Last year I wrote about the two new denominations of Judaism that have emerged and made the traditional Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform labels less relevant.
Now the most meaningful distinction is between Aspirational Jews who look to Judaism as a value-added app that will help them live happier, better, and more productive lives and Tribal Jews whose main goal is to not grant Hitler a posthumous victory and to remain vigilant against the ongoing threats of anti-Semitism and our many enemies who are still out there trying to destroy us.
Most American Jews incorporate some mix of these approaches to Judaism viewing it as encouraging hope for the future while remaining aware of life's harsh realities. The Book of Proverbs tells us not to "veer too far to the right or the left." The conversation and tension between the approaches is healthy.
But in recent years, a small but vocal sect of passionate Tribalists have taken the tone of conversation to a new and much uglier place and it is driving a new and deep wedge into our already-fractured community.
These Jews who are damaging our community in the name of saving it have emerged on the scene with a renewed vigor and venom in a way that further threatens our ability to have a civil conversation about Israel and the important challenges we face. Unlike extremists on the Left, who can be annoying but are far less affluent and organized, this group tends to be wealthy, well positioned, and very influential.
I call this group the Israelists and Israelism has become their religion. Not just because they feel a deep connection as Jews to the state and land of Israel as we all do but because they have used their passion as license to attack those who do not share that passion with stunning disregard for the clear Jewish prohibitions against slander and negative speech about others. Their focus and tunnel vision has risen to cult status where it has functionally become their defining connection with their Judaism.
Elevated passions and Tribal views on the part of many older, wealthier American Jewish "leaders" is not a new phenomenon. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic wrote about it more than five years ago in his New York Times article entitled "Israel's American Problem." His words are even more relevant today.
Jewish leaders, who live in Chicago and New York and behind the gates of Boca Raton country clubs, loathe the idea that Mr. Olmert, or a prime minister yet elected, might one day cede the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to the latent state of Palestine. These are neighborhoods — places like Sur Baher, Beit Hanina and Abu Dis — that the Conference of Presidents could not find with a forked stick and Ari Ben Canaan as a guide. And yet many Jewish leaders believe that an Israeli compromise on the boundaries of greater Jerusalem — or on nearly any other point of disagreement — is an axiomatic invitation to catastrophe.
This is an existentially unhealthy state of affairs. I am not wishing that (President Obama) be hostile to Israel, God forbid. But what Israel needs is an American president who not only helps defend it against the existential threat posed by Iran and Islamic fundamentalism, but helps it to come to grips with the existential threat from within. A pro-Israel president today would be one who prods the Jewish state — publicly, continuously and vociferously — to create conditions on the West Bank that would allow for the birth of a moderate Palestinian state.
The situation that Golberg described back then was serious, but look how things have deteriorated since then.
In recent months I heard former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams--the featured speaker at AIPAC's annual event in Tucson--accuse award-winning columnists Joe Klein and Thomas Friedman of being "Jewish anti-Semites" because they expressed opinions that were critical of specific actions of AIPAC and the Iseraeli prime minister.
The Israelist Right--using tactics made popular by Tea Party activists--has smeared caring Jews like Peter Beinart and J Street executive Jeremy Ben Ami as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, even though each has lived in Israel and has worked tirelessly to promote conditions that will enable it to survive as a Jewish democratic state..
Most recently, the Israelist rhetoric has kicked up to a new level as Islamophobe Pamela Geller's group has taken out ads in New York and Washington subways comparing Muslims to "savages" in the name of the Jewish people and those who support Israel.
The vitriol and accusations of anti-Semitism have expanded well beyond Jews in recent months. When twice-decorated war hero and former Senator Chuck Hagel was nominated to be the next Secretary of Defense, the Emergency Committee for Israel and other Israelist groups ran an expensive smear campaign against him labelling him an anti-Semite--again in the name of American Jews. lAnd what was Hagel's sin that qualified him as a Jew hater? He had complained seven years ago about the heavy-handed tactics of AIPAC--an opinion I have heard from dozens of members of Congress.
Also appalling is the recent campaign against Samantha Power who is nominated to be our next Ambassador to the United Nations. As soon as she was nominated, the Israelist hit squad ran articles branding her as an anti-Semite in headlines based on a two minute out-of-context snippet culled from an interview she gave on an obscure cable channel eleven years ago.
The email campaign waged hot and heavy until people like Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach chimed in that they thought Power would be an excellent choice based on her past performance and commitment to Israel.
But the crusher came when Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren defied precedent and wrote a passionate endorsement of Power.. The respone from the Israelists who smeared her as an anti-Semite has been deafening silence.
It brought back visions of Goldberg's article about Israelist American Jews who are far to the Right and far more strident than the counterparts in Israel they claim to represent.
What is most striking (and most troubling) is that the terms anti-Israel and anti-Semite have become synonymous and are used interchangeably. Neither Friedman, Klein, Hagel, or Power ever said anything negative about Jews or Judaism. What few comments they made were about the tactics and/or policies of AIPAC and/or the Israeli government. Can you imagine if every person who is sincerely critical of the policies of the U.S. government was branded as anti-America or unpatriotic?
In a recent interview on Jackie Mason made the following telling comment to David Evanier in Tablet Magazine when he asked Mason if he has experienced anti-Semitism in his life
I did 45 years ago, but I haven’t in the last 30 because the Gentiles in America have changed from looking down at a Jew 40 years ago to looking up to a Jew today. They used to condescend to a Jew; now they apologize to me for not being a Jew. They say their sister-in-law is a Jew, they’re married to a Jew, they’re trying to move into a Jewish neighborhood, they want to be a Jew. The only anti-Semitism that I suffer from today is from Jews.
Although they claim to be obsessed with concern about the future and safety of Israel and the Jewish people, much of what they write and forward in emails are criticisms--often laced with lies or distortions--about the evils of Arabs, Palestinians, and Islam.
Many of these Israelists are bright, caring people who are my very good friends. I have spent the last three decades working along side them as I have chaired Federation and Israel Bonds campaigns, worked to raise and have given money to day schools and synagogues.
But isn't there a risk that the Jews who cry "anti-Semite" so frivilously will not be listed to if real anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.
Going forward, Judaism will thrive or wither not based upon our ability to idenify and demonize our perceived enemies but rather upon its ability to provide people with a wonderful values and wisdom based system that can help them live happier, better and more productive lives. It is a complicated and nuanced mix of those values along with ritual observance, culture, and a unique relationship with the land of Israel and, in recent years, the democratic Jewish state that has been built on that land.
As so often before in Jewish history, our people is facing a number of existential threats. For the first time in Jewish history, the most serious of those threats is internal--not coming from outsiders who want to destroy us but from the likely outcome of disastrous decisions being made by those who claim to be our leaders.
As the great Talmud scholar Rav Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
We might not be able to eliminate Jew hatred in the world and control the forces of evil out there that target Jews, but can't we at least find a way to call off the circular firing squad.