THE MOSCOW CONFERENCE: A Gamble That Paid Off

What Does It Mean to be Jewish, Winter 1995

Moscow was our destination. The Fifth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was to be held there on the weekend of Sept­ember 23-25.

Eighty of us departed North America for this Russian rendezvous. Some of us were apprehensive. We had been bombarded with media propaganda on the dangers of or­ganized crime, mugging, and murder. Twenty people already had succumbed to this warn­ing and had withdrawn from the group. They were convinced that we were flying into a Mafia trap and would be destroyed. Not even the onion domes of St. Basil’s could convince them to relent.

But, for most of us, excitement overcame fear. It was not only that we would experience the wonders of the Hermitage and the Bolshoi, that we would walk the banks of the Neva and promenade under the towers of the Kremlin. It was also that Humanistic Judaism had ar­rived in Russia. A new Eurasian Association for Humanistic Judaism had been formed some two years before, and we were coming to ex­press our support for this fledgling organiza­tion and for the future of a Jewish community in all the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The holding of a conference in Moscow was a gamble. Russia was in economic turmoil. The amenities in public institutions did not meet Western standards. The new leadership of our communities had not yet been tested.

But the experience we had turned out to be far more wonderful than anything we could have anticipated. It was not only that Moscow and St. Petersburg are filled with cultural mar­vels, or that the new capitalist energies of these two cities provided a dynamic setting of change and hope, or that all our fears of Mafia rape proved to be groundless. It was also that the experience of meeting Russian Jews who shared our aspirations and convictions and who were eager to bond with their brothers and sisters from Europe, Israel, and North America was deeply moving.

The conference was held in the original building of the University of Moscow, right across from Red Square and the imposing tow­ers of the Kremlin. The building had been quite magnificent in tsarist times. But it was now a shabby relic of its former glory, a victim of Communist mismanagement and neglect.

Holding the meeting there was important. It was the most prestigious educational insti­tution in Russia. It also had been one of the chief bastions of anti-Semitism in tsarist and Bolshevik days. Ironically, it now housed the new Jewish University. Our board meetings were held in the new Jewish library.

Two hundred fifty delegates attended the meeting. Besides the 80 of us from North America, there were 30 from France and En­gland, 10 from Israel, 2 from Latin America, and more than 125 from seven republics of the former Soviet Union. The Eurasian delegates, in many cases, traveled several days and nights by train to reach Moscow. They came, not only from Russia, but also from Belarus, Ukraine, Khazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. The Eurasian Association is a coali­tion of thirty-five small communities scattered over eight million square miles, some of them closer to China and India than Moscow.

The theme of the conference was “What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?” The question was directly related to the needs of Russian Jews. It also flowed directly from the decision made at our Brussels conference in 1988, when we had dealt with the question “Who Is A Jew?” Having declared that Jewish identity is not only an inheritance but also a choice, we were now confronted by the more important issue of Jewish living. If one is a Jew, how does one lead a Jewish life? If one is a Humanistic Jew, how does one lead a Humanistic Jewish life? Determining Jewish identity is only the pre­lude to arranging for Jewish commitment. For Russian Jews who are searching for ways to express their Jewish identity for the first time, this question is crucial, especially since they are being assaulted by aggressive Lubavitcher missionaries who claim that their way is the only true way to be Jewish.

Addressing this question was a panel of distinguished speakers. There was Yehuda Bauer, world-famous Holocaust scholar and co­chair of the International Federation. There was Yaakov Malkin, founder of the community center movement in Israel and dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel. There was Albert Memmi, an intellectual darling of the French literary world, a professor at the Sorbonne, and the leader of our French communities. There was Egon Friedler, well-known journalist and writer from Latin America and leader of our Uruguayan organization. There were many Russian speakers, including Semyon Avgustevich, the organizing genius of the Eura­sian Association.

There were two stellar moments at the conference. The first was the Saturday evening banquet. The Eurasian delegates sat at twenty-six tables, each of which bore the name of a city where one of our Humanistic Jewish com­munities existed. Delegates from outside Rus­sia could choose the community they wanted to connect with by simply sitting down at the appropriate table. The experiment worked wonderfully. The bonding was intense. Out of that communication came sister communities. We of the Birmingham Temple in Detroit have adopted Vitebsk in Belarus as our sister con­gregation. We will offer support, establish an ongoing dialogue, and learn from each other. By the end of the evening there was fervent conversation and spontaneous singing. The presence of distinguished guests from the Rus­sian Jewish leadership and the Russian par­liament seemed less important.

The second moment was at the end of the conference on Sunday morning. The declara­tion on how to lead a Jewish life had just been read. Delegates were standing up to articulate their response to the weekend. One of them, a representative from Kazan, whom we called Olga from the Volga but whose real name was Olga Apollonova, stood up and declared with great fervor, “We thank you for coming to Rus­sia. We have been waiting for the message of Humanistic Judaism. You do not have to break down the door. The door is open.”

What did we learn from our experience?

We learned that Russia, with all its eco­nomic and political problems, is bumbling down the capitalist road. No one has a better alternative. Even the opposition does not want to go back to the old communism. They want the freedom of capitalism with a wel­fare system.

We learned that the new free environment allows fascists and anti-Semites to sell their wares and to peddle their hate. Right outside the former Lenin Museum in Moscow, the anti- Semitic bible, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was being openly sold.

We learned that the Jewish community in Russia is struggling with the issue of whether there is any future for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. The Israelis predict catastro­phe and want them to come to Israel. But many want to remain. Despite anti-Semitism, Russia is their home and Russian culture is their culture.

We learned that there is a real opening for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Russia. The ag­gressive message of Orthodoxy has limited appeal to a community molded by secularism and intermarriage. Our success will be deter­mined by our ability to train educators and leaders for new communities as well as by our power to produce a Humanistic Jewish litera­ture in Russian. The task is formidable. But we cannot betray this historic opportunity.

The Outlook for Peace in the Middle East

What Does it Mean to be Jewish – Winter 1995

Can Israel make peace with her Arab neighbors? That question has been plaguing the Jewish people and many other nations for forty-seven years, ever since the establishment of the state of Israel.

In 1967, the Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdul Nasser tried to mobilize the Arab nations to crush Israel and failed. Twelve years later the first breakthrough occurred. Egypt, under the leadership of Anwar Sadat, the successor to Nasser, made peace with Israel. But no one else did. Sadat was assassinated. Terrorism contin­ued. War followed in Lebanon. And the fanati­cism of Muslim fundamentalism invaded the Arab world with a fury far worse than any that Nasser invented.

Peace was impossible so long as the Cold War continued. So long as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for allies in the Middle East, confrontation was inevitable, and weapons poured into the region, encour­aging warlike posturing. But, to everyone’s surprise, Communism fell like a house of sticks. The Cold War ended with more of a whimper than a bang. The Arab world was left without Soviet support. Hating America became impractical. Tolerating Israel became a possibility.

The last bastion of pan-Arab nationalism was Iraq. In an action that defied reason, that nation’s leader, Saddam Hussein, attacked Kuwait, part of the oil empire of the United States. The Gulf War ensued. Iraq was crushed and humiliated. Jordan and the Palestine Lib­eration Organization (PLO), which supported Hussein, also were losers. Jordan lost its American support. The PLO lost its Arab sup­port. Both were ready for peace. The question was: Which would take the first step?

The PLO took the first step. It was bank­rupt, down and out, and bereft of real allies. It was weakened by civil war and defection. Above all, it was confronted by a formidable Palestinian opposition in the form of Hamas. Hamas was the child of Muslim fundamental­ism and the Intifada. It hated Israel. It hated America. But it hated PLO chairman Yasser Arafat with an equal passion. Suddenly the old political principle that the enemy of my en­emy is my friend worked its wonders. Arafat and Israel shared a common enemy. And so they became reluctant “friends.” In Septem­ber 1993, the famous handshake took place. Israeli doves were euphoric. Israeli hawks were depressed. Most Palestinians, desperate for good news, were happy. Fundamentalist Pal­estinians were angry.

The PLO’s action allowed Jordan to take the next step. There were too many Palestin­ians in Jordan to allow King Hussein of Jordan to do what he had wanted to do ever since he became king: to initiate peace with Israel. But now that Arafat, the official leader of the Pal­estinians, had made peace, it was easy for Hussein to shake Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand, too. In September 1994, peace broke out between Israel and Jordan. The fundamentalists growled again. But they were powerless to prevent the second handshake.

While many Israelis were apprehensive about making peace with Arafat, most Israelis were wildly enthusiastic about making peace with Jordan. After all, the agendas of the PLO and Jordan do not coincide. They both want the same thing. They both want the West Bank. They both want control over East Jerusalem. They both want to win the support and loy­alty of the Palestinians in Jordan. While they both share a fear of the Muslim fundamental­ists, they share very little else.

Most Israelis like King Hussein. They see him as a sincere supporter of the right of the state of Israel to exist. They see him as the long­time persecutor of the PLO, which he expelled from Jordan in 1970. They see him as a politi­cal alternative to Arafat.

Arafat is very worried. He is squeezed be­tween Israel and Jordan. He knows that Hussein hates his guts. He knows that if Israel and Hussein could get together, they would leave him and the PLO out in the cold. He knows that, in a pinch, he has very few allies in the Arab world.

But Hussein needs to move cautiously. He has thousands of fanatical fundamenta­lists in his country. His population is mainly a refugee West Bank population. He has many enemies who want to overthrow him. His throne is insecure. He relies mainly on the soldiers of his Bedouin army. A betrayal of Arafat would not win him any moderate Arab friends. His survival as the King of Jor­dan has depended on his unwillingness to take any real political risks. The one time he did, by supporting Saddam in Iraq, he suffered bit­ter consequences.

For years King Hussein worried about Syria. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria cov­eted Jordan and Lebanon. He saw himself as the ruler of a Greater Syria, which would in­clude the Palestinians. Assad won the military and political support of the Soviet Union. He offered asylum to Palestinian terrorists and aided them in their ruthless work. He defied

America and the rest of the Arab world. Jor­dan was afraid to make peace with Israel be­fore Syria did.

When the Cold War ended, Syria was left high and dry. Her chief enemy and Arab rival, Iraq, loomed as more and more menacing. Her option to play one great power against the other vanished. Her only radical support came from Shiite Iran, whose fundament­alist rulers despised the secular nationalism Assad championed.

When the Gulf War erupted, Syria repu­diated all her old propaganda by joining the Americans and Israelis as allies against Iraq. By the time the war was over, Syria was ready to talk peace with Israel. Urged on by U.S. Sec­retary of State Jim Baker, she entered into ne­gotiations. The handshake of Rabin and Arafat came as a cruel surprise. Assad wanted no Pal­estinian state. He wanted the Golan back. And he was prepared to sell out the Palestinians to achieve his goal.

Peace with Arafat made it less necessary for Israel to make peace with Syria. The hos­tility of fundamentalists in Syrian-controlled Lebanon was quite manageable so long as the Intifada was extinguished. And peace with Jordan made a rapprochement with Syria even less necessary. Israel had imagined that King Hussein was too cautious to make peace un­less the Syrians did it first. When Hussein grew tired of waiting for Syria (because he was afraid that waiting would allow Arafat to take every­thing Hussein wanted), Assad was furious. Is­rael no longer urgently needed Syrian coop­eration. Israel had Jordan and a friendly eastern border. Finding a solution to the dilemma of the Golan Heights could be shifted to the back burner.

The importance of Jordan to Israel has in­creased with the events of the past few months. The power of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank is growing. Arafat’s control of the Pales­tinians is slipping. Can Israel afford to turn over the West Bank to a Palestinian popula­tion dominated by Hamas terror? Can she leave the Jewish settlements to be protected against Hamas aggressiveness by reluctant PLO police? Most Israelis no longer believe that Arafat is either intimidating enough or necessary. The message of the Likud opposition to the Labor party’s peace policy is to suggest that Arafat be abandoned, the West Bank be retained, and the protection of Palestinian rights be shifted to Hussein. And Hussein does not seem averse to assuming that role.

Peace with Jordan has become more im­portant to Israel than peace with Arafat. It means that Syria can wait for concessions. It means that Arafat may never get what he was promised. It means that what Labor accom­plished — peace with Jordan — may work to the Likud’s advantage.

History features cruel ironies. Peace with Jordan would not have been possible without peace with Arafat first. Rabin stuck his neck out when he stuck his hand out to meet the hand of Arafat. Now he is burdened with Arafat. And Hussein can just as easily shake the hand of Likud as shake the hand of Rabin.

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.

Immigration: A New (and Not-so-new) Crisis

Immigration Spring 2007

Immigration has become one of the hot controversies in America. The flow of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border has triggered an intense backlash of protest and resentment. Some protestors are demanding deportation and a wall of separation. Others are insisting on more intense surveillance. Still others want immigrants to commit them­selves to speaking English.

Immigrants have been a controversial issue ever since the beginning of the United States of America. They were obviously useful, fill­ing up the Western lands with white settlers and providing cheap labor for burgeoning industry. But they also were a problem. The self-image of America was tied up with being a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation. Hordes of Catholics and Jews, Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans, threatened the cultural and ethnic unity of the American people. In the middle of the nineteenth century a power­ful new political party (the American Party) emerged on the political scene to demand an end to immigration.

The issue of “foreigners” was aggravated by the presence in America of a large “unassimilable” population of African slaves. Even for millions of Americans who were opposed to slavery, the thought of a future America filled with free blacks was not an attractive vision. Many abolitionists preferred the “re­turn” of blacks to their African homeland, feeling that African-American race and culture posed a danger to a homogeneous nation. To these white Americans diversity had its limits if the nation was to continue a nation. Lincoln, early in his political career, advocated this “return” program.

The victory of the North in the Civil War subverted the power of the nativists. The Yan­kees were committed to the industrialization of America. This transformation was possible only with the availability of vast reservoirs of cheap labor. Whatever ethnic reservations the Yankee elite had about foreigners, no anxiety could effectively resist the prospect of becoming rich. America opened its doors to millions of immigrants seeking a better life. The only restriction was that immigrants had to be white. Europeans were welcomed, but Asians were discouraged – and sometimes barred from entering.

America was irreversibly changed by the massive entry of new immigrants after 1865. The first wave of Irish and Germans was fol­lowed by the second wave of Italians, Slavs, and Ashkenazic Jews. Catholics became the majority in dozens of American cities. Eth­nic ghettos transformed the urban landscape and replaced the old with a new diversity. A shrinking rural America remained the heart­land of Anglo-Saxon culture. But it was van­ishing in many places and losing political power. Public schools softened the blow of change. They turned white immigrants into English-speaking imitations of the original Anglo-Saxon American. But the imitation was never quite the same as the original.

Again the nativists rallied. After the First World War, in 1924, they closed the doors to immigration. Only a small number of north­western Europeans were allowed to enter. This xenophobia was accompanied by the absurd episode of Prohibition, a silly attempt to preserve Anglo-Saxon virtue with an attack on the “alcoholic” culture of Catholics and other immigrants. Prohibition failed. And so did the nativist campaign to keep America white and Anglo-Saxon.

The relentless demand for new cheap labor prevailed over the racism of the nativ­ists. With the end of the Depression and with the coming of the new prosperity of postwar America, immigration revived. The Cold War cut off the access to the remaining pools of poor people in Eastern Europe. Two new groups arrived on the immigration scene to replace white recruits. Asians and Hispanics constituted the majority of the new arrivals. And all this racial change was preceded by a massive internal immigration, the transfer of millions of African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North.

While Asians tended to enter the middle class through their educational achievement and entrepreneurial skills, Hispanics became the new menial labor of America. From cherry pickers to construction workers, they filled the vacuum left by traditional white workers climbing into the middle class. Although the label Hispanic designates their language, it fails to designate their race. Hispanics are not Spanish. They are mestizo descendants of Amerindians (Mexicans). They are mulatto offspring of Latin American blacks (Puerto Ricans). They are an assault on the white self- image of old America.

Latin American poverty and rising expec­tation triggered a mass exodus of Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Brazilians, and Do­minicans from their homelands. “Gringoland” was the place of economic opportunity. Be­cause U.S. immigration laws were unfriendly to unskilled labor, millions of Hispanics chose to cross the American border illegally. Today ten million people in the United States are illegal Hispanic immigrants.[1] While they perform useful work, they also impose heavy burdens on public education and public wel­fare. Their persistence in retaining Spanish threatens the English-speaking self-image of other Americans. And their non-white racial characteristics threaten the vision of America as a predominantly white nation. We all know that if ten million Swedes were “swimming” across the Rio Grande illegally, the nativists would not be up in arms.

Driving out ten million illegal Hispanics is not politically possible. Big business and small business need their cheap labor. And legal Hispanics are a large minority with formidable voting power, especially in states like Texas and California. The Republican Party, the historic home of nativist sentiment, is hope­lessly divided on this issue. The economic conservatives want to legalize the illegals and to provide for the entry of thousands of guest workers. The social conservatives want to drive out the illegals and to preserve the his­torical culture and racial character of America, no matter what the economic consequences. President George W. Bush has sided with the economic conservatives. But his Religious Right allies oppose him on this issue.

What is going to happen? Will the contro­versy irreparably harm the Republican Party? Will Hispanics be deported? Will a wall of ex­clusion be built along the Mexican border?

Realism provides the answers. The Ameri­can economy needs cheap menial labor. The Hispanics remain the only available labor pool to service this need. A Republican determina­tion to hold back the Hispanic tide will drive the Hispanics completely into the Democratic camp. The prevailing birth rates indicate that within fifty years the majority of Americans will not be white. While English will remain the world language, English in America will increasingly share space with Spanish. (In a global world, bilingualism is an asset, not a catastrophe.) America, like all the other countries in the developed world, is becoming a multicultural state. Anglo-Saxon America is fading away. Asians and Hispanics are on the rise.

Realism dictates that we make it easy for Hispanics to enter the United States. We need menial workers as well as well-educated immi­grants. The present illegals should be legalized. Future illegals should be punished. The flow of temporary and permanent Hispanic residents needs an open door, not a closed one.


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.

The Lesson of Evita, a Review

Homosexual Rights – Spring 1997

I loved Evita. I loved the musical. I loved the movie. And, I thought that Madonna was an extraordinary Eva Peron.

But seeing Evita made me reflect on the politics of the modern world. After all, the fas­cism of the Perons was a unique fascism, an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Historically, in most conservative countries, the army allies itself with the clergy and the upper classes. But not in Argentina under Peron. As we can tell from the frustrated “oligarchy” in the Webber musical, singing in their upper-class accents, the old ruling class were not happy with the Perons. Eva hated them. She was happiest when she was mesmerizing the descamisados, her shirtless workers.

Fascism is on the Right. But it is not conservative. It is a radical response to the traumas of modern capitalism. Unlike com­munism, which glorifies the industrial worker and the international working class, fascism glorifies the peasant, the soldier, and the pa­triot. The soldier, in particular, is the hero of fascist intellectuals. (The soldier is also peas­ant and patriot.) In a capitalistic world he is seen as the victim of the masters of money, the corrupt politicians of democracy, and the effete and indifferent upper classes. His res­cue can be effected only by a leader who em­bodies the will of the people, a hero who will turn the whole nation into an army of virtue and mutual support.

Both Hitler and Mussolini hated the up­per classes. They played to the lower classes, to their sense of victimization in a cruel capitalistic world, to their hatred of urban life, to their fear of foreigners, to their yearning for self-esteem through military glory. Both Hitler and Mussolini were veterans of the First World War. Their first followers were lower- class unemployed veterans, filled with hatred of the rich and the privileged, and open to any conspiracy theory that featured foreign­ers and Jews. The gauleiters of the Nazi Party were not aristocrats. They despised aristo­crats. They preferred German leaders who talked like Huey Long, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan. Unlike the old conservative ideologies of pedigree and property, fascism had the power to mobilize the masses.

But neither Hitler nor Mussolini suc­ceeded in winning over the leaders of indus­trial labor. The urban workers voted against fascism. In the end, both dictators were forced to make alliances with the aristocrats they despised. It was the Perons, in the very hour when the forces of fascism experienced their terrible defeat in both Europe and Asia, who succeeded in making an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Behind the songs and biography of Evita lies an extraordinary and frightening political development.

Argentina had become a rich country by the beginning of the twentieth century. Brit­ish investment, the invention of refrigeration and the European demand for Argentine beef and wheat produced enormous wealth. But this wealth was very unevenly distributed.

A small number of landed aristocrats con­trolled most of it. They indulged themselves with excessive luxury and monopolized all positions of political power. Needing work­ers for their economic empire, they imported large numbers of Spanish and Italian immi­grants, who transformed the port city of Buenos Aires into one of the great metropoli­tan centers of the world. Many of these immi­grants created a new middle class that struggled with the aristocrats for political con­trol. For a short time in the 1920s the middle class prevailed. But most of the peasants and urban workers remained excluded, oppressed, and ignored. They were the “losers” of an emerging modern economy.

The key to the success of Juan and Eva was that they spoke to the “losers” in a lan­guage that the lower classes could understand — a language of paternal and maternal love, a language of patriotism and lower-class resent­ment. The turn-off language of intellectual socialism and sophisticated atheism never burdened their communication. The lower classes did not want democracy. They wanted jobs, recognition, and revenge. Eva under­stood them. That is why in poor neighbor­hoods in Argentina she is still remembered as “Santa Evita.”

In time, without Eva, the Peron regime collapsed from its own economic mismanage­ment. The upper and middle classes rejoiced. The army returned to its traditional alliance with the rich and the clergy. But the new gov­ernment, including the present one (which is ironically Peronist without any of the pro­grams of PeronJ has not found the solution to the problem of the unhappy “losers,” the work­ers that modern capitalism so easily displaces.

Evita makes you think. In an America where so many workers are discovering that their standard of living is falling, that their jobs are disappearing to automation or to for­eign competition, where foreigners abound in ethnically mixed cities, and where the sepa­ration between the “winners” and “losers” is growing wider, is it possible that disgruntled labor could make an alliance with undemo­cratic politicians and soldiers in an outburst of impulsive resentment? I think not. But Evita makes me think of the danger of a world where the “winners” indulge their right to self-absorption and where the “losers” are cast aside, alienated from the economic game, and consumed by envy and anger. The problem of Evita will not go away.

Jews and Arabs

Crisis in Israel – Autumn 2002

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for the war in the Middle East? Or is the Jewish-Arab war condemned to last forever?

The war between the Jews and the Arabs in former British Palestine has been going on for eighty-one years. In 1921 the first Arab explosion against the Zionist pioneers an­nounced the beginning of the fray. For eight decades the war has waxed and waned. Thou­sands have been killed and maimed. Hatred and suspicion have undermined any success­ful resolution of the conflict.

After the Jewish War of Independence in 1948, the war became a war between the Jew­ish state and external Arab enemies. In that conflict, the Israelis were generally victorious. The Israeli triumph in 1967 crushed Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism. But in 1987 the Palestinian Arabs chose a new kind of battle: internal rebellion. The intifada was born. And it has grown in fury ever since.

The foundation of the war is the power of nationalism. Jewish nationalism was born out of the defiance of the oppressed Jewish masses in Tsarist Russia. It was fed by racial antisemitism. Diaspora nationalism sought to liberate the Jews of Eastern Europe and give them cultural autonomy. It was destroyed by native resistance and the Holocaust. Zionist nationalism also saw itself as a national lib­eration movement. It naively proposed to solve the Jewish problem of antisemitism by return­ing the Jews to their ancient homeland. Rein­forced by socialist idealism and the revival of Hebrew as a popular language, Zionists estab­lished a Jewish settlement in Palestine. The closing of the doors to immigration in America, the support of the British govern­ment, and the rise of Adolph Hitler provided an impetus that the slaughter of six million Jews was to make irresistible. Zionism became the most powerful movement to mobilize the Jewish masses in the twentieth century.

Arab nationalism was an import from the West, cultivated initially by Christian Arabs as a way of countering their exclusion by Muslims. Propelled by Turkish oppression and by the humiliation of European conquest, the nationalist movement was led by West­ernized Arab intellectuals who embraced secular values and placed nationhood above religion. But since the Arab world never fully experienced the secular revolution that trans­formed European life, the Arab nationalism of the street had difficulty distinguishing be­tween Arab loyalty and Muslim loyalty. Reli­gion inevitably became part of the nationalist package in the Muslim world.

Since the Arab world is vast, divided by regional differences, cultural diversity, and the internal boundaries of twenty-two states created by colonial masters, the unification of the Arab nation has not been easy. Nasser tried and failed. He was defeated both by the Israelis and by the hostility of his political enemies and rivals in the Arab world.

The one issue that has the power of tran­scending the internal state boundaries of the Arab world and mobilizing the Arab masses is Zionism. The Jewish state, whether deserv­edly or not, has become the symbol of Arab humiliation. Perceived as the last and most outrageous example of European colonialism, Israel is the object of universal hate in the Arab world. The defeat of Israel has become the ultimate perceived means of restoring Arab honor. The hatred of Zionism is so intense that it is difficult for most Arabs to distinguish between their hostility to Israel and their ha­tred for Jews.

In fact, the suspicion and hatred between Arabs and Jews is so fierce that dialogue is condemned to failure. Most public and pri­vate encounters between conventional Arab and Jewish leaders degenerate into shouting matches. Each side insists on its rights. And, of course, both sides are “right.” The Pales­tinian Arabs have been invaded, abused, and oppressed. The Israeli Jews are by now mainly native-born residents of the land they defend and the creators of a dynamic, modern, high- tech state, who have no place else to go.

From the Jewish point of view, Arab hos­tility cannot easily be distinguished from antisemitism. The memories of the Holocaust hover over every response. Of course, the popular media in the Arab world reinforce this perception by aping the propaganda of European Jew-hatred. From the perspective of the Arabs, Jewish voices are confused with the voices of Jewish extremists who advocate expulsion and deportation.

There is an abundance of extremists on both sides. The Arab and Palestinian nation­alist and fundamentalist worlds feature many militant groups who advocate terrorism and who call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The Jewish and Israeli extremists are equally militant in their refusal to recognize the right of a Palestinian state to exist (other than by suggesting that Jordan is already a Palestin­ian state). But, to the credit of the Israelis, Is­rael has a peace movement that has no counterpart in the Arab world.

Both sides see themselves as victims. Jews see Israel as a small, beleaguered state in a vast and petroleum-rich Arab world that does nothing to rescue its Palestinian brothers and sisters from poverty. Arabs see Israel as the agent of American imperialism, supported by the wealth and military technology of the world’s only superpower, a nation beholden to Jewish political power.

The failure of the Oslo peace process is as much the result of intense hatred and sus­picion as of the incompatibility of vested in­terests. The issues of boundaries, Jerusalem, and refugees are surrounded by such levels of distrust that the normal compromises that negotiations bring can never emerge. No ar­rangements can provide the security that most Israelis want. And no “deal” can yield the sense of honor and vindication that most Pal­estinians and Arabs want.

In the search for alternatives to endless war, certain realities need to be confronted.

  • This war is not only bad for the Israelis and Palestinians. It is also bad for the Jews and the Arabs. For the Jews the war has already spread to Europe, where Muslim militants as­sault synagogues and vulnerable Jews. For the Arabs the war prevents any real confrontation with the political, economic, and social issues that confront the Arab world. War continues to justify government by military dictators.
  •  This war is bad for America and the world. The Palestinian issue has provided the fuel whereby Muslim militants have won the allegiance of millions of Arabs and Muslims in their desire to wage war against America and Western culture. A war between the West and Islam is a world war. It is different from a war against Muslim fundamentalist terrorism. In the latter war we enjoy and will enjoy the support of most Muslim governments. The success of our response to September 11 lies in our ability to make the distinction.
  •  Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians by themselves cannot achieve peace — or even an effective truce — by relying on negotia­tions alone. The cycle of vengeance has its own logic. Every terrorist action requires re­taliation. Every retaliation requires counter- retaliation. No antagonist can allow itself to be seen as weak. Revenge is a necessary tac­tic to maintain credibility. The cycle cannot stop itself without outside intervention.
  •  The proposed Palestinian state is no more than three thousand square miles in size, hardly a formula for viability. It is presently a series of urban “doughnut holes” in Israeli- occupied territory. The presence of the Israeli army is justified, not only by the argument for security, but also by the necessity to defend small Jewish settlements, which have been placed in the West Bank and Gaza by religious Jewish settlers laying claim to the land. These settlements prevent peace, add nothing to the security of Israel, and only provide more provocation to Arabs to kill more Jews.
  •  Jerusalem is already divided. Jewish Jerusalem (about two-thirds of the expanded city) has no Arabs; Arab Jerusalem (the east­ern sector) has no Jews. While some Arabs work in Jewish Jerusalem, almost no Jews ever penetrate Arab Jerusalem unless they are on military duty. A unified city is more desir­able than a divided city. But the division al­ready exists.
  •  A bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state (a dream of many peaceniks) is not politically viable even though it would be economically desirable. Jewish and Arab nationalism are realities. They cannot be wished away. Mu­tual hatred and suspicion are realities. They cannot be dismissed. Arguing against nation­alism may work a hundred years from now. It does not work now. A Jewish state is no more a racist state than an Arab state. It is a state where Jewish national culture is the dominant culture and where most people speak Hebrew. It is Jewish in the same way that Palestine will be Arab. Three million Palestinian refugees cannot return to the Jewish state without de­stroying the Jewish national character of the Jewish state.
  • Because outside intervention is required, the only superpower capable of orchestrating a successful intervention is America. Since September 11, Bush has mobilized an effec­tive coalition of world powers, including Eu­rope, Russia, China and India — as well as many allies in the Muslim world. The war between the Israelis and the Palestinians has begun to undermine the coalition, especially with Bush’s perceived support of the Sharon government in Israel. Joint intervention, with the approval of the United Nations and with the support of moderate Muslim powers would restore the coalition. This intervention is no different from the intervention that America initiated in Bosnia or Kosovo.

What would be the elements of such an intervention?

  1.  America controls the process of interven­tion. The Israelis do not trust the United Na­tions and will not cooperate with an effort managed by the hostile nations of the Third World.
  2.  America behaves as a neutral “parent.” It does not always praise one side and condemn the other. It creates a setting for negotiations, with the presence of major members of the coalition. The format of negotiations is only a pretense. In the “back room” America dic­tates the settlement. Everybody knows that America has imposed the settlement. Both antagonists protest. But they yield because they have no choice. The imposition gives the leaders of both sides an excuse. They can jus­tify their “surrender” to their constituencies by pleading helplessness. They may even shake hands reluctantly. Of course, Arafat will be there. The latest Israel foray has restored him as the popular leader of the Palestinians.
  3.  The imposed settlement will include the following: 1) the removal of all Jewish settle­ments from the West Bank and Gaza with the exception of those settlements that function as contiguous suburban communities for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; 2} the digging of a ditch and the building of a fence along the adjusted 1967 boundaries between the Jews and the Arabs; 3) the policing of this fence by America and its European allies; 4) the granting of Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their national capitol; 5) the demilitarization of the new Palestinian state, with periodic inspec­tions by Americans and their coalition part­ners; and 6) compensation for Palestinian refugees who cannot return.
  4.  Compensation for Palestinian refugees may cost more than thirty billion dollars. It will be covered by America, Japan, and our European allies. If the compensation helps to bring about an effective truce, it will be worth the investment. Rescuing the global economy for peace justifies the expense.
  5.  All that can presently be achieved is an effective truce. Peace will have to await a re­duction in the fury and hatred and suspicion.
  6.  Israel needs to be compensated for its willingness to shrink and to confront the wrath of its right-wing extremists. Since it will not in the foreseeable future be accepted by the Arab and Muslim worlds, it needs to be regarded as the European power that it is. Israel’s high-tech economy needs the Euro­pean market, just as its European culture needs a European support system. The price that Europe pays for this necessary peace is that it accepts Israel as a member of the Euro­pean Union. Such acceptance is no different from accepting Cyprus or Turkey. Israelis will be better off with euros than with shekels.

After this settlement is imposed, terrorist violence will continue. The war against Mus­lim fundamentalist terrorists also will continue. For the extremists in the Arab and Muslim world — and even in the Jewish world — hatred is a way of life. For the moderates, an effective truce will enable them to join the forces of peace.

The ball is in President Bush’s court. Only he can lead the way. The leaders of the De­fense Department and the religious right will oppose this kind of proposal. But only such action can provide any light at the end of the tunnel in the Middle East.

Jews and the Muslim World

Colloquium 07 – Summer 08

Since the advent of Zionism, the Arab and Muslim worlds have become obsessions in Jewish life. And since September 11, 2001, the world of Islam has become an obsession in American life. Similarly, Jews and Americans take the center stage in the Muslim perception of evil. The demonization of the Jew in Muslim propaganda during the past forty years echoes the strident hatred of German fascist leaders before and during the Second World War.

For most of the past fourteen hundred years the fate of the Jew in the Islamic world has been kinder than his fate in the Christian world. While there are harsh tales of Muslim persecution of the Jews, the steady stream of murderous assaults that defines the experience of Jews in Christian Europe is absent from the Muslim chronicles. Jews were not loved in the countries of Islam, but they were not demon­ized. In Spain and in many other places Jews and Muslims established alliances of conve­nience, which lasted for centuries.

Both Judaism and Islam had Semitic roots. The patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible were just like the patriarchs of Arab recollection. The detestation of painting and sculpture, the reverence of unhewn stones, the Bedouin abhorrence of pig meat, the love of animal sacrifices, the attachment to polygamy and secluded women – all of these cultural tastes were shared by Jews and Arabs. There was a compatibility of spirit and practice between the Jewish and Muslim societies that did not exist between the Jews and the Greco-Roman culture of the Christian world. Even the status of the Jewish and Muslim clergy and their pri­mary role as interpreters of sacred scriptures stood against the functioning of the Christian clergy as masters of ritual and worship. Ac­commodating to Muslim practice was easier for Jews than adapting to the cultural milieu of the Christian nations.

It was in the Christian world that the Jews were demonized. The militancy of the Crusades, the emergence of the aggressive missionary activity of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and the persistent hostility to the banking and commercial activities of the Jews encouraged intense hatred. The Third and Fourth Councils of the Western Church, held in 1179 and 1215, respectively, turned the Jews into devils whom neither conversion nor baptism could cure. It was in the Christian world that Jews become racial pariahs that later secular writers would appropriate for modern antisemitism. The Jewish devil became the Jew­ish conspiracy to dominate the nations of the world. Zionism was a response to the intensity of Christian hostility to the Jews.

But Zionism sought to solve this Jewish problem in the Muslim world. Jewish na­tionalism chose a Muslim territory for Jewish settlement, a territory that had played host to a Muslim majority for more than one thousand years. While Christian antisemites were happy to see the Jews leave Christian Europe for Mus­lim Asia, the Muslims did not share their joy. The arrival of the Zionists reminded them of the arrival of the British and French. While the Jews saw themselves as the victims of Christian antisemitism, the Muslims saw the Zionists as the last invasion of European colonists. They saw no virtue in solving a European problem by transporting the Jews to a Muslim land. The European arrogance of using the whole world as a place to solve European problems infuriated the Arabs and triggered an Arab and Muslim hatred of the Jews that had not existed before.

The Muslim obsession with the Jews is something new. The advent of Zionism was the provocation. A noble and idealistic move­ment to rescue the Jews was perceived by its Muslims enemies as a travesty of justice. Jewish victims became Jewish villains. Jewish settlers were viewed as Jewish invaders. The vision of Jewish suffering was turned into an image of Muslim suffering. No genocide or Holocaust could reverse the confrontation. The victimiza­tion of the Jews was no excuse for the victim­ization of the Arabs.

The 1967 war turned hatred into antisemi­tism. The Jewish victory in the Six Day War was an ultimate humiliation. The Muslim world struggled with the question of how this defeat was possible. Antisemitism provided the an­swer. Straight from Hitlerian Europe came the reply. The Arab and Muslim worlds were not defeated by tiny Israel. They were defeated by a giant world conspiracy organized and financed by the world Jewish community. This com­munity controlled all Western governments and every development in the global economy. Jewish leaders had already sponsored two depressions and two world wars to enrich themselves and to enhance Jewish power. They had initiated the saga of the Holocaust to hide their ruthlessness and to persuade the Gentile world to see them as sufferers and not as conquerors.

After 1967 antisemitism became an im­portant ingredient of Muslim propaganda and Muslim politics. Anti-Zionism was replaced with the detestation and demonization of the Jew. Only the “Jewish enemy” of antisemitism could inspire the terrorist assault on Israel, the Jewish Diaspora, and their perceived allies. The assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 by an enraged Palestinian was the beginning of the Muslim war against the devil. America had become the tool of the Jews. The Muslim fundamentalist assault on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 was a con­tinuation of this war. New York, “the real capital of the Jews,” was to feel the brunt of Muslim revenge.

The Jewish response to this confronta­tion is fear and contempt – fear of Muslim numbers and Muslim power and contempt for the ignorance that allows this antisemi­tism to be believed. With some Jews, fear and contempt have united into hatred. The enemy has arranged for us to turn into mirror images of themselves.

Is this confrontation between Jews and the Muslim world irresolvable? Are we con­demned to eternal war? Or is there a real possi­bility of “shrinking” the hatred, of diminishing the confrontation?

Celebrating 350 Years of Jewish Life in North America

Celebrating 350 years in America: Summer 2005

This is an important year for Jews in America. Three hundred and fifty years ago, in 1654, a small, bedraggled band of Jews sailed into the harbor of Dutch New Amsterdam and sought refuge. They were the leftovers of a major exodus of Portuguese Marranos from Dutch Brazil after Brazil was retaken by the Portuguese. Most of the refugees returned to Holland. Some of the refugees disembarked in Curacao. A few chose North America as their destination. The Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, resisted the entry of the Jews. But the corporate leaders of the Dutch West India Company, including wealthy Portuguese Jews, overruled Stuyvesant’s prejudice. The first self-proclaimed Jews had arrived in North America.

North America was no ordinary desti­nation for the Jews. It was not like arriving in Iraq, Germany, or Poland. America was to become the leading nation of the ur­ban industrial revolution, the dynamo of capitalism and the money economy. Not since the invention of agriculture ten thou­sand years before had a revolution of this magnitude taken place in human develop­ment. The assault of science and technology transformed Western civilization and ulti­mately the world. Although the weary Por­tuguese Jewish refugees who arrived in New Amsterdam had no idea of what would fol­low, they had landed in the place that would change the Jews more powerfully than any other country in which they had sojourned. That change was so powerful that Jews in America today cannot even comprehend what Jewish life and Jewish belief were like three hundred years ago.

America turned into such an attractive destination for Jews that it ultimately became home to the largest Jewish community in the world. The immigration came in waves. First came the trickle of Portuguese Marranos, who settled in the coastal cities of New York, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston. Then came the bigger wave of German Jews, who laid the foundations of American Jewish life and institutions. After the Germans came the overwhelming numbers of Yiddish-speak­ing Eastern European Jews, who created a powerful Jewish presence in the major cities of North America. In the twentieth century refugees from Nazi and Soviet terror arrived. Even a substantial number of Israelis have established a Zionist diaspora in the United States and Canada.

The roots of American culture lie in many places. One is the incredible potential wealth of the continent we live on. Another is the Anglo-Saxon world from which the reality of a liberal democracy first emerged. Still another is radical Calvinism, which despised aristocracy and glorified human equality. Above all, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which coincided with the American Revolution, championed the powerful no­tions of science and progress. This country, like England, was an ideal place for the urban industrial revolution to begin. Prosperity and freedom were the consequences. Toleration and the separation of religion from govern­ment became the law of the land. The social reality of America was radically different from any previous environment in which Jews had found themselves. Secular education and public schools were available to everyone. No pedigreed upper class prevented social climb­ing. In one generation, money and education could lift immigrants from poverty to success. New secular professions, from accountant to psychiatrist, offered niches of influence and status. Technology and leisure lifestyles opened the worlds of the media and mass entertainment. In America, all the Jewish com­mercial skills that the peasants and warriors of Europe had despised were the very skills that every American citizen needed in order to succeed in a free-enterprise economy. No social environment had ever been as friendly to the Jews as that of America.

But the influence of America on Jewish life lies in something more powerful. Not only did American secular education un­dermine the traditional beliefs of the past, but it also transformed the value system that Jews historically had embraced. Most of the immigrants had come from families and communities that were authoritarian, male chauvinist, and archly collectivist, a milieu where reverence for the past and pes­simism about the future prevailed. America presented a radically new alternative. There was the celebration of dignity and personal freedom, the radical assertion that I have the right to choose my work, my residence, my politics, my religion – and even my marriage partner. There was empowerment, the chal­lenging claim that my role in life was not to be passively humble but to find my own strength and to forge my own destiny. There was the right to happiness, a provocative alternative to accepting suffering with faith. There was a strong shift of focus from the afterlife to the wonderful options for happiness in the secu­lar choices of a dynamic economy.

American Jews embraced these new val­ues with enthusiasm even though they were dramatically opposed to the Jewish values of the past – so much so that many Jews today believe that these values are contained in the Torah; so much so that most contemporary Jews cannot imagine an ethical world without them. If the revolution at Sinai had been a real event, it could not have been more powerful than the American experience in transforming the Jewish people.

Now, these new values can be problematic. A free, individualistic world breeds stress, self-absorption, loneliness, anonymity, and weak nuclear families. Marxism, hippieism, and religious fundamentalism have emerged as challenging alternatives. But, for the vast ma­jority of the people in the Western world, this value system, with all its problems, remains the most attractive. Even modern Israel is more American than it is traditionally Jewish.

It is appropriate this year that we take the time to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Jewish arrival in America and to reflect on the revolution that America has provoked in Jewish life. Humanistic Judaism is the child of America.

Atheism in the Soviet Union

Building Communities  – Winter 1987

Atheism in the Soviet Union. It seemed an irresistible thing to investigate en route to Oslo for a world meeting of humanists. Twenty-five of us from the North American Committee for Humanism, leaders from six major humanist organizations, arrived in Leningrad on Friday, July 25, 1986. Victor Garadzha, director of the Moscow-based In­stitute for Scientific Atheism, a research center for the study of religion and anti- religion, had invited us to visit and learn after a letter of inquiry sent by me. Our stay in the Soviet Union was to be for eight days.

As naturalistic, nontheistic humanists, many of us perfectly willing to identify ourselves as atheists, we were curious about what the establishment of atheism as the of­ficial “religion” of the Soviet Union (replac­ing Russian Orthodoxy) meant. How perva­sive was atheist belief? How were school­children indoctrinated? What were the ceremonies of birth, puberty, marriage, and death that had been substituted for the old Christian rites? How were the sick and the dying counseled and consoled?

We knew that between the two world wars, atheism was militant. The govern­ment closed down churches, synagogues, and mosques, forbade all religious teaching, banned religious books, and interfered massively with religious activity. Many churches were turned into community cen­ters, schools, and even stables. The clergy were portrayed as agents of reaction. Dur­ing World War II, Stalin softened his anti- religious policies because he wished to mobilize all parts of the population to resistance against the Germans and desired to revive the old Russian nationalism for political purposes. After the war, the anti-religious militancy never returned.

We knew that no religious propaganda was allowed. Many of the churches, now restored to their former glory, are either purely ceremonial centers or museums. We knew that being religious publicly in the Soviet Union was a disadvantage in the pur­suit of work, power, and prestige — in the same way that being an atheist is in North America.

Our meetings were held in the House of Atheism in Moscow, an old pre-Revolutionary mansion that had been transformed into a local center for the dissemination of atheist propaganda. Located in the eastern Taganka district, this center was one of 53 such centers in major cities throughout the Soviet Union. Its exterior retained some of the elegance of czarist times. Its interior was more pedestrian, with offices, study rooms, lecture halls, and a row of photo­graphs of atheist heroes.

Present at the meetings was an array of atheist officials from many organizations connected with education, ceremonial life, publications, and research. Feodor Timo­feev, vice-director of the Institute for Scien­tific Atheism, chaired the gathering, which included Igor Romanov, leader of the Mos­cow Central House of Scientific Atheism, Yevgenia Osipova, professor of atheism and philosophy at the Moscow State Institute of Culture, and Boris Maryanov, co-editor of the main atheist journal, Science and Religion.

Our discussions, which lasted for two mornings and an afternoon, ranged over a wide variety of topics. We carefully avoided certain subjects, since we did not want to spend our precious time on political cliches. We had no intention of arguing about the virtues or vices of Marxism and the Soviet political system, since that conversation would have ended up with useless confron­tation and no information concerning the subjects we were interested in. We mainly directed our questions to atheist education, life cycle ceremonies, and personal counsel­ing — aspects of Soviet daily life that were less visible to Western eyes than the blustery Marxist propaganda we were accustomed to reading and hearing.

There are no special atheist communities in Russia comparable to humanist or reli­gious communities in the Western world. Atheism is simply an integral part of the of­ficial “religion” of Leninism and is express­ed through all the agencies of the state and, especially, through the multitude of com­munal organizations — social, military, in­tellectual, and athletic — that claim the time and allegiance of Soviet citizens. The “god” of the Soviet Union is Lenin. His face and figure are everywhere. Since he was an atheist, atheism is part of Soviet doctrine.

Atheist indoctrination is handled by six different agencies and institutions: 1. The Ministries of Education are in charge of the school system and the molding of young Russian minds. All teachers in the Soviet Union are trained to present the atheist point of view to their students, whether in study or play. 2. The Ministries of Culture are responsible for many intellectual and ar­tistic activities, including state-managed life cycle ceremonies. 3. Faculties of atheism and philosophy, in all major schools of higher learning, provide compulsory courses in atheism for all university students, regardless of their specialties.

  • The many houses of atheism in the major cities, such as the one we visited in Moscow, are propaganda centers where the history of religion is presented from an atheistic point of view and where lecturers, voluntary or paid, are trained as atheist “missionaries” to the general public. 5. The Institute for Scientific Atheism, head­quartered in Moscow, has a faculty of some 40 scholars who research the history of religion and atheistic thought and publish scholarly papers. 6. Science and Religion, a popular journal with a circulation of 400,000, seeks to expose the evils of religion to the Soviet people and to demonstrate the incompatibility of religion with a modern scientific outlook.

None of these six agencies really coor­dinates its atheist activities with the other five. Informal ties exist, but they do not con­stitute an efficient central control.

Soviet authorities have developed alter­native ceremonies, however pedestrian, to those of the old religion. The first Bolshe­viks were so hostile to organized religion that they avoided any kind of celebration that could be remotely connected with the traditional ceremonies of the church. Mar­riages were conducted in registry offices, and babies received no ceremonial wel­come. But, after a while, the authorities came to realize that even atheists needed a ceremonial life with some kind of aesthetic dimension. The result was the gradual development of a series of state-sponsored institutions and celebrations to serve as an integral part of the developing cult of Leninism.

Now citizens of the Soviet Union have options. If they are secularists who hate cer­emonies, they can avoid them, except for a perfunctory procedure at the marriage registry office. But if they want something more “poetic” at special life cycle moments, the system has arranged for this need. There are baby-naming palaces and wedding pal­aces and ceremonial houses at cemeteries.

In the main wedding palace in Moscow, the marble interior is both spartan and grand. Sophia Bulayeva, its manager and director, invited us to witness a marriage ceremony.

On a typical busy day, couples and their families wait in the large reception halls to be summoned to their respective ceremo­nies. Grooms dress conventionally, but brides wear some shortened facsimile of a wedding gown and headdress. The celebra­tion is held in an impressive room with a dramatic rug, desk, and governmental seal. A female wedding professional, assisted by a female representative of the Moscow city government, conducts the ceremony. The shy couple stand by themselves in the mid­dle of the room with family and spectators along the walls. A three-piece orchestra, engaged for four rubles, introduces the celebration with a very short section of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. The of­ficiant, dressed in a severely tailored blue ceremonial suit, instructs the couple on their obligations as husband and wife and as good Soviet citizens. The bride and groom walk forward to sign the marriage docu­ments. Witnesses follow. Rings are ex­changed. More exhortation is offered. Wed­ding chimes are heard. Family and friends rush forward to embrace the couple. But the bride and groom never kiss each other. After the ceremony, the couple, like most Soviet newlyweds, may go off to one of the public statues of Soviet heroes, especially Lenin, to offer their tribute of flowers.

Weddings, babynamings, and funerals are increasingly being conducted by a new breed of professionals, trained by the Ministries of Culture, who function as a secular “clergy.” They are full-time workers with special ceremonial costumes and ritual formats. Almost all of them are women. When Bulayeva was asked why, she replied with the surprisingly traditional response that women are more appropriate than men because they are more nurturing.

The most developed and successful athe­ist ceremonies are the growing-up rites that are provided for children in the schools. Throughout their school careers, Russian children participate in group celebrations of high emotion, which mark important steps in their development as Soviet citizens. There are ceremonies when school begins, when school ends, when important achieve­ments are made. And the school ceremonies are supplemented by dramatic celebrations in the youth groups, especially the Pioneers, which almost all Soviet children join. Rus­sian youths are more innocent and less jaded than Western children and do not pos­sess the cynicism of affluence that affected so many American young people in the six­ties and seventies, when graduation cere­monies were often avoided.

The counseling of the sick and the dying is much more traditional than parallel pro­cedures in the West. In America, in recent years, serious efforts have been made to protect the dignity of the patient by enabling him to confront the truth of his condition, even when it is fatal; in Russia, fantasies of hope are preferred. Pessimism of any kind is regarded as subversive. The vision of a world that is getting better and better is part of Soviet triumphalism. The real human condition, with all its disappointments, disillusionments, and frustrations, is never allowed to surface — especially on an offi­cial level.

Philosophically, Soviet atheism is nega­tive in content. It devotes most of its time to denouncing religion and old superstitions. It spends very little time articulating the positive humanistic side of atheism. What­ever positive elements exist are tied up with the cliches of a traditional Marxism that very few young people really believe in pas­sionately anymore.

We visited the famous Museum of Athe­ism in Leningrad, ironically and deliciously the former great cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. When I was there sixteen years ago, its magnificent classical and baroque in­terior was filled with an appallingly tasteless anti-religious exhibit. Today, the assaultive elements have been subdued, and a more objective history of religion is pre­sented. Still, the emphasis is on what atheists do not believe — very little on what they do believe. Even the magazine Science and Religion and the scholarly work of the Institute are negative in tone, always find­ing fault and rarely stating a positive, per­sonal alternative to the old religion.

At the same time, nostalgia for the art and artifacts of the old religion is growing. It is now fashionable among the young to collect icons and religious pictures, to “ooh” and “aah” over old religious architec­ture, and to choose a church wedding. While most people in the Soviet Union have become overwhelmingly secular after 70 years of atheist power, many of them find Soviet life boring and search for romantic roots in the past. This nostalgia becomes a safe rebellion against a regime of tired pro­gressive slogans.

One afternoon, one of the voluntary guides at the House of Atheism took us on an “atheist” tour of Moscow. All the sites we visited were religious buildings, old churches that had been restored. When our guide talked about these structures, tied so intimately with the history of Moscow and Russia, his presentation was positive and sentimental.

Although our stay was too short for com­prehensive analysis, it was a marvelous learning experience — although quite depressing at times.

From a North American humanist per­spective, Soviet atheism is disappointing:

  •  It is intimately tied to the “religion” of Leninism, which possesses all the dogma­tism, worship, and naivete of the Orthodox Russian religion that preceded it.
  •  It has succeeded in producing a nation of secularists but not a nation of humanists. Most Soviet citizens do not find aesthetic and personal satisfaction in the doctrines of the regime.
  •  It is managed by nice but innocuous bur­eaucrats, whether academic or administra­tive, who are incapable of building any pas­sionate belief out of all the state power they possess and who, despite this power, have never recruited the finest writers and artists to offer their skills to the development of an effective atheism.
  •  Its brightest side is the ceremonial life it has created for the young, with the help of unsung legions of teachers and youth leaders.

The best thing to come out of our trip was the contact we made with some of the lead­ers of Soviet atheism. Despite our political, social, and economic differences, we share a commitment to a nontheistic philosophy of life. We hope to stay in touch. Perhaps, if a more liberal Russian regime ultimately emerges, with less of an investment in the cult of Leninism, a more meaningful dia­logue can take place.