Thursday, November 04, 2004

A World Jewish Disgrace

If the World Jewish Congress was in fact what its name suggests it to be, Edgar Bronfman would now be the organization's former president. But since the WJC is in large measure his plaything, as he demonstrated recently when he ousted critics who questioned certain financial transactions, the strong likelihood is that he will stay on as long as he chooses to, this despite his vile statement in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle of London that our concept of peoplehood and opposition to intermarriage "begins to sound like Nazism, meaning racism."

I am told that he has apologized somewhat in a letter to the newspaper. No matter. He should do the honorable thing and resign. He used language that has never been used, except by our most bitter enemies, thereby crossing a line that previously was never reached, much less crossed, by a presumed Jewish leader. We have thrown communal fits for far less offensive words. Many Jews are still riled at Jesse Jackson for his "Hymietown" remark. As the Jewish Chronicle editorialized, "Nazism? It takes a truly staggering ability to ignore what Nazism was, even to utter the word in the same breath as a comment on attitudes to intermarriage."

It is not just the one word that disqualifies Mr. Bronfman. His notion that we who oppose intermarriage are racist is only a bit less offensive. Have we forgotten the "Zionism is racism" episode at the United Nations? Are we deaf to the ongoing calumny directed against Jews and Israel by those who call us racist? Edgar Bronfman has given aid and comfort to those who hate us, to those who are bent on harming Israel and our people. It is a good bet that down the road his despicable words will be thrown back at us.

The only decent thing for him to do is to quit.

Mr. Bronfman's sin has been multiplied by the skimpy coverage given to his remarks by the American Jewish media and by the corollary absence of sharp editorial criticism. Our publications have much to say when a solitary rabbi says or does something foolish or offensive or when an inconsequential incident occurs in a small shul. Why the timidity when a man at the top of our massive organizational heap behaves in a wrongful manner?

One certain answer is that it's the money. We American Jews respect wealth, no more so than in our institutional and organizational life. Those who possess great wealth are supposed also to possess other admirable qualities, including judgment and wisdom. Simply put, Mr. Bronfman is given more slack because, after all, he is a billionaire.

It matters, of course, that in addition to being a successful businessman he has ably served the Jewish people over a significant number of years. He has come across as thoughtful, as someone who is more than a cut above the army of organizational officials whose idea of leadership consists mainly of more conferences and an overdose of sterile activity. Additionally, Mr. Bronfman has significant achievements under his belt. This is all the more reason why he should resign.

I cannot figure out what he was trying to say about intermarriage. For all of the stalwart Orthodox opposition on religious grounds and the diminishing number of Conservative Jews who take a similar position about intermarriage, as a practical matter the sociological battle against intermarriage has been lost. For nearly a decade we have been in a post-intermarriage stage, a point in our history when the subject gets decreasing attention on the communal agenda. Unlike a decade ago when we were awash in continuity activities and other initiatives aimed at deterring marrying out, there is now at least tacit acceptance of the status quo that includes massive intermarriage.

We have come to accept counting in those who marry out, which includes their offspring and spouses. This is true of Israel's Law of Return which in turn has a direct bearing on all Jewish activity in the Former Soviet Union. It is true of our demographic studies, the concern not being who one's parents were or the religion of the spouse but whether those who are surveyed regard themselves as Jewish. This is true as well of our communal activity, for we scarcely preclude any longer from leadership those whose lives have been Jewishly compromised by intermarriage. Edgar Bronfman illustrates the point; he has been married five times and two of his wives were not Jewish.

While our new tolerance of intermarriage is contrary to our history and traditions and while it is inevitable that ultimately most whom we now accept will be lost to Jewish life, for the moment it is expedient to accept intermarriage because to do so puffs up our numbers. We are willing to accept all who apply because the more persons we can claim as Jews, the greater the perception of Jewish influence. We believe that Israel will benefit as a consequence. As Mr. Bronfman said in the interview, "anybody who wants to be" a Jew is a Jew.

The nonchalance with which we greet intermarriage is evident even among the Orthodox who despite their sincere rhetoric participate with few or no qualms in social and communal contacts involving the intermarried and their spouses and offspring.

It has been reported that Mr. Bronfman is writing a book to be called "A Jewish Renaissance for a Significant Future." We can easily guess what he will say about intermarriage. Can we hope that by the time this outpouring of knowledge about Jewish life is in the bookstores, its author will be the past president of the World Jewish Congress?