Arms and the Jew: TVO, The Agenda, Oct 23

On October 23 Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s public affairs program The Agenda, interviewed Yossi Klein Halevi and me on our new books: his about paratroopers from the 1967 War and how their life-paths reflect Israel’s development since then, and mine about Jewish soldiers in the modern world.



What do “left” and “right” mean in Israel?

David Newman, a professor of Geography at Ben-Gurion University and the dean of that university’s Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty, has a thoughtful piece in yesterday’s Times of Israel about his fight against the boycott of Israeli academia.

He also defends his position as a “lefty” Zionist, meaning that he recognizes Palestinian national rights and strives for a just solution that can satisfy the legitimate aspirations of both peoples.

It’s appears that in Israel today, and throughout the Jewish world, the terms “left” and “right” boil down to how one stands on the Israel-Palestine conflict as opposed to the terms’ old references to social and economic ideologies.  Back in 1937, when the Zionist movement debated the Briitsh proposal to partition Palestine, some Labour Zionist opposed partition.  They claimed that a small Jewish state would be weak and beleaguered and would devote its resources to the military, not economic development and social welfare.  Were they “left” or “right”?  In the 1990s, Israeli entrepreneurs who favoured privatization of state-owned industry were at times also supportive of a Palestinian state because peace would be good for business.  Were they “left” or “right”?

Left and right have become synonyms for dove and hawk.  The debates about economic ideologies that ripped the Zionist labour movement apart during the state’s early years have long been abandoned.

Is there any logical contradiction between being a dove and a Zionist?  The only conceivable way of arguing yes would be to contend that Palestinians are not a nation, do not have collective rights, and that Jews must control the Occupied Territories forever.  The majority of Israel’s Jews have come to accept, however, that Palestians do in fact constitute a nation and do have national rights.

Israel’s Jews may be light-years apart from the Palestinians regarding the borders of a Palestinian state.  They may not acknowledge the contradictions between support in principle for Palestinian statehood and the expansion of Jewish settlements. Many of them do acknowledge, however, that such a state could and, under the right circumstances, should arise. In sum, many Israeli Jews are doves, or dov-ish, even if they appear to be hawks.


How Israelis View Theodor Herzl

From about a decade ago, a very funny video by the Israeli hip hop group Hadag Nachash, which uses the format of an old Israeli educational television program for teaching English to make a commentary on how contemporary Israelis view Zionist ideology and the “visionary of the state,” Theodor Herzl.

This version has subtitles in Spanish and in Hebrew transliteration (for Spanish pronunciation):

And the English words may be found at

Silence and self-censorship: a virtue or a transgression?

In January of 1956, Albert Camus decided to withdraw from public debate about the future of his beloved Algeria.  Although born into a pied-noir family and steeped in French culture, Camus deplored the cruelty with which the French mlitary suppressed the Algerian revolt and spoke out as vigorously against Algeira’s rulers as he did against the terrorism of the Front de Liberation Nationale.  Yet at a certain point he decided to silence himself and focus on small, tangible deeds on behalf of the people of Algeria:

“Because of my inability to associate myself with either of the extremist camps, and with the disappearance of the third camp which still made it possible to maintain one’s composure, and because I am doubtful both of my certainties and my knowledge, and being convinced that the true reason for our madness lies with the leaders and the functioning of our intellectual and political society, I have decided no longer to participate in the endless controversies….Personally, once again, I am only interested in actions which prevent bloodshed here and now.”

How powerfully these words echo in our own day. The state of Israel and the occupied territories are contested between two peoples.   Most Israel political parties are divided into ideologically determined blocks that allow little sympathy for those who, while anchored in one camp, strive to reach out to the other.  Intellecutals who, like Amoz Oz, speak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle “between Right and Right” are vilifed by both sides – as defeatist and naive, on the one hand, or hypocritical and paternalistic, on the other.  (The ongoing dispute over Camus’ character – was he a moral hero or a liberal collaborabor? – proves my point.)

At a certain point, one is tempted, like Camus, to fall into silence, to watch one’s words and make do with concrete, practical deeds.  Is self-imposed silence virtuous if accompanied by moral action?  Or is it an escape from responsibility – responsibilty to construct a future order that will depart radically from the noisome present? Camus himself appears to have had the latter thought, as he re-entered the political debate in 1958, with the publication of his remarkable Algerian Chronicles.    Silence, he decided, cannot vanquish evil.

On American Jews, religion, Israel, intermarriage, and the “Kuiper Belt” phenomenon

Two days ago the Pew Research Center released its findings from a survey on U.S. Jewish identity, observance, and belief.  The survey results show that the percentage of American Jews who are wholly secular has risen to about twenty per cent and that intermarriage rates have soared to fifty eight per cent.   Seventy per cent attend a Passover seder, but only half fast on Yom Kippur. Only a third belong to a synagogue, and less than a quarter attend regularly. Over a third think it’s fine to be Jewish and believe that Jesus was humanity’s Saviour.

Does this mean the end of American Jewry?  American Judaism is certainly under threat, although Orthodoxy is vibrant and increasing in numbers due to a high birthrate.  Besides, Judaism is not the same thing as Jewry, or Jewishness.  The number of individuals identifying themselves as Jewish is increasing, not diminishing.  This is most likely the result of immigration from the former USSR and the efforts by partners in interfaith marriages to raise their children as Jews.

Ever-larger numbers of self-identified Jews may cycle in and out of the organized Jewish community, or participate in some rituals but not others.  If traditionally Jewish communities have been comparable to atoms whose particles are tightly bound together, perhaps a better analogy for our own day is the solar system, with Orthodoxy comparable to the inner planets and the vast majority of self-identifying Jews akin to the outer planets or the Kuiper Belt, a collection of small bodies that orbits the sun at a vast distance yet remains within its gravitational field.

What do self-identified American Jews think is essential to being Jewish?  For 73%, it’s remembering the Holocaust.  For 69%, it’s leading an ethical life and for 56%, it’s social justice.  And for 42%, it’s having a good sense of humour.

Where does Israel fit into the mix?  Almost seventy per cent identify emotionally with Israel, but only about forty per cent agree that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.  That means that Israel ranks below the Holocaust, social justice, and Seinfeld.

Forty per cent have visited Israel, but only a quarter have been more than once.   Most American Jews don’t really know Israel first-hand, but forty per cent believe that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God.  That’s twice the percentage of people who believe that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish. So lots of people who aren’t all that observant still believe in God and that the Lord bestowed Israel upon the Jewish people.

Do they believe that what God gave can never be given back?  As earlier surveys have shown, the vast majority of American Jews are not hawks. Only seventeen per cent believe that West Bank settlements improve Israel’s security, and forty four per cent believe that the settlements actively harm the country’s security.

So large numbers of American Jews believe that Israel is the Promised Land, the inheritance of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, yet that parts of it can form a Palestinian state.  They care about being Jewish but define Jewishness in ways that have little to do with synagogue membership or routine observance.

In the decades to come, this liberal, individualistic and eclectic approach to being Jewish may weaken Jewish organizational life and reduce the pool of donations that keep Jewish day schools, summer camps, and social welfare programs afloat.  But so long as millions of Americans identify as Jews and equate being Jewish with being liberal, their electoral clout in key, populous states will persist.   A committed, vocal and increasingly Orthodox minority will continue to stand by Israel unreservedly.  Some members of that minority command considerable resources and will continue to play a major role in American congressional and presidential campaigns.

The decline of American Jewish practice does not entail the decline of American Jewry or of American Jewish prominence in many aspects of American public life.