Consequences of Our Coarsening

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published September 15, 2006, issue of September 15, 2006.
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In September 1982, in an article in Moment Magazine that was written and mailed before the events in Sabra and Shatila, I wrote the following words:

“There are two kinds of Jews in the world…

“There is the kind of Jew who detests war and violence, who believes that fighting is not ‘the Jewish way,’ who willingly accepts that Jews have their own and higher standards of behavior. And not just that we have them, but that those standards are our lifeblood, and what we are about…

“And there is the kind of Jew who thinks we have been passive long enough, who is convinced that it is time for us to strike back at our enemies, to reject once and for all the role of victim, who willingly accepts that Jews cannot afford to depend on favors, that we must be tough and strong….

“And the trouble is, most of us are both kind of Jew.”

Arriving in people’s mailboxes, as they did, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the words had a special resonance. We did not yet know for sure, but we already suspected, what the Kahane Commission would later find — that Israel was complicit in the slaughter that took place in two Lebanese refugee camps.

I recall my words of 1982 now not because they in any direct way relate to what transpired in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. No, I cite them now because I would not write them today, surely not with the confidence with which I wrote them 24 years ago.

Alas, I am no longer certain that “most of us are both kinds of Jew.” The years of conflict have taken their toll, and it seems clear that many Jews, both here and in Israel, have become the one kind of Jew who believes that “nice guys finish last,” that force is the only language Israel’s neighbors, including its Palestinian neighbors, understand.

That’s not to suggest that it is easy to negotiate with people who wish you not merely ill but who desire your extinction. If they really mean what they say, what is there to negotiate? And why not believe that they mean what they say? It is not a passing border dispute that gets in the way of a resolution to the conflict; it is Israel’s existence and Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian obduracy and extremism.

But this is not about that. It is about us and the coarsening that we have experienced. And it is also about one of the consequences of that coarsening.

In recent months, what was a trickle has become a flow — not yet a flood, but dangerously on its way. Young Jews — not just teenagers, but people under, say, 35 — eager to connect with the Jewish people, are increasingly finding ways to do just that through vehicles that end-run Israel, that leave Israel entirely out of the equation. They study Yiddish, they join Jewish organizations that are fully engaged in domestic issues, they focus on Jewish texts or on Jewish literature or on Jewish spirituality. They have come to perceive Israel as too alien to their understanding of Judaism, as too heavy a psychological and ideological burden to engage with it.

As troubling as their posture is, it is exceedingly difficult to know what to say to them. They are suspicious of nationalism of all kinds, and Jewish nationalism does not seem to them to be a compelling exception. Not any longer. Not after this summer.

And those who, instead, do seek to engage, but whose quest for a relationship to Israel unfolds within a context of Jewish universalism, often suffer either condescension or, more typically, harsh dismissal. A statement recently issued by college and high school Reform Jewish activists applauded the Union of Reform Judaism for its condemnation of Hamas and Hezbollah, but then went on to urge the union to “condemn the Israeli Defense Force’s killing of unarmed Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, as well as its premeditated targeting of civilian infrastructure.”

While the Union of Reform Judaism itself responded with courtesy, most of the responses to their letters have been vituperative. Rabbis and others have called them “enemies of Israel,” “self-hating Jews,” as if the tradition out of which these young people speak is not an authentic tradition, well within established precedent. Instead, peremptory dismissal.

As if these young and concerned activists ought to hold their tongues until they become forked, as if they ought to behave as Zionist apologists. The kind of reaction, in short, that is likely to drive yet more of our best and brightest to a Judaism that is shorn of Zionist challenges and dilemmas, that is uncoupled from the preeminent undertaking of the Jewish people in our time.

Being both kinds of Jew is not easy, but it’s honest. Jews who fail to see that Jewish nationalism is, its virtues notwithstanding, a problematic endeavor, are either ignorantly or willfully out of touch. Jews who do see these things yet fail to acknowledge what they see, do themselves, their people, and the Jewish state no favor.

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