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November 20, 2009

What Happens When Jews Stop Serving?

Deborah Dash Moore’s informative and poignant opinion piece, “The World That Jewish Veterans Built,” raises troubling questions about the contemporary relationship of the American Jewish community to military service (November 13).

Ever since the late-18th century, European Jews fought to prove their battle-worthiness in order to gain political rights. In the United States, Jews were emancipated at the country’s birth and fought in all of its wars; their participation in the defense of their country played a significant role in eroding prejudice and in empowering Jews to demand equality under the law. Yet since 1973, Jews — as well as other relatively affluent demographic groups, as Moore noted — have largely opted out of military service.

As a mother who has reared two sons in the post-Vietnam era, I shudder to think about what our lives might have been like had they had to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet I shudder as well when I see that the American Jewish community is, by and large, no longer shouldering the burden of protecting our country. What does it mean to live and flourish in a country that one is unwilling to protect and defend? What does it mean for a democracy when only part of its citizenry guards its institutions? What does it mean that it is highly unlikely that the rare Jewish soldier will be counseled by the even rarer Jewish chaplain during his or her service?

The reality of fewer Jewish veterans holds serious consequences for the health of our democracy and the security of Jews within it.

Nancy Sinkoff
Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, N.J.

Israel and the Dueling Covenant Conceptions

Jay Michaelson’s September 25 column, “How I’m Losing My Love for Israel,” has precipitated a sometimes acrimonious debate. It is striking how the arguments concerning the type and boundaries of American Jews’ loyalty to Israel resonate with deeper primordial theological tensions within Judaism. In the Tanach, there are two distinct kinds of covenant (brit) between God and the Children of Israel.

The first one grants God’s unilateral, unconditional benevolence. For instance, in the “covenant between the pieces” (Genesis 15:1-21) God promises Abram that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars, and although they will be exiled and oppressed, God will unconditionally redeem them and give them the land of Canaan.

The second type of covenant is like a conditional treaty — God will only protect the Children of Israel if they obey his law and behave in a proper manner — as we see in the second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21); it is explicit that the Children of Israel will be rewarded by God’s bounty if they obey him, but punished if they don’t. Many prophets later chastise the Children of Israel, warning them that God desires good behavior and will punish them if they don’t follow his word.

Obviously, the contemporary argument is over American Jews’ covenant with the modern State of Israel, but the two opposing conceptions can be analogized to the biblical schemes of covenant. Is Israel entitled to unconditional support, or rather conditional support contingent on its moral behavior? Michaelson’s column suggested the latter, while many in the Jewish establishment seem to prefer the former conception. It may offer some small measure of comfort to know that these tensions have always existed within Judaism.

Seth Cohen
Mamaroneck, N.Y.

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