putative essence of being Jewish. They engage in continuing invention and reinvention of the meaning of Jew, Jewish, Jewishness and Judaism, creating the possibility for ongoing transformation.”

Change and a measure of transformation are part of modern living. It is a stretch to say, for example, as some have said that fervently religious Jews in the U.S. have forged living patterns that strongly resemble how religious Jews lived in pre-Holocaust Europe. Time, economic conditions and social forces have brought about significant mutations in religious life-style, including certain values, with core religious beliefs and practices remaining largely intact. However, the notion that we can do and believe whatever we want and still call it Judaism is alien to our history and heritage and dangerous to our future.

The notion that we can constantly reinvent Judaism scarcely affects the Orthodox. The principal impact is on non-Orthodox life, in the undermining of institutions and arrangements that still are vital to a great many Jews. If a few tweaks and a Jewish label are sufficient to impart Jewish legitimacy to any activity, it’s a good bet that younger Jews will go in that direction, associating with activities that are only Jewish in name and embracing what is fashionable in the general culture. There is little hope that synagogues and old line institutions will be able to compete, as a Gresham’s Law will mandate that weak activities and associations will prevail over more substantial Jewish experiences. We see this in the rapid deterioration of the Conservative movement.

I first wrote about this development in the late 1980s and then developed the theme in a book-length monograph in which I suggested that what we were already witness to would not run its course during my lifetime because minimalistic Judaism – which I now refer to as anything goes Judaism – is being sustained and reinforced by substantial communal support, effective promotion and a critical mass of advanced assimilation Jews, including many who have intermarried, who desire to retain Jewish identity even as they chuck off nearly everything that being Jewish meant.

In previous generations, such Jews would have walked away entirely from Jewish life and, in fact, many have in the recent period. What is extraordinary is the number who haven’t. For them, the reinvention of Judaism is tailor-made. Also propping up a residual connection with Jewishness among assimilated Jews who have not vanished into the great American melting pot is the remarkable phenomenon of Jews being at the top of the American ethnic hit parade. We may dwell endlessly on our own warts, yet to other Americans we are hardworking, intelligent, successful, charitable and laden with good values. This helps to explain the stratospheric intermarriage rate.

This sociological brew provides a frame-of-reference for anything goes Judaism. Far out measures are being undertaken to keep the patient called American Jewry alive and they are having some success. A generation ago, I thought that this attitude had staying power. I still do. Anything goes Judaism may be bogus Judaism, yet it is an important sociological reality.

Change will come because the full impact of intermarriage cannot be put off permanently. The evidence is already here in the diminished identity of the offspring of the intermarried. Other changes will result when the dynamic nature of anything goes Judaism as legitimate will induce behaviors that are even more distant from our traditions, including much that is outlandish and even repugnant to our beliefs. This means that the prospect is not rosy for Federations, synagogues and the Hadassahs of our organizational world. This does not mean that our large army of organizations will disappear, although some will. We must never underestimate the capacity of an organization that is functionally dead to remain alive.

For all of its defects, anything goes Judaism is an extraordinary phenomenon and it will be fascinating to see what awaits us.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Ultra Bigotry

In a New Republic review of Gal Beckerman’s well-received book on the struggle for Soviet Jewry, Yossi Klein Halevi who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Israel tells of his Jewish Defense League involvement during that crucial period and then offers the following nasty parenthetical aside, “The ultra Orthodox community that did virtually nothing to save Soviet Jews now tries to prevent their full absorption into the Jewish people.”

We can perhaps forgive Klein Halevi for being inaccurate, as he was young when the events being described occurred and he was certainly distracted by the efforts of his JDL buddies to engage in violence. What, however, does “virtually nothing” mean? More pointedly, his current bias is not an excusable offense. There was significant activity by the fervently Orthodox on behalf of Soviet Jews, although much of it was out of the public eye, such things as Chabad’s role in keeping Jewish life alive in the USSR, at times at great risk. There was the work of Rabbi Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth and Rabbi Harry Bronstein of Brooklyn, both now deceased, and the remarkable efforts of Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt who remains active. Malcolm Hoenlein who played a key role working for Soviet Jews early in his distinguished career of Jewish public service points out in an email, “Agudah types certainly came to the rallies.” There was a good deal other involvement from this small sector which is now being smeared once more by a writer with a bigoted agenda.

Why the distortion? There are patterns in how people live, in their friendship circles, food preferences, values, use of language, etc. So it is with groups. This is what is meant by culture. Yossi Klein Halevi does not write on a clean slate. Negativism toward the Orthodox is ingrained and all the better when “ultra” can be added to the identification, so as to convey a picture of extremism, even fanaticism. It is as if denigrating the Orthodox is a Jewish cultural imperative.

I have protested against the “ultra Orthodox” usage, to little avail. No other religious group in the world, including those that stone people or amputate limbs or engage in violence, have “ultra” as part of their identity. We Orthodox are the chosen people, whether in the New York Times or most major Jewish and general publications. Constant usage does not impart legitimacy to the term, nor accuracy, as is evident from its application to Shas, the Israeli political party that caters to Sephardic needs and whose share of Knesset votes tops by a wide margin the percentage of charedim announced by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The governmental data obviously consists primarily of chassidim and persons in the yeshiva world. Although Shas is labeled ultra Orthodox, more than a few of its loyalists can be found at soccer games on Shabbat and engage in other distinctively non-Orthodox activity.

The flip side of deprecatory writing about the Orthodox is what is neglected. If there was an English-language daily Jewish newspaper, most of us would imagine that it would get tons of attention. There is such a phenomena and it is called Hamodia. It has been around for a bunch of years and is read each day by thousands. To boot, it’s well-written and the layout is superb. For nearly all American Jews it does not exist, not because they do not read it but because they have never heard of it and that’s because this and other newspapers that report on much trivia in Jewish life pretend that it does not exist.

There is a galaxy of Orthodox magazines – I dare not call them ultra – including two under Hamodia auspices, as well as Mishpacha, that are attractive and interesting reads and they too do not exist in the mindset of nearly all American Jews. The talented people at Hamodia, under the direction of Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein, a remarkable woman, have produced a major work on the Holocaust called “Witness to History” that is perhaps the first textbook on this critical period. It is already in use in many high schools. Sir Martin Gilbert and Dr. Michael Berenbaum are among the major scholars who were involved in its preparation. Why the neglect?

ArtScroll represents another aspect of the treatment of activities associated with the fervently Orthodox. Attention is paid, too often in a deprecatory fashion, and rarely with adequate appreciation of the quality of the scholarship or how it has transformed the study of sacred texts, notably of the Talmud, which is its most glorious achievement. I admire Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz for his monumental career, yet his Talmud which gathers favorable press at the drop of his name cannot hold a candle to ArtScroll’s, not in usage and not in usability. This is evident in Modern Orthodox and some non-Orthodox homes.

Attention, at times inordinate, is paid when there is real or alleged Orthodox - and especially ultra - wrongdoing to report on. No claim for immunity from coverage can be made when the story concerns a communal matter or official. Even then, balance is required. A couple of weeks back, the lead story, if it can be called that, in this newspaper was about how North Shore Hebrew Academy high school was raiding or recruiting students from the Solomon Schechter of Nassau County. I am not sure how this is wrongful. The more important story should be about the sad and steep decline of this Solomon Schechter school, a decline so pronounced that documents I have seen deal with the continued viability of its high school. This situation merits attention, if only because it might engender support for the school.

In view of the extent of Orthodox activities to assist the needy, much of it ultra inspired, it is probably too much to hope that sufficient credit be given to these achievements. Is it too much to hope, however, that the next time Yossi Klein Halevi veers toward anti-Orthodox bigotry, he might just ponder this activity?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Challenge of Insularity

Nearly fifty years ago, I wrote an article on Orthodox Jews and the civil rights movement that was published in the Jewish Observer, then the magazine of Agudath Israel, arguing among other things that it is appropriate to contribute to such causes. Although the contribution might not qualify as tzedakah, it would certainly be charity and a good use of our discretionary resources.

I taught at Hunter College in the 1960s, with the lion’s share of my time devoted to COLPA, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which in a brief period made great strides in advancing the rights of religious persons. As an additional voluntary activity, I represented the American Civil Liberties Union in connection with its non-governmental organizational status at the United Nations, working toward the adoption of human rights treaties.

In a sense, the article and ACLU activity pointed in the same direction. An Orthodox Jew who was embedded in his community and was extremely active in religious life need not and perhaps should not be entirely insular.

It’s doubtful that nowadays the Jewish Observer would publish an article that advocates contributions to non-Jewish causes and not only because the magazine is no longer in existence. Orthodox Jews who inherently and justifiably are insular have become more so. There are barriers and attitudes that limit our interactions with the general society. Yet, I cling to the view that I expressed long ago. When recently the back page of the Times Sunday Magazine, usually devoted to human interest stories, told of a courageous Glendale, Arizona woman who operates a home for abused women, after Google provided the name and address, I sent a contribution. It may be that this was not an act of tzedakah, although we are halachically enjoined under at least some circumstances to assist persons in need who are not Jewish.

For sure, this isn’t standard procedure for most Orthodox, at least not among the charedim, and, to an extent, for good reasons. Although in the aggregate the Orthodox are the least affluent of American Jews, they contribute a disproportionate share of the tzedakah given to Jewish causes, helping to sustain in the process and under increasingly difficult conditions a large and growing network of yeshivas and day schools, as well as other educational institutions, and a remarkable array of chesed activities that assist a vast number of Jews, including many who are not Orthodox. All of this despite the high cost of religious Jewish living.

For these reasons alone, the Orthodox can be forgiven for exhibiting parochialism in their charity. If any Orthodox contribute outside of the four cubits of their communal life, this, too, is understandable and even praiseworthy. There is, after all, Hillel’s great teaching about not being merely for ourselves.

Insularity is objectionable, however, when it is expressed, whether in word or deed, as negativity toward persons who are not Jewish. It is one thing to contribute exclusively to Jewish causes because they are our special obligation, need help and we cannot count on other people to be of assistance. It is something else and potentially ugly to justify parochialism on the ground that non-Jews are never worthy of assistance because they are inferior. I have challenged this wrongful attitude in writing for decades, without much apparent impact.

We are a Chosen People only by nature of our living sanctified lives. We are not sanctified – and certainly not better than other people – when we denigrate the 99.99+% of the world’s inhabitants who are not Jewish. Just as a practical matter, this attitude is at once silly and dangerous. Why should we expect other people to respect us, if we do not respect them?

Yet, there is a disturbing tendency among some Orthodox, religious figures included, to express in words but not deeds attitudes that are objectionable. When such language is not challenged, there is a good prospect that what is wrongful will be dynamic and breed even greater wrongs. If offensive rhetoric is regarded as appropriate, our community is seriously in need of improvement.

One highly unwelcome consequence of parochialism accompanied by negativism is that it serves as a justification, if not a cause, for Orthodox Jews who have abandoned a religious life. It is clear that by a considerable margin more Jews who were born into Orthodox families are rejecting that commitment than the number of Jews born into non-Orthodox families who have been attracted to religious life through outreach and other activity. There are, admittedly, strong forces at work to produce this unhappy situation, mainly that we live in an open society that provides powerful and exciting incentives to those who want to abandon religiosity. It remains that there are Orthodox who were turned off by inappropriate language about non-Jews.

When I point this out to my fellow Orthodox, they invariably invoke the long and painful history of persecution. For them the Holocaust remains an open wound that justifies the denigration of non-Jews. It is hard to argue with them about the history and yet their argument which is predicated on the notion that inherently every non-Jew is at least a potential anti-Semite is false and dangerous. The United States is not part of this history; it is a land of tolerance that has exhibited, even now, extraordinary esteem for our people. Nor is it accurate to depict all those among whom we have lived throughout the centuries as people who hate Jews.

There is a way of being on guard against anti-Semitism without regarding every non-Jew as an anti-Semite. There is a way to be insular without being negative and derogatory toward all other people.