Fisking Time: David Bernstein on ‘How Israel Unites Us’

I shall now fisk the op-ed “How Israel Unites Us” from the July 15 issue of the New York Jewish Week by David Bernstein, head honcho of the David Project.

He begins:

I was leafing through the pages of several Jewish newspapers on my desk, and was struck that nearly every issue worth debating somehow revolved around Israel.

Which begs the question: Does nearly every issue in the American Jewish press worth debating somehow revolve around Israel? By my count, there are about 25 articles or editorials in the July 15 issues of the New York Jewish Week, the paper Bernstein’s piece appears in. Of those, eight–less than a third–somehow revolve around Israel. And many stories with currency in the Jewish press that are worth debating (what’s happening to Anthony Weiner’s seat or the circumcision bill in California, for instance) actually don’t have anything to do with Israel.

But I’d concede his basic points that Jews argue about Israel a lot.

Sure, there were other articles of interest, such as the Jewish-Korean family raising their children on “Kugel and Kimchi,” but none so interesting or heart-wrenching as whether J Street should be allowed into the local Jewish community relations council or whether the Israeli government should accept the parameters of President Obama’s recent State Department speech.

Does Bernstein think that no one on the Jewish right is debating the merits of raising children in a multicultural home?

On the surface, Israel would seem to be a source of conflict, pitting Jew against Jew. But, I wonder, if it wasn’t for Israel, what would we Jews talk about? Is it possible that on a deeper level, Israel, controversies and all, is the single greatest uniting force among Jews today?

What would we Jews talk about? I guess there’s an argument to be made here, but if the only things that unites us, as Bernstein believes Israel is, only brings us together in shouting matches, I boldly submit that it’s not a good thing. Yes, we value arguing for the sake of heaven, but I don’t think the polarized shouting matches that take place on some campuses and in some synagogues are for the sake of heaven. In an argument l’shem shamayim, I don’t think anyone ought to get accused of being self-hating Jew or denied a seat at the table of the Jewish conversation. Yet, that’s what happens when we start arguing about Israel. If this is unity, it sucks.

Several weeks ago one of our staff members showed a film by Tiffany Shlain called “The Tribe” at a lunch-and-learn session. The short documentary is a postmodern commentary on the fragmented nature of Jewish life in America today and describes the increasingly decentralized and fluid nature of Jewish identity. One young staff member, reinforcing the film’s main point, spoke of a friend who was Jewish by birth but had little connection to her Jewish heritage. An avid yoga practitioner, the young woman read a book about Jewish Yoga and felt a new sense of connection. The film suggests that this young woman simply pursued one in innumerable equally valid Jewish choices.

I’ve seen that film too, but I don’t think its main point was meant to be as negative as Bernsetin thinks it is. Bernstein seems to take it as a given that “the increasingly decentralized and fluid nature of Jewish identity” is a bad thing. If your only metric for good vs. bad is “people who are attached to the Jewish people” vs. “people who are not,” then I guess Bernstein is right. Even if that’s the assumption he’s operating under, he loses me in the next piece. As far as Bernstein articulates it in this piece, Jewish unity is an end in itself and Israel is the best way to achieve that end. But if there’s another means to that end, where’s the harm in that? I join Bernstein in guffawing at Jewish yoga. But if it floats someone’s Jewish boat, who cares?

A Jewish woman in her 70s told me that in her day she couldn’t have married a non-Jew if she tried. Obviously, things have changed. Today’s American marketplace, be it for marriage, spirituality, community or entertainment, is almost infinitely vast and accessible. Young Jews can be or do whatever they want.

Which sucks, obviously. Wait. What?

The American Jewish enterprise, we are told, must compete in this mix of opportunity, and provide a strong and compelling “value proposition,” or really multiple highly decentralized value propositions, lest it lose the next generation.

Look out for that so-called ”value proposition!” It’s got scary quotation marks around it!

While I don’t fundamentally disagree with this prescription, it suggests that the future of the Jewish people may be so divided that we have little left to discuss. “Jewish” will mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people.

I submit that it already means more than a thousand different things to more than a thousand different people. In our tradition, we say that the Torah has 7o faces. It’s safe to say that 70 stands in here for infinity. The notion that Judaism has many messages for many Jews is not an innovation. But clearly a lack of uniformity is troubling for Bernstein. If Judaism consists of nothing but Israel, as it seems to for Bernstein, then he should already be worried. He talks of how great it is that Israel brings us together to shout at each other. We’re not shouting for shits and giggles though. We’re shouting because Judaism/Israel has already spoken to us in many different ways.

What does the yoga girl really have in common with the religious Jew living in Skokie, Ill., other than a vague, probably unsustainable connection to her Jewish roots?

Begging the question: Does “the yoga girl” really have an “unsustainable connection to her Jewish roots?” And if so, can I please see some evidence?

For that matter, what does a committed Conservative Jew living in Newton, Mass., have to do with a haredi Jew living in Brooklyn or Jerusalem?

What do they have in common… aside from a shared Torah and history?

Thanks to Israel, perhaps more than meets the eye.

Israel forces the encounter among Jews. In Israel, haredi Jews play a role in deciding who gets access to the Kotel. If that Conservative Jew wants his child’s bat mitzvah to take place in this holy space, suddenly haredi Jews matter a lot.

Truly an element of Israeli religious life we should celebrate, of course. It never results in violence toward women or anything like that, right?

The Conservative Jew can no longer retreat to his wonderfully supportive voluntary community in Newton. He has to face the diversity of the Jewish people, and be upset about it, just like an Israeli.
The haredi Jew is also forced to contend with the Conservative Jew, and find ways of accommodating his aspirations.

I don’t think the Conservative Jew is the one retreating here. It’s the Hareidi Jew that lives in an insular la-la land.

We think of such confrontations as fundamentally negative, but maybe it’s time we learn to appreciate them, even as we battle over Jerusalem’s policies.

Maybe we could appreciate them. If both parties were confronting each other in good faith, willing to make compromises for the sake of… unity. Confrontation itself does not equal unity.

Israel is a sovereign expression of the Jewish people. It forces Jews from very diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, religious practice, and political views, to live together in a defined space, create rules and make decisions. The discourse and myriad of compromises can be excruciatingly frustrating, but ultimately critical to sustaining Jewish peoplehood.

The most important program in instilling Jewish identity today is Birthright Israel. It’s quite a remarkable concept: we send young Jews to Israel to experience what it’s like in a Jewish state, tensions and all, so they will be more likely to live Jewish lives in a much less tension-filled U.S. Hopefully, the young people return with the sense that American Jews need Israel.

I’m just not following Bernstein here. He seems to say that if we send Jews to a place where Jews don’t get along, they’ll be better prepared to live Jewish lives in a place where Jews do get along. It seems like the opposite should be true.

While American Jews devolve into increasingly tiny niches of Jewish life, at least there’s some place where they are forced to negotiate the demands of peoplehood. And as long as that’s the case, there will still be an important and often painful conversation going on in the diaspora — not about kugel, kimchi or yoga, but about what’s happening in Israel. We argue, therefore we are.

Yes, again, I think Bernstein and I are on the same page about the Jewish value of arguing. I just don’t think he realizes that there are limits on what kind of arguing is good.

Without Israel, there would still be Jews, but little trace of the Jewish people.

What does that mean? How could you have one without the other? As long as there are people who consider themselves Jews, there will be a Jewish people.

12 Responses to “Fisking Time: David Bernstein on ‘How Israel Unites Us’”

  1. Maybe we could talk about… Judaism. Or love of god. or good deeds done – dirt cheap.


    Charles Lenchner · July 21st, 2011 at 8:10 pm
  2. [...] [...]


    If we really want a healthier society – Ha’aretz «ScrollPost.com · July 21st, 2011 at 11:20 pm
  3. Which begs the question: Does nearly every issue in the American Jewish press worth debating somehow revolve around Israel?

    NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! (There are PLENTY of examples of actual question-begging in the debate around Israel!)


    BZ · July 22nd, 2011 at 9:17 am
  4. This is entirely anecdotal, but where I’m sitting, it seems like many American Jews are increasingly exhausted by arguing about Israel and withdrawing from the debate. However, they remain interested in engaging with Judaism on spiritual and cultural terms. And there’s certainly an argument to be had about just how infinitely expandable and synthesized Judaism can become while still remaining Jewish, but I don’t understand why, if fighting about Israel is uniting, then fighting about Jewish yoga or intermarriage can’t also be uniting.


    em · July 22nd, 2011 at 9:38 am
  5. In theory, I mean. In practice, eh. But you can’t say those fights don’t have to do with peoplehood.


    em · July 22nd, 2011 at 9:41 am
  6. Bernstein’s argument approaches the territory staked out by AB Yehoshua’s claim that Judaism in the diaspora is masturbatory. Yehoshua claims that Jewish identity is incomplete without Israeli citizenship. Bernstein seems to make the weaker claim that Jewish identity is incomplete with making an investment in the state of Israel, since it is bound up with the national identity of the people of the nation of Israel (i.e. us Jews). He may make the additional claim that all there is to common Jewish identity is an investment in the state of Israel.

    I find the first claim, that Jewish identity requires we care about the state of Israel, to be plausible. That notion of a mutually determined people seems pretty important in my relatively light Jewish study, and I’ve been told by people I trust that heavier study will reinforce this. Of course, the historical notion of the people of the nation of Israel, the state of Israel aren’t identical. (This is why AB Yehoshua’s claim, which he seems to regard as needing not much argument, is very unconvincing). Still it’s pretty hard to argue that the state of Israel isn’t of incredibly pressing importance to the people of the nation of Israel (i.e. us Jews) in our current historical context.

    It also seems pretty obvious to me that this investment, if only because so many of our nation live in Israel, is also only one of many things that collect Jews together by a whole series of family resemblances.

    So, if Bernstein means to claim that the state of Israel is one thing all Jews should talk about because we should talk about what we care about, I buy it. If Bernstein means to claim that Israel is the only thing all Jews can talk about (because its the only thing we all care about), I’m not remotely convinced.

    BTW, I haven’t seen the movie. But maybe Mr. Bernstein might read Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi on the connection between yoga and Jewish spirituality. It’s probably among the least controversial stuff that comes from Renewal Judaism.


    Dan O. · July 22nd, 2011 at 9:50 am
  7. @Charles: WORD.

    @BZ: Shit, are you saying I used BTQ wrong? I always pay attention when you go on about it and I thought I had it down! From begthequestion.info: “When one begs the question, the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any logic to show why the statement is true in the first place.” Given that, I assume this was the correct use. He asserts that nearly every issue is… Oh fuck, you’re right. Yeah he does go into some evidence after that. Dammit. Someone oughta revoke my question-begging license.

    @em: WORD

    @Dan O: He may make the additional claim that all there is to common Jewish identity is an investment in the state of Israel.
    Indeed, but he also makes the contradictory claim that there are people with a Jewish identity who do not have a connection to Israel.

    I find the first claim, that Jewish identity requires we care about the state of Israel, to be plausible.
    Care about the state of Israel–perhaps. Care about the land of Israel–probably. But, to be devoted to the contemporary political entity called the state of Israel, as Bernstein would like for us all to be–totally unnecessary.

    Still it’s pretty hard to argue that the state of Israel isn’t of incredibly pressing importance to the people of the nation of Israel (i.e. us Jews) in our current historical context.
    For sure.

    because so many of our nation live in Israel
    If that’s reason enough, that’s pretty interesting. Because if that’s the case, then Jews who live in Israel should feel quite attached to the United States as well.

    BTW, more on the film: www.tribethefilm.com/


    David A.M. Wilensky · July 22nd, 2011 at 11:13 am
  8. NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! (There are PLENTY of examples of actual question-begging in the debate around Israel!)

    BZ, I love you and your vigilance on this issue. As soon as I read the phrase in the post I thought to myself — BZ will have what to say about this…


    Justin · July 22nd, 2011 at 11:58 am
  9. @David

    “If that’s reason enough, that’s pretty interesting. Because if that’s the case, then Jews who live in Israel should feel quite attached to the United States as well.”

    It is reason enough. Israelis should have an investment in the diaspora, and especially where most of it resides. I know some Israelis don’t believe it, but is that really controversial? I mean isn’t a sense of shared fate the whole point? People like Yehoshua justify a 1-way street point of view by denigrating the identity of the Jewish diaspora. I think he’s just wrong about that.


    Dan O. · July 22nd, 2011 at 12:14 pm
  10. [...] [...]


    Obama Should Support Palestinian Statehood at the United Nations – Huffington Post (blog) «ScrollPost.com · July 22nd, 2011 at 3:21 pm
  11. Dan, I don’t disagree with you that there is a shared fate, a sense of that shared fate and the Israel and the diaspora have an important two-way relationship. However, I don’t many people would claim that Israeli Jews should have a spiritual connection to the diaspora, as many claim that American Jews should about Israel.


    David A.M. Wilensky · July 23rd, 2011 at 2:17 pm
  12. David,

    This is how the relationship goes with one vain and one self-deprecating lover. With Israel and the diaspora, the pathology exists on both sides. I agree with you about what most people seem to think. But when what most people seem to think doesn’t stand up to a moment’s reflection, do we ignore that for fear of appearing naive?


    Dan O. · July 25th, 2011 at 12:30 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik