The alarming rise in global anti-Semitism has prompted Jewish leaders to proclaim that life for Jews in Europe will be “unsustainable” if they are forced to live as an increasingly persecuted minority in the face of escalating hostility. Citing a 2013 survey of anti-Semitic trends, Dr. Moshe Kantor of the European Jewish Congress painted an alarming picture for the future of European Jewry.
Given the historically dreadful treatment of Jews in Europe – by governments, churches and society at large – doomsayers find it easy to predict further catastrophes, particularly when they factor in the Islamist influence now stoking the flames of Jew-hatred across the continent. The anti-Jewish riots in France and elsewhere since the start of Operation Protective Edge show that Dr. Kantor’s statement was not mere hyperbole. However, the threat is external and recognizable; and its transparency has aroused a sense of outrage and vigilance.
But what about threats from within? Is it possible to guard against internal impulses that weaken identity, facilitate assimilation and engender complacency in the face of growing anti-Semitism? The question is not simply whether Jews can avert tragedies thrust upon them from without, but whether they can survive their own abandonment of the values, faith and historical perspective that sustained them through generations of persecution and exile.
Those who lose sight of their heritage and history often fill the resulting void with ideological flotsam that undermines Jewish continuity. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the United States, where assimilation, intermarriage and the dogmatic allegiance to politically-driven agendas are undermining loyalty to traditional priorities.
Though anti-Semitism has increased in the United States as it has elsewhere, an equally serious threat facing American Jewry today is existential and self-inflicted. Secular Jews have grown increasingly ignorant of their own history and values, replacing both with a political faith that often contravenes normative tradition, makes it acceptable to question Israel’s character as a Jewish state, and endorses a Palestinian narrative that is rejectionist and anti-Semitic. All too often, unbalanced criticism of Israel is promoted on the left as being consistent with Jewish ethical tradition, and progressive “social justice” is proclaimed to be an inherently Jewish value through the misapplication of tikkun olam.
Jewish morality and Torah justice do not demand the renunciation of history or tradition, and tikkun olam is not synonymous with liberal ideology – or for that matter secular conservatism. Rather, it is a mystical concept that has been twisted to fit a sociopolitical outlook adopted by progressives as a religious imperative. There is no moral requirement for Jews to sacrifice their own rights in the pursuit of an illusory concept of social justice. Likewise, there is no ethical dictate for Jews to suppress their religious and national interests to accommodate competing Palestinian claims, or to dialogue with Islamists who despise them as a matter of doctrine.
The left-wing’s tendency to eschew ethnic loyalty and marginalize Israel arises from its attempt to redefine Judaism as a humanistic philosophy divorced from halakha (Jewish law) and stripped of national character. In seeking to equate identity with temporal ideologies, secular advocates often characterize partisan causes as “Jewish” even when they contravene traditional belief and practice.
While some liberal ideals are consistent with Jewish tradition, many conservative values are as well, such that neither ideology has a monopoly on the Jewish zeitgeist. Nevertheless, liberals often proclaim their agenda to be a pure expression of Jewish values, even though certain fundamental aspects of that agenda deviate from normative halakha or bear no relevance to it. There are certainly points of tangency, but not to a degree that justifies kneejerk partisan advocacy masked as religious belief.
Although the nontraditional movements are generally pro-choice on the issue of abortion, for example, their position is not dictated by Jewish values because the law does not support a single, uniform application. Under Jewish law, abortion can be permissible, required or prohibited depending on the circumstances of each case. Thus, while liberals are free to support unfettered choice, they cannot claim that it is an intrinsically Jewish mandate. Similarly, the contrary view is not a core doctrinal position for Jews who disagree, as it is for Christians who oppose of abortion.
The liberal agenda incorporates diverse causes (e.g., global warming, same-sex marriage and tax-and-spend economics) that are supported by many secular Jews. Depending on the issue, however, Jewish law may take a contrary position or none at all. As members of a larger society Jews can support any causes they wish, but they cannot claim to be guided by Jewish values where the law disagrees or is silent. Interestingly, observant Jews tend to refrain from taking public positions on so-called “moral issues” to avoid the appearance of insular parochialism. In contrast, secular liberals are often vocal in their advocacy and in invoking Jewish moral authority, regardless of whether their agenda is consistent with that authority.
The nontraditional movements have embraced numerous progressive causes and channeled them through a version of tikkun olam that is more political than rabbinic. Despite the prominence of social action committees in many American synagogues, tikkun olam does not mean “social action” and does not constitute a mitzvah. The term “mipnei tikkun ha-olam” (“for the sake of tikkun of the world”) is associated in the Mishnah with certain commandments that promote societal harmony, usually relating to marriage and divorce, the redemption of captives, the collection of damages, and the purchase of religious items from gentiles.
According to Lurianic Kabbalah, prayer and the performance of mitzvot are essential for liberating “divine sparks” said to have been dispersed throughout the universe at the moment of creation. The mystical purpose of tikkun olam is to ingather these sparks and the souls that contain them through the understanding, contemplation and performance of all mitzvot, not only those that relate to societal functioning. The ultimate goal is to restore spiritual equilibrium and hasten redemption.
Accordingly, Chabad’s campaign of outreach and increased mitzvah observance is truer to the mystical purpose of tikkun olam than is progressive social action.
In contrast, progressive advocates of tikkun olam have separated the concept from its contextual roots and sanctified political priorities over traditional ritual practice. They have thus consecrated the mundane to fill the emptiness created by the rejection of law and tradition. In doing so, however, they have lost the tools necessary to reinforce Jewish identity and continuity, and this loss is reflected by the rising rate of intermarriage.
According to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, the U.S. the intermarriage rate since 2000 is 58% overall and 72% among the non-Orthodox. Not surprisingly, Orthodoxy has the lowest rate, followed by Conservative, Reform and the unaffiliated. Among the Reform and unaffiliated, however, the rate is probably higher than assumed in light of the finding that “intermarriage is much more common among Jewish respondents who are themselves the children of intermarriage,” and that “among married Jews who report that only one of their parents was Jewish, fully 83% are married to a non-Jewish spouse.”
The survey did not define identity according to Jewish law, but rather by affiliation and self-reporting. Thus, the survey population undoubtedly included people deemed Jewish by patrilineal descent. Because this standard is not recognized under halakha or by movements other than Reform, however, the technical intermarriage rate is likely higher than reported. Moreover, the finding that children of intermarriage are less likely to marry Jews would seem to undercut the argument that patrilineal descent preserves Jewish identity into the future.
Some progressives argue that opposition to intermarriage constitutes racism, and that the ethnic and cultural diversity found in many liberal congregations is the “new face of Judaism.” It is not racist, however, to want to preserve Jewish law and identity; and one could argue that skyrocketing intermarriage rates reflect a failure to instill values necessary for insuring Jewish survival.
It is difficult to discourage assimilation when many nontraditional rabbis perform intermarriages and sometimes have non-Jewish spouses themselves, or when their congregants believe that excluding gentiles from the marriage pool constitutes a form of bigotry.
The claim that critics of intermarriage are racist is not an expression of Jewish values, but of political correctness run amok. Rather than address the issues that enable assimilation in the first place, or admit that certain political or philosophical precepts may be incompatible with Jewish cultural survival, it seems that some would rather denigrate traditional observance as socially antiquated or morally flawed.
It is the elevation of secular agendas to the level of religious obligation, however, that weakens identity and engenders moral ambiguity. This is particularly apparent whenever war flares up in the Mideast. Usually quick to condemn and criticize, the Jewish left in America often employs moral equivalency and historical revisionism to excuse terrorism against Israel, accuse her of war crimes for defending herself, and validate questionable Palestinian claims.
The current conflict in Gaza was precipitated by Hamas’s unprovoked missile attacks, the kidnapping and murder of three young yeshiva students, and the construction of an elaborate tunnel system for the purpose of infiltrating Israel and attacking civilians. Hamas has breached every ceasefire and continues to use civilians as human shields. Israel, in contrast, has done more than any other nation to minimize civilian casualties, usually at great risk to her military personnel.
Nonetheless, voices on the Jewish left can be heard condemning the proportionality of Israel’s response and excusing Hamas for targeting Israeli civilians and using Arab women and children as cannon fodder.
The progressive left in America has at best a conflicted relationship with Israel, as was suggested by the recent withdrawal of J Street from a “Stand with Israel” rally in Boston. Progressive unease is also evidenced by the New Israel Fund, which claims it does not support global BDS activities, but which states on its website that it “… opposes the occupation and subsequent settlement activities… [and] will not exclude support for organizations that discourage the purchase of goods or use of services from settlements.” And by the Jewish Voice for Peace, whose San Diego chapter has accused Israel of “repeated war crimes [and] systematic human rights abuses” and opposes Operation Protective Edge. Claims that such conduct exemplifies Jewish moral introspection are nonsense.
There seems to be plenty of dialogue these days with Islamic organizations that are hostile to Israel and Christian denominations that call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against the Jewish State. In some communities, progressive rabbis are sitting down with imams without first vetting them for connections to extremist organizations. In contrast, there is little dialogue with Christian groups that actually support Israel, or with former Muslims, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a victim of ritual genital mutilation, who criticizes the treatment of women and minorities in Islamic society and who speaks with the knowledge of an insider.
Even some establishment organizations have been criticized for not doing enough to expose anti-Semitism within certain political and religious ideologies. The ADL, for example, has been accused of not fully exploring the Islamist threat in America. It was also criticized recently for lobbying in Florida against legislation aimed at limiting the enforcement of foreign laws, including Sharia, by civil courts. The Council on American Islamic Relations also lobbied against the bill.
Because so many liberals today define their Jewishness according to secular political ideals instead of traditional values, it should hardly be surprising when the more extreme among them take the progressive side against Israel, promote the Palestinian national myth, or support BDS activities.
Nevertheless, it is still jarring when progressive rabbis call on people to pray for the Gazans or chastise Israel for civilian losses caused by Hamas. Did these rabbis pray for Israeli civilians when Hamas began shooting missiles into Israel? Did they pray with equal vigor for the yeshiva boys who were abducted and murdered by Hamas? It is an affront to common decency to invoke Jewish ethics when empathizing with those who believe in jihad and genocide. Clearly, defining Jewish values by adherence to partisan ideals can lead to absurd results that undercut Jewish priorities.
Interestingly, since the start of the current hostilities in Gaza, some progressive Jews have finally begun to acknowledge the anti-Semitism of their fellow travelers and publicly question their political allegiances. Whether this will spark greater introspection among Jews on the left remains to be seen.
What is certain is that Jewish identity cannot be defined by allegiance to political agendas or reimagined through historical revisionism. Neither can it be reinforced over successive generations by emphasizing the “cultural” aspects of Judaism, which for secular Jews might mean little more than having bagels with their New York Times on a Sunday morning or voting Democratic.
It cannot be denied that the rejection of traditional belief and observance has led to increased assimilation; and that substituting progressive ideals for Jewish values has facilitated the abandonment of Judaism and rejection of Israel by many on the left.
The writer will be attending a National Security Panel conference next month, which will feature Lt. General Thomas McInerney, Lt. General William Boykin, and Gary Berntsen, a former CIA station chief. The program is entitled, “Israel, the U.S. and the Fight for Western Civilization,” and will be moderated by retired Lt. Col. (and former congressman from Florida) Allen West.