In the Diaspora: 'Shmita' for a pundit

US and Israeli Zionists should worry less about Obama, more about the American Jewish rank-and-file.

By SAMUEL FREEDMAN
August 20, 2009 13:18
4 minute read.
Freedman, Samuel, columnist 88

Freedman, samuel 88. (photo credit: )

The 25th chapter of Leviticus tells me as a Jew that after six years of sowing the fields and pruning the vineyards, in the seventh year "the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord." In my secular life as a university professor, the same concept exists as the paid sabbatical I receive every seventh year. So you'd think I'd get the point. You'd think I'd follow the program. But in this other part of my life, as a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, I'm taking my shmita at the end of four years of punditry, and I'm not certain exactly how long my sabbatical from the op-ed page will last. I undertook the twice-monthly column about Diaspora Jewry, particularly in the United States, out of my tremendous respect for the Post as a newspaper and David Horovitz as its editor. I have valued the pulpit (or should I say bima) they have provided me since August 2005, and I have benefited from the informed and passionate readership they developed. But after addressing all sorts of topics every two weeks - from Philip Roth to Pessah bread, from Joe Lieberman to J Street, from Michael Chabon to William F. Buckley - I have come to feel the need to step off the treadmill of a regular, unyielding deadline. While my regard for the Post and my ardor for Israel remain undiminished, and while I hope to contribute periodic columns in the future, what I crave now is the chance to replenish my reservoirs of reporting and analyzing without needing to pump them so readily into print. I remember Richard Price once telling a class of mine that after writing three autobiographical novels in a row, "I felt like I'd covered all of my life through last Tuesday." IF I have any misgiving about standing down, it is in doing so at such a significant moment in the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Right now, a great deal of attention has gone to President Barack Obama, who was elected with overwhelming backing from American Jews but is viewed nearly unanimously by Israeli Jews as unsupportive. The divide about Obama, while genuine, is misplaced. What Zionists in both countries should be worrying about is much less the president than the American Jewish rank-and-file. If anything, Obama may be more deeply committed to Israel than an increasing number of American Jews. Why, after all, hasn't Obama's unbending opposition to Israeli settlements caused an American Jewish outcry to match the one in Israel? Because his stand aptly speaks in different ways to three strands of American Jewry - the loyal opposition, the anti-Zionist camp and the chronically disengaged. All of these are worth the concern of Israel and its defenders. The loyal opposition, embodied by figures like Thomas L. Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg and Ed Koch, views the settlement enterprise as a betrayal of Zionism and a risk to Israel's security, both militarily and diplomatically. Little could be more counterproductive for Israelis than to disparage these people as self-hating Jews. Israel alienates them at its own peril. The anti-Zionist faction, embodied by the likes of Michael Chabon, Tony Kushner, Philip Weiss and Tony Judt, sees the settlement enterprise as the epitome of Zionism. (Memo to the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza: As Oscar Wilde said, be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.) For them, the occupation of the West Bank implicates Zionism itself. So there is no reforming Zionism; there is only ending Zionism, accomplished by the deus ex machina of a unitary state. And from being a sliver of American Jewry, this group is palpably gaining ground, creating a foothold for a more European style of Jewish identity - fetishizing exile and disparaging self-determination. Finally, and probably largest of all, there are those hundreds of thousands of American Jews who came of age after the 1967 and 1973 wars, who associate Israel with two invasions of Lebanon, the siege of Gaza and the assassination of a peacemaking prime minister. They are not engaged enough to hear, much less heed, the counterarguments; what they feel most intensely is a kind of embarrassment with Israel, a desire for the whole issue (or maybe the whole country) to go away so that their lives on campuses and at cocktail parties can proceed without any awkward conversations. ISRAELIS MEET an unrepresentative segment of American Jews - the remnant of liberal Zionists reared amid the Holocaust and the Jewish state's existential wars, and the products of Orthodox day schools and congregations who are, more often than not, favorably disposed to the settlement movement. There's nothing wrong with Israelis keeping and cherishing such bonds, as long as they realize the American Jews they meet no longer typify American Jewry as a whole. So maybe this a Cassandra's shmita, a sabbatical that begins not with the satisfaction of a recent harvest but the germination of a whole new crop of worries. Which might mean I won't be able to stay away from the fallow field of the keyboard all that long.n www.samuelfreedman.com


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