Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Second attempts

-Sometimes I write a whopper of a post, and it will then occur to me a few days later that what I'd meant to convey could have been done far more efficiently. Case in point: what I was getting at here, without realizing it, was that the food movement is fundamentally about romanticizing poverty. Which is why, on a superficial level, its goals can often seem entirely compatible with having nothing. They romanticize not having a dishwasher, so it can seem as though of course what they're advocating is universally accessible. After all, they're not demanding that you go out and buy heaps of yuppie kitchen equipment. Meanwhile, what they are asking is plenty inaccessible - not just to the proverbial single mother barely making ends meet with her three full-time jobs, but also to run-of-the-mill middle and upper-middle class Americans who have been given no compelling reason to give up TV (tsk tsk!) or reading or staring at a friggin' wall in exchange for time with mortar and pestle.

-Case in point, II: The typical reaction to the anti-Israeli-American-Jewish-marriage (or anti-Israeli-emigration) ads has been a diasporic nuh-uh, asserting that there are vibrant Jewish (and culturally Israeli!) families and communities in 'merica. This is on the one hand true, and on the other hand missing the point. The point, that is, of Zionism. (I am, of course, especially curious to see David Schraub's response, so David, if you have a moment...)

All along, the point of Zionism (and the reason I consider myself a Zionist) was to make the world better for a) Jews, and b) the Jews. Which is to say, it's on the one hand about making life more pleasant (or, circa the 1930s and early 1940s, feasible) for those who happen to have been born Jewish, and on the other, about Jewish continuity, which is to say, the perpetuation over generations of Judaism and of individuals who consider themselves Jewish.

Which is to say that it's entirely in keeping with Zionism - just ask Herzl! - that some Jews won't want in on the Jewish state, and will make use of the freedom that the existence of a Jewish state in the world helps provide them to not care an ounce about their Jewish identities, and to blend unnoticed into whichever mainstream or not-mainstream population they see fit. Why is that fundamental to Zionism? Because one of the problems Zionism was and is (or ought to be) about resolving is the idea that Jewishness is a) externally-defined, and b) fate. Jewish? That's going to be the central fact of your life. Zionism's about letting it be that if you want, and really making something of it in that case, and if not, not. Others who do care can certainly do their caring in the diaspora, but if their principle interest is continuity, they might want to head on over to Israel, where "Jewish" is the default. Given this dynamic, it's not so surprising that one would see a great deal of back-and-forth migration between Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

The point here, though, is that Zionism ideally isn't about forcing anyone to be more Jewishly-involved than they'd like. So things like these ads, that use negativity as a tool, don't fit with its mission. Israel either offers something positive for you, in which case great, live in Israel, or you wish to embrace your freedom as a human being (without being in any way impeded by being a Jew) to be a fashion blogger in L.A., a taxi driver in NY, a receptionist in Mississippi, etc.


Lisa L said...

"some Jews won't want in on the Jewish state, and will make use of the freedom that the existence of a Jewish state in the world helps provide them to not care an ounce about their Jewish identities, and to blend unnoticed into whichever mainstream or not-mainstream population they see fit."

I'm not sure I understand how Zionism and the existence of a Jewish state helps Jews who want to blend in with the world and not be out-and-out Jewish to accomplish that goal. Can you elaborate?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


It does so in two ways, one relating to how others see Jews, the other to how Jews see themselves. In that order... Israel's existence (in theory) normalizes Jews, making "Jewish" no different from "Irish-Catholic," say, as a cultural-religious identity that is simply one of many. Prior to Israel's existence, Jews were often understood as a people apart, as a "nation" never really at home anywhere, because of its permanent dreams of returning one day to the land of Israel. Well, once some Jews have done so, and once there's a Jewish state ready (in principle) to accept the rest, Jews who choose to remain in America, in France, etc. can be more readily looked upon as having an American, French, etc. primary identity.

Next, the fact that Israel exists takes the burden off diaspora Jews to "carry the torch," as it were, that is, to bear full responsibility for perpetuating Judaism/Jewry. Perpetuating these outside of a Jewish state is certainly possible in individual cases, but without a) massive social separation/mutual hostility between Jews and Gentiles, b) high levels of social anti-Semitism, or c) a strong, probably religion-based consensus among most Jews that intermarriage, or even the decades of "mixed" socializing that often lead to intermarriage, is unacceptable, it's... precarious. Some children of intermarriage of course are raised as or later decide to become Jews. But most? Zionism thus - and I get that it seems paradoxical - allows diaspora Jews to relax about this, by ensuring that a place exists where being born and raised Jewish is the default.

Dan O. said...

Jewish national self-determination is now neither necessary nor sufficient for the autonomy of Jewish persons in the American diaspora. That's been true for at least 20 years. It's been true in certain metro areas for much longer. I mean, it's even true in Princeton, right?

Also, I wonder if you see the irony with Israel's demographic problem, where Arab and Haredi birthrates far exceed the birthrates of Jews "by default".

If it were 1950, or even 1970, I would agree that Beckerman is missing the point. But I think Beckerman's response gets the times right.

"Zionism thus - and I get that it seems paradoxical - allows diaspora Jews to relax about this, by ensuring that a place exists where being born and raised Jewish is the default."

So Israel is like my grandmother, who stayed Kosher for Passover while my grandfather and mother ate fresh pita from the Arab bakeries out on the fire escape. And the ads were my grandmother's guilt-inducing expressions of disappointment. Of course, my mother emigrated and married a gentile. So, I guess that idea worked rather too well. Or maybe instead, the guilt trip backfired.
No wonder the relationship is so dysfunctional.

To put the point less annoyingly - the current direction of Israel makes me altogether less sanguine about the continuity of the Jews.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The reason I sprinkled "in principle" and such in my response to Lisa above is that Israel=/=Zionism. In principle, Israel would simply exist and keep on perpetuating secularish Jews as it did initially. And that's not going as smoothly as hoped, because lo and behold, it turns out that secularish Jews often enough prefer places like NY to fighting the good fight for Jews to keep on having a state of their own. It's not as if the whole thing's kaput, and people like me, who know so so many Israeli expats who may or may not return but don't seem to much mind it here need to remember that not all of Israel has jumped ship. But you're right that realities challenge the principle.

As for whether it's so self-evident that Jewish life can survive with or without Israel, I'm going to go with, not really. That's my answer because we have no precedent for this. Studying the history of another modern, acculturated Western Jewry (19th C French), I'm constantly struck by how a group that sounds more or less familiar was so, so much less socially-integrated than what we know today.

Point being, today there's no mechanism keeping Jews who wouldn't otherwise be interested attached to things Jewish. That poses a problem for Israel, but it also poses a problem for Jewish life outside Israel. I'm not sure why you'd be pessimistic re: the former but not the latter.

Dan O. said...


Fair enough on mostly everything.

"I'm not sure why you'd be pessimistic re: the former but not the latter"

It's not so much that I'm pessimistic about Israel as that I don't feel an easy confidence that Israel will take care of our future is warranted. Partially it's because of the social and political situation over there. But another reason dovetails with my local problem (I'll explain).

My optimism about the diaspora Jewish community wavers. Mostly, that's because my favorite Jews (including my wife and I) can't afford to have all of the kids we'd like. This is partially financial, but also has to do with maintaining fragile job security in the fact of parental leave. Israelis deal with some similar problems. Another problem is that our parents and extended family are everywhere, and nobody gets any help.

What I don't see as particularly relevant is the overwhelming concern with intermarriage and assimilation. I'd prefer it if people who harp on it would just shut up and, you know, help subsidize our daycare. Or lobby so that parents can have at least 6 months of job security with a leave. Because it's disingenuous - they want to promote Orthodoxy, not Jewish continuity.

Likewise, I imagine that a constructive response to J14 in Israel would do more to attract ex-Pats than a guilt trip.

Dan O. said...

BTW, read 'fact' above to 'face'. I meant:

This is partially financial, but also has to do with maintaining fragile job security in the face of parental leave.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I understand the liberal arguments re: population growth in general, namely that if conservatives so want to see more babies, they might look into making it easier for mothers/parents to take the necessary time off to do so. But I really don't see at all how these reforms would particularly impact Jewish demographics. Do you think Jewish families are more sensitive to these issues than others? If it's the same or less, then, while the reforms would be good for American Jews insofar as they're good for all Americans, it's unclear how they'd do anything special for increasing the relative presence of non-Haredi Jews in the population.

Dan O. said...


Yes, this is a problem that especially (though not essentially) effects non-Orthodox Jews for the simple reason that we are over-represented within the effected population - dual income, urban, educated people who have kids late.
Obviously it's also a special problem for Asian Americans. It effects many (most?) of the people I know socially, and the overwhelming majority of them are Jewish (and, yeah, fit me to the stereotype - most of the rest are Asian American).

It is may affect Jews more because we are more sensitive to the desire to be numerous.

Still, I don't know why something has to be essentially a Jewish problem in order to be a Jewish problem.

David Schraub said...

Ask and you shall receive!

I think I endorse most of this. I do have a tendency to glare at Jews who leave the faith, but that's a personal hang-up and one that I can't and don't really want to convert into some coherent normative principle.

I do think the post might undersell the independent value of diasporic Jewish communities. Defending Helen Thomas "proposal" that Jews "get the hell out" of Israel and go back to Poland, one anti-Zionist blogger promoted the idea because it might spark a reinvigoration of Polish Jewish culture. A Jewish blogger hilarious thanked him for "this gesture of philanthropic ethnic cleansing." Obviously, I don't endorse that vision at all, but I do think diaspora Jewish communities are independently worthy and we should want to preserve them, even though Israel's existence takes some of the pressure off of their shoulders (which is good).

One of my favored analogies for Israel at the moment is Howard University, and while the existence of Howard does mean that Black people shouldn't feel obligated to live every step "as a Black person" (i.e., they can elect to attend the University of Chicago), it is equally true that the University of Chicago benefits from having identifiably Black institutions inside it, that both it and the broader Black community would suffer if those institutions withered, and certainly Black people should be able to be not just Black but identifiably Black at Chicago (i.e., not electing to be "just another student") without being told that they should go to Howard if they want that.

I don't think your post stands in opposition to any of that -- more of a difference in emphasis. I agree that Zionism removes some of the existential perils posed by lox-and-bagels-only Jews, and since I'm a good capital-l Liberal I think it's absolutely acceptable to only be a lox-and-bagels Jew (or convert away entirely -- again, my personal prejudices aren't sufficient to establish any sort of normative code), but in terms of what I take to be the best-possible-world I would rather that diaspora Jewish communities maintain their unique sense of Jewish culture and continue to offer that contribution to the Jewish community and their host nations.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I share your feelings re: conversion out, and re: the disappearance of diaspora Jewish communities. But I think it's incredibly important to weigh the potential dangers of socially (or worse, legally) enforced diaspora Jewish communities, or of a world in which a Jew who wants in on another religion or is merely indifferent to being Jewish is constantly being reminded that he=Jew. Ideal would be for communities to go on existing, for Jews to go on wanting to be Jewish, but I'd rather diminished numbers and freedom than comfortable numbers and uncomfortable Jews.

David Schraub said...

Sure, I agree with that. A situation where the law mandates Abe Cohen = Jew is a bad thing. Abe should be a Jew because he wants to be a Jew, not because he's forced to be. But diaspora Jews should make it so that other diaspora Jews still want to be Jews, and should push for a social climate where people can be comfortable as Jews even in the diaspora.

Micha said...

Here is a little column by Neil Gaiman about the Christmas thing: