There’s an excellent piece of reporting up at the Forward on the crisis inside Reform Judaism. How to counter assimilation and disaffection, which are driving American Reform numbers down? The Reforms’ answer is the superb foto at the top of that Forward piece: A Reform rabbi speaking to the flock with a Jumbotron of Netanyahu grinning right behind him. Uncle Ben.
That’s right. The Reforms think the only way to get the air back in the tire is…. Zionism! And not just Zionism but Zionism cast as an idealist project. How do the Reforms square that circle?
Here are some excerpts of Dafna Laskin’s reporting, including the choicest bit, selling a visit to Israel as a modern day Freedom Ride. And not a word about Palestinians.
What to do about the shrinking number of active young Reform Jews?
For most of those present, the answer to this problem was clear. In workshops and discussion groups, and in plenary speeches by the movement’s star speakers, the idea recurred like a drum beat of Israel at the center of the movement, rallying its young minions against the forces of assimilation and disengagement. And in the conference’s programming, the emphasis on engaging youth in the Israel experience focused specifically, if not exclusively, on the issue of religious pluralism.
“At least once a week read something about Israel which is not about security,” Noa Sattath urged the crowd, speaking on behalf of Anat Hoffman, who leads Women of the Wall, the group that has been fighting for the right for women to conduct formal prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site.
Women of the Wall are of course the women who are trying to break down sexism at the holy site in East Jerusalem. I did a post on this stirring but very selective cause a few weeks ago: “Stories of equality (for the women of our nation).” Women of the wall are also featured in Gary Rudoren’s videos, the husband of the New York Times correspondent, who is a feminist.
So, cheering on Women of the Wall is a way to feel progressive, even when you’re supporting an ethnocracy. At the Forward, Laskin says that the Reforms avoid talking about Palestinian issues by leading a battle for “pluralism” inside Jewish Israel.
During the conference there was virtually no mention of the word “Palestinians.” Terms like “strategic concerns” and “security issues” were used consistently by speakers when referring to them or to the issues they embodied. The only speaker who cited Palestinians by name from the podium at any length was Netanyahu, during his speech from Israel.
For David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, the focus on using Israel to engage young people with a heavy emphasis on the issue of religious pluralism was easy to understand.
“Pluralism is flying right now, and capturing the dreams and hopes of so many people,” he told the Forward.
Notice how the Reforms seek to coopt the most idealistic currents in American political life in the name of Zionism:
Sattath, speaking for Hoffman about Women of the Wall’s struggles, urged a plenary session: “Visit Israel, and make your visits count…. Less Roman ruins and more freedom rides!”
I’m all for Women of the Wall, but the failure to notice that our Palestinian brothers and sisters are living under apartheid or second class citizenship is grotesque and, well, racist.
Imagine the Freedom Riders ridin those buses south and not talking about black people! The white citizens councils would have thrown barbecues for them!
So what to do about the “continuity” crisis inside Jewish life, the fear that Jews are turning away from the community and there won’t be any Jews left? I can’t offer myself as any kind of proselyte for the tribe, but I love Jewish tradition and one thing is clear: You cannot build a Jewish identity on racism. Smart young people won’t sign up. Even if you brainwash a few of them. In the end, the only way to build an idealistic Jewish identity is to lose the picture of the rightwing Prime Minister of the ethnocracy. In other words, challenge young Jews to explore anti-Zionism, the universalist strain in Jewish life; you will feel good about yourself, and help build a new community on values you can brag about.