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.


Demystifying Family Values

Family Values – Winter 1994

That “family values” has become the issue of the ‘90s is very clear. Those who champion “family values” will not let go of this issue. It is going to persist. It is going to be the thing that will (ostensibly) distinguish the people who are in favor of morality from those who are opposed to morality.

Now, I do not believe that Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson embody decent family values. But neither do I want to say that those who oppose them are always right. I want to take the criteria of Humanistic Judaism and apply them to some very practical problems that need to be solved.

A couple in their seventies want me to perform a ceremony. They don’t want to get married for inheritance or tax reasons. They’re living together, and they want a celebration but not a marriage ceremony.

A woman has one child and a troubled marriage. She and her husband fight all the time, primarily over her commitment to her career. She’s debating about whether to get a divorce. It is very clear that if she chooses to get the divorce, the child will be seriously harmed. The child is deeply attached to both parents, and it is quite possible that if the divorce takes place the father will leave the area. The woman asks me, “What do you advise?”

Two men come to see me. They are homosexuals, and they have been together for six years. They want to have a celebra­tion and invite all their friends. They want to know whether I can help them, whether I do gay marriages.

A professional woman wanted to be married but didn’t find the right person. She’s now thirty-seven years old and is contemplating artificial insemination. She wants to have a baby, and she can’t allow whether or not she finds the right guy to determine whether or not she’ll be a mother. She asks me how I feel about it.

All these questions have become part of real, everyday life in middle-class America. Today, the family — Jewish or otherwise — is not what it was twenty or thirty or fifty years ago. The life that we live is not sim­ply the conventional one of husbands and wives and children and perhaps grandpar­ents living together. It’s a world of people who are divorced, and people who are sin­gle, and people who are living alone, and people who are living together without marriage, and people who are living in homosexual unions. Is our society going to the dogs? Or is what is happening a signal that it is time for us to serve people’s needs in a more effective way?

The family is not a trivial issue. It is the oldest continuing human institution in the world. It has a long history of rules and regulations. Why? Because a force as pow­erful as sex and a need as important as the appropriate rearing of children are incompatible without rules and regulations. What are those rules and regulations that developed over the past eight to ten thou­sand years?

  1. The ideal family consists of at least a mother and a father.
  2. The ideal family has many children.
  3. The ideal family is one in which the mother recognizes that her primary role is to produce and to take care of the chil­dren.
  4. The ideal family is one in which the father has authority.
  5. The ideal family is one in which men know what male roles are and women know what female roles are, and they dress accordingly.
  6. The ideal family is one in which chil­dren are reverent and obedient and do not talk back to their parents.
  7. The ideal marriage is one that is not preceded by premarital sex.
  8. The ideal marriage is one in which the two partners under no circumstances con­template divorce.
  9. The ideal marriage is one in which nei­ther partner engages in extramarital sex.
  10. The ideal marriage is one in which all the children grow up knowing that they, too, will marry.
  11. The ideal marriage is one which any thought or act of homosexuality will threaten.

A lot of that has collapsed. We now live in a world in which at least one of every two marriages ends in divorce. We now live in a world in which mothers work out­side the home. We now live in a world of unisex, in which sometimes you can’t tell from the costume or the job whether it’s a man or a woman. We now live in a world in which there is gender equality, and the chain of command is not clear, and couples spend a lot of time on negotiation. We now live in a world in which children feed on the largesse of their parents and then open their mouths and tell the parents off. We now live in a world of contraception, in which it is possible to have frequent sex without serious consequences. We now live in a world, therefore, of sexual libera­tion. We now live in a world in which homosexuality has gone public — gone public and gone political and is demand­ing equality. We now live in a world where there is hardly a family in which at least one person isn’t living with another person without marriage.

The response to all of this is threefold. There are some people who call these changes progress and want to provide the political and legal framework that will rati­fy them. Most people mumble and grumble but don’t want to do anything. They sit around at cocktail parties and moan, “The world’s falling apart! Do you see what’s happening?” The third group absolutely and totally reject the change; they find it completely intolerable. They believe that the change is responsible for crime and dis­ease. They see it as a sign that, like ancient Rome, our society is on the decline. They are abortion opponents, who burn down clinics or kill the doctor. They are funda­mentalists, who are very, very well orga­nized, and who say to the political parties, “If you do not change, we will punish you at the polls.” But the main influence they have is over the ambivalent middle group.

There are two questions here: Is what is happening good or bad? And how should we respond to it as Humanistic Jews?

We can’t avoid the issue. The Presbyterians are dealing with it, the Methodists are dealing with it, the Roman Catholics are dealing with it. In the Jewish world the Reform movement has dealt with it, the Reconstructionist movement, the Conservative movement — everybody is dealing with the issue. We as Humanistic Jews need to confront the issue and begin to explore it. This is a personal issue: we’re talking about our lives, our children, our parents, our homes, who and what we are.

Before I try to answer the two questions, let me give a little background drawn in large part from Helen Fisher’s Anatomy of Love. For most of human evolution, peo­ple lived in a hunting and gathering cul­ture. It was in that culture, which lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, that the family emerged as a unit to arrange for the rearing of children. As far as we know, monogamy generally prevailed. Men had to organize themselves into hunting parties, and if one man were to monopolize all the women, that would have been unaccept­able. In this hunting culture, there devel­oped strong male bonding but also a fair amount of gender equality, because while the men went hunting the women went gathering. Families tended to be small because food was hard to find and disease cut down the number of children.

Farming caused the big change. About ten thousand years ago, people settled down on the land, and they developed the concept of property. They began to raid each other’s property, and they developed organized war. In this culture the owners of property were men, so there was male authority. In an agricultural world, cheap labor was needed, and the cheapest way to get labor is to have babies. Thus, the func­tion of women was to produce children and more children and more children; and every child stayed and worked on the farm, and, when the parents grew old and feeble, the children took care of them. That is the world we think of as traditional. Actually, in evolutionary history, it represents only a little drop in time.

In this world, women often became the property of their husbands, and polygamy developed. If one wife couldn’t produce enough children, and if a man was rich enough, he could have more wives. And, since agriculture now produced more and more food, the population began to increase and families grew in size.

All of this was reinforced by the institu­tion of religion, which in itself is a reflection of the agricultural family. Every family has at its head the papa. Therefore the community or the nation must have at its head the papa, the king; and the universe must have at its head the papa, God. These relationships were justified by mythology. The story of Adam and Eve is very clear: Women are the source of evil. They tempt men. Therefore, they must be restrained. Woman is to obey her husband in all things.

Ultimately this agricultural world fell apart. We Jews were one of the first peoples to enter into urbanization. And out of that emerged an economic system called capital­ism, which revolutionized the structure of society. The fundamental unit of a capitalis­tic society is not the family. The fundamen­tal efficient unit of capitalistic economy is the individual who can move freely from place to place. It’s very expensive for the individual to schlep his family along. So the family interfered with mobility. Also, the role of children changed. The role of chil­dren on the farm is cheap labor. The role of children in an urban culture is that of para­sites. Children are very expensive. You invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then, when they’re eighteen, they go away to school and you’re lucky to see them again. Or they may show up when they’re thirty- two, having failed the first time and wanting to come back home for a short while. So, having children in a bourgeois culture sud­denly becomes a matter of choice.

The consequence of this change was the emergence of the nuclear family. The his­toric family was you, your mother, your father, your Aunt Sadie, your Uncle Hymie, your zayde, your bubbeh, and they all lived in a family compound. If you didn’t like your husband, that wasn’t a problem. There was always somebody else in the family you could talk to. Today, two people live alone. They have moved to San Diego. They could have moved to Detroit or Chicago. It’s the new urban world. You now have nuclear families. A nuclear fami­ly is this vulnerable couple without bubbeh, without zayde, without Aunt Sadie, without Uncle Hymie, and they’re there in the house together. And, because of medical science, they may stay together for sixty years. So you try to amuse each other, entertain each other, make yourselves interesting; but after twenty years you have to be very creative.

In addition, in an urban capitalist cul­ture, men and women no longer work together as on the farm. When the nuclear family emerged, the husband began leaving the house to go to work, and the woman was left alone with the children. And these changes were enhanced by the affluence and democracy that grew out of this new capitalistic culture. (On the other side, since everybody does not make it, is a world of poverty: families living in urban slums with no support system.)

Now we have this tremendous moral change I outlined before. How do we eval­uate it?

When we as Humanistic Jews deal with the question of family values, we do not ask, “What is it that God commands?” We try to find answers by turning to the author­ity that we recognize, the moral authority that lies within us. That authority consists of three things. First, our needs. It is legiti­mate to say that a moral enterprise should serve basic human needs; but what are our needs? A lot of people are deceived as to their needs. The second source of moral authority is reason. Reason says, “What will happen if I do this? What are the con­sequences for me and for other people?” And the third is conscience or empathy, the ability to identify with the pain and suf­fering of other people. So, referring to the moral authority embodied in human needs, reason, and conscience, I have, not ten commandments, but ten suggestions or guidelines.

Guideline 1: There are no absolute rights. Ultimately all rights are tempered by virtue of living in a community. There is a moment when the community is surround­ed by the enemy, and you have to defend it, and you say, “I don’t believe in the draft,” but you fight. There is the moment when somebody says, “I am your parent, I have an absolute right to control you,” and you say, “Not if you’re abusing me.” It’s not an absolute right. What if a community is threatened with extinction and the one per­son who can bear a child says, “I’m not in the mood”? There are strong rights, but there are no absolute rights.

Guideline 2: No choice is perfect. Life involves weighing advantages against dis­advantages. Take the woman I mentioned who is considering divorce. The advantage is that she would be free of this impossible relationship forever. The disadvantage is that her child, who is deeply attached to his father, would suffer the consequences. If you’re a realist, you recognize that all lifestyle decisions have both advantages and disadvantages. A homosexual man is trying to make a decision about going pub­lic. His parents, whom he deeply loves, know about his lifestyle, but they would be very, very embarrassed. In fact, they’re hav­ing difficulty dealing with the whole issue. So he’s debating: “Should I or shouldn’t I? On the one hand, I want to assert myself; on the other hand, I love my parents.” All of life is this way.

Guideline 3: Dignity is important. The need for dignity arises out of the need for sur­vival. A young child is totally dependent and therefore very vulnerable. As children grow up, they begin to rebel. It’s a neces­sary stage; if they don’t assert themselves, they remain vulnerable. Dignity is the need to be increasingly in control of one’s own life. A resulting value that we treasure highly in our culture is individualism. I as an individual have the right to be the mas­ter of my own life, to make my own choices. It’s a fairly new idea — only an affluent culture can produce it. I know somebody who has decided to remain sin­gle. She likes having her own space. She likes being in charge of her own life and not having to go through continuous negotia­tion, which she did for six years in a mar­riage that didn’t work because she didn’t want to compromise. This is her space, this is her life, and she likes it.

Guideline 4: There is more than one agenda. Life is always a balancing act between the personal agenda and the social agenda. Let’s take a situation in which a woman is unhap­py in her marriage. If she did not have chil­dren, she would sever the relationship. But there are children, and they might be adversely affected. So she may say to herself, “Well, I’m only moderately unhappy.” I know some people who are sexually promis­cuous. They say, “It’s my right.” And they go around dumping their garbage on other peo­ple, ignoring the social agenda.

Guideline 5: The test of moral behavior is the consequences. Recently studies have been done on the long-term consequences of divorce. The findings are that the chil­dren of divorce have less stable lives and perform less well in school, on the average, than children whose parents remain mar­ried. Of course, there are instances of suc­cess, but divorce can be a traumatic event for children, and whoever makes the deci­sion has to weigh carefully the conse­quences. What about gay parents? The test is not their right. The test is the conse­quences. What’s happening to the child? If the child’s okay, then it’s okay.

Guideline 6: Every decision has social con­sequences. If you live in society, there is nothing you do — nothing! — that does not have social consequences. Everybody who acts in a society is a role model. If you have a lot of promiscuous people in your neigh­borhood, they’re role models for the chil­dren. If you have a lot of single people, they’re role models for children. If you have a lot of gay people, they’re also role models.

Guideline 7: Parenting is primary. The pri­mary profession of a society is parenting, because without the raising of children who can function adequately in society, the society has no future. Generally, two par­ents are better than one: a man and a woman, two women, two men, whatever — but two parents. Sometimes the father is the better parent. I know two situations in which the man has decided to stay home, and the woman goes to work. It’s a very rational relationship. The roles have been reversed, and, consequentially, it works. One of the things that happens in our cul­ture is shared parenting, in which a group of people function as parents. It is true that one’s parent is the most important person in one’s life. But it is also true that children don’t spend all their time with their parents as in a farm culture; they go off to school. So when teachers say, “It’s not my job to be a parent,” it’s ridiculous. When children are with you, you are a role model; you have to perform in a parental way.

Guideline 8: What is old is not necessarily good. Let me mention some things that are traditional: Polygamy. Female subordina­tion and confinement. And male stereo­types that condemn men to macho roles whereby they cannot express themselves either in terms of their own personal hap­piness or for the social good.

Guideline 9: What is new is not necessarily good. Let me mention some things that are new: Single parents. (You may have to make the best of it, but it’s not necessarily the best of the alternatives.) Multiple part­ners. (Once I was asked to perform a mar­riage ceremony for three people. Where’s the limit? Eight? Twelve?) Then there’s sequential promiscuity. The person chooses somebody, and it lasts for three months, and then chooses somebody else, and it lasts for two months, and so on. Of course, it’s people’s right to marry whomever they choose, but what is the damage in terms of social relationships?

Guideline 10: We all need support. All of us, no matter how much dignity we have, no matter how much strength we have, need the emotional support and input of other people. Although one of the original reasons for marriage was reproduction, now an increasing reason for marriage is the need for companionship. Most people want a significant other, a partner. But there are some people who are single, whose family consists of themselves and their friends. I know a lot of people who develop very effective friendship circles. To be a friend today means more than it meant a hundred years ago because today you often can’t call up your cousin, or in some cases even your brother or your sister. The family of choice that you call upon in a moment of crisis is your family.

A family, therefore, is a partnership or a group of people that is bound together by three things: love, and by that I mean nur­turing behavior; respect, which means that I choose to protect the dignity of the other person in this relationship; and loyalty, which means that when problems occur I am willing to put forth effort to maintain a relationship in which I have invested time and energy.

What are the implications of all this for Humanistic Jews?

First, you cannot prejudge a relationship. Relationships are to be judged by their con­sequences. You can use information from the past about similar relationships to begin the evaluation. But in the end, your evaluation of the nature of the relationship has to be determined, not by old rules, but by the consequences of what that relation­ship produces.

Second, we are committed to the defense of dignity. As a Humanistic Jew, the prima­ry value I seek in terms of human relations is the opportunity to achieve my own dig­nity and to defend the dignity of others. I readily agree that there are other value choices that one might make, but for me dignity is a primary concern.

Third, there is no single lifestyle that is appropriate to all people to protect their dignity, affirm their happiness, and arrange for appropriate social consequences.

Fourth, tradition is not always bad. Nobody has yet found a desirable alterna­tive to two parents. You may have only one parent functioning, but two parents certain­ly are better.

Fifth, single life can and does work. In this country, close to 40 percent of the households consist of one person, and all of these people are not desperately unhappy. Most of them are functioning and are socially productive.

Sixth, living together can work. There are many relationships in which people live together with love, respect, and loyal­ty, relationships that promote dignity and happiness and are socially useful.

Seventh, homosexual unions can work. There are people who live together as homosexual partners, are supportive of each other, and do productive work. They are good for their society, and in some cases, if they choose, they even are able — very, very creatively — to raise children.

Eighth, divorce can work. There are many cases in which the difficult struggle of single parents to raise their children is necessary, because to maintain the mar­riage would adversely affect both the par­ents and the children. And, in some cases, even if the children would retain benefit from it, the marriage has such adverse con­sequences for the parents that their needs will be totally ignored if some change is not made.

Ninth, we have the right to make mis­takes. If we affirm personal dignity, we’re saying that people are free to make a choice. And if people are free to make choices, they make mistakes.

Finally, we have the right to be coura­geous. I say this to people who choose a new and sometimes difficult lifestyle. I say, “The advantage is that you’re now in a meaning­ful relationship, or separated from a disas­trous one. But you may be encountering public hostility.” A lot of people don’t want the hassle. They would rather go into the closet or just conform. It’s easier. But with­out courageous people, we never would have pioneers, like the first person who went into farming, or the first nuclear fami­ly. The first step is always regarded as dan­gerous, as socially disruptive.

DeWitt Parker, a philosophy teacher I had at the University of Michigan, said: “I am not completely happy with what is, but I am less happy with what was.” I recognize that there are many things from the past that we as Humanistic Jews find valuable. We want to protect the two-parent family. But there were so many other things about that society that were restrictive and had bad social consequences. So much talent, the talent of women and others, was inade­quately used. So, I am not happy with what was. I like many of the changes that have occurred. But, as a rational Humanistic Jew, I must recognize that in our society today there are problems. There are advantages and disadvantages.

One thing I can say: If we are going to begin the exploration of this issue, we can­not come into the discussion with slogans. We have to come into the discussion with evidence. We have to look at the conse­quences of behavior. And we have to go into it with open minds, because we are defend­ing the two most important things we have: our personal dignity and our society.

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.

Building Communities for the New American Jew

Building Communities – Winter 1987

Building strong Jewish communities has never been easy. It is getting harder all the time.

Close to 40 percent of all Jews in North America are unaffiliated with any religious congregation. A high percentage of these people belong to no Jewish organization at all, secular or religious. Even Jews that do belong to conventional communities often have merely peripheral attachments and are notorious for their fickle commitments. Like many children of the consumer culture, they have difficulty relating to groups that do not provide them with an immediate and obvious benefit.

Modern America is very different from the social environment that spawned the traditional Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. In Russia and Poland, there was constant reinforcement of the tight-knit, all- encompassing character of Jewish commu­nity life. Jews saw themselves as aliens in a sea of hostile Gentiles. They were so ab­sorbed with survival that the security of group belonging far outweighed any indi­vidual indulgence they might conceive. And, of course, there were no options. You had to be religious. And you had to be Orthodox. America totally transformed the char­acter of the Jewish community. It provided a setting so different from what had ever existed before in the Jewish experience that old formats simply became obsolete.

In America, affluence replaced poverty, ambition vitiated the attractiveness of sacri­fice and obedience, and individual freedom undermined the power of conformity. State and church were separate. Religion was a private opportunity, which any citizen could embrace or resist. Many “flavors” of Judaism emerged, which received no gov­ernment support and which had to compete in the open marketplace of ideas. The secu­lar university took the place of the yeshiva, and the authority of doctors and professors became more impressive than that of rabbis.

The synagogue congregation became the standard Jewish response to the new envi­ronment. Unlike the old kehilla, with its power to intrude on every aspect of per­sonal life, the American alternative was much more like the secularized urban Prot­estant church, designed to serve the reli­gious needs of a middle-class clientele. The American synagogue was no European gemeinde. It did not seek to embrace all Jews for all of the time. It was a “part-time” institution, which competed with many other institutions to win allegiance, enthusi­asm, and money from the individual Jew. The leaders of the synagogue could no longer command. They had to persuade and cajole, with no guarantee that their efforts would be rewarded. Mandates from on high gradually yielded to a focus on the needs of prospective members. After all, if the “buyer” was not satisfied with synagogue A, he might choose synagogue B, or no syn­agogue at all.

On the whole, the American synagogue community, although radically different from any Jewish community that had pre­ceded it, proved to be quite successful. It dramatized the connection of Jews with their ancestral past. It educated the young with a smattering of ethnic culture and reli­gious ideas. It provided a setting for holi­days and rites of passage associated with family life. It gave a visible, legitimate pres­ence to Jewish identity in the general com­munity where Jews spent most of their time. It was sufficiently ambiguous so that Jews, at their convenience, could pass for either a nationality or a religious denomination.

In fact, the synagogue community proved far more viable in the American setting than the alternative Jewish organizations that emerged. The purely ethnic secular schools, whether Yiddishist or Zionist, and the home-country fraternal societies, the landsmanschaften, although strong initially, ulti­mately found oblivion. They lacked identifi­cation with a “church,” a familiar and respectable institution for most Americans trying to preserve their ethnic loyalties.

In the first phase of its development, the synagogue community relied on certain strengths inherited from the traditional communities from which its members came — props that had not yet been weakened by the transforming power of a capitalist cul­ture. The close-knit family with its high motivation to produce children, the social segregation of an immigrant community, the ethnic ghettos that did not admit strang­ers easily, the sense of duty to ensure group survival — all these transitional remnants of the old world persuaded people to join tem­ples or synagogues.

But the community of the future can no longer rely on this inherited support system. The power of an urban consumer culture has so changed the character of Jewish life in America that the old “glue” simply is no longer available. American Jews today are different from their parents and grand­parents. They have different values. They have different needs. They respond to a dif­ferent environment. If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize. After all, in the free set­ting of a free society, they would have to choose to join our community above many other options available to them.

Most of our membership prospects no longer feel that they must join any Jewish temple or synagogue. The old sense of duty and the attendant guilt have simply van­ished. Jews today are less interested in dis­covering what they can do for the commu­nity than in learning what the community can do for them. In a society in which peo­ple are self-absorbed and see themselves as victimized by the demands of external powers, appeals to obligation tend to fall on deaf ears, especially if the institution, as with a humanistic congregation, has no tra­ditional connection.

Most of our membership prospects now come from small, dispersed families. These individuals have a need to find in a congre­gation or havurah the family feeling and family support they can no longer find in their personal settings. At a time when the old extended family is becoming mere memory, people are searching for substi­tutes. The old congregation used family loyalty to reinforce community loyalty. Now the tables are turned. The new congre­gation must provide family loyalty. For many temple members, the temple seder be­comes their family seder. Friends become more than friends.

Most of our membership prospects are professional people with advanced educa­tional degrees. They have intellectual skills that need recognition, and they enjoy partic­ipation. Repetitive rituals and passive listen­ing are less attractive to them than to their parents. They want high quality opportuni­ties for adult education in Jewish history and philosophy not readily available in the school settings they frequent. They prefer a seminar format of dialogue and interchange to didactic lecturing.

Many of our membership prospects are either single parents with grown children or young couples with no offspring on the horizon. They have very little interest in child-centered activity. Where the old con­gregation could rely on the support of unin­volved adults who were worried about the Jewish identity of their children, the new community has to develop intense pro­grams for adults themselves. Life cycle cere­monies that recognize the growth and achievements of adults become indispens­able. Reaffirmation celebrations of Jewish commitment, recognition of educational achievement at universities and profes­sional schools, acknowledgment of special birthdays and anniversaries—all these cer­emonies of passage become as important as thirteen-year-olds’ puberty rites.

Many of our prospective members are feminists. They do not want to be part of a community in which the major leadership roles are turned over to men. They do not want the “sisterhood” and “ladies auxiliary” segregation that in no way reflects the career world in which they function. They want to be part of a group in which impor­tant female leadership roles are visible and in which women work and study together with men.

Many of our prospective members are intermarried. They will not pay for toler­ance, rejection, or second-class citizenship. The old congregation was hostile to inter­marriage and had no place for non-Jews. The new congregation needs to welcome sympathetic non-Jewish humanists who are interested in Jewish culture. The former sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile is no longer as relevant as it was in a less mobile and less open society. There are many ways of expressing support for Juda­ism. Turning away prospective supporters who could help and be helped by the com­munity, simply because they do not fit into old kosher categories, is neither rational nor moral. At a time when 40 percent of all mar­riages by Jews involve non-Jewish spouses, such narrowness is also suicidal.

If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize.

Some of our prospective members have embraced unconventional lifestyles. They may be living with lovers. They may be senior citizen couples who have chosen not to get married. They may be homosexuals. While the traditional congregation viewed these people with abhorrence, the commu­nity of the future will have to find room for them. From the humanistic point of view, their relationships, so long as they are not promiscuous, are morally valid. Their needs have seldom been acknowledged. And their talents have rarely been used.

Most of our prospective members are overscheduled and overcommitted. They no longer have the time or the energy to be per­manent volunteers. The army of gracious women who used to pour their energy into community work is disappearing. Unless professional leaders are hired, much of the essential labor will never be done. After the euphoria of pioneering is past, volunteers are hard to replace, especially if there is no professional help or direction. Humanistic Jewish congregations need access to a trained professional corps of guides and experts, whether these mobilizers are called rabbis, leaders, or teachers.

Most of our prospective members have multiple identities. As achieving individ­uals, they belong to a variety of career and friendship associations that have nothing to do with the Jewish community. They no longer function in the world of social segre­gation their parents enjoyed, and they no longer have the intense sense of Jewishness that flowed from this segregation. They want more from a Jewish congregation than Jewishness alone. Inevitably encountering in their daily experience ethical dilemmas and personal crises that require the help of a coherent view of human existence and human values, they want more from a con­gregation than Jewish culture and Jewish roots. They want a philosophy of life that can reinforce their self-esteem and give them the strength and insight to make wise decisions. Communities need to appeal to the search for personal happiness as well as to the traditional push for group survival.

Of course, the successful congregation of the future will still have to do many of the things that assured success in the past. Sabbath meetings, youth education and youth groups, holiday celebrations and life cycle events — all these tried and true formats of the past will continue to have their place. But they will have to be sup­plemented by a new openness to deal with new developments.

In many ways, Humanistic Jewish com­munities are better able to take this neces­sary plunge into the present and the future than our Conservative counterparts. Opportunity knocks. It is up to us to open the door.

Being Jewish Today — An American Perspective

Being Jewish Today, Spring 1984

Jewish identity is more than a definition. It is an experience.

Most of the usual definitions of the Jew have very little to do with Jewish experience today. They are propaganda pieces, designed to prove a point more than to reveal a reality.

Interfaith banquet definitions of the Jew express the need of many rabbis and lay people to prove that Jews are a religious denomination, a theological fraternity of like believers. Zionistic definitions of the Jew emphasize the importance of nation and culture to justify the creation of a Jewish state. And anti- Semitic perceptions of the Jew dwell on racial uniqueness, a convenient excuse to justify exclusion or extermination.

Even the familiar fallback position— “Jews are an enigma” — is a con­venient way to avoid examining our reality. It cloaks us in mystery: a preternatural puzzlement in a natural world

Defining what we are is not the province of propagandists with ideological vested interests. What we are depends on what history has made us. Being Jewish today in America is living the results of that history, whether or not those results conform to preferred labels.

A humanistic definition of Jewish identity, being empirical, starts with the Jewish experience and works up to the definition — not the other way around.

What is that experience — espe­cially in North America?

Being Jewish today means that no single set of ideas and values makes you Jewish. There is just too much variety. A group that includes theists and atheists, Lubavitchers and civil libertarians under the same label, with the acknowledg­ment of the outside world, is no ideological fraternity. Dealing with Jewish identity as a belief system is naive. When Jews are behaving normally, they rarely ask each other theological questions. Only when they are interrogated by the Gentile world do creedal presentations be­come important. Converts are forced to affirm convictions that born Jews are never asked to endorse.

Being Jewish today means that philosophic affinity transcends the Jewish connection. Many Jews feel a stronger bond of shared belief with non-Jews than they do with fellow-Jews. The secular Jew can communicate more easily with the secular Gentile than with the Hasidic Jew. And the Hasidic Jew can talk more easily about the Bible with a fundamentalist Christian than with a humanistic Jew. “A Jewish world view” is an illusion. In a world in which religious fanati­cism is on the rise, the Jewish community is becoming polarized. Because Orthodox segregationists share no major belief premises with secularized professionals, each group communicates better with its counterparts elsewhere than with each other. While liberal and fundamentalist Jews may agree on the value of Jewish identity, they agree on very little else.

Being Jewish today means that Jewish holidays are the major ex­pression of Jewish culture. Jewish languages are virtually non­existent in the English-speaking environment of North America. Yiddish is a nostalgic exercise, and Hebrew is an Israeli phenomenon. Ashkenazic delicatessen behavior is only uniquely Jewish when Jews are celebrating Jewish festivals. The holidays are the pragmatic heart of Jewish cultural activity in the Diaspora. Even part-time traditional Jews get more traditional when the festivals roll by. Rosh Hashana, Hanukka and Pesakh become the special signs of Jewish identity. They are the bonding activity which unites all Jews, whether traditional or secular. No other Jewish cultural enterprise has survival value in the American milieu.

Being Jewish today can be a signi­ficant experience even without formal religion and culture. In a world in which Jewish identity is important to non-Jews, Jews are always having to deal with their Jewishness. Anti-Semitism persists and provokes some Jews into reluc­tant confrontation. But it is the over­whelming presence of American Jews in American high culture that makes them a very visible and signi­ficant minority, even to friendly Gentiles. The importance of Jews makes Jewish identity important. Books, newspapers and periodicals deal with Jewish identity to such a degree that even the uninvolved Jew frequently is compelled to reassess his attitude to Jewishness. From Philip Roth to Norman Podhoretz, the American literary scene reserves a special place for Jewish anxiety.

Being Jewish today is often a name game. Cohens and Levis have to deal with their Jewish identity even if they choose to be Catholic. Kurt Svensen does not, even if he chooses to be Jewish. Names arouse expecta­tions. In an urban world of strangers, stereotypes become the only reason­able way to fend off chaos. The Katzmans and Finkels of America bear the expectations of their neighbors and of their fellow Jews. Intermarriage proves the point. Off­spring with Jewish last names have to deal with their Jewish identity. Children with alternative labels have other options. Internal belief is often less significant than appella­tive packaging.

Being Jewish today is living with intermarriage. With two out of five Jews marrying Gentiles, the varieties of Jews proliferate. Converted Jews, half-Jews and quarter-Jews dot the American social landscape and re­place the comfortable tightknit tribal solidarity of years past. Many Jews, typically American, straddle two or more ethnic origins. They simultaneously enjoy Ashkenazic grandmothers and Italian ones, Jewish cousins and Anglo-Saxon ones. The social isolation that Jew­ishness used to bring is replaced by an ethnic conviviality, characteris­tic of the American experience. Jewish establishment institutions are so geared to dealing with either- or situations that they are having great difficulty handling the mixtures.

Being Jewish today is an ex­perience of more funerals than baby namings. The birth rate of American Jews has very little to do with the reputed fertility of Hebrew women in the Exodus story. Ambition, educa­tion and female liberation have pro­duced the inevitable preference for small families or no families. The focus of Jewish attention is shifting from scarce children to profuse mid-life anxieties. “Passages” and the anxieties of personal fulfilment have now entered the programming of Jewish institutions with a ven­geance. Singles and the unattended old are important elements of com­munity caretaking and concern. The fanatic ultra-Orthodox segments of the Jewish world are bound to main­tain their clout — even with attrition — because they are the only Jews committed to reproduction. Liberal Jews are the ones who have the most reason to worry about maintaining their numbers.

Being Jewish today is always bumping into a discussion about the Holocaust. During the past ten years public awareness of the greatest of all Jewish disasters has spread. The media, university curricula and even presidential commissions have made millions of non-Jews aware of this twentieth century horror. The revival of Holocaust consciousness is coincident with another develop­ment. As Jews throughout America move into the neighborhoods and professions that signify success and power, they prefer to be seen as vulnerable outcasts and victims. In a time when commentators point to Jewish economic and political power, it seems safer to focus on our humiliation.

Being Jewish today is handling the anxiety of Jewish survival. Many Jews in America spend so much time worrying about the future of Jewish identity that they have very little energy left over to enjoy its present. Such worriers take all the fun out of Jewish programming. Unless the book or play, the talk or meditation deals with a uniquely Jewish theme (and how many are there?), the value of the event in a Jewish institution is questioned. Countless community centers and culture providers are intimidated into settling for second-rate pro­grams that demonstrate some vague Jewish connection. American syna­gogues and cultural institutions are less interesting than their members, who are quite universal in their interests and behavior. Israelis have it easier. They just do anything they want to, in Hebrew. Shakespeare in Tel Aviv is a Jewish event.

Being Jewish today means think­ing about Israel a lot. Zionism is the greatest Jewish passion of the twentieth century. Nothing Jewish excites Jews more than Israel. (Even the rabbis who regret this over­whelming attachment have come up with no real alternative; talking about spirituality seems a lackluster substitute.) Jews in America often know more about the internal poli­tics of the Knesset than about the deliberations in their own state legislatures. Political candidates who present themselves to Jewish audiences often find that the major issue of interest is their commitment to the strength and survival of the Jewish state. And Jews who talk about Israel with Gentiles frequently discover that these out­siders view the Israeli prime minister as “their” leader. As American Jews become less ethnic in their own behavior, their self- image and observed image are be­coming more nationalistic. As Israeli Jews — because of their birth rate — become a higher and higher percen­tage of world Jewry, this connection will grow more intense.

Being Jewish today in America is dealing with the guilt of making Jewish identity a secondary iden­tity. Most Jews have professional and recreational agendas that are far more powerful than the religious and ethnic attachments that con­tinue to be an important part of their lives. Since many of them were taught to view their Jewish loyalties as primary, they struggle to nego­tiate between official indoctrina­tion and the reality of their own behavior. The ideal solution would be to acknowledge that Jewish identity in America is indeed secondary, though valuable. But most of the Jewish public are not ready for such a confession. Their historic skills make them much more comfortable with guilt.

Being Jewish today is to feel a sense of extended family with other Jews. Underneath all the veneer of official pronouncements about shared beliefs and shared values is this consciousness of cousin kin­ship, shared history and shared danger. Neither a unique culture nor a unique religion defines the Jews of America in the broadest sense. Sentimental attachments, an awareness of residual hostility from outsiders, and a non-linguistic ethnic solidarity come closer to reality.

Political Antisemitism

TJH May_June 1996, vo. XXX11, number 10.

“Political Antisemitism” 

Holocaust Day has a special significance in this election year. Political antisemitism is abroad in the Republican Party.  

Modern anti-Semitism is different from traditional anti-Judaism. Traditional hostility to the Jews is primarily directed to the religion of the Jews. Economic and racial themes are secondary. Modern antisemitism is primarily directed to the “race” and economic role of the Jews. Religious ideas are secondary. Neither Hitler nor Coughlin was interested in Judaism. They were obsessed by Jews. 

Capitalism is the most popular of available economic systems. It is responsible for wealth, technological development and rising standards of living. But it also produces decaying families, violent cities and unemployment. Relentless competition produces both winners and losers. For the winners the system is the best of all possible worlds. For the losers the system appears uncaring and heartless. It takes only a little paranoia to turn that accusation into antisemitism. The world of money becomes the world of the Jews and the world of money is the evil oppressor of the innocent patriot. 

Hitler did not invent modern antisemitism. The change, uncertainty, expectations and trauma of capitalism did. The very system that fostered the prosperity and the liberation of the Jews also spawned their most vicious enemy.  

Antisemitism will not go away so long as economic anxiety remains. It is a chronic disease of an urban, anonymous, detribalized, and money-centered world. When the economy is strong it is tolerable. When the economy goes bad it becomes intolerable. Right now technology, automation and thinking machines are wreaking havoc with the lives and employment of millions of workers and middle-class people. Most young people are pessimistic not optimistic about their economic future. Industrial workers, blacks and Hispanics, are feeling abandoned and resentful. Jews become the personification of all the forces they fear and do not control.  

Modern anti-Semitism comes in two forms. The mild form is social antisemitism. This hostility excludes Jews from social intercourse with non-Jews, especially the power elite. While social antisemitism is morally deplorable, it is easily handled. Jews simply create and perpetuate the familiar institutions which enable them to socialize with each other.  

The virulent form is political antisemitism. This antagonism seeks to seize political power and to use that power to deprive Jews of their status, property and lives. Political antisemitism is what the deadly virus of European Jew-hatred was all about. From Dreyfus to the Holocaust it was driven by a vision of the “Jewish Peril” that justified expulsion and extermination. Often political antisemitism starts off with mild rebukes and develops, through economic turmoil, to broad programs of oppression.  

Political antisemitism features political leaders, politicians eager to use hostility to Jews as a vehicle to power.  

Many European leaders chose this path. In America, there was very little political antisemitism until the First World War. 

In the Twenties Henry Ford publicized the vicious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the Depression Thirties, Charles Coughlin preached a message of hate for capitalism, communism and Jews. The Second World War and economic prosperity terminated this threat. 

But, of course, the troubled Nineties has revived it. Pat Buchanan has arrived on the Republican stage to denounce Wall Street, the brokers of the money world, foreign exploiters, corporate greed and the inordinate power of Israel and the Jews over American life.  

Of course, his voice is a minority voice. Of course he will not be the Republican nominee. But it is also true that the Republican leadership has not openly repudiated him for his public hostility to Jewish influence. His position is very much the same as that of Louis Farrakhan in the Black world. He disparages the Jews. He courts racist supporters. And he knows that he is immune to expulsion. He has too many powerful devotees. Pleasing the Jews is less important than hanging on to any potential voter.  

I do not imagine that the economic future of America will allow the triumph of either fascism or political antisemitism. I do not believe that either Dole or the mainstream leaders of the Republican party or anything but embarrassed by the public rantings of Pat Buchanan. But I will not support a political party whose leadership refuses to condemn this voice of hatred.  

(Just as I will not condone the authority of Black leadership that fears to confront Farrakhan.) 

The poor, the oppressed and economic “losers” of the world deserve our sympathy and help. But they are not necessarily the moral voices of humanity. If sufficiently provoked, they will embrace ideologies that will produce political repression. America and the world of economic change are vulnerable to self-destructive voices. Right now, Buchanan, despite Dole’s victory, is a dangerous voice of the evil.  

Jewish votes should not support any political party that does not condemned the purveyors of antisemitism in its midst 

The Rabbi Writes – The Religious Right

The Jewish Humanist, October 1994, Vol. XXXI, Number 3 

A doctor performing abortions is killed in Florida. A full-page advertisement in the Sunday New York Times accuses Bill Clinton of arranging the murder of his good friend and assistant Vincent Foster. Irangate villain Oliver North wins the Republican primary for the United States Senate seat from Virginia and proposes to restore Christian values in America.      

Together with thousands of other events these three provocations are evidence of the continuing presence and power of the Religious Right. Emerging in 1980 during the first Reagan campaign, as a major political force, the Religious Right is still alive and well and determined to win the victory that has so far eluded them. Their leaders are by now familiar – Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Donald Wildman, Paul Wyrich. The Moral Majority may have yielded to the Christian Coalition. But the agenda remains the same. 

The agenda is very clear and very frightening. It is the use of government power to impose a Christian fundamentalist moral code of behavior on all the American people. Before 1980 the fundamentalists shunned national politics. Now they are the masters of it. Although they represent only 15-20% of the American public they act as though they are the voice of America and of American values. 

The Religious Right has its roots in the traditional conservative movement. Traditional conservatives are different from economic conservatives. Economic conservatives liked to be called liberals in the nineteenth century. They opposed the government control of private life and championed the right of individuals to personal and economic freedom. When they first emerged they were on the Left. Only the movement of many classical liberals to egalitarian and socialist ideas turned them into “conservatives.” Economic conservatives do not want to use the government. They want to avoid the government. 

Traditional conservatives are the real conservatives. They come out of the agricultural world that preceded capitalism. Their role model for the organization of society is the authoritarian family. The government is like a good father, guiding and protecting his children. Good fathers make demands, impose discipline and control behavior. Religion features an authoritarian God who behaves in the same way and who is a reflection of what good fathers and good governments do. The primary role of society is reproduction. Therefore abortion and homosexuality are forbidden. And the basic role of women is to have babies and to serve their husbands. 

Although capitalism and personal freedom have been around for a long time in America, there are many Americans who still belong to or yearn to return to this old conservative world. Their numbers have increased in recent years because American life has been traumatized by family decline, lifestyle change, economic uncertainty and crime. Traditional conservatives have placed the responsibility for these changes on the doorstep of unbridled freedom and its ally secular humanism. 

If the Religious Right were to achieve political power in America, they would put prayers, Bible readings and Bible theology into the public schools. They would use tax money to pay for private religious education. They would censor books and newspapers. They would outlaw abortion and homosexuality. They would pass laws to encourage women to bear children and to stay at home. 

For many years traditional conservatives were too divided to be effective. White fundamentalists hated Black fundamentalists. Charismatics hated fundamentalists. Protestants hated Catholics. All of them hated Jews. Many conservative Protestants were in favor of the separation of religion and government because they did not want state money going to Catholic parochial schools. But all of that has changed. The civil rights movement has ironically brought White and Black fundamentalists together. Communism and abortion have sealed the union between conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics. And the growing number of Jewish fundamentalists has bizarrely recruited Jewish allies for a Christian America. What was divided is now united against their shared enemy – a free society. 

The strategy of the Religious Right is to take over the Republican Party. Since they are a distinct minority, they cannot win power unless they hang onto the coattails of a major political institution. Unfortunately, they have been very successful in their campaign. Hundreds of Republican precincts have fallen under their control. Hundreds of their devotees have been nominated as Republican candidates. The 1992 Republican Convention was dominated by their agenda and by their ideology. Most Republican leaders are afraid of them and seek their approval and support. 

The consequence is the vicious assault on Bill Clinton. Clinton has many faults. But he is not a sex maniac and murderer. But hundreds of thousands of Americans now believe that he is. They do not read the liberal press. They listen to the tapes circulated by Robertson and Falwell which give credibility to these accusations. 

The campaign by the Religious Right ought to frighten us into action. We, as humanists, are, in their eyes, the ultimate enemy. But, in offering resistance, we need to keep in mind certain basic realities. 

The first basic reality is that most Republicans are economic conservatives, not traditional conservatives. The only way to fight the Religious Right is to mobilize the Republican (sic) who also hate them. Economic freedom goes together with personal freedom and with the separation of religion from government. Rational Republicans know that. 

The second basic reality is that morality is a stronger argument than a peevish defense of personal choice. The Religious Right derives its power from its presentation of itself as the defender of ethics and morality. If, indeed, their point of view is the moral one, they have the moral authority to impose their will on us. The way to fight the Religious Right is to take the moral monopoly away from the (sic). Abortion freedom is not merely personal choice. It is the moral choice in an overcrowded world as Society of wanted babies is the only society that is morally sustainable. Abortion freedom is not merely personal choice.It is the moral choice. In an overcrowded world a society of wanted babies is the only society that is morally sustainable. Abortion freedom is not simply an individual right. It is, above all, a social and ethical necessity.  

The Religious Right will be a chronic and continuous political force in American life. We have to be on the alert to resist them. When we offer our resistance, we must remember that many people who call themselves conservatives are our national allies – and that the defense of individual freedom is also the defense of social morality.  

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. 

The Rabbi Writes – George Bush

The Jewish Humanist, January 1989 Vol. XXVI Number 6

George Bush will be our next president. What does it all mean? 

Or, more precisely, what messages did the election give to the American people onto the president -elect himself? 

The election campaign was a “dirty” campaign. The real issues were ignored while Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance dominated the headlines. And undertones of racism were apparent in the consistent attempt to identify the Democrats with Jesse Jackson and the blacks.  

Bush did not win the election because of his personal charisma or extraordinary skills. Nor did he win because of the peculiar ineptness of Michael Dukakis. His victory was due to the public belief that the Reagan years meant prosperity and that he was the chosen successor to carry on the Reagan formula for economic success. The mantle of the ever-popular Reagan was his greatest asset. It is highly doubtful that any Democrat would have been successful in persuading American voters to “change horses in midstream.” 

But Bush was assisted by other factors than Reagan. His campaign managers, especially Jim Baker, were brilliant. They recognized that the issues of crime and patriotism were more important to the American public than the real issues of deficits and trade and imbalance and programmed their candidate to play them for all that they were worth. And the never articulated identification of the Republicans is the party of the whites was no mean boost. 

Bush confronts many serious problems as he assumed the presidency. Not only does he face the fact that the growing national deficit threatens the economy with imminent ruin. He also has to deal with the domestic issues of drugs, environmental pollution, healthcare and educational subsidies – as well as the foreign policy issues of disarmament, Central America and the Middle East. During the campaign he never provided any real indication of how he would deal with these problems.  

His diverse constituency presents another headache. He has to maintain a balancing act among the diverse groups that supported him. Satisfying economic conservatives, social conservatives, anti-communist and libertarians simultaneously is no mean feat. 

So what is the message of the election? 

The election confirmed the fact that the presidency has become Republican preserve. It has become increasingly more difficult for Democrats to win the presidential race. From Roosevelt to Johnson the White House was chiefly Democratic territory. But Nixon reversed that political tradition. Now the Democrats are the underdogs who always have to try harder. The South, which was once a secure base of the Democratic party, has now become a Republican preserve. In fact the Democrats no longer have any secure presidential base except in the dispersed black (sic) population. America is now condemned to divided government-a Republican president with a Democratic Congress. 

The election revealed that the country is not ready for an ethnic president. The Republicans, true to their Anglo-Saxon tradition, pick two impeccable WASPs to represent their position. In the South and in the West these American credentials are still significant. 

The election proved that the Democrats are “liberals” even when they do not want to be. No matter how hard Dukakis tried to avoid the label, he finally had to own up to it – even though it was humiliatingly too late. The message to the Democrats, at least in the presidential race, is to own up to their liberal traditions and to make them attractive. Trying to pose as conservatives with better management skills does not work, even if it is true. 

The election manifested the changing nature of the presidency. As a media phenomenon, the president has to be designed and trained. He is less and less an autonomous leader with a mind of his own. He has become the invention of campaign advisers and media consultants who write his speeches, create his slogans and determine what opportunistic twist his ideology should take. Bush is the prisoner of his staff and will continue to be after his inauguration. Undoubtedly, Jim Baker will share the presidency. 

The election has some very special and important messages for Bush. 

It reminds him that most of his constituency-including his yuppie supporters-voted for his economic program and not for the social program of the religious right. The power of the fundamentalist crazies was not as great in this election as it was eight years ago. 

It tells him that the choice of Quayle hurt him. His victory would have been more overwhelming had he not committed the blunder of choosing the Indiana lightweight. The best service he can perform for the American public is to keep Quayle either unemployed or busy with trivial ceremony duties – and, above all, refuse to die. 

It warns him that his victory was hardly a mandate. Congress remains solidly Democratic. Both domestic and foreign policies, if they are to work and not to be trapped in stalemate, need to be bi-partisan. If his old moderate and conciliatory skills return – and his recent staff and cabinet appointments seem to indicate that – important bridges of cooperation can be built. 

Above all, the election reminds him that peace is very popular. Gorbachev rescued Reagan from the disaster of Irangate by handing him the gift of detente and disarmament. Republican popularity is now tied to an appropriate response to Gorbachev and the peace initiative. Only the hard-core anti-communists still want to hear Cold War rhetoric. 

In fact, Bush, like Reagan, enjoys the good fortune of mazzel. He has been elected to the presidency at a time when the old big power confrontations are beginning to disappear and when peace is breaking out all over. If he takes advantage of his good luck, he may end up presiding over one of the most significant presidencies of this century. He will never thank Gorbachev for his mazzel. But he ought to.  

The Rabbi Writes: Michigan Public Schools

The Jewish Humanist, February 1994, Vol. XXX, Number 7

The public school system in Michigan is in a crisis condition. The property tax for education has been dismissed. Public confidence is declining. The morale of teachers and students is at an all time low. Religious groups are clamoring for the replacement of state education with the voucher system. And a controversial referendum to provide alternative funding through a higher sales tax is imminent. 

The crisis stands in sharp contrast to the public schools of my childhood. In the first sixty years of this century the American state educational system was hailed as one of the finest examples of American democracy. Even free enterprise enthusiasts liked the public schools, even though it meant government control of education. While some proponents were fanatic Protestants who hated Catholics and the Catholic parochial school system most proponents were happy parents who believed that the state school system was delivering exactly what they wanted. 

The old public school system was very good at turning farmer children into urban labor and European immigrants into American citizens. It was also very good at producing a literate work force that could undertake unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. It was blessed with low paid spinster teachers, a young population eager for child education, a reverent relationship between parents and administrators, and low expectations. The social setting was one where two parent families and non-working mothers were the norm. Television was either non-existent or new and children read newspapers or wrote letters. 

The crisis in the public schools exists because the old social setting no longer exists. There are virtually no farmer children to turn into an urban work force. European children have been replaced by African, Asian and Hispanic children. Jobs for unskilled labor have vanished together with the easy affluence that little education at one time could bring you. Low-paid spinster teachers have yielded to self-esteeming professionals who want decent compensation and tenure at the same time. The population is aging, filled with old people who have no personal vested interest in funding child education. The relationship between administrators, teachers and parents is adversarial, aggravated by the emergence of aggressive teacher unions and indifferent politicians. Stable two parent families are shrinking into a minority-all of this change adding new burdens and responsibilities to an overburdened and non (sic) traumatized school system. The analytic skills that come from reading and writing have found a substitute in screen watching. And a more affluent bourgeois America has much higher expectations of its schools and its teachers. 

The consequence is a declining faith in the value of the public school system and an increasing unwillingness to find it. 

Something dramatic needs to be done. Either the public school system will be reformed and funded. Or it will yield to a chaotic system of private schools paid for by state vouchers. 

I am no friend of Governor Engler. But I applaud his willingness to confront the issue. The public school system will not be improved by defending the status quo and identifying all the enemies of public education who are members of his entourage. The complaints are legitimate. The crisis is real. 

I believe that right now, there is no alternative to public schools having the major responsibility for youth education. If we were starting from scratch, I might choose another alternative. But you do not tear down a system that basically works and replace it with an untested private system that will still rely on state money. 

So what do we need to do to reform the system effectively? We need to take bold action. Timid reforms will not work. 

We need to reform the school curriculum so that it trains students for the jobs of the future. Self-esteem does not flow from talking about it or praising one’s ethnic background. It comes from competence and employment. There is no substitute in today’s world for a basic knowledge of the language of science and technology. 

We need to find the teachers who can do this job, pay them adequately and rescue them from overcentralized (sic) and intrusive bureaucracies. Teachers should be rewarded for merit. The tenure system, which exists mainly in the public sector, ought to be discarded. 

We need to charter experimental schools, which are responsible to public authority-but which allow creative educators to test new procedures of education without having to conform to standard policies. 

We need to allow parental choice within a school district-and within the ability of a local school to accommodate demand. Schools that parents do not want should be closed or changed. 

We need to allow public schools the options of turning their operation over to private educational corporations. This experiment in Minnesota has proved quite successful. This transfer must only be made to entrepreneurs with a clear secular agenda. 

We need to establish performance standards for children in each area of learning. There is no substitute for testing. The fear that testing will produce uniformity and rote learning is out weighed (sic) by the disadvantage of chaotic expectations and school certificates that are a sham. 

We need to find funding for the system that provides equal support for the rich and the poor. The local property tax is no longer a feasible funding route. The income tax is a better route but will not be accepted by the general public. The sales tax is regressive-but there is a chance that it will be approved. Therefore, I support the referendum initiative. Hating Engler is not a sufficient reason to oppose. Helping children is more important. 

In some ironic way, Michigan has become a ‘pioneer’ for educational reform. We have to do something dramatic right away.