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The Changing Israel Debate…`Trends’ or Crisis (?) in Denver’s Jewish Community (3)

March 31, 2009

note – much of what I write about below comes after discussions with a number of young Jewish friends, social activists in general, but also active in Denver’s Jewish Community…

Despite appearances, all is not well in Denver’s Jewish Community.

Yet on the surface things couldn’t be better.

– Its more prominent members continue play a key role in local politics, business and the leadership of the Democratic Party, highlighted by the role of certain of its members, Steve Farber in particular, to bring the Democratic Party Convention which propelled Barack Obama to the presidency, to Denver.

– Its major organizations – AIPAC, ADL, the Jewish Community Relations Board, the Jewish Community Center, the Rose Foundation – remain active if not vibrant in certain ways and are able to raise dramatic amounts of money as a recent $10,000 a plate brunch for AIPAC suggests. As it does annually, the ADL will host a spring brunch, this time honoring the state’s governor. Much of the political class in Colorado will attend.

– Once again, as it has consistently done since the 1967 War, the Jewish Community, for the most part, stood by Israel and defended – against all objective logic – its military operation in Gaza as `defensive’

Under The Surface, Hints of Malaise

Under the surface, however, there are growing hints of malaise…

– Two of the more liberal rabbis have recently come under fire. One has lost the confidence of his congregation and will soon be forced to retire. Another, something of a liberal icon, finds himself, of all things, in a brush fire with the city’s Chicano and Black youth, the latter organizing a movement against police abuse and profiling.

– Just how many in the community were hit by the Madoff ponzi scheme (or like scams) is hard to estimate but if the local media is any indication, it is a fair number.

– And if in its mainstream organizations `stood strong’ for Israel in Gaza, there were significant cracks, voices from deep within the Community, among its old guard (especially women and youth) who were shaken by the level of violence Israel perpetrated on the Palestinians in Gaza, rejecting the claim that Israel’s military is `the most humane military in the world’.

– Groups critical – openly or less so – of Israel’s 42 year occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza are beginning to gain traction, or at least a modest presence. Relatively new organizations with names like B’rit Tzedek, Tikkun, J-Street are becoming more familiar. A Boulder rabbi, Tirzah Firestone, openly, a few from Denver more sedately, while careful to always express their `love for Israel’, have joined the likes of Michael Lerner and broken ranks, making their criticisms of Israel’s occupation more openly than in the past.

A `Trend’ Or A `Crisis’?

Just as tv commentators refuse to describe the global economic down-turn for what it is – the onset of a global depression of unknown duration (preferring to describe it as a recession with suggestions that perhaps the worst is over)… many in Denver’s Jewish Community would take issue with describing the current state of affairs within the community as `a crisis’. They prefer to speak of a `trend’ instead.

Actually the `trend-that-is-becoming-a-crisis’ lies elsewhere, beyond what was discussed above

Jews in large numbers are simply dropping out. Some of them become Buddhists or Unitarians. Indeed there are so many Jews that have become Unitarians that there is a term for them – `Jewnitarians’. Several other friends I know have become what they call `Jewfis’ – trying to combine Judaism with Sufism. I’ve sat with small groups in Denver – mostly women – who alternate Jewish prayers with Buddhist chants. Others have simply dropped out for one reason or another and whatever is left of their Judaism, if anything, is done in private.

It is a quiet crisis but one that mainstream Jewish organizations – both nationally and locally – have acknowledged (among themselves anyway) for some time: Jewish youth is straying from the fold and doing so in increasing numbers. This is especially true for youth from the ages of 18-40 who seem to be losing interest in organized Jewish life, but also for others who are older. It is in part a dissaffection with Israel’s policies (there are more and more Jews who are openly ashamed) but has other more fundamental aspects as well. This trend is national in scope and in no way limited to Colorado. One book that explores these issues and more is Douglas Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred. Considerable organizational energy and gobs of money have already been thrown into the effort to turn the situation around.

Three Specific Concerns

Concerns focus around three specific essentially unchecked tendencies

1. High levels of intermarriage between Jewish and non-Jewish youth raising fears of assimilation and identity loss
2. Young Jews in rather large numbers nationwide, tend to avoid synagogues and Jewish community organizations, more apparently than ever before
3. The new generation of Jewish youth, while Zionist in the main, do not share the same zeal for Israel as `the older generation’ which tends to be more ideologically committed then their parents. They tend to be more critical of the Occupation (and define it as such).

How to tap into what remains of their Jewish identity, to re-connect to this increasing disaffected younger generation, `to bring them back into the fold’ – this is the crisis and the challenge and it is taken very seriously. In an effort to address the situation, the Rose Foundation, Birthright Israel, even the ADL, are hiring more and more young people – many of them surprisingly left of center – and giving them considerable political and organizing leeway – to organize among `the Jewish unorganized’.

Proselytizing groups like Chabbab (several of whose members were killed in the recent Bombay tragedy) – akin to Jewish sufis – have also become more active on college campuses. The emergence of a somewhat brittle and conservative trend here in Denver – the Jewish Identity movement that attempts to win back those attracted to `Jews For Jesus’ is another manifestation of this crisis. In some ways these groups resemble the Jewish version of `Sister Act’…connect with people where they are at emotionally and politically to `bring them back into the fold’.

Will it work? I don’t know. But it is taking on the aspect of a national mobilization of sorts, a full court press. It suggests – to put it mildly – that mainstream Jewish organizations are increasingly out of touch with their own youth who are looking elsewhere.

Not-So-New Issues

On reflection, I can’t help thinking that some of this, frankly, is not so new.

A. For example, a close study of Jewish history suggests that for centuries there has been a certain `productive tension’ between the more religious and secular elements in the Jewish Community worldwide. I would argue that this tension has pushed many of the more religious elements to be more relevant to worldly (ie – social) issues and the more secular elements to appreciate the more humanistic traditions within the religion. The split between the two – if one can call it that – also forces a redefinition of what is a Jew, extending the term beyond a narrow religious framework. I would call it a `religious-based’ ethnicity.

B. If one looks at the history of Judaism in the United States – and now I am talking more about how it is manifested in the religious institutions – it has been forced to adjust again and again to American realities and the more general processes of social and cultural change one cannot escape in this country. In its search for relavency a century ago, the Conservatives (the group that broke with the Orthodox) added significant segments of the Jewish service in English (among other things). The Reform Wing, hardly uses Hebrew at all, the service is shorter and mixed marriages have long been welcomed . As such, the emergence of both the Conservative and the Reform movements within Judaism were both attempts at certain moments in history to render the religion more relevant to American realities.

One could argue that the Jewish Renewal Movement, while still a minor trend within Judaism, is a more recent attempt to once again rework the religion, retaining the deeper essence of Judaism while adapting its forms to new realities. Like other reform movements, serious reform movements that is, it entails risks and considerable skepticism from the more established elements that see such experiments as both spiritual and organizational challenges. Nor is this `dilemma’ if one can call it that, particularly unique to Judaism in America. Most religions and ethnicities (and I would add political parties and movements) in this country find themselves in a similar situation, searching for relevancy, to find their way spiritually). Again nothing new here from what I can tell

C. As for the distancing from and growing disaffection with Israel, it appears to be growing. I have my own (not particularly original) hypothesis on all this. The parents of the current Jewish youth are far more ideological in their support of Israel than their children who are less enthusiastic, more skeptical, Many Jewish youth are both less committed to it and more critical of its short-comings. It is as if they can be more objective than their parents….and are.

But How Can I Tell My Parents I Don’t `Love Israel’ As They Do?

A personal example, anecdotal I admit….but one that repeats itself. I have many students – and have had – many in the past – who are Jewish. More often than not we connect – intellectually and emotionally. While I don’t teach much about the Middle East (I teach Global Political Economy for the most part), oftentimes, sooner or later, my Jewish students want to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If possible, I go. It has happened again within the past few months several times actually.

We go for coffee. I don’t lecture them (hard to believe I know), but have developed an approach that usually initiates the discussions by asking them what THEY think.

I am no longer surprised at the responses which form something of a pattern – most of them support a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are critical of the occupation, of Israel’s settlement policy, understand the crisis cannot be resolved until the Palestinians have an independent state, etc. etc. Put another way, more often than not, we find ourselves in agreement on the main points…and even on some of the more thornier questions (ie – that Hamas should be included in any serious negotiations, that either the US or Israel bombing Iran is nuts, etc)…

Then what is the problem?

The `problem’ is not so much political as personal. They don’t know how to tell their far more ideologically committed parents! I don’t know how to tell their parents either. And more and more, the only way they can keep family peace is by avoiding the subject of Israel and the Palestinians. I simply suggest that when they think it appropriate that they show a little courage on this issue and that without that, progress will be difficult.

more on this subject later…

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