By J.J. Goldberg
May 12, 2006
The American Jewish Committee was hoping to make a splash with the star-studded gala that it mounted in Washington last week to mark its 100th birthday. What it got was not so much a splash as a soaking.
The centerpiece of the celebration was a day-and-a-half symposium on the Jewish future, featuring nearly two dozen of the world’s most prestigious Jewish celebrities, from Ted Koppel to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. The idea was to create a meteor shower of ideas and insights that would dazzle the assembled AJC membership, generate some serious media buzz and put the venerable human rights agency at the center of the national Jewish debate. The result was more like a train wreck, an all-star dialogue of the deaf that left members infuriated and agency spokesmen stammering. As for media buzz, the American press almost entirely ignored it, but the Israeli press hasn’t stopped talking about it.
At the center of the controversy was a verbal slugfest that erupted during the May 1 opening-night panel discussion, which was titled “The Future of the Past: What Will Become of the Jewish People?” The evening opened with some tentative remarks on the changing nature of Jewish identity by newsman Koppel, Israeli talmudist Steinsaltz and novelist Cynthia Ozick. The proceedings were then thrown into an uproar when Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua declared that Jewish life in America is meaningless. He called the 100-year record of the AJC “a great failure” and said that as an Israeli, he had no interest in discussions of Jewish identity. “It’s your problem, not mine,” he said.
From then on, the evening deteriorated into an argument between Yehoshua, the other panelists — including literary critic Leon Wieseltier — and the audience. The others insisted that American Jewish life does indeed have meaning. Yehoshua insisted it doesn’t. Does too. Does not. Does too.
The argument spilled over into the lobby afterward and continued furiously on the bus back to the hotel, much of it in terms that Ha’aretz later described as “unfit to print.”
The next day’s deliberations featured a series of discussions — some learned, some foolish, most of them unfocused — on changing modes of Jewish spirituality, Jewish community and Jewish vulnerability. Hovering over it all and dominating talk in the hallways, though, was the lingering anger at Yehoshua.
Astonishingly, nobody had the wit or insight (at least through the second afternoon, when your correspondent left) to frame Yehoshua’s comments within the larger context of Jewish identity in Israel and America. It shouldn’t have been hard to anticipate and plan for it; after all, for the past 30 years Yehoshua has been saying precisely the same thing to any audience that will listen.
Yehoshua expresses, in extreme, distilled terms, an essential truth about Israeli Jewish identity. Israelis tend to know very little about the reality of Jewish life in America. It’s not taught in their schools, rarely appears on their television screens and is seldom discussed in their newspapers. For Israelis, being Jewish consists of living in a Jewish country, speaking a Jewish language, serving in a Jewish army. What, they wonder, can it possibly mean to live as a Jew in Cleveland?
The ignorance goes both ways. We American Jews, by and large, don’t know how little Israelis know or care about us and our Judaism. We’re under the mistaken impression that, as the old slogan goes, we are one.
One of the best explanations for the divergence between the two communities was laid out two decades ago by a young Israeli professor of Holocaust studies, Arye Carmon. The Jewish communities of America and Israel, Carmon taught, both began as recent offshoots of Eastern European Jewry, then the main center of world Jewry. Each inherited one-half of the mother culture. Israelis inherited the facet of Jewish identity as daily life in an all-Jewish environment. Americans got the experience of Judaism as a series of choices and a way of looking at things. Given time, the two young cultures might have matured in dialogue with the mother culture and grown to resemble each other. But the Holocaust robbed them of a mother. Instead, they have grown up like orphans raised in different homes, emotionally linked but barely comprehending each other.
“In the Holocaust, we lost the cradle, the major source of our culture,” said Carmon, today the head of a Jerusalem think-tank, The Israel Democracy Institute, during a visit to the Forward’s offices the other day. “That cradle now exists only in other forms of Judaism.”
In Carmon’s view, too many Israelis continue, like Yehoshua, to preach the old Zionist doctrine of “Negation of Diaspora.”
“Jews are a diasporic nation,” he said. “The distancing of Israel from the Diaspora poses an existential threat to Israel as the sovereign center of the Jewish nation. We are separating. We need each other.”
It ought to be obvious to both sides that Israelis are not wrong in their way of being Jewish, any more than Americans are wrong in their way — joining organizations, attending events, giving to charities and trying to live by what they understand as Jewish values. The two ways are merely different.
Indeed, they are so different that neither one makes sense when seen through the eyes of the other. That would have been a useful lesson to extract from Yehoshua’s AJC presentation and from the audience’s reaction. Sadly, nobody was there to tease out the lesson and present it to the crowd. Everyone, it seemed, was trapped in one solitude or the other. Koppel, the moderator, set the tone in the first exchange of the evening, asking Steinsaltz, a Lubavitch Hasid, how he could assert that Jews share special traits in common. “That’s something antisemites have said for years, so I was a little surprised to hear it from you,” Koppel said, apparently unaware of the traditional doctrine of chosenness. Not surprisingly, then, when Yehoshua let loose with the Zionist doctrine of negating Diaspora, Koppel was caught completely off-guard.The missed opportunity was the fault, first of all, of the American Jewish Committee and its event organizers. They had put together a program that aimed to attract notice through star power, hoping to show AJC’s place in the stratosphere of American achievement. They forgot to ask if the invited celebrities knew anything about the topics at hand.
That point was made with disarming frankness during a second-day panel discussion by Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic. The topic was old and new models of Jewish community, something about which Peretz acknowledged knowing little. Part of the community’s trouble, Peretz said, is that it tends to turn for leadership to people who are “competent and qualified” in a great many things but “not really educated” in Jewish affairs. “For the most part,” Peretz said, “the achieving Jews — the secularly achieving Jews — have at best a smattering of Jewish knowledge. Like me.”In the flood of Israeli press reaction that followed the Yehoshua blowup, one of the most intriguing responses came from a Ha’aretz correspondent, Amiram Barkat. “The heads of the American Jewish organizations do almost nothing to alter the perceptions common in the Israeli public,” he wrote in a May 7 commentary. Instead, he wrote, they “come here several times a year,” and then “return to their country brimming with delight, having heard the prime minister, foreign minister and head of the Jewish Agency pay lip service in speaking about Israel’s obligation to the Jewish people.” They should be asking why Israel isn’t teaching its children about the Diaspora and “conducting a genuine dialogue between Israelis and Jews living overseas.”
Carmon makes much the same point. “Until two decades ago, Jewish life in the Middle Ages wasn’t taught in Israeli schools, much less Jewish life in Cleveland,” he said.
“It is outside the minds of the average Israeli. That’s where leadership is required.”
AJC spokesmen are now pointing to the mounting Israeli media furor touched off by their symposium — including radio and television specials along with long articles in all the papers — as evidence that they have begun that long-overdue dialogue. It’s probably not the outcome they intended, but they’re right to take credit. This week, veteran Israeli television newsman Michael Karpin wrote in an e-mail to AJC that “in Israel, setting up a public debate about matters that are not materialistic is quite an achievement.”