Monday, June 20, 2011

those crazy jews

I guess I should write a few words about how Israel, as a topic, is making the American Jewish community completely nuts. I mean, completely nuts. The Simon Weisenthal Center, whose primary mission is to hunt Nazis and fight anti-Semitism, in the person of its Associate Dean, read an op-ed on Fox News, in which he attacked "President Obama's outrageous demand that [Israelis] retreat to pre-1967 Six Day War lines, which were dubbed by the late Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, 'Auschwitz' borders." Now, put aside for a moment that Obama made no such demand - here's a group that has no particular geopolitical mandate or expertise, using Holocaust imagery to attack Obama, whose position on Israel's borders is essentially the same as Israel's own center-left, including much of its recent defense and diplomatic corps. That doesn't mean the position is right, of course, only that it's the kind of mainstream position that an ostensibly non-partisan organization has no business attacking (and especially not in shoah terms*) unless the machers have gone off their meds. But of course, if they were trying to make a reasoned argument, they wouldn't be quoting a "strategic assessment" made in 1969.

Or take the fuss about JStreet. Take a look at who their supporters are: they include leaders and former leaders of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements. Again, they may be right and they may be wrong, but it just does not get any more mainstream. But suggest that they be treated as such, and folks go bonkers, whether in the measured tones of a Daniel Gordis or in the full-batshit-crazy mode that Jews normally only display in synagogue when the cantor introduces a new tune. Mainstream, loyal, affiliated Jews who advocate fairly moderate positions - positions that many Israelis believe are in Israel's best strategic interests - are treated as though they were a threat to the country's very existence.

Which I suppose we are. Talking about withdrawing from the Occupied Territories - hell, just calling them the Occupied Territories - suggests that the borders of the State have more to do with negotiations and politics and international law than the Bible. A willingness to accept the fact that Jerusalem is a divided city puts paid to the notion that one is living in the seat of the re-established Davidic monarchy. Concern that Israel may use force unjustly, and that the occupation may be more brutal than security needs mandate or that international law allows implies that Israel might be subject to moral scrutiny by the outside world.

Is any of that really so bad? It all seems kind of normal for a normal country. It's not a good thing to be accused of a war crime, let alone commit one, but to hold Britain accountable, or France, or the US, for unjust use of force is not to attack their legitimacy or demand their dismantling. To call for a state to accept international law is not to deny its sovereignty. None of the above are incompatible with concern, even love, for a country.

Not for a real country, anyway. And that's the point. The JStreet constituency treats Israel as a real, normal, country situated in the real, normal world. In doing so, it challenges - no, it rejects - the idea of Israel as a mythic place. That's the Israel that's threatened.

A lot of Jews, though, need to believe in that Israel just as children need to believe in their parents' perfection. [It's not just Jews, by the way, who have this kind of need. Look at the way Palin et al furiously demand that Obama swear allegiance to the idea of American exceptionalism]. Some, particularly the religious right, are explicit about this: As the reborn Zion, Israel has a claim on all of Cis-Jordan by virtue of the Divine Promise, period.

But most American Jews don't really believe that, not at least in their grown-up brains. They can't say, even to themselves, that they need to imagine Israel as messianic, or recognize their fury at those who would deny them their illusions. And so they insist that they're speaking about Israel's physical security, and that the very positions held by the former head of the Mossad are treasonous when coming from American Jews. But when you try to make a security case for a mythic belief, you end up sounding, well, crazy.

*Oh, by the way - waving around the word shoah is only the mirror image of waving around the word apartheid. The fight against bad historical analogies begins at home.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

who cares?

What should a good synagogue - or any Jewish institution - do?

Thought experiment:

Let's imagine that Judaism mattered. That is, it made a difference whether or not it were being done - and by extension, done well. What would it be about Judaism that was important?

Maybe it's the moral imperative. I hear that a lot; in fact, I heard it a number of times just today. A friend was telling me about a conversation a friend of his had had with her Orthodox parents about her mover away from observance. "Isn't the most important thing whether I'm a good person?" And then later today, I saw that a wise and influential rabbi had written "Jewishness is believing one person can transform the world."

Now, it is really, truly, desperately important that one try to be a good person. And there's no question that believing that one can transform the world - or should at least try - is crucial if there is to be any kind of justice done, any repair of the world. But. But. But. If being Jewish meant being a good person, then either all good people would be Jewish by definition, or only Jews would have the capacity for goodness (either through some inherent quality, or through a monopoly on moral teachings). And both alternatives are patently nonsense. But think of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Dr. King. Of Florence Nightingale; of Harriet Tubman. Not a good Jew in the bunch.

So the Jewish part of being Jewish, the stuff that would matter if Judaism matters, has got to be different than just the moral imperative*.

To be sure, maybe it doesn't matter - not beyond a kind of ethnic pride, a desire for the kind of immortality that comes from being connected to something that lasts. In which case, who really cares what we do, or how? As long as you get people in the door, and get them to pin the "Hi, I'm Jewish" name tag on their psyche, you've succeeded.

But if it there was something, or a couple of somethings, that were really important on their own; if there was something there that the God or the world or your neighbor or you would be poorer without, then it seems that the institution would have two tasks:
1) Identify what it was that needed to be done - and what that thing looked like when done well;
2) Make sure it gets done well.

Actually, if we thought there was a core that really mattered - in the way that other stuff that matters matters - we'd be changing our relationship with our shuls and JCCs and the like. We wouldn't be so concerned about whether they entertained us or bored us - we'd want to know whether they helped us do the stuff we needed to do, well. We'd demand it.

Sounds simple, don't it? But I don't see that happening, by and large. Do you? I wonder what that means.

*That doesn't, doesn't, doesn't mean that one can be fully Jewish and be a schmuck; just that there's more to being Jewish than not being a schmuck. Did I really need to say that?