In the last week I was in England, briefly in Paris, and I reread Amos Elon’s beautiful and tragic The Pity Of It All, his history of the German Jewish community from Moses Mendelsohn to 1933. Then yesterday I was honored to be at one of two White House Chanukah parties, at which two schoolmates – a Jewish Israeli kid and a Muslim Israeli kid – lit Chanukah candles under the supervision of a Californian rabbi for an African American President, child of a Christian and a Muslim, who grew up in Hawaii and, for a while, Indonesia.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about the historical context for the moment in which we find ourselves.
And I’ve been thinking, in particular, about two larger stories that inform Jewish life, about the extent to which those two stories seem to overlap less and less – and whether there is anything we can or should do about that.
The first is the story of fragility – at best. Jewish communities have always been in the minority. There have been “golden ages” – Spain in the early Muslim period; the emancipation; Germany after Mendelsohn. But the golden ages have indeed been evanescent. On either side of them Jews have been persecuted – sometimes slightly, sometimes barbarously.
The second narrative is the opposite of the first. The organized Jewish community is obsessed by anti-semitism and, in a different way, by a tribal and ethnic view of Jewish people in relation to the wider world.
For people in the first group the focus of emails and of conversation is: another attack in Israel. Another assault in Paris. Someone was stabbed. A hundred childen murdered by the Taliban in Pakistan. Two people dead in Australia. Murder in Har Nof. BDS on campus. Thus not much time or mental energy for – for instance – Ferguson or Eric Garner or the five remarkable pieces that Nick Kristof wrote about white racism.
People in the second group – which includes many of the younger people I overlap with – hardly ever talk about anti-semitism; it is somehow slightly distasteful to do so. It might imply that one only cared about Jews. It might mean that one was paranoid, obsessed with the past, unaware that we are living not only in freedom but also in relative privilege: what about those who have less than us; what about those who cannot pass for white, whose parents did not give us a good start in life?
I was fascinated by the recent AJC statement in favor of the Keystone pipeline. Hazon and a number of other organizations put out our own statement against Keystone. In doing so it was important to me that we not get into a fight with AJC, whose work in general I strongly support. AJC is vital and critical to American Jewish life, and to communities elsewhere in the world who are less secure and have less of a voice than American Jews. Day after day AJC does painstaking work to build relationships with key leaders and to educate them in relation to a wide range of issues that are critical to anyone who cares about the Jewish community.
But that’s why their Keystone statement was so fascinating to me. It was grounded in the first narrative of American Jewish life; that’s essentially why they are in favor of fracking. (We must increase US oil production, at all costs, in order to reduce our dependence on oil from dodgy countries.) But it cannot be the case that what is bad for the world can be good for the Jews – and fracking is bad, both directly (in releasing even more CO2 than conventional oil and gas production) and indirectly (in relation to the need to have sustained high energy costs in order to help wean us off oil.) I was delighted to see that Governor Cuomo made the first day of Chanukah an historic day by announcing the banning of fracking in New York State.
The AJC Keystone statement is interesting because it’s such a clear window into the larger Jewish worldview – the first of the two meta-narratives – that underpins their statement; just as it is a radically different worldview – the second of the two meta-narratives – that underpins the universalistic focus of organizations like, for instance, AJWS or Repair The World, two other non-profits doing important and needed work in the world.
As I say, I strongly support all three organizations. But I’m very struck, sociologically, by the extent to which their work and their worldviews seem like two non-overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. The overlap in the center is tiny, if it exists at all.
Must this be so?
That’s a real question, not a rhetorical one. Perhaps it must. Organizations need explicable competitive advantage. In a world of narrowcasting, non-profits have to focus their energies, tighten their logic model, and do what only they – or nearly only they – can do.
But I am struck, simply as a person who strives for integration, who doesn’t want to disaggregate parts of myself, that each meta-story is rooted in truth, and that ignoring one at the expense of the other has the perhaps unintended consequence of strengthening the centrifugal forces that are pushing American Jewish sub-communities further away from each other.
It was my friend, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who pointed out to me, many years ago, that Chanukah is like a Rorschach test in this regard, and is thus a window into some of this. For Israeli Jews Chanukah is the story of military rebellion and of an embattled minority succeeding, by arms, in vanquishing their more numerous foes. For English Jews it is about wanting to fit in – we give out presents and we celebrate at this time of year, too. For American Jews it’s about religious freedom, the rights of minorities, and light in the darkness – a universal message of hope.
It was fascinating, yesterday, to hear what the President said at the White House chanukiah lighting, because in his language he actually reference both central narratives in in a succinct and beautiful way.
I want to say, straightforwardly: I claim both meta-stories. Hazon goes back and forth between them. Our commitments to serious Jewish education, to supporting Jewish institutions, and to strengthening the relationship between Israelis and Americans (to name just three) are grounded in a love of Jewish tradition, a commitment to the Jewish people, an understanding of the fragility of Jewish life, and a real sense of the myriad challenges that face us. Our desire to foster sustainability, to advocate for ethical and sustainable food systems, to support local farmers and local food pantries, to seek to strengthen relationships between Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, to grow our inter-faith work, and to start to dig in more deeply to American cities and their challenges is because, actually, we are living in peace and freedom, and history does not repeat mechanistically, and we should not be so obsessed by the internal Jewish gaze that we fail to engage the larger issues of our time. Doing each of these things is both right and necessary.
So, if you read this far…
Happy Chanukah! May this be a holiday of both/and, not either/or.
May we never need to defend ourselves – but may we have the courage and the confidence to do so, when we need to.
May we stand up both for ourselves and for others.
May we celebrate Jewish tradition and particularity – and yet also recall, as we light the candles, that the “Hellenes” whom we fought were not just Greeks but other Jews, “assimilated Jews” who chose to integrate more fully into the surrounding community; in other words friends and family members, people who are part of our wider community.
And so to celebrate Chanukah: if you’re a member of a shul, and you give to Federation, and you go to Israel, then check out these Chanukah resources supporting the current post-Garner protests.
And if you’re going to one of those marches, but you don’t support any mainstream Jewish organization then, have a look at your local Federation website, or check out AJC, or go to shul this Shabbat. Our communities are immensely challenged, and also vibrant and thriving, and/but they will be more vibrant and more thriving if you join in.
And finally: let’s all try to figure out how to make our oil go a lot further over the coming year….
Chanukah sameach, shabbat shalom, chodesh tov, and merry Christmas.
PS. One fascinating mini-exemplar of changes not only in Jewish but also in American narratives is a really fascinating article on Wikipedia on the history of US Presidents and Chanukah. My own little bit of history was watching the President rather delightedly receive a Cuban cigar as an unexpected Chanukah gift on the day he announced the resumption of US relations with Cuba – you can see that little video here.