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What a week to be away!
President Trump’s disastrous press conference after his meeting with the ruthless Russian President Vladimir Putin left even Republican leaders dismayed — or, as John McCain, his party’s 2008 nominee, so delicately put it, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
Israel enacted a new “nation-state” law that enshrines the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people” — while making no mention of democracy or the principle of equality, subtly dissing the Diaspora, and downgrading the Arabic language.
Another round of participants in Birthright Israel walked away from the free 10-day trip protesting its “apolitical” agenda, an agenda they claim ignores the condition of Palestinians under occupation. (We’ve published opinion pro and con on our site; I recommend this smart analysis by my colleague Batya Ungar-Sargon.)
And an esteemed Jewish sociologist, Steven Cohen, was accused in a damning story in The New York Jewish Week of years of harassment and abusive behavior towards women in his field. (Read some reaction here and here.
There I was on a glorious vacation, strolling along the coastline of the brilliantly clear Pacific Ocean, hiking through towering old growth forests, watching wildlife undisturbed by human folly, while it seemed that back home, the whole world was convulsing from within.
A common thread runs through these stories: The dislodgement of tradition and expectation, the blasting of an old order without a new one yet visible. In some instances, the disruption is painful but welcome — as with the continuing reckoning prompted by the #MeToo movement, where once acceptable behavior now is viewed in a far more damaging and accurate light. Or the challenge to Birthright’s near-monopoly on the official narrative about Israel delivered to so many young adult Jews.
In other instances, however, the disruption is filled with danger. Others have outlined the dire global consequences of Trump’s indefensible behavior towards the dictator of an enemy state, so I won’t repeat them here. But closer to our Jewish sensibility is the action taken by the Knesset to put into question whether Israel can be both Jewish and democratic in equal measure.
The benefit of being on vacation when the law was enacted meant that I didn’t feel compelled to reflexively jump on the wave of outrage from liberals, in Israel and elsewhere, and instead tried to figure out whether this was as bad as they say.
The best defense of the new Basic Law was from my friend David Hazony, writing today in the Forward, and while he pointedly addresses the major criticisms, in the end his argument just isn’t persuasive. Like others, he argues that the law is enshrining what already exists — the primacy of Hebrew, the imperative to promote Jewish settlement, the assertion of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and so on.
That’s debatable, in my opinion — if the law didn’t change the actual status of Arabic, why did it need to go from an official language to one with “special status,” for example?
Like others, too, Hazony argues that Israel’s new law is akin to those in Western democracies that validate the supremacy of one language, religion or ethnic group.
The flaw in that argument is that Israel isn’t like France or the U.K. People other than Jews were living on this land before the Zionist project began and their interests have now been officially denigrated in a way that is contrary to Israel’s magnificent Declaration of Independence.
Because nowhere in this enunciation of nationalism are the concepts of equality and citizenship. And so there is no way to read this statement other than as an attempt by the Netanyahu government to elevate Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic one.
As Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, wrote for the Forward: “A Basic Law that seeks to define the character of the state but does not anchor the principle of civic equality has no place in the law book of any democracy.”
What else I’ve been writing. Before I went on vacation — that seems long ago now! — I responded to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court with a column wondering whether he will push the high court even further out of step with America. Sadly, nothing that we have learned since has made me any less concerned.
What else I’ve been reading. Despite the manifest dangers of his presidency and the manifold flaws in his character, Trump retains a solid approval rating from his base — especially white Christian Republicans. This continues to baffle me, but two pieces I read recently helped explain this powerful trend.
The first was a long, deeply reported story in The Washington Post from a small town in Alabama, where the faithful remain steadfast in their support of the president, for reasons partly understandable and partly reprehensible.
And putting that into a broader political perspective, I recommend Michele Margolin’s oped in The New York Times. She’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where I am a non-resident senior fellow, and I’ve heard her present her research before. It is a powerful illustration of how politics is increasingly determining our religious beliefs.
“We don’t just take cues about politics from our pastors and priests,” she documents, “we take cues about religion from our politicians.”
Looking forward. I began this newsletter a year ago, when the Forward’s print operation switched from a weekly newspaper to a monthly magazine, and I wanted to maintain a regular conversation with you, my readers. I have been so gratified by the response. But I want to learn more! So in the next few weeks, look for a survey about this newsletter and please use it to share your perspective.
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Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.