On the Brink of Self-Destruction
By Gad Nahshon
"In the struggle for the soul of American Jewry, the orthodox model has triumphed. To say this is not to say the orthodox themselves have prevailed or that only the orthodox denomination will survive on these shores" concluded Samuel G. Freedman, a new intellectual star, in his Jewish best seller, "Jew vs. Jew - the Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry" (Simon-Shuster, NYC 2000). Freedman is a well connected Manhattan west-side writer, who has published three books, worked for the New York Times, and who is also a professor at Columbia's School of Journalism. He is an excellent storyteller, narrator and a great oral historian.
Freedman's choice of case studies allow the reader to come to his own conclusion. He takes the reader on a tour of this continent visiting the various Jewish communities. It is a trip to a Jewish-updating panorama. The success of this book stems from Freedman's ability to show us the terrible disunity of the American Jewish community. He describes to us the dangers of the American open society to the Jewish identity in the 21st century.
The fighting among the Jews will erode Jewish society as a unique ethnic group. The abyss is not only biological, as in mixed marriages, the disintegration of the Jewish family, the low Jewish fertility rate, but also is a spiritual and intellectual one. Freedman does exaggerate; his title is very bombastic, Jew against Jew. In one of his many human-interest episodes Freedman informs us about a Jewish fight in a certain city because Jews refused to let some orthodox Jews establish a new orthodox synagogue in their neighborhood. It is shameful, but it is not by any means an act of Jewish anti-Semitism. Of course, those who fight for the principle of pluralism here and in Israel, as well, should not be hypocritical. The book leads us to think again about the Jews and their existence in the American melting pot. The struggle for Jewish ethnic survival has become harder and harder as the years pass by.
The author is quite pessimistic; a greater sense of unity is necessary among the Jews of the U.S. From a historical perspective, we have more Jewish unity today than we did before 1945, for example. However, Freedman only discusses recent history. American Jews were far more disunited on the eve of the Holocaust, which explains their passivity in the need to rescue the European Jewry.
In 'Jew vs. Jew', the author examines the issue of "Israel and America: The Price of Peace." Freedman remarks that, today, Israel, far from unifying American Jews divides them further on both political and religious grounds. Israel's own chasm over the peace process is reflected inside the American Jewish community. Simultaneously, the question of who is a Jew has become more contentious than ever. Israel's orthodox control over religion, the lack of separation between religion and the state, Freedman argues means antagonizing the majority of the American Jewry (85%). However, Freedman fails to discuss the issue of those who make Alliyah. You can promote pluralism by using the election system. The Russian Olim felt that their interests were neglected by the establishment, they decided to fight back by establishing a Russian party period. Freedman again tends to exaggerate the influence of Israel on this Jewry. It is not a black and white matter. One should not blame Israel for the American disunity. One, also, must remember that the Zionist movement was, always, a minority movement.
Jews did fight for the well being of Israel. However, they often restricted their love for Israel. It is not clear why. Jews had insisted back in the 1950's that Israel should recognize the principle of religious pluralism. Those who do fight for this principle must understand the historical background of this reality in which orthodoxy is the established way in Israel. As to the peace process, the American Jewish pressures on Israel to give in to the Arabs in order to achieve "peace". Recently, a peace lobby in Washington D.C. organized a petition of 300 rabbis in order to show that Jerusalem is "shareable", all these are originated from the fact that many Jews are not pro-Zionist per se. Israel has never united nor disunited them.
The Jews are not concerned with the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, but with their image in America. The so-called "division" which Freedman refers to took place when the Likud came to power in May 1977. Many Jews did not like the new revolution in Israeli politics. Even when David Ben-Gurion was the Prime Minister many Jews did not like his policies. How many people are aware that in 1956 the new American Conference of Presidents condemned Israel for the invasion of Sinai in October 1956 in the Sinai Campaign (war)? They viewed Israel as an aggressor! Later the conference changed its position.
My conclusion is very simple: many Jews who do not support Israel used the years in which the Likud party ruled as a good basis on which to portray Israel as a war monger and inhuman state. Therefore, in reality, Israel consistently served here as a unification factor inside the true pro-Israeli camp. The success of "Jew vs. Jew" stems from Freedman's choice of episodes. The author uses case studies to expose the epitome of the American Jewry: the tremendous friction within the tribe.
The book illuminates the conflict within the American Jewry in human terms through the following:
- The last summer at a Labor Zionist camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York that has become defunct, paradoxically, because Zionism has succeeded in creating the Jewish state of Israel.
- Orthodox and Reform Jews in a Cleveland suburb who are fighting about the proposed construction of several synagogues - and, more deeply, about whether it is unity or pluralism that ought to be the real goal of Jewish life.
- The Florida Jew so opposed to the peace process that he tried to bomb a synagogue where Shimon Peres was speaking.
- A Los Angeles congregation that spent three years debating whether to honor the Biblical matriarchs in their liturgy.
- Reform Jews from Long Island who moved out of town to get away from Orthodox Jews, whom they accused of "flaunting" their religion.
- The Orthodox Jewish students who are suing Yale University in federal court for the right not to live in coeducational dormitories.
Freedman writes: "For six thousand years of slavery, exile, oppression, persecution, and genocide, the Jewish people endured out of a nearly sacred devotion to the concept of Klal Yisrael, the community of Jews. Indeed, whatever shatters Jewish community is described as a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name. At the most practical level, a succession of gentile enemies from Pharaoh to Hitler threatened Jews as an undifferentiated mass. The Marxist, the boulevardier, and the shetl rabbi died alike in the gas chambers, and the lesson, as the renowned Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik expressed it, was that in a hostile world all Jews were joined by a brit goral, a covenant of common fate."
Indeed, Freedman contends, America's Jewish community is pulling toward the extremes. For one of the few times in Jewish history, the forces of assimilation and segregation, secularism and fundamentalism, are simultaneously ascending. On one flank, rampant interfaith marriage and declining religious observance leave a plurality of American Jews with that husk of identity that sociologist Herbert Gans has called "symbolic ethnicity" - "Seinfeld" and a "schmear," one might say. On the other side, an assertive, charismatic, and increasingly purist Orthodoxy boasts the highest birth rate in Judaism and a sense of triumphalism to match. So while fewer that half of American Jews belong to a synagogue or temple, and only one in six even lights Sabbath candles, the number of religious day schools operated or inspired by the Orthodox simultaneously booms.
Freedman believes that this disunity and extremism will not disappear in our times. Perhaps we will encounter the coming of a new trend of realignments, which he described as the rise of a Jewish Reformation in America.
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