Tuesday, May 18, 2010

israel and american jews: what future?

There has been an interesting debate in the NY Times and other publications on the increasingly frayed relationship between American Jews and the State of Israel. On the one side are those, mostly liberals, who suggest that the issue is Israel's own behavior, which is thought to be inconsistent with "Jewish values" in one way or another. On the other side are those, more often than not conservatives, who think that the demographic decline and naive political liberalism of American Jewry is to blame. Who is right, and is there a third, more enlightening view?

To understand what is happening, one has to know a little bit about the American Jewish community. In many respects this resembles the Protestant community but with smaller numbers and different proportions. The largest groups, Reform and Conservative, are something like the liberal Protestant denominations: a generally low level of observance/attendance and an emphasis on social action, which in practice means charitable activity and vaguely liberal causes. The smallest but most rapidly growing group, the Orthodox, is more like the evangelical Protestants, with a higher level of belief and participation, a large missionary contingent (albeit exclusively to other Jews), and increasingly conservative politics. One important difference--a difference many non-Jews seem to miss--is that the proportions are different: whereas evangelicals and Main Line Protestants have achieved a rough balance, the Orthodox remain a clear minority among American Jews, although demographic patterns suggest that this will change dramatically in the next generation. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to say who is Jewish at all, with a large number of half- and quarter- and three-quarter Jews living in a bewildering variety of mixed families.

Israel has also changed. From a country dominated by a Western-oriented, socialist elite, it has become at once more multicultural and more traditional, with large religious and nationalist contingents (not necessarily the same thing) and a variety of subcultures, including Mizrachi (what used to be called Sephardic) Jews, Russians, and Arabs and other who are not part of the Jewish majority, at all. There is irony aplenty in these changes: the country, which used to be somewhat superior and rather closed-minded, has actually become much more diverse, with an optimistic, growth-oriented outlook that contrasts with the persistent feeling of decline that characterizes much of the American Jewish community. Still, it is an Israel very different from the "little country that could" of American folklore, and particularly jarring for those raised on the Jews-as-underdogs, liberalism-as-gospel approach prevalent among North American Jews. Accusations of Israeli human rights violations, and the coarseness of Israeli politics generally, are especially difficult for the latter to stomach.

So an American Jewish community, in demographic decline and wedded to what is essentially a social gospel religion, meets an Israel that is demographically growing but more and more politically conservative, and primed by education to think of galut (Diaspora) Jews as weak and somewhat feckless. While a core remains as attached to Israel as ever, a larger number either disengage completely or attach themselves to the small but vocal minority of Israelis--the left, the internationalists, the Tel Aviv elite--who tend to share their dim view of the Israeli majority and encourage them in more radical opinions. (It is not unusual to see pro-Palestinian or even pro-boycott manifestos adorned with Jewish names.) Conservatives, in turn, circle the wagons and begin to see any criticism of Israel as disloyal, even though the same or worse things are regularly said in Israel.

What is to be done about this situation? I don't have an easy answer, but I'll tell you two things I recently witnessed, one of which seems to me the wrong approach and one to contain seeds of the right one.

The wrong approach, I think, is to become overly defensive and politicize the issue more than is already the case. This is admittedly a difficult temptation to resist, since much of the left/liberal critique of Israel is very hard to swallow--especially coming from other Jews--and the temptation to punch back well-nigh overwhelming. Nevertheless, it seems to me a mistake, especially if one wants to involve young people who are likely to be turned off by this approach. Several community groups that I have been involved with have taken this approach, and proceeded to turn out large numbers of the faithful without really reaching anyone new.

A better approach was suggested by a recent visit to the Hillel House at a large university. In addition to a vareity of religious services [it was a very big campus], the center displayed literature from a wide range of Israel- or Jewish-related groups. Those who were traditional could participate in more religious activities; those of a liberal/human rights orientation could get in touch with like-minded Israeli groups; environmentalists could take biking trips to Israel, and so on down the line. The approach, in other words, was inclusive and optimistic: be left, be right, be outright weird if you wanted to be, but do it in an Israeli context and be part of the larger Jewish community. And, of course, go to Israel, with a subsidized trip from the Taglit (birthright) program if you qualified, otherwise on your own. And learn some Hebrew before (or once) you got there.

It may seem wimpy to talk about biking trips when Israel faces the range of political and strategic threats that it does today. But one has to think also about the long-term. An idealized vision of Israel as a "righteous victim" or an outpost of American democracy, however psychologically pleasing to American Jews, is both inconsistent with reality and unappealing to the younger generation. The real country--diverse, contentious, but with something to appeal to all ranges of political and cultural outlooks--is likely to be a better advertisement for itself. American Jews, in short, need less Israel advocacy and more Israel: and people with the vision and long-range outlook to provide it.

antisemitism, illicit attitudes, and the supreme court

Pat Buchanan's recent comments, to the effect that there are too many Jews (what else?) on the Supreme Court, are laughable if not worse in content. But are they antisemitic, and do they merit exclusion from the debate? This strikes me as a harder question.

I think things are most likely to be antisemitic (or racist, sexist, etc.) when they (i) ascribe to a group disproportionate power over people or events, and (ii) are broadly consistent with traditional stereotypes about the group. For example, the statement that "there are too many Jews on the Supreme Court, the next thing you know they'll be doing oral arguments in Hebrew" would not sit well with me--no more than a statement that the women justices are likely to be too emotional, the Catholics too loyal to the Pope, etc. Assumptions that Jews are all communists (or capitalists), or that they put Jewish concerns over American ones, would fall in a similar category.

But is any discussion of the religious makeup of the court necessarily illicit? If Kagan is confirmed, the Court will have four justices from New York City and none from large sections of the country, not to mention no Protestants in a country with a lot of, well, Protestants. Although I haven't done the necessary calculations--I'm not sure which part of the Bronx and Brooklyn Sotomayor and Ginsburg hail from respectively--it's possible there would be three from the same subway line, not to mention nine from the Yale and Harvard law schools. Is any mention of this imbalance per se unacceptable? People make the diversity argument in favor of female, minority, or other presences on the Court all the time: why is it suddenly impermissible to do so when the shoe is (so to speak) on the other foot?

Of course, Pat Buchanan is a poor choice to make this argument. He seems to be obsessed by the Jewish question, and understandably raises suspicions when he discusses anything connected with them. Still, I am hesitant to try to rule out discussion of any issue, and less than completely trustful of the people doing the ruling. I think the "too many Jews on the Court" argument is a dumb one, not least of all because there's no evidence they take this into account in making decisions. But I don't think it's inherently antisemitic, at least not in the sense that the term is usually understood.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

more on kagan . . .

I continue to have less problem with Elena Kagan than with a lot of the arguments being made on her behalf. Many of these strike me as unconvincing and carry the seeds of potentially potent opposing arguments. To wit:

1. I'm suspicious of anyone who has too many friends. Sanford Levinson, E.J. Dionne, everyone with any kind of influence seems to count her among their close personal friends. In my experience to be friendly with everyone is to be friendly with no one. Enough said.

2. I continue to be amazed by the wimpiness of conservatives in approaching this nomination. She comes from a left-wing background, wrote her thesis on socialism, and has been a loyal soldier in two liberal administrations. Yet somehow having polite conversations with conservatives, or a couple of lateral hires at Harvard, make her a moderate. Charles Fried actually said that she was a "genius" because she gave professors free lunches. Would the left support Robert Bork if he hired a few liberal law clerks?

3. I think the "stealth candidate" thing is being taken a bit far (see David Brooks in NY Times on this issue). No one seems to know her views on anything. Even her friends (see above) aren't sure about her private life. Is this the basis on which to get on a lifetime seat on the Court?

I continue to believe this is going to be a livelier confirmation process than many people think. While some Republicans will want to go along, I think their grassroots will be heavily against yet another liberal justice from New York when much of the country--including the 200 million or so who are Protestants--are effectively disenfranchised. They may not have the votes to stop it, but (unlike Sotomayor) it is a no-lose political issue for them, and I think the great majority will ultimately oppose it.

But only if they don't get free lunches.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

elena kagan (updated version)

I think it's a competent pick but not an especially inspired one. I don't doubt she'll get through although most Republicans will probably vote against her. There'll be some grumbling from the left as well but not enough to matter.

My reservations related not to Kagan personally--I've met her and she seems nice and certainly smart enough--but to my view of the Court. I think that liberals' problem is less one of numbers than of ideological momentum, which has been largely on the conservatives' side for a while. With due respect to Kagan, I don't see her changing that. She seems to be being picked because she's liberal enough, relatively young, and can probably get through unscathed--good reasons but I don't think the best ones. What liberals need is an intellectual counterweight to Scalia and so far I don't see that here, although you never know: at her age we could be talking about the Kagan Era someday.

An interesting angle, relatively unexplored in the mainstream press, is the emerging dominance of the University of Chicago Law School. One way to measure the importance of an institution is its presence on both sides of major debates, the way (e.g.) that Yale and Harvard provide leaders for both parties, or the New York Times has published leading liberal and conservative writers. The President, Barack Obama, is a liberal who taught for many years as a Chicago lecturer. The leader of the conservatives on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, also taught there as did many major conservative scholars. Cass Sunstein, arguably the most important liberal legal scholar of his generation, taught there as well and now occupies a key administration position. Now the next member of the Supreme Court, although thought of as primarily a Harvard product, will be someone who's teaching career started at Chicago, too. That's an awful lot of clout for a relatively small institution, not to mention one with a prevailing conservative bias, and whose liberals had to hone their skills in an essentially conservative environment. Then again, maybe that's why they've been so successful

Addendum: A number of conservative bloggers have been supportive of Kagan on the theory that she's "open-minded," hired a lot of conservatives at Harvard, and is generally less bad than the other likely picks. To the extent that this has based on a serious reading of the kind of justice she'd be, that seems fair and logical. To the extent that conservatives are supporting a known liberal candidate because she hired them or their friends, it sounds more like . . . collaboration. The point is not an idle one, because conservatives frequently complain that they are discriminated against or not taken seriously in the legal academy. But if they can be bought off this easily, why should they be? I'll be back with more on this issue in a couple of days.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

race, free speech, and the harvard spat

By now everyone has heard of the Harvard 3L who e-mailed a friend that she would "absolutely not rule out" the possibility that African-Americans were less academically competent than the rest of the population, or something like that (she since apologized). I don't have much to add on the event itself, and so I won't. What concerned me more were the comments, especially those that defended her.

This defense took two tacks. The first of these was look, this was a personal e-mail, she's only a student, and anyway people have a right to say dumb things if they want to. This struck me as a reasonable defense--I wouldn't want my personal e-mails all over the blogosphere--and I don't have any particular problem with it.

A second line of comments made a "political correctness" argument. Instead of a person saying silly things these portrayed the student as some kind of conservative hero. raising issues that needed to be discussed but that the PC crowd didn't want to. The assertion that race might be linked to intelligence was thus implicitly or explicitly linked to resistance to feminism, criticism of Israel, or other areas in which a supposedly dominant group had intimated debate on important public issues, especially in an academic environment.

I don't know quite what to make of this. Sure, people should be free to express opinions without fear of censure. But the idea that one race is better or worse than another has almost nothing to recommend it. Neither "race" nor "intelligence" is subject to scientific definition, and nearly all the so-called "studies" in this area come out (surprise) with the person conducting the study in the superior group. Besides, we had a debate on this issue in the 1940s (in Europe) and 1960s (in America) and it seems to have been pretty much resolved. If there's any issue we don't need more discussion of, this is probably it.

For liberals, of course, this is easy: another chance to embarrass conservatives with their narrowmindedness and intellectual sloppiness. For conservatives, it is a bit more complicated. Yes, we should resist political correctness and demand debate on issues including, or perhaps even especially, when they make people angry. But they have to "issues" in the first place for this to apply. Like Holocaust denial or the search for Obama's birth certificate, this one isn't: and pretending that it is doesn't do us or our cause any credit.