Monday, March 9, 2009

Two Kinds of Jew

Growing up in the 1960’s I never thought that I could imagine a situation where I would have to entertain the idea that there were two kinds of Jews: American Jews and Jewish Americans. Growing up in the orthodox Jewish, Zionist youth movement B’nei Akiva we would have these jam sessions on who we were: Jewish Americans or American Jews. During the summers when we attended Camp Moshava those discussions were much more intense and moderated by “shlichim”. Hypothetical situations were introduced where the interests of America and those of Israel were no longer congruent. We’d argue back and forward analyzing the issues from different perspectives presenting coherent positions regarding what the appropriate reaction of the Jewish community ought to be. We worked hard to construct those kinds of hypotheticals and worked even harder trying to reconcile ourselves to those situations. Not any more.

We have arrived at that watershed period when the Jewish community is standing at the threshold of a new age – an age where we will have to make some very painful choices: are we American Jews or are we Jewish Americans. In either case there is a level of discomfort in making a choice – but a choice we will all have to make. Some have already made the choice as is evident by their writings and political positions. Jewish leaders such as Eric Yoffe and Leonard Fein have indicated that they have made their choice and are proud to be American Jews. That is to say, that they place their priorities and identity first as Americans and secondly as Jews. They of course will deny this and explain, intellectualize and rationalize that there position really is in the best interest of Israel and the Jewish people.

In recent articles which appeared in the Forward (February 27, 2009) both these men have clearly signed on to the Obama bandwagon in what appears to be a more “balanced” approach in dealing with Israel. Leonard Fein believes that it is ok to criticize Israel, especially Israel’s prosecution of the Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead) and her lack of proportional response. He seems to think that it is appropriate to wash the “dirty linen” in public, because he says otherwise “if we are prohibited from washing our dirty laundry in public, how will it be laundered?” What a stupid remark! It should be laundered in private where it always has, away from and outside the purview of the public and anti Semites who don’t need any more reasons to bash Israel.

While Leonard Fein is just a bleeding heart liberal whose has found his voice with the Obama administration I am deeply concerned with Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Here is a man whose professional business is Judaism, apparently for as long as it is comfortable. Like all reform Jews, being Jewish is a matter of convenience. Once there is a hint of inconvenience the passion for Judaism begins to wane and takes a back seat to his patriotism. He too is an American Jew instead of a Jewish American as his chosen profession would have seemed to indicate and as others before him such as Rabbi Stephen Weiss has validated. Avigdor Lieberman’s rise to power as a new power broker and king maker in Israeli politics has thrown a monkey wrench into Yoffie’s Jewish world view. How inconvenient!

Avigdor Lieberman is the first totally honest and principled Israeli politician that has come to power in along time. Many of his views aren’t all that comfortable – so what. If I can apply Obama’s economic argument to current events in Israel the point will be made: Obama argues that some real tough economic choices for the American people have to be made because for “too long we have been at a party and now the time has come to pay”. The left wing is delighted that the rich will be taxed and that there will be a modified but real distribution of wealth. So why are the lefties complaining when Lieberman says basically the same thing. For too long the Jews in Israel have been at a party and now the time to pay has come. We can no longer live with our heads in the sand. The exponentially growing Arab population in Israel has questionable loyalty and may be a fifth column. Some very tough choices will have to be made! This became ever so evident during operation Cast Lead but was abundantly clear in the past when the local Arab population clearly identified with the national aspirations of the Palestinians. They can’t have it both ways: either they identify with the Israel as loyal citizens or they identify as loyal Palestinians.

Yoffie of course disagrees. Lieberman’s desire that every Israeli – Jew and Arab take a loyalty oath is anathema to Yoffie and, as he says, to the majority of American Jews. I don’t buy that. Yoffie argues that “no one in his or her right mind believes that these problems will be solved by rescinding the Israeli citizenship of more than a million Arabs.” Why not? Why can’t these problems be solved simply with an oath of allegiance? Those who can’t swear loyalty to Israel will reunite with the new Palestinian state where they will be able to take a loyalty oath. Incidentally, this isn’t a new problem. It is precisely because of this reason that Arabs citizens were never conscripted into the IDF (excluding Druze and Bedouin communities).

Yoffie isn’t the spokesman for the majority of American Jews nor has he taken a scientific poll of the American Jews position on Liebermans position for a loyalty oath. But more importantly, he is a reform rabbi in America and ought to address those religious issues concerning American Jews. After all, he is an American Jew and not a Jewish American.

Yoffie speaks of the feelings of the majority of American Jews. What he doesn’t address is the feeling of the majority of Israelis who voted for the right wing parties. They, the majority of Israeli believe that it is time for a right wing government to deal with the issues at hand. Yoffie is uncomfortable with that – too bad. And uncomfortable he is. Yoffie continues to write that American Jews “are dismayed by Lieberman, mostly because he represents values that we abhor…” Yoffie may abhor those values but the majority of Israelis certainly don’t. Israelis are fighting for their security and right to exist free of the constant threat of violence because they are Jews. They are dealing with real Jewish existential questions, and don’t have the luxury to gamble with their future. They don’t have the luxury for the mental and spiritual gymnastic of the silly intellectuals best played out on hollow pulpits by their robed rabbis in their empty synagogues haunted by intermarried couples who are searching for identity.

Yoffie and Fein are two uncomfortable Jews. I feel sorry for them. They live delusional lives. For too long they had the luxury of sitting on the fence, intellectualizing, teaching, writing and lecturing about the arcane and the inconsequential. I guess the time has come for us to stop playing that game: what are you: an American Jew or a Jewish American?