One of the oldest Jewish jokes speaks of the stereotypical Jewish telegram. It reads: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”
Like all good jokes, it pokes fun at something that is rooted in reality. Jews are hard-wired to view the world in terms of a never-ending series of crises. After 2,000 years of exile, anti-Semitism and persecution culminating in the Holocaust, we have good reason to think that way.
As the line from Joseph Heller’s classic World War II novel Catch-22 goes, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Even if we live at a time when no one under 50 knows what a telegram is and probably never read Heller’s novel, that’s probably still true. Yet as a recent exchange between some Jewish leaders proved, the biggest problem for American Jewry today may be that it’s paranoid about the wrong things and complacent about the topics that they should be worried about.
Many Jews in the United States are still scared to death about anti-Semitism, despite the fact that they live in what is arguably the least anti-Semitic country in the history of the Diaspora. At the same time, they’re determined to ignore or at least downplay a demographic crisis that threatens the future of their community in a way that fringe hate groups could never dream of doing.
This conundrum was made plain after philanthropist Ronald Lauder published an op-ed in The New York Times earlier this month in which he essentially blamed the Israeli government’s policies on settlements, the peace process and religious pluralism for the “assimilation” and “alienation” of young American Jews from both Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish state. Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett responded by saying that the demographic collapse of American Jewry was due to factors that had nothing to do with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett said his ministry was working to aid Jewish education efforts in the United States and wanted to be their lifeline. Subsequently, he was attacked by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the retired head of the Union of Reform Judaism, in a Haaretz article that said the Israeli politician was right to want to aid American Jewry, but wrong about writing it off as doomed, while being indifferent to the importance of non-Orthodox institutions and pluralism.
Who’s right here?
While it is likely that most American Jews have little sympathy for the Netanyahu government, Lauder was dead wrong to blame Israel. One need only read the last major demographic study—the Pew Survey’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans” to understand the toll that assimilation and intermarriage have taken on Jewish identity in this country. The declining sense of Jewish peoplehood is the result of a lack of Jewish education, as well as a product of living in a free country where Jews are accepted in every sector of life. The implosion of non-Orthodox Jewry would happen even if Israel’s government was doing everything its liberal American critics were demanding.
Bennett deserves praise for bucking the tendency of most Israelis to write off the Diaspora as a lost cause. The classic Zionist doctrine of negation of the Diaspora is profoundly unhelpful. Israel still needs the Diaspora, even if it has been doing a pretty good job of negating itself.
Yet it’s also true that, as Yoffie points out, while American Jewry is undergoing a radical reduction in numbers, and the accompanying attrition of its vital institutions and infrastructure, the non-Orthodox community is not going to disappear. Nor will it essentially be replaced by the Orthodox, despite their rapidly growing numbers even as other streams decline. There are pockets of renaissance and creativity. It’s also true that most U.S. Jews don’t want any part of the national religious approach that Bennett’s Jewish Home Party represents.
Yoffie is right that Bennett may not fully comprehend the complexity of American Jewish life and its problems. Nor is he the right person to deliver the message of an Israeli offer of help. But I still think he has a better grasp of the situation than most of those who are speaking about the problem these days. He is at least talking about addressing a crisis, while most U.S. Jews are pretending that everything is just fine.
The most disappointing thing about the Pew Survey was not so much its findings that detailed the shocking decline in American Jewish interest in the essential elements of Jewish identity, like religion and Israel. Rather, it was the determined complacency of the main institutions of Jewish life to what Pew told us.
The organized world reacted with alarm to the “National Jewish Population Survey of 1990” when it reported a rising intermarriage rate that some disputed. It prompted federations and other philanthropies to focus more on Jewish education and to invest in day schools, camps and trips to Israel. But by 2013, few were ready to continue trying to push back against intermarriage rates that had soared far past the 1990 levels that had people so terrified. Though schools, camps and Israel trips remain a priority, there is no sense of urgency in the Jewish world about the consequences of a demographic decline that’s no longer just a theoretical problem.
As we head into Passover, it’s time to contemplate what really matters. The virus of anti-Semitism is far from dead, even if the danger is greater elsewhere. Yet we need to worry more about a population that is Jewishly illiterate and poorly prepared to defend Israel—or even to care about it and other keystones of identity. If we cared as much about that as we do about what a handful of powerless neo-Nazis might do to us, perhaps we wouldn’t need to fret over whether the aid we’re getting from Israel is a good fit for our sensibilities.
That Jews are finally running low on alarmism isn’t merely ironic. It’s also tragic.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.