As we approach the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, American Jewry faces daunting new challenges that demand fresh responses. The ever- accelerating pace of change renders policies of the past as obsolete as yesterday’s newspaper.
The situation that the organized Jewish community addressed a generation ago was strikingly different than the reality today. On the international scene, the world stood in awe at Israel’s swift victory in the Six-Day War of 1967. Israeli security seemed assured. Israel advocacy meant educating the world to understand that Israel had gained large stretches of territory on its borders in a war of defense for its very life, and that it was up to the Arab world to offer peace for land.
How different the picture is now. Israel has indeed negotiated peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan in exchange for land. But American Jewish support for Israel is up against the widespread perception that Israel—no longer the David that defeated Goliath—has “colonialist designs” that prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and that this constitutes the chief obstacle to rebuilding American influence in the Arab world. And in other Western countries, the anti- Israel bias is even worse. Making the task of interpreting Israel’s policies even more difficult, a good number of American Jews buy into the “blame Israel first” line too.
What is the Israel advocate to do?
Four decades ago, anti-Semitism seemed on the wane, as books, films, and plays about the Holocaust resonated with the broad public, and most people absorbed the lesson that the hatred of Jews that was translated into mass murder could be turned against any other vulnerable minority as well. Advocacy on this issue amounted to little more than pinpointing and publicizing the activities of fringe extremist groups.
But anti-Semitism in our day has metamorphosed into the big lie that, of all the nationalist movements in the world, Zionism is uniquely evil and constitutes a danger to world peace. Ironically, it is Iran, which had good relations with Israel until 1979, that bangs the drums most loudly for the destruction of the Jewish state, and is developing the nuclear capacity that could carry out that threat.
How shall we counterthe new anti-Semitism—the demonization of Zionism— and how can we convince the world to stop the Iranian nuclear program?
The domestic political terrain on which Jewish community-relations groups operated a generation ago was relatively simple. Americans, especially those in leadership positions, were overwhelmingly whites of European ethnic origin, Christian in religion, or else blacks, also Christian, with deep ancestral roots in the United States. They possessed a cultural awareness, at least on a basic level, of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history, so that Jews’ concerns fit within their frame of reference.
That is no longer the case. Latino, Asian, and other non-European groups— many of them recent immigrants—have emerged on the political scene. They have had relatively little historic contact with Jews, and hence their understanding of Jews’ priorities cannot be taken for granted. The same is true of the growing non-Western religious groups, such as Buddhists and Hindus—not to mention American Muslims, whose political clout is on the rise.
Where will Jews find coalitional allies in this increasingly complex American mosaic?
Perhaps the biggest change for the worse has occurred internally—or as the legendary American cartoon character Pogo famously put it, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” The Jewish community for which our organizational structure spoke forty years ago was small but relatively robust. The great majority of Jews married other Jews and brought up their children to feel part of the Jewish collective. Whether one was religious—of whatever denomination—or secular, a common sense of peoplehood, underlined by the memory of the Holocaust, strengthened by the emergence of the state of Israel, and heightened by the Six- Day War and the Soviet Jewry movement, bound Jews together.
That sense of group identity has gradually waned and in its place has emerged a largely privatized identity: one is attracted to particular ideas or practices that enhance self-fulfillment, whether they come from Jewish or non-Jewish sources. The rate of out-marriage has skyrocketed while only a minority of children of such marriages identify Jewishly. Thus the Jewish percentage of the American population—tiny enough to begin with—diminishes apace, further weakening our collective morale and electoral strength.
And just as the need grows for outreach to young Jews, the community of identified Jews is undergoing a Balkanization process. Internal differences of religious and political opinion, even to the point of mutual delegitimization, are undermining the standing of mainstream bodies that used to be able to mold a consensus and represent us on the American and world scene.
Is it possible to rebuild cohesive Jewish identity in a postmodern age, when the global village and the web wipe out old boundaries and render traditional loyalties obsolete?
Since the first step toward dealing with these daunting dilemmas is to lay out the “facts on the ground,” I am excited about the publication of American Jewry’s Comfort Level.
The pages that follow represent AJC at its best.
First, the book marks a fruitful collaborative effort between AJC’s Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations and the prestigious Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. When Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, the distinguished chairman of the Board of Fellows of JCPA, who has done pioneering research on American Jewish leadership and other important scholarly topics, approached us to join in this project we readily agreed, seeing it as carrying on the AJC tradition of partnering with sister agencies that share our priorities and interests.
Second, the contributors are all eminent scholars and communal leaders with considerable experience in thinking through and confronting these thorny issues. This, too, is a signature AJC mode of operation: commissioning the best minds to work on the crucial questions that confront us.
And finally, virtually all of the topics covered by these essays—American Jewish demography, intra-Jewish tensions, American Jewish-Israeli relations, the Jewish family, Jewish education, and Israel advocacy—have been the subjects of AJC research, conferences, and programming over the decades. Central to the pursuit of all these issues have been the leadership and scholarship of my cherished AJC colleague, Steven Bayme. As his coeditorship of this volume and his own essays amply illustrate, Dr. Bayme is a treasure for the entire Jewish community.
I fully expect that this volume will help lay the groundwork for the development of innovative approaches that will serve our community well as we go forward.
David A. Harris Executive Director, AJC