The demagoguery of ridicule

ByALEX SINCLAIR
June 27, 2011 23:55

Many Israeli critiques of young American Jewish leaders are classic Zionist "negation of the Diaspora" positions.

American and Israeli flags

america israel 311. (photo credit:courtesy)

In recent months, many commentators have criticized the weakening commitment of young American Jewish communal leaders – rabbinical, cantorial, and Jewish education students – to the State of Israel. As the director of a new semester-in- Israel program for students at the Davidson School of Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary, I would like to suggest that these critiques are fundamentally flawed on at least three different levels: politically, educationally, and thirdly, and most significantly, in their conception of Jewish peoplehood.

On a political level, it’s true that some American rabbinical, education and cantorial students hold “left-wing” opinions (although, in my experience, most cohorts contain students with views from across the political spectrum). Left-wing young American Jewish leaders have been attacked as “naïve” and un- Zionist, and that’s not only unfair, but also intellectually lazy.



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These left-wing students’ views are no different from those of many Jewish Zionist Israelis who strongly disapprove of the current government’s handling of the conflict with the Palestinians.

If the American students are naïve about Israel’s security, then so are countless Israeli politicians, military figures, and cultural thinkers. Now, it’s okay to say that you think they are wrong, but it’s not okay to delegitimize and condescend. The demagoguery of ridicule is all too common in the Israeli political arena; when it comes to Israel-Diaspora relations, we must raise the debate above that unhelpful level.


From an educational perspective too, the all-out attack on liberal American rabbinical, cantorial and education students is highly flawed. Even if the critics are right, even if these students are well-meaning, liberal fools – you know, “conservatives who haven’t been mugged yet", as the old insult goes – even if that’s the case, the confrontational nature of the demand that they admit to the error of their ways is totally misguided. All good educators know that you have to start with where the learner is.

The American philosopher of education John Dewey warned us, in several different books and essays written over several decades, that presenting the subject matter as an external, teacher-decided, “fait accompli” to the learner, will lead to educational failure. If your learners don’t like Shakespeare, you can’t hit them over the head with a bound copy of his complete works and shout at them “but you should like Shakespeare.”

Even if the critics are right about these students, angrily telling them that they’re wrong is futile. There are genuine debates to be had about particularism and universalism, about Jewish ethnicity, about the “protestantization” of American Jewry, and in many of those debates I am also concerned with the positions of some sections of American Jewry; but you are not going to educate young American Jewish leaders by ridiculing them.

Haranguing is not the same as education.

THIS BRINGS us to the third flaw, which is the most serious, and the one that highlights a critical debate that the Jewish world needs to have. It’s a conceptual question about what Jewish peoplehood is, and about what the rights and responsibilities are of Jews throughout the world, in both the Diaspora and Israel. Many Israeli critiques of young American Jewish leaders are, at their core, classic Zionist “negation of the Diaspora” positions: Israel is the center of the Jewish world; Israelis know best about Israel’s problems; Diaspora Jews should support Israel come what may, and refrain from criticizing Israel in public, and be very cautious about doing so even in private.

This approach may have worked in the early years of Israel’s existence, but it’s counter-productive today. Silencing the American Jewish voice will not lead to greater feelings of Jewish peoplehood; the opposite is true. Instead of telling these young American Jewish leaders that they “should” feel more connection with the Jewish people and Israel, we would do better to give them the space, the tools, and the legitimacy to become true partners in the serious conversations that the Jewish people should be having with itself, about itself; and we should enable Israelis to enter those conversations as equal, not superior, partners.

These conversations must get to the heart of the core questions about Jewishness in the contemporary world. For example, it may well be true that American Jewry has become overly focused on questions of privatized religious meaning, to the detriment of its sense of ethnic ties and particularism, as Steven M Cohen and Arnold Eisen pointed out over a decade ago. But it’s also true that in Israel, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and Judaism has become far too particularist, far too tribal, and has lost its sense of liberal universalism.

Here, then, is the real issue for anyone concerned with Jewish peoplehood today: our people is split between two poles, each of which needs rebalancing by the other. Yes, American Jews need to be exposed to the remarkable, inspiring experience of Israeli Judaism as public,sovereign space, the vibrancy of Israeli ethnic-religious- cultural creativity, a society whose foundational civic narratives are rooted in Jewish texts and language. American Judaism is the poorer for the lack of such exposure.

But the traffic must not be one-way. Israeli Jews need to be exposed to the remarkable, inspiring experience of American Judaism as an open, pluralist way of life, which can speak to different people in different ways; to the vibrancy of American Jewish vehicles for personal spiritual meaning; and to a religious community that has succeeded in having Jewish messages inspire and infuse hundreds of thousands of non-Jews. Israeli Judaism is the poorer for the lack of such exposure.

Both American and Israeli Judaism are, on their own, at best, incomplete, and at worst, fatally flawed. Open, honest conversations between American and Israeli Jews can help each group see their own flaws, and become healed by the other’s strengths. Israeli Jews are really good at pointing out the weaknesses of American Judaism, but they’re not so good when the tables are turned. Instead of ridiculing American Jews, Israelis should look inwards, and do some soul-searching about Israel and Israeli society. Parts of Israel are indeed inspiring and thrilling; other parts are depressingly backward. American Jews can help, if only Israelis would listen. And if American Jews felt that Israelis were more open to listening to them, perhaps they would in turn want to listen back.

The writer is the Director of Programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Kesher Hadash,” the new semester-in- Israel program for students at JTS’s Davidson School of Education, is rooted in the rationale explored in this article. He lives in Modi’in.

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