I think both, Scott's question as well as mine, go to the core of a situation that has been dominating American Jewish life for a couple of decades. Over the last 15 years or so, we have witnessed a polarization in the American Jewish community; while it is more evident on Israel related issues, it is not restricted to them.
Why is this happening? probably a combination of factors. Polarization in American society for once; polarization in Israeli politics for another; religious intolerance of one form or another in some segments of all religious movements; poor leadership and I could go on with many more, but probably one factor underlies all of them: poor knowledge of what it means to be Jewish.
When I say "what it means to be Jewish", I don't mean how to observe Shabbath or the Mitzvoth, or reading the Torah. I'm talking of a more fundamental level, what our grandparents used to call "Yiddishkeit" if we are Ashkenazy or "Judeidad" in Sephardic tradition: that undefinable "something" that makes us "Jewish", whether we are religiously practicing or not. The "something" that binds us together as a people.
That "something" might defy definition, but it is clearly rooted in our collective experience as a people and it has shaped who we are as Jews over the centuries. Today, however, each religious movement is pushing their own religious-ideological agenda both, on domestic as well as Israel related issues and that is OK. But when pushing for those ideas leads them to become contemptuous of other expressions of Jewish Identity, it becomes BAD, REALLY BAD. It transform the traditional diversity of Jewish life into lines of fracture rather than sources of strenght.
Think about it...we survived for almost 2000 years without a National center yet we kept the sense the kinship and we kept rowing in the same direction even when there were always deep disagreements among Jews about what to do in this or that set of particular circumstances. How did we managed that?
I think the answer lies in a special characteristic of our people. We are very individualistic and we are very passionate, but historically we also know (or knew) how to work together. You could say that historically, being Jewish was about "Unity in Diversity", which is in fact the origin of the word "University". So what hapenned?
Politics did. The polarization in Israeli politics which started in the 80s eventually made it to our shores, and people in the Jewish community started taking sides very passionately. The idea of working accross ideological lines requires an understanding of Jewish Identity that is beyond most American Jews. Jewish Identity in America has been reduced over the generations to elements of Jewish Identity with few or none binding elements. Being a Jew in America today is for most people about the Holocaust and about Israel. Only a minority attends services, and only a tiny minority (one could say an intellectual elite) has any real knowledge of Jewish cultural production over the centuries or about Jewish history. Opinions about Israel become, therefore, defining opinions about what it means to be Jewish, and being told that one might be wrong in his/her opinions about Israel, becomes a questioning of one's Identity as a Jew. It follows that any questioning of one's Israel-related ideas is preceived as threatening. This feeds back into the polarization.
While in Israel politics can be brutal, Israelis have other ways to work together. They do not disqualify "the other". This is not because they know more about Jewish Identity than American Jews do (many of them know less) but because they have a daily experience of what it means to be Jewish or Israeli that provides them the common ground they need. We don't have that. Therefore, what in Israel is "just" an argument about politics, it becomes in America a fault line dividing the community.
National organizations and movements have been pushing very hard their constituency to preach theri party line, and that is as it should be. The problem is, however, that the result is an internal fragmentation in local communities, making it more difficult to recruit volunteers, raise money and provide programs or services. Let's not even talk about lobbying for causes the Jewish community consider important on the Domestic or International agenda...
Israelis started to come back from the brink building bridges among themselves and recreating the "political center", as Dr Reuven Hazan shared with the attendees at last year's Major Donors Event. We don't feel that urgency, so we don't do it. In Israel it took Rabin's assassination to shake people into awareness of the problem...what will take in American Jewish Life to make people aware of it? J Street or Israpundit, we are all Jews and we all care for Israel. We just feel differently about what is good for Israel. What about learning about Jewish history? or Jewish literature? or Jewish Arts?
I believe it is time to emulate our Israeli siblings. Let us find the common ground. We don't have to give up our ideas, our convictions or our beliefs - but we have to find a way to work together in spite of our differences if we are to survive as a community. In larger communities, they can work in the center in spite of the fault lines because they have many more people...but they will eventually reach a level of fragmentations that might make it impossible to work oas a community. In smaller communities, with more limited Human and financial resources, overcoming fragmentation becomes more imperative. It is Small Jewish communities that need o lead the way to restore balance in the Jewish Communal discussion. And if we are unable to restore that balance of "Unity in Diversity", we might as well get ready to start closing shop.
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