New Ethnic Realities and the Jewish Future

Judaism Beyond Ethnicity, Summer 1997

Two forces are shaping North American Jewry and making it radically different from the Jewish population of Israel. One is assimi­lation; the other is intermarriage.

In Israel a new Jewish ethnicity is emerging. Despite the initial problems of in­tegration, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Maghrebi, Yemenite, Oriental, and Ethiopian Jews are merging through intermarriage. In fifty to one hundred years a new gene pool defined by this melting pot will be firmly established. You can already see the racial mixture: not as white as European Jewry, not as dark as the Yemenite complexion.

A new culture is also emerging — a mix of Ashkenazic European ambition and the more family-oriented loyalties of the Near Eastern world. Israel will not be a liberal Anglo-Saxon democracy. Nor will it be a pa­triarchal Oriental despotism. It will be an interesting mixture of the two. The binding force of this combination is the Hebrew lan­guage, which serves as its linguistic glue. In time a Hebrew-speaking ethnic group, neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic, will take its place among the family of nations.

For the predominantly Ashkenazic Jews of North America, however, a different future is in store. While Israelis are being re-ethnicized, American Jews are being de-ethnicized. Due to assimilation and intermarriage with the Christian majority, the ethnic profile of North American Jewry is radically changing.

At one time the overwhelming majority of American Jewry came out of the Ashkenazic centers of Eastern Europe. There, Jews were a distinct nation, with a distinct language and national culture of their own. Yiddish vocabu­lary, Yiddish food, Yiddish humor, Yiddish music, and Yiddish anxiety all combined to pro­duce the self-image we identify as Yiddishkeit. As a national identity, it transcended religion and flavored every aspect of Jewish cultural ex­istence. For many Jews the nostalgia and roots of the Jewish experience lay with chicken soup and gefilte fish as much as with any theological doctrine. In America, Jewish identity hovered somewhere between the nationality-based iden­tities of the Irish and Italians and the religion- based identities of Protestants and Catholics.

But American culture is overwhelming in its power. The American way of life dissolves all competing ethnicities. Only where there is racial distinction, as in the case of African Ameri­cans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, does ethnic distinction survive. In the world of white America, assimilation and intermarriage have produced a new white gene pool, a union of WASP, Irish, Italian, Polish, German, and doz­ens of other European contributors. The typical white American is now “one-quarter this” and “one-quarter that.” A new American white ethnicity is emerging, in the same way as a new ethnic blend is emerging in Israel.

American Jews are increasingly becom­ing part of this new white ethnicity — in language and culture, for sure, In fact, the new white American culture has already incorpo­rated many aspects of Ashkenazic culture, from Yiddish words and the bagel to a fond­ness for Hanukka and Passover. Hundreds of Christian groups are now celebrating Passover seders all over America.

As for the genetic profile of American Jewry, intermarriage is making it blonder and blonder while Israelis are getting darker and darker. Last names are no longer a clue to Jew­ish identity. Even in Jewish parochial schools today, the student population is less ethni­cally identified than the population of public schools in Jewish ghetto neighborhoods fifty years ago. In many respects, then, American Jews are becoming part of the new ethnic re­ality called American whites.

What all this means is that North Ameri­can and Israeli strategies for Jewish survival cannot be the same. The Israeli strategy is na­tionalistic and linguistic, a powerful blending of Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures within a shared territory and shared economy. The North American strategy is religious and cultural, blending Ashkenazic memory with the over­whelming presence of the American milieu. The only way to avoid this experience is to repudi­ate the blending process and to recreate segregation, as the ultra-Orthodox, like fundamentalist Muslims, have sought to do. Both groups repudiate American culture in their dress and in the roles they assign to women.

For the overwhelming majority of Ameri­can Jews, though, Judaism no longer exists in the context of Ashkenazic culture. It functions in the context of American white culture, a setting quite different from that of Israel. In such a context, Jewish identity will be less a matter of birth than a matter of choice. It will be less a matter of roots than a matter of a convincing personal philosophy of life. Jews who choose to be active Jews will need more than shtetl nostalgia, Holocaust-inspired alienation, and the Israeli connection. They will have to believe that the historic Jewish experience speaks to the human condition.

It may be that Israel will continue, for a while, to provide some support for Jewish ethnicity in America. But the self-image of American Jews and that of Israeli Jews no longer coincides. As a new “white melting pot” emerges in North America, the diver­gence will increase.

The Jewish future in North America will be the story of a people physically quite dis­tinct from the immigrant Jewish population of a century ago. This people will create its practices and beliefs in a setting of fierce com­petition, a free marketplace of appeals to the hearts and minds of the American public.

These new realities present a fundamen­tal challenge to secular Jews. It is important to remember that the first powerful expres­sion of a secular Judaism in the nineteenth and twentieth century was nationalism. Nationalism was built around the powerful bonds of Ashkenazic culture, Yiddish lan­guage and literature, and racial anti-Semitism. The Zionist movement substituted Hebrew for Yiddish, but it maintained with great fervor that Jewish identity was a national identity. Nationalism was a convincing and strong alternative to religious identity. In many respects it was stronger. Language and patrio­tism are even more time-consuming than religious ritual. Segregation and inmarriage were as natural to a community that was linguistically segregated as to one that was culturally isolated.

But while in Eastern Europe and Pales­tine a full-scale nationalism could be maintained, in assimilated Western Europe and North America nationalism degenerated into mere ethnicity. Initially, immigrant groups such as Ashkenazic Jews maintained linguistic segregation in ethnic ghettos, but public schools and linguistic conformity to the majority culture in a free society based on personal opportunity undermined linguis­tic uniqueness. Ethnicity came to mean a sense of common descent, with such cultural artifacts as ethnic food, ethnic music, and ethnic anxiety providing additional flavor. But ethnicity is not nationalism, and Yiddish culture in English is not exactly Yiddish culture. It is a variation on Anglo- Saxon American culture.

Ethnicity was a pale imitation of the original secular Jewish program. In an assimilationist environment with a dominant linguistic culture, ethnic uniqueness could not last. Like the smile of the vanishing Cheshire cat, it had very little substance. With the arrival of intermarriage it had very little future. Without racial distinction, ethnicity was hard to hang on to.

To base a secular Judaism on ethnic awareness is to set it up on a flimsy foundation. For fourth-generation assimi­lated American Jews, Yiddish culture is, at most, something to be studied and valued. But in the absence of Yiddish neighbor­hoods where Yiddish is spoken, it can no longer be experienced. Jewish separation can no longer be maintained by ethnicity; it can be maintained only by religion. The revival of a militant Orthodoxy is a response to this reality. Indeed, some ethnically minded Jews have chosen religion for themselves and their children, even though they do not believe in its theological premises, because they see religion as the only way to preserve a Jewish presence in an assimilationist society.

The challenge is clear. If a secular Juda­ism is to be viable in North America it can no longer rely on the national or ethnic strategy.

Humanistic Judaism, in contrast to the secular Judaism that preceded it, did not start out with the ethnic model. It started out with communities that were primarily philo­sophic in orientation and that connected a humanistic approach to life with the his­tory and experience of the Jewish people. The humanistic message was not uniquely Jewish, but it was powerfully tied to the skepticism, humor, and ambition that flow from the Jewish experience.

The project of Humanistic Judaism for the twenty-first century is to develop a secular Judaism without nationalism or ethnicity as its primary foundation. In order to do this, we need to develop two vital parts of our message.

We need to emphasize that our movement is more than an indulgence in ethnic nostal­gia. We have a message about human power, human dignity, and human responsibility that can help to transform daily living in a posi­tive and significant way, and this message, for both adults and children, can best be experi­enced and integrated within the framework of community.

We also need to become “historical” Jews. An identification with Jewish history is dif­ferent from an identification with Ashkenazic ethnicity. Jewish history features many ethnicities, from Ashkenazic and Sephardic to Oriental and Falasha. Jewish history also carries a clear humanistic message: in the face of overwhelming odds, survival and dignity can be achieved only through human effort. This modern, humanistic interpretation more accurately describes the meaning of Jewish history than did the establishment rabbis of earlier times.

Jewish history is attached to an interna­tional culture that unites its many ethnicities in the same way that a Christian culture unites the many nations that embraced Christianity. This international Jewish culture includes the Hebrew language, seasonal holidays, litera­ture and music from several ethnic sources, and an attachment to the national homeland from which this international culture sprang.

Humanistic Judaism cannot provide the intense group identity that the isolation of ultra-Orthodox Judaism provides. Nor does it want to. In an open and free society, such seg­regation undermines human potential. What Humanistic Judaism does provide is a “cultural religion” with a powerful philosophy of life and a powerful aesthetics drawn from the intense struggle for survival of an extraordinary people.

For many Jews with Ashkenazic nostal­gia, as well as for many Jews with no ethnic sentiment, this combination in an attractive community setting can enhance the meaning of life.

A Secular Yeshiva

Humanistic Judaism in Israel – Winter 1985

A secular “yeshiva” now exists. Yes, a secular “yeshiva”!

Headquartered in Jerusalem, the Inter­national Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism is in the process of becoming a full reality. Despite the existence of a century-old tradition of secular Jewish thought, this is the first school of higher Jewish learning to be committed specifi­cally to the presentation of a humanistic perspective on Jewish identity.

How did the institute come into exist­ence? Why was it established? What will it do? Who are the people involved with it? Who will support it?

Creation

In October, 1981, a delegation of 40 North American Jews from the Society for Humanistic Judaism met with an equal number of secular Israeli leaders and intellectuals at Kibbutz Shefayim to share ideas and plan for future connections. Among those present were Shulamit Aloni, leader of the Citizens Rights Move­ment and member of the Knesset; Yehuda Sobel, well-known Israeli playwright; Meir Pail, spokesperson for the dovish Sheli party; and Uri Rapp, professor of the sociology of drama at Tel Aviv University.

A statement of principles, prepared by me, structured the agenda. Out of the two day dialogue emerged a strong awareness of the wide diversity of belief that exists within the secular Jewish world. Never­theless, a short statement about a Secular Humanistic Judaism was agreed on and signed by most of the people in atten­dance. Many of the participants expressed the hope that something more concrete and more meaningful would follow.

In July, 1983, under the stimulus of Zev Katz and Yehuda Bauer, professors at the Hebrew University, an organizing cele­bration with 200 people in attendance was held at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem to announce the establishment of the Israeli Association for Secular Humanis­tic Judaism. The Kibbutz Artzi movement, the more secular of the two kibbutz fede­rations, offered its support. Prominent academicians from the universities of Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv partici­pated in the program. Ultimately, seven small urban communities of Humanistic Jews emerged in the major cities of Israel.

In July, 1985, leaders of the Israeli association, together with leaders of the North American Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, and Americans for a Pro­gressive Israel — as well as Jewish human­ists from England, France, and Argentina — met at the Hebrew University to estab­lish a school and research center for Secu­lar Humanistic Judaism. Excitement was high; most participants saw the new inter­national institute as a joint project to bring secular Jews all over the world into a working relationship.

Why?

Why the institute? After all, estab­lishing and maintaining a school of higher learning is no easy task. Given the effort that would be required, the mere desire to create some kind of group solidarity was not a sufficient reason. When the idea of an institute first emerged some time be­fore the 1983 meeting, certain compelling reasons presented themselves.

Most secular and humanistic Jews in the world are unaware that they are what they are. The “believers” who do know what they are often lack the knowledge or training to give depth to their convictions. Both groups need education. And effec­tive education requires the planning and the focused creativity that only a school can provide.

Secular Humanistic Judaism needs an intellectual outreach. It needs to recruit and use the enormous number of Jewish men and women in the worlds of aca­demia, writing, and the arts who see them­selves as secular Jews but who are so dis­persed that they have no opportunity for dialogue with peers who share their out­look. They often have no motivation to promote their Jewish convictions because they are unaware of any audience or com­munity structure that would give their efforts any meaning. If it were possible to recruit one-tenth of the available secular Jewish academicians for the task of ex­plaining and enriching the humanistic point of view, they would constitute a for­midable intellectual voice in the Jewish community. Especially in Israel, where the secular commitment has been intense and widespread for many years, the number of potential recruits is significant.

Humanistic Jewish creativity is more than a century old, but most of the results are unavailable to the secular public. They are hidden away in kibbutz archives, cul­ture club files, historical memoirs, and the private collections of talented individuals. No effort has ever really been made to bring them together, to select the best of the secular past so communities can draw upon it for their celebration life. It is amazing how much of the holiday and life cycle creativity of the kibbutz experience is unknown both to urban Israelis and to Diaspora Jews. Only a concerted effort by a research institute can rescue these treasures for posterity.

New literature is an urgent necessity. There are no popular history books of the Jewish people that are unashamedly secu­lar and consistently choose to view the Jewish experience through the eyes of a scientific humanism. There are few popu­lar books on philosophy, ethics, and lifestyle that articulate the secular Jewish point of view and seek to awaken human­istic self-awareness in the reading public, especially young people. There are no readily available celebration manuals for holidays and life cycle ceremonies to offer guidance to humanistically disposed Jews in how to design a satisfying humanistic Jewish ritual. The dearth of pragmatic and inspirational literature is a dramatic deficiency in the effort to create any kind of effective movement. Only a school with ideological commitments can arrange for the creation of this essential literature.

The “monuments” of tradition need attention. In Israel, where the Bible is an intrinsic part of the national conscious­ness and public education, to leave Bible instruction and Bible interpretation to traditional commentators and ambivalent liberals is to forego an opportunity for creating secular self-awareness. No con­tinuous secular humanistic commentary on the Bible now exists either in Hebrew or in English.

Such a commentary is an enormous task. But it is essential for dramatizing the secular alternative in the eyes of the Jew­ish public. It is obvious that such an effort, which requires the mobilization of the best scholars in the world of Jewish studies who share the humanistic outlook, can be undertaken only by an institution of higher learning.

Training leaders and spokespeople, both professional and nonprofessional, is essential to the progress of any organized ideology. The continuing success of the religious sector, whether conservative or liberal, is, to a large degree, due to the presence of organized communities with well-trained full-time leaders. And the persistent failure of the secular Jewish world to put its act together in any effective way is partly due to the lack of such communities and the professional leaders that make them possible. The hos­tility of classic secularists to the influence of the “clergy” — the exaggerated egalitar­ianism that saw the threat of new elites behind any designated leader — often left urban secular Jewish groups in a perpet­ual infancy. Trained leaders are neces­sary, whether they are designated rabbis or madrikhim (guides), whether they serve congregations in North America or urban fellowships in Israel. Only a college with an appropriate faculty can provide that training.

The growing threat of religious fundamentalism is a terrifying devel­opment. In Israel, in particular, the bold attempt of the orthodox to assume political power and to turn the Jewish state into a theocratic dictatorship endangers the survival of the secular Zionism that established the modern nation.

The old secular smugness has dis­appeared. There is real fear now — fear for the democratic future of the state, fear for the ideological future of coming generations. Secular Jews in Israel are aware that they often have failed to transmit their humanistic enthusiasm to their children and their grandchildren, many of whom now have embraced the fundamentalism of their parents’ oppo­nents. Secular Jews are aware that they were too passive about their secular commitments and that they have allowed orthodox militants to penetrate the school system and the army without effective resistance. What the present crisis demands is a trained cadre of humanistic speakers and teachers who would be available to familiarize students and army recruits with Jewish alternatives to orthodoxy and conventional religion. Only a secularist college of Jewish studies can train this cadre.

The institute is the most effective way to create a visible presence for the human­istic Jewish alternative.

While it would be nice to have several humanistic Jewish institutes, each situated in a major Jewish community, such a vision is out of touch with reality. We are presently too few in number to afford more than one. If each regional enclave works separately on this problem, we shall have none. But if we pool our resources and talents internationally and focus on a single school and research center, we shall be successful. The location of the administrative center of that one institute has to be Jerusalem, both because of its Jewish primacy and because the largest number of available faculty are either at the Hebrew University or nearby.

It is clear that there are many compelling reasons for this new institute to be created. As it grows and flourishes, it will serve as a focal point for secular and humanistic Jews all over the world and will rally and unite them in the further­ance of a shared dramatic project.

Structure

There are four key figures in the new institute. The honorary chairman is Haim Cohn, former chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, a fervent civil libertarian, a leading expert in traditional Jewish law, and a confirmed humanist who boldly states that “the kindest thing you can say about God after the Holocaust is that he does not exist.” The chairman is Yehuda Bauer, professor of history at the Hebrew University, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies, director of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, and a major ideologue of the Kibbutz Artzi movement. The dean is Zev Katz, also a professor of history at the Hebrew Univer­sity, an expert in Russian studies, an inter­national “missionary” for secular Jewish self-awareness, and the person whose energies and determination helped to spark the creation of the Israeli associa­tion. The administrator is Youval Tal, native Jerusalemite, public relations maven, and an ardent worker for Jewish educational causes.

Eight departments have been designed, seven for research and one for community outreach and leadership training. The research departments are: Humanism, Traditional Jewish Literature, Modern Jewish Literature, Jewish History, Jewish Holidays and Ceremonies, Law and the State, and Education. The eighth depart­ment is the Midrasha, a center for the sponsoring of adult education and train­ing seminars. The Midrasha will be re­sponsible ultimately for the preparation of professional leaders.

Each of these departments at present has an Israeli faculty, with certain additions from North America and Europe. It is hoped that, in time, the faculty will become truly international, embracing academicians, intellectuals, and artists from all over the world. It is also hoped that the programs of the insti­tute will be international seminars to be held in all the major cities where Jews live.

Two projects have been chosen for immediate pursuit. The first is the Holidays Project, a concerted effort to make available in Hebrew and in English the best of the century-old tradition of secular celebration. The second is the Bible Project, a mobilization of scholars to prepare a humanistic commentary on Bib­lical texts. Both projects, when completed, will have great pragmatic value.

Support

The secular “yeshiva” — despite all the preliminary planning and enthusiasm — will remain only a dream unless it re­ceives the emotional and financial sup­port of the secular humanistic Jewish world. And it deserves our support be­cause it is the most effective way that has yet been devised to create a visible presence for the humanistic Jewish alter­native. This moment in history — when both positive and negative forces have transformed the face of world Jewry, and when forces hostile to humanism are so powerful — is the time to organize this institute. The genuineness of our commit­ment to the future of Humanistic Judaism will be determined by what we do to make this school a reality.

Will There Be War in the Middle East?

Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community: Autumn 00/ Winter 01

That question dominates the anxiety of the Jewish world.

Before the Camp David breakup, we were talking about peace — peace between the Is­raelis and the Palestinians, peace between the Jews and the Arabs. At this writing, the peace process apparently has collapsed. We no longer believe in the possibility of peace. We only talk about a way to end the violence.

There are horrifying memories that will not go away. A Palestinian child shot to death by Israeli fire while his terrified father tries to shield him. The bloodied body of an Israeli reservist tossed from the window of a Ramallah police station to an exultant Palestinian mob below. An enraged Israeli Arab screaming, “Death to the Jews” while rushing the Israeli police. Jewish settlers from Upper Nazareth rampaging through the lower city in search of their Arab victims.

Who is to blame for this shocking change? Was it Ariel Sharon, who defiantly marched through the Dome of the Rock sacred com­pound with an enormous retinue of security guards? Did he want to provoke the Arabs and destroy the peace process? Did he want to up­stage Bibi Netanyahu, his archrival, for the leadership of the Likud Party, the political voice of hostility to the Oslo peace agreements?

Was it the fanatic Hezbollah in Lebanon, who orchestrated the Palestinian street dem­onstrations and whose stated ambition is to drive the Israelis into the sea? Did they mobi­lize the perpetrators of Palestinian violence?

Or was it the sleazy Yasser Arafat, who refused the brave and generous offer of Ehud Barak, the prime minister of Israel, and later the last-ditch proposals of President Clinton, subverting seven hard years of peace negotia­tions? Does he believe that he can wring more concessions from the Israelis through violence rather than through talking?

All these “culprits” may have added fuel to the fire. But the main trigger to the violence was the increasing disillusionment with the peace process felt by thousands of Palestin­ians who came to see that an independent Palestinian state, as conceived by the Israe­lis, would be nothing more than a Bantustan. The Palestinians had had false expectations of what the Israelis would be willing to yield.

There are certain unavoidable realities that we need to confront in order to understand the nature of the crisis. There are two incompat­ible agendas. The maximum concessions of the Israelis cannot meet the minimum demands of the Palestinians. Whether the issue is Jerusa­lem or the return of Palestinian refugees, the gulf between the two sides is very wide.

Israel, including the Palestinian territo­ries, is a very small country. Jews and Arabs have intermingled. Finding appropriate boundaries to separate them is not easy. Even if both sides loved each other it would not be easy.

The hatred and suspicion engendered by seventy years of war are so intense that inter­nal negotiations are an impossibility. Each side perceives itself as the victim and rein­forces its victimhood with horror stories of eviction and terrorism. Jews and Arabs find it difficult to talk to each other. They find it easier to scream at each other.

The Palestinian agenda is ambiguous. The pragmatic side recognizes that Israel is here to stay and that Palestinians will have to settle for a small state surrounded by Israeli mili­tary and economic might. The emotional side wants to expel the Jews and restore the old Palestine. The Palestinian dilemma is whether to accept a real state with permanent inferi­ority or to fight for a big state in a war that can only lead to self-destruction.

The rebellion revealed that the Arabs of Israel see themselves as Palestinians first and Israelis second. This reality is a frightening discovery for the Israelis. Over one-fifth of the Israeli people are Arabs. And, after years of discrimination and rejection, they do not identify with the culture of the government that claims them. Even if Israel successfully separates from the Palestinian state, it remains a volatile “mixed neighborhood.”

The major issue that undermines the peace process is not Jerusalem. It is the re­turn of Palestinian “refugees.” No Palestin­ian government can hope to survive if it surrenders the right of Palestinians to go back to their original home. And the state of Israel cannot survive as a Jewish state if it allows the refugees to return. A Jewish state with an Arab majority is an impossibility.

The rebellion struck a blow at moderate governments in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It gave power to fanatics and extremists who are calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and for the elimination of Arab and Muslim “traitors” who would deal with the Jewish state. The trouble can only provide added credibility to Saddam Hussein and the Iranian regime. The moderates are on the de­fensive and scared. Even the Arab-hating secu­lar Turks have chastised Israel.

Yasser Arafat is no longer in control of his “troops.” His refusal to accept Barak’s peace offer and Clinton’s proposal came out of fear that acceptance would mean assassi­nation. As a survivor, his political stand al­ways follows what he perceives Palestinian public opinion to be. He is, tragically, a fol­lower rather than a courageous leader.

The Israelis’ gains of the past few years in the Arab world are lost. Arab and Muslim nations, which had opened themselves to the possibility of opening the door, are pulling back. From Morocco to Oman, from Jordan to Indonesia, an Israeli connection is now per­ceived to be a liability. It will not be easy to reopen that door. Israel remains a European state stuck provocatively into the middle of the Muslim world. Only North America and part of Western Europe can be reliably counted on to offer support and protection.

The days of Barak are numbered. The peace process failed — at least for now. What probably will follow is a govern­ment led by Ariel Sharon, which will nix any peace initiative.

The consequences of a real war between Israel and her Arab enemies are too frighten­ing for the world to contemplate. An oil em­bargo alone could attack the global economy and wreak havoc on America and other in­dustrial nations. Nobody interested in the welfare of the global economy can allow this war to happen.

So what are the implications of these re­alities for the future?

Outside intervention by the great powers, organized through United States initiative, is the only way to stop the violence. Israel and the Palestinians, left to their own devices and without outside pressure, cannot do it.

For the foreseeable future the most that can be arranged is a truce. Israel would be well-advised to pull back to the line it can sustain as the boundary line between itself and the Palestinians — and hold it. Interna­tional supervision of the truce line may be necessary, even though Israelis mistrust any international intervention.

The alienation of Israeli Arabs will in­crease, presenting the state with a continuing provocation. An Arab minority friendly to Is­rael would require major changes that the Is­raeli public is not willing to concede.

The new Israel will again be a fortress Israel, mobilized for war and increasingly de­pendent on its American allies. Its govern­ments will be conservative, dominated by Sephardim and Orthodox Jews. Many secu­lar Jews will choose to emigrate. Many high-tech industries, the gems of the new Is­raeli economy, will decide to locate in safer places of the global economy.

If violence continues, Diaspora Jews will be caught up in the violence and the terror­ism. The Muslim enemies of Israel will not distinguish between Israelis and the Jewish people. An uncomfortable vigilance will en­ter into Diaspora Jewish life.

Of course, by some “miracle,” the peace process could be restored by dramatic changes in the perspective of Israelis and Palestinians. But I would not hold my breath.

Zionism and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

The state of Israel.

No expression of Judaism can be com­plete unless it deals with this reality and with the political movement that spawned it.

Zionism is the most successful and the most dramatic Jewish movement of the twentieth century. It is also the most uni­versal. Theology and ritual divide Jews. But loyalty to the state of Israel unites them. Both the religious and the secular can be comfortable with Zionism. Although anti-Zionism was, at one time, powerful, it now condemns its devotees to the role of the peripheral and the pariah.

The roots of Zionism are both ancient and contemporary. Throughout Jewish history, the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur, and the folk literature preserved the memory of a Jewish territorial nation. Jews living in lands other than Israel believed that they were residing in exile. They believed that, in the future, they would be rescued by the Messiah and would be returned to their homeland.

The modern source of Zionism was the sense of nationhood that Western Ashkenazic Jews experienced in Central and Eastern Europe. United by folk memories and the Yiddish language, the Russian and Polish Jews saw themselves as neither Russian nor Polish. They viewed themselves as national Jews, with a language and culture all their own. This ethnic self-awareness was reinforced by the rising power of nationalism in Europe. Germans, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and Romanians were beginning to feel more German, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Romanian. One of the devices they used to create greater internal solidarity was to in­vent an external enemy. Anti-Semitism turned the Jews into the national enemy, excluded them, and made them, ironical­ly, feel more Jewish.

If the Jews were indeed a distinct na­tion, they required a territory of their own, like every other nation. Nostalgia and the desire for territorial roots offered no alter­native but Palestine.

Zionism, as a political ideology, comes in many varieties. Bourgeois Zionism wants Israel to be a free enterprise capital­ist state. Labor Zionism prefers a socialist Israel where the workers control. Reli­gious Zionism wants a Jewish state where God rules and where the constitution is the Torah.

But, regardless of the differences, most Zionists agree on ten principles.

  1.  The Jews are a nation. They are more than a religious group, more than a theolo­gical fraternity, more than a cultural enti­ty. Jews are Jewish in the same way that Frenchmen are French.
  2.  Every nation, including the Jewish nation, needs a territory all its own. A unique territory allows the nation to cultivate its own language, promote its own customs, and be the master of its own destiny.
  3.  For the past 2,000 years, Jews have been abnormal. Until 1948, they were a nation without a territory. They will be normal again when the majority of the Jews of the world return to their homeland.
  4.  Israel is the only feasible Jewish homeland. The personality of a nation cannot be separated from its memories and from the territory where it evolved.
  5.  Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish people. English is too univer­sal. Yiddish is too parochial. A unique language becomes the cultural bond of both secular and religious Jews.
  6.  Immigrating to Israel is more virtu­ous than staying in the Diaspora. If Jews refuse to move to Israel, there will be no viable Jewish state. Jewish life in a Jewish state is qualitatively better than Jewish life in the midst of a Gentile nation.
  7.  The establishment of a Jewish state will reduce anti-Semitism. If Gentiles can see Jews as members of a normal nation, they will no longer fear them. If Jews leave the countries where they arouse hostility, anti-Semites will have to find other scape­goats for their envy and hatred.
  8.  Jews who remain in the Diaspora will ultimately assimilate to the majority culture of their host nations. In a modern, urban, industrial, secular culture, assimi­lation is the gradual assumption of a new patriotism. Jews can remain Jews only where they can be Jewishly patriotic.
  9.  Israel is the viable solution to the problem of Jewish survival. In an age when ritual segregation is rejected by most Jews, territorial segregation is the only feasible means to ensure group integrity.
  10. For every Jew, his primary identity is his Jewish identity. He must be prepared to do first what is necessary to insure Jewish community survival. Aliyah (moving to Israel] is a primary mitzvah.

How does Humanistic Judaism relate to these ten principles?

The Humanistic Jew accepts the fact that the Jews are a nation. Like the Zionist, he makes a distinction between citizen­ship and nationality. It is quite reasonable to describe oneself as an American citizen of Jewish nationality. Because of the Jewish fear that such a statement may be construed by modern governments as an act of dual loyalty, the word people is usually substituted for the word nation. But, in essence, it means the same thing.

The Humanistic Jew accepts the fact that, in the past, a nation needed a specific territory in order to remain a nation. But, in the age of industrial technology, this re­quirement no longer applies. Today, the time it takes to fly from New York to Tel Aviv is far less than the time a traveler took to donkey from Jaffa to Jerusalem a century ago. In former times, isolation from a nation’s territory meant isolation and ultimate assimilation to the host culture. In modern times, both literacy and advanced communication and trans­portation make it possible for a dispersed nation to preserve its sense of community. The Greeks, the Armenians, and the Irish know that, as well as Jews.

The Humanistic Jew recognizes that many people regarded the Jew as peculiar and abnormal because he had no ter­ritorial base. But what was Jewishly ab­normal is now rapidly becoming humanly normal. In an age of labor mobility, an in­ternational nation is no longer bizarre. It is avant garde. Territorial nations are becoming territorial states. A territorial state is a political entity where people of different nationalities discover that they must share the same piece of land. The connections among the inhabitants are geographic and economic rather than ethnic. America is no longer an Anglo- Saxon nation. And Israel is one-third Arab.

The Humanistic Jew recognizes that Israel is the Jewish homeland. As the mother country of the Jewish nation, it is the appropriate headquarters and center of that international corporation. Memories cannot be manufactured. Like nations, they develop their power over long periods of time. New York may have more Jews than Jerusalem. But Jerusalem includes the armies of the faithful dead, not just the living.

The Humanistic Jew values the Hebrew language. Every viable ethnic community that is not racially distinct cultivates its own language. The greatest of all the Zionist achievements was the revival of the Hebrew language as the spoken tongue of the masses. Since Hebrew is not a world language like English, it requires for its survival a special territory where a majority of the inhabitants use it for their daily speech. One of the major reasons for the preservation of the state of Israel is the maintenance of Hebrew-speaking culture. With Israel as the Hebrew center, the language becomes available to the world Jewish community as a resource for com­munity expression.

The Humanistic Jew understands that Israel cannot accommodate the majority of the Jewish people. The reason is not only that Israel is too small; it is also that Israel cannot suitably employ the mem­bers of a nation, the overwhelming major­ity of whom now belong to the managerial class. Israel does not need more lawyers, accountants, and psychiatrists. She needs farmers, porters, and construction workers. Immigrating to Israel is a virtue if the immigrant’s talents will be fully utilized in that environment. To waste managerial potential is a waste not only for the world Jewish community but also for the human community.

The Humanistic Jew does not believe naively that the existence of the state of Israel will reduce anti-Semitism. In the Middle East, Zionism has increased anti- Jewish feeling. In Europe and America, loyalty to Israel reminds many people of the multiple attachments that they suspect all Jews have. Above all, Jews are hated because they are conspicuously successful in an urban industrial society — out of proportion to their numbers. A small Jewish state ironically depends for sur­vival on Jewish success in the Diaspora. Israel needs the very power out of which anti-Semitism grows.

The Humanistic Jew does not believe that living in the Diaspora means ultimate assimilation. Since Jewish communities are no longer isolated from each other and can maintain effective contact with the Israeli center, Jewish self-awareness has increased, not declined. Moreover, it is quite clear that all nations, even large territorial ones, are assimilating to a new culture. That culture is the world culture of science and technology, which has secularized most of our planet and created a world of shared work styles, shared pro­ducts, and shared values. In the past 20 years, the Oriental Jew in Israel has expe­rienced more assimilation than the Jew of New York. In future years, the differences among all nations will be reduced because of this shared culture. From the humanis­tic point of view, this shared cultural bond with all people is something good.

The Humanistic Jew is well aware of the fact that no small territorial state is the master of its own destiny. Even large states, like America, are heavily depen­dent on external resources. The fate of the Jews in Israel is not separable from the fate of the Jews in America. The key to Jewish continuity remains what it was before Zionism. The Jews should be as widely dispersed as possible, so that the destruction of one community will not result in the destruction of all.

The Humanistic Jew affirms the value of Jewish identity and works to express it within the setting of the Jewish commu­nity. But he chooses his human identity as his primary identity. A healthy Jewish community can be realized only if it sees itself as part of a larger community with its own needs and demands. Without this transcendent ideal, Zionism becomes chauvinism. Jews and Arabs can learn to share the same territory if they have the vi­sion to go beyond their national identities and to celebrate their shared human identity.

Humanistic Judaism and historic Zionism share some important convic­tions: the values of Jewish nationhood and of Hebrew culture. But Humanistic Judaism finds value in the reality of the Jews as a world people, an international nation.

Israel as the be-all and end-all of Jewish existence is too much. Israel as the cultural homeland of a planetary people is just fine.

Being a Secular Humanistic Jew in the Diaspora

1992 Conference Highlights, Spring 1993

The word diaspora has a problem built into it. It implies that the Jewish people is a people whose extension flows out from the land of Israel, and in many respects historically that was true. But the reality of Jewish history in the twentieth century was not the way it is with most diasporas. Normally the homeland creates the diaspora. In this case the Diaspora created the homeland.

Israel often reminds me of America. In America we are always asking people where they come from. In Italy, people don’t go around saying, “Where do you come from?” But in Israel, people have their roots in the Diaspora, and that is an interesting sociological and historical development. So I start out with a very important premise: that we are a world people. If we don’t start out with that premise, then the communities in the Diaspora have a very inferior reality, and if we accept that self-image, we cannot grow, we cannot be what we want to be.

The French Revolution is one of those dramatic events that changed the nature of the Jewish people. The Jewish people started out as a nation in our own land, a territorial nation. And even when we were dispersed, we still viewed ourselves as one nation, though in reality we had become several. The Jews of Eastern Europe were not Polish or Russian; they belonged to the Ashkenazic Jewish nation. It had a language all its own called Yiddish. It was dispersed over a discrete territory. There were certain towns and villages and shtetls that were completely Yiddish-speaking. That language and culture, which developed in Eastern Europe, is very different from the culture that developed in Spain, from the culture that developed in the Jewish Arabic world, from the culture that developed in the Jewish Persian world. Each was built around a Jewish language. The language written in Hebrew letters in Israel is a testimony to what happens when all these people come together.

So, although in our consciousness we were one nation, in our experience there was diversity. And then came the French Revolution. Up until that time, we were aliens. But the French Revolution (and to some extent the American Revolution that preceded it) changed the situation of the Jew. Until then, Jews were a civilization that embraced several subnations: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Judeo-Arabs, Judeo-Persians, and so on. All of a sudden Jews had to confront a new situation. Somebody said to them, we welcome you into a secular state. Secularism altered the character of the Jewish people. Religion and culture became private matters. There are certain things that you as a citizen of the state must conform to, but your roots, your culture, and your religion are private matters.

And so, the overwhelming majority of Jews in Western Europe ceased to be a nation. The sign of losing their nationhood was that they gave up their language. Now, in North America, Jews are overwhelmingly secularized. Both Conservative and Reform Judaism are attempts to find some comfort in arbitrating between the nostalgia of Orthodoxy and the secularization of the Enlightenment.

One of the realities of life in the Diaspora is that Jewish identity is not always the primary concern of Jews. They are involved in the political, social, and economic life of their countries. In our country, in the United States of America, most people are in a sense the children of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment gave us reason, it gave us secularism, it gave us a loss of interest in the supernatural (though that is reviving to some extent on a personal level), and it gave us individualism. In fact, individualism, which is so pervasive in North American life, constitutes to a large degree one of the problems we have to deal with. The other is an intermarriage rate of more than 40 percent. That means that in two generations, people who identify with Judaism — and there is a fairly high rate of retention among intermarried couples — will not have the same kinds of ethnic memories (borscht and blintzes) that many of us grew up with. We’re already encountering that problem. So we’re struggling with effective ways to express our Jewish identity. Let me mention a couple of ways in which people do it.

First, people display an increasing identification with the culture of the State of Israel. That is a perfectly appropriate thing to do; the problem is that it is a vicarious experience. When the French Revolution came, the Jewish people responded in four alternative ways. One was to reject it, and that ultimately produced the foundation of ultra-Orthodoxy. One was to say, “We’re not a nation; we’re only a religious denomination.” That was Reform. But that approach ran into a problem: most Jews are secularized, so to say that God is the central idea of the Jewish experience for Reform Jews when most Reform Jews hardly talk about God obviously is foolish. The third response with which many Jews identified was socialism, and, of course, that came tumbling down. The fourth was Zionism. Part of the problem with Zionism for the Diaspora is that Zionism does not really allow for the Diaspora. The great wish of those who are committed to the Zionist movement is that ultimately all Jews who live in the Diaspora will come to the land of Israel. That relationship, therefore, creates a certain inequality. Nevertheless, one of the ways to express a secular Jewish identity — and it is very appropriate — is to increase identification with the culture of the State of Israel.

A second way is what I call “residual ritual.” You do Hanukka, you do Purim, you do Pesakh, you may do Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur. You do a series of holidays, and people feel very Jewish around the holidays, but the holidays aren’t attached to anything. They hang in limbo. And after a while, there are so many holidays coming from elsewhere in the environment that they simply fade into other holidays.

If we are going to preserve Jewish identity in the Diaspora, if we are going to remain effectively a world people, then we have to find something very intense that we can identify with. We are not, if we are Secular Humanistic Jews, ritualistic. We can create celebrations, but celebration has to be attached to something stronger and more profound.

It has been said that it is impossible to relate Jewish history without religion. Part of the problem — and certainly Zionism has added to that problem because of its great attachment to the Tanakh — is that we cannot distinguish between the story of the Jewish experience and the Jewish experience. The events that occurred from the beginning of our people’s history until now constitute the Jewish experience, and it can be empirically discovered. But the first place we normally go to find out about it is to people who had a vested interest in looking at that experience; and they wrote about it from the point of view that without the cooperation and intervention of God, nothing would have happened.

I believe that the only way we can create any kind of intense commitment or intense feeling about being Jewish in the Diaspora is for people to feel they are part of an exciting world people. In fact, the reason Jews are interesting is that we are a world people. We are an interesting world people with an interesting history, and if you are going to be a Secular Humanistic Jew, you need to master the alternative history. You have to master the history of the Jewish people and of the Jewish experience from a secular humanistic point of view. Then you can tack holidays onto that if you want to.

I deliberately use the words “tack on” because people often ask me how do I do Hanukka, how do I do Pesakh, and it is not attached to anything substantial. With Orthodoxy, it is attached to a faith, and then it is an expression of that faith. For us, if it only floats with how we invent this little ceremony or that little ceremony, it won’t last. I feel very intensely Jewish because I identify with the world Jewish experience, and I try to transmit that intensity to other people. When I celebrate a holiday, it is because it expresses some aspect of that Jewish experience.

In order for Jewish identity to last, people have to feel that being Jewish is significant, and the only way they can feel that being Jewish is significant is if they feel that being part of the Jewish people is significant. And the only way they can feel that being part of the Jewish people is significant is to feel identified with Jewish history and informed of that history.

But the official history we now have is absolutely inadequate, and using the documents that are the foundation of that history is inadequate. One of the reasons why Reform Judaism has a hard time fighting Orthodoxy in North America is that the sacred documents of Reform are the same as the sacred documents of Orthodoxy. And since the documents are closer to the ideology of Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy always wins out because Reform Jews are always apologizing, explaining why they don’t do this and why they don’t believe that. They are always in a negative position.

If we told the alternative story of the Jewish experience, if we created it so it doesn’t appear only in scholarly journals, somebody who was a teacher in a school in the Diaspora or even in Israel could pick it up, and there would be the story told from the other point of view. Our story would say that being a world people is significant. If Judaism is identified only with the state of Israel and its concerns and culture, then there is no reason to make a distinction between Judaism and Israelism. Judaism means that the people of the State of Israel who are Jews wish to identify with the civilization that embraces this world people.

Our alternative history would pay tribute to all the people the old history doesn’t. I was raised in a city, on streets with sidewalks, and was told all my life that my heroes were shepherds. For two thousand years we have been an urban, bourgeois people, and we are embarrassed about it; in fact, many of the early writers of the Zionist movement were embarrassed about the bourgeois character of the Jewish people. I do not mind being bourgeois. That’s what I am. My parents were bourgeois, my relatives are bourgeois, and I do not feel that the bourgeoisie are a harmful element in world civilization.

Our problem is our self-hate. We can’t write about our history because the things we did for the past two thousand years are things we are embarrassed about. What we can write about are people milking cows on kibbutzim. Just show a Jew handling soil, and all of a sudden he is real, he’s useful. All the Jews I know, the psychiatrists, the accountants, everybody, they are not real. They’re not part of Jewish history. If we wrote that alternative history, we wouldn’t be trapped by the literature of the past. As secular Jews in the Diaspora, we live (as Mordecai Kaplan said) in two civilizations. We have the American civilization and we have the Jewish civilization. My heroes consist of two sets of people. The only way we will ever give Jews in the Diaspora a sense of strong Jewish identity is if they become masters of Jewish history; but if they become masters of the old history, they will either reject it or they will not want to be secular Jews. So we have to write a new history, and all the heroes of that history are my heroes. Those heroes include Baruch Spinoza, Albert Einstein, Theodor Herzl, and David Ben-Gurion. They include the vast spectrum of people, modern, medieval, or ancient, that are part of this tradition.

Finally, we need to make a connection between humanism and Judaism. There is a universal humanism, and I subscribe to its wisdom, but my humanism is reinforced by my identification with the Jewish experience. The meaning of Jewish history is not that we are in the hands of a loving and just Providence. The meaning of Jewish history is humanism. The meaning of Jewish history, certainly during the past two thousand years, is that we live in a world in which nobody out there gives a damn whether we live or die. The meaning of it is that we have to rely on ourselves. For me, Jewish ethics does not come from somebody coming down on a mountain. I don’t care how many thunderbolts he has — that’s not authority. Ultimately the authority for ethics lies in the Jewish experience. For me, it is inconceivable that we should oppress other peoples given the history of our people, given all that we have suffered and endured.

So, we have to find a way of connecting to Jewish history that’s very intense. We have to be the masters of a second Jewish history, and then we can attach whatever cultural items we want to that. Then we can live in a world that is multilingual and multinational as a world Jewish people. Unless we can achieve that, we in the Diaspora will not survive; if we do, then we will.

Israel Independence Day. It Came and Went.

TJH May 1977, vol. 14, no. 9.

Israel Independence Day. It came and went. 

Twenty-nine years of Jewish independence. 

How many more? 

David’s kingdom lasted for 400 years. The Maccabees’ dominion survived for 100. What about the Third State? 

I don’t know. All I know is that it is important for Israel to survive. The destruction of the Jewish state would undermine the existence of the Jewish nation as a world people. With the center dead, the periphery would be hard put to endure. 

Zionism has been the most successful Jewish response to the age of science and secularism. In an era when theological belief and ritual practice were no longer appropriate to individual survival, Zionism shifted the basis of Jewish identity from religious activity to Hebrew secular culture.  

The state of Israel is more than a refugee center for desperate Jews. It is a place where it is possible to be Jewish without being religious. The sign of Jewishness is not a set of outmoded theological statements and absurd ceremonial rites. It is the use of the Hebrew language, the celebration of national holidays, the creation of secular poetry, music and dance. Israeli culture is a viable alternative to Talmudic culture. It can be indulged full-time within Israel or part-time in the Diaspora. 

Unlike Yiddish secular culture (the national expression of Ashkenazi Jews), it has a territorial center where the national language can be used in everyday life. And unlike classical Reform Judaism it provides specific and concrete behavior-patterns instead of vague religious cliches. 

Israeli culture is not superior to other national cultures (After all, in a technological world personal lifestyles become International). But it is linguistically and aesthetically different. 

Hebrew culture is a twentieth century expression of the Jewish collective will to live. From the humanistic point of view, it adds one more ethnic style to the universal potpourri.  

But Hebrew culture will not live unless Israel lives. Israel will not live unless she makes peace with the Arabs.  

Israel has to make peace soon. The Jewishness of the Jewish state is at stake. If the present rate of Jewish emigration from Israel continues to increase because of inflation and war anxiety, and if the overwhelming numbers of Arabs in the occupied territories continue to remain within the unofficial boundaries of Israel, the Jewish state, by default, will turn into an Arab state. Like Detroit its ethnic character will be radically transformed.  

The time for making peace is now.  

Now the Arab world is deeply divided between the Arab Left and the Arab Right. The Arab Left is led by Gaddafi’s Libya, with its oil billions. The Arab Right is led by Khalid’s Saudi Arabia with its even greater wealth. Both sides despise and fear each other more than they despise and fear Israel.  

Now the Arab Left has suffered an enormous defeat. Syria has defected to the Right. the Palestine Liberation Organization was decisively defeated in Lebanon. Algeria and Iraq have suffered loss of face because of their failure to adequately support their Palestinian allies. 

Now all the Arab states on the borders of Israel belong to the Arab Right. For the first time in Israeli history, the governments of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are politically compatible and are able to act in unison.  

Now the Arab Right is willing to accept the reality of Israel and to recognize its political existence. This recognition is no Act of charity. The leaders of the Arab Right know that if they do not make peace with Israel, the continuing militancy will feed the terrorism which will enable the Left to underline the government of the Right.  

Now the Arab Right has tamed the Palestine Liberation Organization. Arafat and his allies are willing, because they have no other choice, to accept a truncated Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza federated with their old arch enemy, Hussein’s Jordan. This Jordan-Palestine state is the best ultimate deal the Israelis can achieve on their eastern frontier.  

Now Israel does not have to negotiate with the Soviet Union. The Russians hold no power base on the Israeli frontier. Syria still uses Soviet arms, but it has passed over to the American camp of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  

Now American public opinion is still strongly pro-Israel. Continued energy crises may make the American public more impatient with the Middle Eastern controversy.  

The public price of the Arab Right for peace is the return of the Israelis to the 1967 frontiers. The private price may be lower.  

The risk of peace without defensible frontiers is great. But, as Sadat appropriately point outs, the concept of defensible frontiers is Irrelevant in the age of missiles.  

The risk of continued war is even greater. If the failure of the peace initiative fails, new impetus will be given to the Arab Left. And the Arab Left is unequivocally committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.  

Israel needs courageous leadership now. The courage to make peace is sometimes more important than the courage to fight.  

Meir Kahane

TJH December 1985, vol. XXIII, no. 5

Meir Kahane.  

Some Jews adore him and revere him as a modern day prophet. Many Jews fear him and hate him. Most Jews regard him as a continuing embarrassment.  

Whatever the response to his programs and policies, all Jews are agreed that his publicity skills are extraordinary. Hardly a day passes without some reference to his activities in the media. He obviously has the power to keep himself in the limelight for a long period of time and to force the Jewish establishment to deal with him publicly.  

Although today Kahane is the only representative of his right-wing party in the Knesset, polls indicate that should an early election be held he would capture 10  percent of the vote. His bite may almost be as bad as his bark. 

How do we explain the emergence in Israel of a successful political figure who advocates the expulsion of all Arabs and who pleads that democracy is an inappropriate political structure for the Jewish state?  

There is no single cause. The continuous 40-year battle with the Arab world has created a war mentality that views all Arabs as the hated enemy. The frustration over persistent Palestinian terrorism feeds the hostility. The disillusionment that followed the inconclusive struggle in Lebanon searches for some Arab victim to receive the energy of its despair. The nearly impossible task of absorbing the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza feeds the creation of dramatic action and fantasy solutions. The decay of the Likud, Begin’s conservative coalition, which has now consented to share the government with its more liberal opponents, encourages opportunities on the right to recruit the devotees who represent the compromise. The long-standing Sephardic anger against the old Ashkenazic establishment expresses itself in a direct attack on the patriotism of the ruling class. Above all, the new immigration of ultra-Orthodox Jews from North America provides troops and fanatic fury for the street thugs of the Kahane movement.  

Whatever the causes, the Kahane phenomenon is real and dangerous.  

What is its significance? What does it say to us about the present and the future of the Jewish state?  

The Kahane phenomenon is a vivid proof that racism and fascism are just as Jewish as universalism and socialism. The call for the expulsion of Arabs from the Jewish state is no different from the demand of German Nazis for the eviction of the Jews from German soil. There are many elements in traditional rabbinic Judaism that encourage chauvinism and a violent hatred of outsiders. Given the privilege of majority status, the victim becomes the victimizer.  

Kahane, as a traditional rabbi turned politician, is an example of the danger in marrying nationalism with religion. The original pioneers of a militaristic nationalism, like Vladimir Jabotinsky, regarded the superstition and fanaticism of the traditional religious sector with as much disdain as their socialist opponents. Although it encouraged violence, it was free of the Messianic foolishness which now characterizes the new conservatives. Begin, with politicial astuteness, encourafged the merger of two previousy incompatible Zionist trends. The result is the Jewish version of the army of Ayatolla Khomeini. A militant chauvinism receives religious sanction.  

Kahane, like Hitler, derives much of his success from saying out loud what many people are thinking, but which most of them are too embarrassed to proclaim publicly. By speaking racism without inhibition, he makes it respectable. If politicians dar utter the forbidden words of racism, ordinary citizens certainly have the right to do the same. What was formerly clandestine, associated with shame, now becomes an accepted part of the political dialogue. Like the proclamations of the ancient Persian king, the sentiment, once uttered, cannot be recalled.  

The Kahane phenomenon is a testimony to the emergence in Israeli politics of violent confrontation. Although Begin’s rhetoric often encouraged spontaneous physical attacks on opponents in the streets, the recruitment of thugs to engineer personal assaults and public disturbances is something new and frightening. Especially the use of provacative insults like “traitor” and “blasphemer” gives ordinary criminals the right to pose as the self-righteous defenders of the faith.  

Kahane demonstrates the irony of Arab-Jewish relations. Its propoganda encourages the very Arab alienation which the racists claim justifies the expulsion of the Arabs. The more Kahane speaks and is publicized, the more do Israeli Arabs and their West Bank Palestinian brothers feel that they can find no comfortable place within the Jewish state. The more Arab alienation, the more Arab violence. The more Arab violence, the more the Kahane demand for Jewish counter-violence.  

The Kahane upsurge certainly reflects the weakening of the Likud coalition. Originally a small right-wing party controlled by Menachem Begin, the Likud emerged as a marriage between militaristic nationalists and the capitalist opponents of Zionest socialism. With the socialist decline in the mid-’70’s. Likud assumed political power in 1977 and expanded its security base by forging an alliance with the religous right. However, the retirement of Begin  and the revival of the Labor opposition, has left the coalition in disarray. No longer finding resolute leadership within the major conservative party, many right wingers are turning to the new fringe groups on the right for political expression. The more Likud decays, the stronger will Kahane grow.  

Kahane has been a catalyst for the Israeli left. There is nothing like a terrifying enemy to mobilize the indifferent. The one positive consequence of Kahane’s emergence to prominence is that he, like Jerry Falwell, forces lazy liberals to take political action and to patch up old quarrels for the sake of effective confrontation. By simply being the monster that he is, he fuels the energies of reluctant secular Zionists and their liberal religious friends.  

What should be done about Kahane? 

The answer is not one that orthodox civil libertarians like. But freedom of speech and political organization can never be absolutes. They are functions of the preservation of social order and a democratic political system.  

Kahane’s political party, like all political parties that preach racism, needs to be banned. Israel is not America. Israel is a vulnerable bi-national state at war with its neighbors. It cannot afford the luxury of racist incitement to violence. Just as West Germany appropriately forbids the establishment of openly Nazi political organizations, so must Israel forbid the right of Kahane to sit and preach in the Israeli parliament.  

Political bans cannot ban the convictions that give rise to the crisis. But they do remove the political respectability that enhances the prestige of organized racism and makes it more difficult to operate.  

A democracy that believes in survival does not masochistically allow itself to be used for its own destruction. At this time when Arab-Jewish reconciliation is so essential to Israel’s survival, absolute political freedom is less important than peace.  

The Rabbi Writes – 2nd Bienniel Meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

The Jewish Humanist, September 1988, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

At the end of September, during the festival of Sukkot, a special conference will be held in Brussels-which, in a very important way, is part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Birmingham Temple. 

The second biennial meeting of the new International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is the special event.  It was founded in Detroit two years ago.  And, to a large extent, it grew out of the pioneer efforts of our own Temple to develop a humanistic alternative in Jewish life.  Today seven national organizations from America, Canada, France, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina and Israel are joined together in a common effort to promote a secular approach to Jewish identity.  Hopefully, this international connection will provide a worldwide voice for our philosophy and for our decisions on important issues. 

One of these issues is the question of who is a Jew.  Although, on the surface, it appears to be a perfunctory issue, the answer to the question has aroused intense controversy in the Jewish world.  The persistent attempts of orthodox Jews in Israel to force the Israeli government to exclude from Jewish identity and Jewish privileges all citizens who do not conform to the orthodox vision of what a Jew is has dramatized the question. 

The orthodox criteria for Jewish identity are an odd mixture of racial and religious requirements.  All people born of Jewish mothers, regardless of their religious beliefs, loyalties or cultural attachments, are Jews.  But men and women who want to join the Jewish people must be converted by orthodox rabbis and pledge their commitment to orhodox practice.  This apparent inconsistency is defended with great passion by traditional Jews. 

The consequences of this traditional position, if it is applied uniformly throughout Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, is the exclusion of large numbers of people who want to be Jews.  In an age of inreasing intermarriage there are thousand of Jewish children who have Jewish fathers but no Jewish mothers.  In a time of religious diversity there are thousands of potential “converts” who like Judaism but who cannot stomach orthodoxy.  In a world where millions of Jews are secular and find their Jewish identity in cultural loyalties, an identification of Jewish legitimacy with orthodox law and orthodox practice makes a majority of the Jewish people feel like second-class citizens. 

Neither conservative nor reform authorities have responded adequately to this controversy.  Conservative Jews follow the orthodox timidly, only demanding that conservative rabbis have the same privileges as the orthodox.  Reform Jews have been bolder acknowledging that Jewish fathers confer Jewish identity just as well as Jewish mothers.  But they still insist on some form of theistic conversion process for newcomers. 

What is needed is a bold repudiation of the orthodox position.  We need a definition of Jewish identity which will embrace all the people who think they are Jews, are acknowledged as Jews and who want to be Jews. 

We need a definition that will give the same rights to Jewish fathers as the orthodox give to Jewish mothers. 

We need a definition that will proclaim Judaism to be more than a religion, and Jewish identity to be far more than religious identity.  Cultural Jews are as much Jews as religious Jews. 

We need a definition that offers admission to secular people.  Secular newcomers who want to identify with Jewish history and Jewish destiny should be as welcome as the smaller minority who seek to be sincere orthodox Jews. 

We need a definition that tells the truth about the Jewish people and enables Jews to be honest about who they are and what they are. 

And once we have arrived at this definition through public discussion on an international level we need to speak loud and clear with one voice to the Jewish world.  It may be the case  that our proclamation will be welcomed by thousands of Jews who have been uncomfortable with the traditional monopoly of official definitions. 

What follows is the resolution approved by the International Executive of the Federation to be presented for discussion, amendment, and approval by the Brussels conference. 

Who is a Jew?  After more than thirty centuries Jews continue to debate this question. 

This debate is no academic exercise.  At stake is the integrity of millions of Jews who do not find their Jewish identity in religious belief or religious practice, but who discover their Jewishness in the national experience of the Jewish people.  At stake, also, is the Jewish identity of thousands of men and women, in Israel and in the Diaspora, who want to be Jewish, but who are rejected by the narrow legalism of traditional authorities. 

We, the members of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, believe that the survival of the Jewish people depends on a more generous view of Jewish identity than traditional religion allows.  We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish fate, regardless of their maternal ancestry and regardless of their religious beliefs.  We challenge the assumption that the Jews are primarily a religious community and that certain religious convictions and behavior are essential to full membership in the Jewish people. 

On the contrary, the Jewish people began as a nation, a nation with many diverse and opposing beliefs and personal convictions  It evolved into an international people, with a culture and civilization all its own.  Judaism, as the national culture of the Jews, is more than theological commitment.  It is language, a vast body of literature, historical memories and ethical values.  It is a treasure house of many options. 

We Jews have a moral responsibility to embrace all people who seek to identify with our culture and destiny. Will the children and spouses of intermarriage, who desire to be part of the Jewish people be cast aisde because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to under conversion? 

Therefore-in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jews now proclaimed by the orthodox authorities-and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people-we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent, or any person who declares himself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civilization, community and fate of the Jewish people. 

The Rabbi Writes: Shula is Coming

The Jewish Humanist, November 1996, Vol. XXXIII, Number 4

Shula is coming. 

Shula is the famous Shulamit Aloni, the fiery Shulamit Aloni, who transformed the politics of Israel. Founder of the Ratz party, she was the first champion of individual freedom and women’s rights in the Knesset arena. Her courageous voice rallied thousands of Israelis to push for separation of religion and government and to demand the civil liberties that we as Americans take for granted. 

When the Labor government under Yitshak Rabin took power in Israel four years ago, she was appointed Minister of Education. Her predecessors for fifteen years had been the tools of Ultra- Orthodox Rabbis and the “yeshiva” lobby, funneling millions of shekels into the hands of religious fanatics. Her attempt to reverse the process was met with fierce opposition. Her bold articulation of a secular vision for Israel was labeled ” blasphemous”. In the end, Rabin was forced by panicky Laborites to shift her to the less controversial Ministry of culture. Even members of her own party turned on her for her “indiscretions” island sought to find more timid leadership. But the nature of Shula is to speak honestly and never to be intimidated. 

With the arrival of Netanyahu, Shula became part of the opposition.  She understands that there are two urgent causes for those who are concerned about the survival of Israel.  The first is the development of a strong secular humanistic movement in Israel, which will offer effective resistance to Orthodox demands and which will provide a positive Jewish alternative.  Shula was instrumental in helping to launch Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel after her 1979 visit to the Birmingham Temple.  The second is the defense of the peace process which Rabin and Peres initiated and which Netanyahu is in the process of destroying. 

The threat to the security and survival of Israel provided by the intransigence of Netanyahu is enormous. Bibi talks peace but he is unwilling to make any concessions which will make peace between Jew and Arab possible. This inflexibility flows both from personal conviction and political necessity. He is totally dependent on the votes of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset to guarantee the viability of his government. 

The consequences of his intransigence are frightening. Credibility and authority of the government will collapse. Chaos among the Palestinians will ensue. Some Palestinians will renew the Intifada. Many Palestinians will turn to the fundamentalist Hamas as an alternative leadership. The moderate Arab regimes of Mubarak in Egypt and Hussein in Jordan, which committed their prestige to the peace process, will be in danger. The Israeli army, prodded by the insecurities of Orthodox settlers, will engage in a campaign of repression which will alienate American and world opinion. Israel will be isolated, surrounded by fierce and fanatic enemies, fighting a war that cannot be won. The conflict will stimulate fear and chauvinism in the Israeli public and make them prone to increasing Orthodox control. The vision of a free secular democratic Jewish state will die. 

The peace process was intended to initiate a different scenario. The Israelis would evacuate Gaza and the West Bank, including Hebron. A Palestinian state would emerge next to the Jewish state. Peace would strengthen Mubarak and Hussein in Egypt and Jordan, who would offer their support to guarantee that Arafat behaved and that the fundamentalist were restrained. The reality of Peace would persuade other Arab and Muslim states to abandon their hostility and to enter into a friendly relationship with Israel. The intransigent government of Gadhafi in Libya, Bashir in the Sudan (sic) and Assad in Syria would be isolated. In time the Arab and Muslim worlds would open up to Israeli know how and technological skills. Israel would function as a high-tech Hong Kong or Singapore in a Middle Eastern Muslim sea. The secular forces in the Arab world would be encouraged by these transformations to resist their fundamentalist enemies. Israel would be smaller but safer, a partner in projects of economic cooperation. Hate and distrust would continue. But they would be controlled by the growing possibility of mutual respect and mutual dependence.  

The dream of this second scenario cannot be allowed to die.  Israelis who supported the peace process and who suffered the cruel disappointment of losing the May election need to know that there are thousands of Jews in the Diaspora who support their cause and who are prepared to act on behalf of the vision of Rabin and Peres.  Many of these Jews are in America the nation that has the power and vested interest to pressure the Israeli government to change its course. 

On Monday evening November 18 at 8:30PM Shula will be in the Birmingham Temple to speak to us about Israel and peace.  This meeting will be a Rally for Peace.  All members of the Birmingham Temple-all members of the Jewish community-all concerned citizens who believe that the peace process must not be allowed to die and that Netanyahu must be persuaded to reverse his course of self-destruction are urged to attend. 

We must join Shula in offering resistance to this act of national suicide.  Those in power, in both Israel and the United States must hear our voice.  Silence and resignation are ethically unacceptable. 

Rabin died because he would not surrender to the demands of inflexible nationalism.  Today his assassin, Yigal Amir, is being honored by Orthodox fan clubs who celebrate his act of “patriotism”.  If we are appalled by this indecency, if we do not believe that these demonstrators speak on behalf of most of the Jewish people.  If we are passionate about the long-run survival of the Jewish people, then we will make it our business to attend the rally on November 18 to hear Shula and to offer our support to the struggle for peace. 

The Rabbi Writes – The Relationship between Israel and American Jewry

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1989, Vol. XXVI, Number 10

Israel will be 41 years old this month. As the Jewishs state it has served the Jewish people well. The Diaspora has acquired both pride, culture and identity from its achievements. 

But all is not well.  Enormous problems confront Israel that often seem insoluble (sic).  The intifada, the Palestinian rebellions int eh West Bank and Gaza, is still strong after seventeen months.  Although its fury has somewhat abated, the Israeli reserves are still mobilized to suppress the uprising.  The cost of coping is high.  Military deficits, the wear and tear of unpopular police duty and the frustration with adverse world public opinion have taken their toll. 

The confrontation between the religious and the secular continues.  While the Who is a Jew? Issue has been temporarily defused, the fanaticism of the fundamentalists fuels new incidents.  Secularists are beginning to despair that they will ever be able to regain their primacy.  The new immigrants are mainly orthodox and their birth rate is high. 

Economic difficulties are everywhere.  Tourism has slumped because of the intifada.  Unemployment is on the rise.  There are insufficient funds to support the health and education programs that Israel needs.  In fact, the underfinanced school system is a disgrace to a Jewish state. 

The surge of Zionist idealism that gave Israel its special moral character at its inception has waned.  Old people have become cynical.  Young people have joined the ranks of the consumer culture.  Zionism has “normalized” the Jewish people to its disadvantaged (sic). 

One of the mor4e serious problems is the disintegration of the special relationship with American Jewry., the most powerful of Diaspora communities.  In the past American Jewish leaders were content to defer to the will of the Israeli government as an expression of Jewish solidarity.  The prestige of Israel was so high in Jewish eyes that this deference seemed natural.  Today rebellion is in the wings.  The connection is more abrasive. 

There are many signs of this new abrasiveness. 

American Jewish leaders have publicly expressed their reservations about Israeli government policies in the occupied territories.  Newspapers and the other media regularly report these disagreements.  In the past any conflict would have been kept secret.  The facade of unity would have been maintained. 

Advertisements by Jewish dissidents denouncing Israeli policy appear in major newspapers.  The signers are often leading intellectual and philanthropists who would formerly have never given their names or their money to such as assaultive exposure. 

Conferences of dissidents now attract thousands of participants.  Just recently, Michael Lerner, the found and the editor of the liberal magazine Tikkun (who will be speaking for us on May 22) held a major meeting of protest in New York.  He challenged the American Jewish leadership to listen to the dissenting voice in their constituency.  This challenge received wide publicity. 

Delegations of American Jewish leaders now travel to Israel to “lobby” the Knesset and the government.  During the Who is a Jew? controversy dozens of organizational heads took the time to go to Israel to express their indignation over proposed legislative changes.  Their protest was effective in undermining the conservative coalition with the orthodox. 

Many local welfare federations hage threatened to withhold their financial support from Israel unless the fundamentalists are restrained. Such threats would have been inconceivable in the past and would have been regarded as “betrayal”. 

American Jewish philanthropy has decided, independent of Israeli counsel and in direct opposition to Israeli policy, to raise millions of dollars for the absorption of thousands of ew Soviet Jewish immigrants by the United State.  The world Zionist Organization ad the Jewish Agency are fit to be tied.  They simply assumed that Israel would have prior claim to special funds raised for immigrant absorption. 

The recent unity conference called by Prime Minister Shamir in Jerusalem was less an expression of solidarity with the policies of the present administration than a show attempt to cover up the differences that everybody knows exist.  The drama of unity lacks the substance of agreement that would make it effective. 

Many factors have contributed to this new abrasiveness. 

Ever since the Lebanon War American Jews no longer see Israel through the reverential glasses of earlier years.  The “moral intimidation” power of Israel has seriously declined.  Israelis no longer appear, in American Jewish eyes to (sic) be as noble as they once were. 

 A modicum of disillusionment has set in. 

The growing power of the orthodox and their strident bid for political control have frightened many American Jews, most of whom are not orthodox.  It was easier for liberal and secular Jews to identify with the “old” Israel than with the present one. 

Adverse publicity concerning the Israeli handling of the intifada fills the American media and embarrasses American Jews.  Accustomed to seeing themselves as victims of oppression the Jews of the United States are very uncomfortable in the role of military repressor.  They are ambivalent.  While they are concerned about the future security of Israel, they want the bad publicity to stop. 

The Israelis have often behaved arrogantly, counting on American Jewish support without ever consulting with American Jews or eliciting their opinions.  While claiming to be the “voice” of the Jewish people, Israel reflects only its own electorate with no real input from Jewish constituencies in the Diaspora.  The insensitivity to American feeling in the Who is a Jew? issue is “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” 

The responses in the American community to this new dissent have varied. 

Many American Jews view it negatively.  They believe that public arguments give ammunition to our enemies, to all the antisemites who seek our destruction.  Families should not wash their “dirty laundry” in public they say (sic).  Freedom of speech yields to the need for survival. 

Many are enthusiastic.  They feel liberated from the fetters of an irrational control.  They maintain that open discussion will energize the Jewish people and lead to the new and creative solutions to problems.  They also maintain that the old leadership, attached to outmoded responses to problems, will never yield power unless publicly challenged. 

Others are simply ambivalent.  They agree with the protest.  But they are uncomfortable with Jews arguing with Jews in public.  They would prefer a quieter assault, although they are not quite sure how to engineer it. 

Which of these responses is the most valid? 

While many positive thighs can be said for solidarity it is no logger possible-either pragmatically or morally.  But dissent has to be responsible too-not simply a vehicle for a power-hungry new elite to replace a power-hungry old elite.[Text Wrapping Break] 

Four criteria ought to guide the relationship between Israel and American Jewry.                

  1. American Jews are the equals of Israeli Jews.  No special status of nobility attaches to living in the Jewish homeland. 
  1. The voice of the Jewish people is more than the voice of Israel.  When what Israel chooses to do affects the welfare of all Jews the leaders of the Diaspora must be consulted.  A regular forum or “congress” for the formulation of joint policies ought to be established. 
  1. The agenda of American Jews and Israelis are not necessarily identical.  Not every issue in Jewish life, including the disposition of Soviet immigrants, needs central control. 
  1. Publicity is no substitute for dialogue. 

Our relationship to Israel is entering a new phase.  We need guidelines.