Like schoolyard bullies yelling a sick kid has “cooties,” ultra-universalists and postmodernist fanatics jumped on the #MeToo scandal surrounding the sociologist Steven M. Cohen to pathologize the Jewish people’s lovely, natural desire to live. Back-to-back articles echoing one another in The Forward used Cohen’s admitted sexual misbehavior to pathologize intra-marriage while overly sexualizing, then invalidating, the “continuity” agenda – the age-old conversation about how to encourage young people to build a Jewish future by living meaningful Jewish lives, bonding with fellow Jews and, yes, establishing Jewish families when they’re ready.
On July 19, Kate Rosenblatt, Ronit Stahl and Lila Corwin Berman claimed the “allegations reflect the troubling gender and sexual politics long embedded in communal discussions of Jewish continuity and survival, the focus of Cohen’s work.” Making an absurd causal link – especially for three historians – their article was titled “How Jewish Academia Created A #MeToo Disaster.”
Aren’t the real causes sexism, arrogance and indecency? Weren’t the appalling careerism and cowardice of some colleagues contributing factors – apparently staffers sat silently at meetings witnessing repeated violations regarding basic norms of keeping your hands to yourself?
Instead, the authors target the “continuity” conversation they abhor. Caricaturing the “so-called marriage crisis” as a ruse furthering “patriarchal, misogynistic, and anachronist assumptions about what is good for the Jews” distorts reasonable worries about intermarriage’s impact on American Jewry into oppressive, “aggressive boundary policing.” The authors warn: “It’s time to acknowledge that a communal obsession with sex and statistics has created pernicious and damaging norms.”
The next day another article proclaimed: “How A #MeToo Scandal Proved What We Already Know: ‘Jewish Continuity’ is Sexist.” The cultural critic Rokhl Kafrissen couldn’t “disentangle the sexism of the alleged abuse from the patriarchal agenda Cohen spent decades pushing.” How “surprised can we be,” she wondered, “that a man whose entire worldview hinged on women having more babies turned out to have no respect for women when it came to personal sexual boundaries?” Admitting she’s “been a sharp critic,” Kafrissen smeared the efforts of many sincere men and women by concluding, “Cohen’s ‘continuity’ looked a lot like old fashioned, anti-feminist backlash.”
Cohen and I are combative colleagues, not friends. We don’t socialize, frequently agree, and occasionally argue, sometimes vehemently – publicly and privately. His surveys taught me, for example, that whatever American Jewish distancing we see from Israel reflects a broader distancing from Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, epitomized by intermarriage. Nevertheless, I disagreed with his recent call – recycled from 2011 – to politicize Birthright trips, rather than keeping focused on identity-building 101. But I would never exploit his troubles to advance my argument – better to defend stances substantively, not manipulatively.
Beyond that, while acknowledging Cohen’s pioneering role in using surveys to chart demographic trends and inject more social science into often knee-jerk discussions, we didn’t need multimillion-dollar studies and regression analysis to notice that American Jewry is shrinking (while Israeli Jewry grows). And dismissing the efforts of thousands of Jewish academics, educators, lay leaders and professionals by calling all these identity initiatives “Cohen’s continuity” is like reducing every advance in gender equality since 1963 to “Betty Friedan’s feminism.”
Purges are anti-intellectual, thuggish, disturbingly selective – and misleading. The problems of sexism and sexual abuse transcend political parties, academic agendas, and obvious personality types. Treating sexual harassers as having a reverse-Midas touch – sullying everything they believed in or worked on – is McCarthyite enough; limiting the repudiation only to issues on which one was already a “sharp critic” is cheap, exploitative – and bound to rebound.
Can critics also not “disentangle the sexism of the alleged abuse” from the left-wing Peace Now agenda “Cohen spent decades pushing”? More broadly, do Harvey Weinstein’s alleged crimes invalidate every liberal cause he bankrolled? Should traditionalists preach that if only Weinstein had married Jewish – or not divorced – he wouldn’t have been abusive? Unfortunately, such politicized, overly personalized, highly judgmental, hit-and-run vilification is becoming the academic norm.
FUTURE HISTORIANS note: This is the summer some American Jewish intellectuals succeeded in turning a central Jewish taboo inside out. First, intermarriage became tolerated. Then, it became mainstreamed, accepted. Then, intermarriage was no longer a problem but “an opportunity.” Now, the writer Michael Chabon – calling intra-marriage “a ghetto of two” – these authors, and others decree intermarriage not just kosher but a mitzvah. That makes in-marriage – I mean, aggressive boundary policing – not just unkosher but racist, sexist, patriarchal, misogynist.
I’m not buying it, nor will I reduce the entire Jewish identity-building and education enterprise to crass calls – that made many of us wince over the years – to make Jewish babies. The very word the critics bash – “continuity” – is as 1990s as flip phones, platform shoes, grunge rock and AOL. I prefer “identity.” My call has always been: “Lead meaningful Jewish lives.” Birthright’s call has been: “We welcome you – don’t command you – to navigate your own Jewish journey.” Hillel’s call has long been “maximizing the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews” – and now, “Ask big questions,” too.
All echo – and update – the historic challenge every generation since Abraham and Sarah has faced, which transcends any individual, study or strategy: How to pass this Jewish adventure on? How does it continue?
Those of us invested in this Jewish identity-building mission have a bias. We benefited from it – personally, ideologically, ethically, spiritually. And we want to share that excitement, that inspiration, that tradition, with others.
The writer is the author of the newly released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.