There are more than 7 billion people in the world, and roughly 13 million Jews. There are 6 million Jews in America, and about the same in Israel, with the remainder scattered about the globe. So that leaves about just 6 million Jews in their natural habitat: If we were of the animal kingdom, the Jewish people would be an endangered species. It seems the world will do more to preserve the spotted owl in its natural habitat than the last remaining Jews in theirs. Perhaps Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people, should be like a bird sanctuary, and the world should make it a special crime to kill a Jew.
The Jewish people are special. There aren’t many of us left. The perils of assimilation are not new. However, the catastrophic results of our collective failure to give our children an adequate sense of Jewish identity and experience, of Jewish specialness—the depth of this weakness in the fabric of our collective identity, which saps the will of young Jews to stand apart when it’s uncomfortable or unpopular—this is new. And the impact is accelerating.
Yet too many Jewish leaders continue to fetishize a wonderful 1960s model of social-justice activism whose foundational values are, in fact, a main target of today’s “social justice” advocates. The Reform movement and much of the unaffiliated American Jewish community has failed to recognize the troubling transformation that has altered the meaning of “social justice” beyond the point where its old-school liberals still recognize the term. A postmodern, moral-relativist zeitgeist, one that is almost unrecognizable to the older form of liberalism, suddenly broke out of its theoretical, academic confines and began flooding the consciousness of social progressivism, especially on campuses, and almost always in the movements to which young Jewish activists are attracted.
Today’s postmodern social justice does not have the same goals as that of the 1960s, which sought equal rights and opportunity and was rooted in the traditions of Western law and philosophy—and ultimately of Judaism. To the contrary, today’s postmodern social justice seeks not equal treatment for all under the law, but to create an equality of outcomes by trashing the systems that developed law and history in the West. It embraces a relativist basis to judge human conduct and seeks to delegitimize the foundations upon which Zionism and the rights of the Jewish people rest.
In today’s climate, speaking the truth about those who do physical violence to Jews is itself called violence. Speakers on campus who speak uncomfortable truths are greeted with mob violence. At the University of California at Berkeley, where a controversial speaker encountered a riot including Molotov cocktails and attacks on police resulting in over $100,000 in damage to the university, the school newspaper ran an op-ed explaining that “violence helped ensure the safety of students.” Read that again.
When Oberlin professor Joy Karega was poisoning her campus community with accusations that Israel was behind ISIS and the Paris terrorist attacks, that Jews controlled world media and invented AIDS, it was the postmodern reaction that cast her as the victim of a racist establishment unfairly judging a professor of color.
It may be hard to hear, but postmodernism is a threat to Western civilization, to the legitimacy of Jewish history, and to the system of nation-states that gives legitimacy to the modern and only expression of Jewish nationalism, the state of Israel. Helen Pluckrose describes the factors behind the social-justice river into which we are today pouring all our energies of Jewish action and self-definition:
Morality is culturally relative, as is reality itself. Empirical evidence is suspect and so are any culturally dominant ideas including science, reason, and universal liberalism. These are Enlightenment values which are naïve, totalizing and oppressive, and there is a moral necessity to smash them. Far more important is the lived experience, narratives and beliefs of “marginalized” groups all of which are equally “true” but must now be privileged over Enlightenment values to reverse an oppressive, unjust and entirely arbitrary social construction of reality, morality and knowledge…
We Jews have an empirical history, values that are universal and that have given rise to the modern view of human dignity, but these count for nothing in a world where postmodern social justice puts daily demands on our children to dismiss Jewish identity, uniqueness, and rights as just one more illegitimate view produced by white men of privilege. The view that pits Jewish particularism against universal values is contrary to the lived experience of our people, and to the kind of liberalism that the American Jewish community has long endorsed—but that’s what our community and our philanthropists are now paying for.
Take the example of opposing public school prayer. I am against prayer in public schools. I support the separation of church and state. But I hold these beliefs not because I am a universalist, but primarily because I am against religious coercion—and especially the coercion of my own children—a belief born of my appreciation of Jewish history and experience. A doctor must herself be healthy before she can treat others. Similarly, we need to teach our children some useful self-awareness, if not selfishness, in order to give them the path to useful selflessness.
If those who seek to engage in Jewish life believe that the universal good always outweighs the needs of the Jewish collective, we will not have a Jewish collective a generation from now, and the Jewish people and America will both be impoverished by that loss.
Historically, the American Jewish commitment to universal social action flowed directly from the Jewish collective commitment—whether it was through identification with the oppressed because of a sense of Jewish history, or through a reverence for the prophetic moral tradition and the teachings of Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, for whom marching to Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. was an ultimate expression of his deeply informed, elevated and energized Jewish spirit. Jews were universalist not despite their Judaism but because of it. Jewish commitment was the fount of universal wisdom and the key to its sustainability over time and transmission from one generation to the next.
During the 1980s and 1990s, an impressive machinery for this kind of social justice activism was built around the cause of assisting and freeing the Jews of the Soviet Union, whether that involved smuggling in matzot for the celebration of Passover or vocally publicizing the cases of refuseniks (those denied permission to leave the USSR for Israel). That communal architecture included organized religious and secular social service branches across the Jewish community. Yet since the movement to free Soviet Jews ended in victory in 1990, with the dissolution of the USSR and the emigration of over a million Jews to Israel, Jews in America have failed to coalesce around a single, particularistic issue: one that uniquely affects fellow Jews and can unite people across the faith spectrum of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
Synagogues, and in particular those within the Reform movement, were therefore left with a challenge: Where could all this pent-up social-justice energy be channeled? The answers that were chosen by many clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations put an increased emphasis on universal causes in pursuit of a better world, and in parallel on the betterment of Israel itself in its own pursuit of social justice. Both of these were laudable in and of themselves and when seen in isolation.
Yet when combined, the universal vision and the desire to criticize or “improve” the particularist Jewish state created a framework in which young Jews will inevitably be judged—and judge themselves—unfavorably for their commitment to Israel and to Jewish peoplehood more generally. The sense of mutual responsibility, which had always been balanced against universal responsibility, now became an irrational, archaic source of tension, which could be most easily resolved by defaulting to the universal.
At the same time, a new spirit entered North American campuses, in which universalism has taken on a much harsher form. The new radicalism to an astonishing degree replaces rational conversation with relentless pressure to choose sides and conform to the will of the group. If in the past Jewish students drew upon centuries of historical persecution, as well as the biblical call to “remember you were strangers in Egypt,” as the basis of a Jewish imperative to protect the oppressed, today’s identity politics labels the Jew as beneficiaries of unwarranted “privilege,” who have no right to “safe spaces” and no just claims against “microaggressions”—or real aggressions carried out by terrorists with bombs and guns.
Ironically, Jewish particularism has become acceptable only when it involves vehement critiques of Israel, whether over its policies toward the Palestinians or its very existence as a sovereign state. When young Jews come together in such a framework, the net result is to make Judaism and Jewish history a source of shame instead of pride—to the point where students interpret the anti-Semitic demand for dismantling the Jewish state as a positive demonstration of opposition to racism and “colonialism.”
At exactly the moment when Jewish students most desperately need a well of historical self-awareness and mutual commitment, they find that well dry. By teaching our children to value postmodern universal values above their own identity in the specific continuum of Jewish history and peoplehood, we are betraying ourselves, our children and our communities—and sawing off the limb of collective Jewish commitment on which Jewish universalism has always rested.
Our miseducation of our children begins in our own liberal Jewish institutions. When our children are introduced to their bar or bat mitzvah year, in most liberal congregations they are told that they must undertake a “mitzvah project”—a wonderful endeavor that helps those on the cusp of adulthood understand that they have responsibilities far beyond themselves. When I had my bar mitzvah, I was twinned with a young Jewish boy in the Soviet Union—a boy who could not have a bar mitzvah in a land where he wasn’t free to be Jew. Many Jews of my generation participated in similar programs.
That simple twinning, born of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, gave a young bar or bat mitzvah a true gift—one that is desperately absent from today’s emphasis on social justice and universalism. As I know from my own experience, it taught American-Jewish children three powerful things:
• Something about being a Jew: You are not alone, but part of a people.
• Something about being an American: You are free while others are not. Your unique Jewish identity is a privilege that must be cherished and protected.
• Something about totalitarianism: The people of the Soviet Union were not free, and neither are many of the nations of the world today. So don’t take your freedom for granted. Work to protect your people, your Jewish values, and by extension the freedom and rights of others.
Today, rather than using the bar or bat mitzvah as an opportunity to impart critical lessons that will help ground our children in a common identity and an authentic commitment to protecting Jewish lives, far too often we are encouraging them to skip all that and go directly to causes that are essentially universal. These causes are praiseworthy in their own right, but the shift in emphasis has meant that the role of an individual Jew is simply to do something good, for anyone, for any cause, because we are Jewish and we seek to repair the world. Yes, it is still labeled as “Jewish,” but without the core elements of history, peoplehood, and textual heritage, that label has become increasingly hollow.
I recently attended a joint bar and bat mitzvah ceremony for two children coming of age. For them, the choices for the mitzvah project were telling. One raised money for a camp for children who had lost a parent (she was fortunate to have both her parents looking on with pride). The second raised money to fight genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. Both represented a kind of universal selflessness, a beautiful act to help “the Other.” But there was nothing to emphasize the responsibility to ourselves or to show in a significant way how those mitzvot are part—though not all—of an authentic liberal Judaism.
When universalism trumps particularism, it’s only natural that Jewish groups, lacking any sense of history or collective bond, will come together and attract young people dedicated mainly to criticizing other Jews for their perceived particularistic failings, all in the name of “improving” Israel or “holding it to a higher standard” or whatever catchphrases their leaders or funders come up with. While such groups, operating outside of Israel and the Hebrew discourse, have virtually no effect on Israel’s actual behavior, they do have the potential to cause enormous harm to the Jewish collective by adding fuel to global efforts to demonize not just Israel but Jews as a whole.
And so, when a professor at Oberlin publicly declares that Israel was responsible for Sept. 11 and that the world’s central banks are controlled by a Jew named Rothschild, we discover members of the campus chapter of J Street U siding with the professor (on the grounds of “academic freedom”) against the alumni who raised a protest. Groups with innocent-sounding names like “Jewish Voice for Peace ” attract students unaware that when you sit in America and publicly call Israel an “apartheid state,” you are doing nothing to “improve” Israel, but are in fact marching in lockstep with the global machinery of hate and delegitimization that fuels violence against Israel and, automatically, against Jewish communities around the world. Most Jewish students think they are doing good for their people when they start down this path, not ever really gaining the values, tools, and historical perspective and instincts necessary for the preservation of our people. This problem is even more acute when organizations like J Street, which claim the pro-Israel mantle, legitimize anti-Zionist groups like JVP by inviting them to speak and share the stage at their national convention.
The deprioritization of particularism can mean robbing the next generation of the ability to tell when they are being recruited into efforts whose ultimate goals are to stigmatize the Jewish state and create a false choice—between, for example, a distorted version of feminism led by the likes of Linda Sarsour and the convicted terrorist Rasmea Odeh, on the one hand, and a belief in the justice of Jewish self-determination, on the other. Sarsour insists that Zionism and feminism are incompatible. That Jewish students don’t intuitively know that such statements are hateful garbage is the inevitable result of years of being taught in their synagogues that to celebrate and cherish and protect the particularism of Judaism is somehow inferior to the embrace of universalism. Speaking out against Linda Sarsour and her demented anti-Zionist card check and educating others that there is a better, more effective way to accomplish shared progressive goals without the anti-Semitic context, is much more deeply rooted in Jewish values than urging others to ignore the hate she is peddling in pursuit of “justice.”
Until confronted by the uncomfortable reality of anti-Semitism surging around them since the 2016 election, many on the Jewish left and their champions in organizations from J Street to If Not Now to the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace, turned up their noses at the notion that anti-Semitism remained pervasive in the rarified air of the early 21st century. Such ideas, they claimed, were only promulgated by wild-eyed fanatics seeking to justify the need for a Jewish state. The nation-state to them was at best vestigial, at worst an expression of fascism, rather than an expression of the Jewish right to self-determination and self-defense.
In July 2017, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s human rights program said on Twitter: “Israeli leaders exploit horrible acts of anti-Semitism to encourage Jews to move to Israel. Judaism ≠ Zionism Anti-Zionism ≠ Anti-Semitism,” an anti-Semitic remark that drew a direct rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League’s national president, but silence from those in the community who claim to speak for progressive Jews.
One former New York Times opinion page editor, Matt Seaton, publicly dismissed the idea that anti-Semitism among Palestinians, inculcated in their classrooms and pervasive in their culture, deserves special attention, saying it would only be meaningful when the Palestinians “have a sovereign state to discriminate with.” Yet as awful as that attitude may seem, it is widespread among today’s new left and liberal Zionist proponents of the BDS movement, both in the Jewish community and beyond. But the reality and threat of violence against Jews and the easy manner in which hatred of Jews is conveyed under the more acceptable cover of anti-Zionism or critique of Israel betrays the cold reality.
How many young Jews today know that while Jews total about 2.2 percent of the U.S. population, we are the victims—according to an FBI report released in late 2016—of over half of the religiously motivated hate crimes in America? No other minority comes even close, with Muslims the second most-victimized group, at two out of 10 incidents. And while many Jews are intensely and justifiably alarmed by violence threatening African-Americans, women, Muslims, Hispanics, the LGBTQ community, and others—the only group that always seems glaringly left out from the list of victims of bigotry that define the debates on campus and beyond is Jews.
By turning a blind eye to the relentless and often violent assault on our own people, we are failing to teach our children about the reality that Jews face, failing to imbue the pride required to recognize, let alone confront, the diminishment of Jewish value. We are failing to create the conditions for the next generation of Jews to enjoy and celebrate, rather than hide or deny, the particular specialness, of being a Jew. We must act quickly before we find ourselves with little left to save.
The essay is adapted from The Fragile Dialogue published by CCAR press. Printed with permission.