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Most American Jews are orthodox. No, that's not a misprint, nor is it a sign that I've taken leave of my senses. In fact, the bulk of American Jewry is very orthodox. The problem is, they're very orthodox in their liberalism, not their Judaism — and therein lies the answer to all the costly studies, surveys and polls commissioned by Jewish organizations in their never-ending quest to understand why Jews are assimilating themselves out of existence.
Diaspora Jews have long suffered from serious psychopathologies, most notably a virulent strain of assimilationist self-hatred. Western Jewry in particular has been dominated by a form of assimilationism that emerged long before World War II, with precedents and elements found in both the German Jewish enlightenment and German Reform Judaism.
The innovation of German (and later American) Reform Judaism was that the Jews should ''define themselves away'' as a national entity. Instead, Jews would define themselves as just another ethnic group in their various countries of residence, but with their own religion — i.e. Germans of the Mosaic faith, Hungarians practicing Judaism, Russians of the Hebrew tradition.
The de-emphasizing of the national aspects of Jewishness was accompanied by religious adaptation and reformation. In order to make Jewish religious observance more palatable to the Protestant majorities around them, Western non-Orthodox Jews subjected their Judaism to substantial dilution, in the process co-opting a number of Protestant practices such as organs in synagogues and ''confirmation'' ceremonies.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the destruction of Europe's Jewish communities, America became the indisputable intellectual center for non-Orthodox Judaism. In an acceleration of a trend that had already begun before the war, a new form of Jewish assimilationism, the ''Liberalism as Judaism'' form of pseudo-Judaism, took firm hold in the U.S. This school of thought held that Judaism constituted nothing more or less than the American liberal political agenda.
The ''Liberalism as Judaism'' School argued that all of Judaism and Jewish tradition could be boiled down to a search for civil ''justice'' and secular ''freedom.'' Since it was axiomatic, in the eyes of Jewish liberals, that the liberal political agenda was synonymous with justice, freedom, and righteousness — and that the opponents of liberalism were evil and unjust — ''Judaism'' itself could be conscripted in the cause of promoting liberal partisanship.
In the era when liberalism meant civil rights, anti-poverty legislation and basic social welfare programs — that is from the mid-1930's through the mid-1960's — such a set of axioms seemed plausible to a great many. By aligning themselves with the forces of progress and enlightenment, Jews would promote their own acceptance and reputation, at least among thinking, ''progressive'' Americans.
Jews, so the thinking went, were well-served by joining these good Americans in their struggle for a better society — a society in which Jews would be appreciated and honored as comrades-in-arms in the battle for tolerance and freedom.
In short order the face of institutional Jewry was transformed:
* Numerous institutions devoted to the new ''Liberalism as Judaism'' orthodoxy arose in the American Jewish community. The mission of these organizations, sometimes stated and sometimes not, was the promotion of the liberal political agenda.
* The community ''federations'' also pursued liberal causes, and often operated as the Jewish analogue to Christian charity groups, funding general community hospitals and social services.
* Because the Jewish weeklies that formed the main communications network of American Jewry were generally owned and published by the federations, they invariably pushed a liberal editorial line.
* The ''defense organizations'' — Bnai Brith, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee — which originally were founded in large part to battle anti-Semitism, joined the struggle for liberalism and often devoted the bulk of their resources and energies to the promotion of liberal causes.
* Large parts of the Reform and Conservative synagogue movements jumped aboard the ''Liberalism as Judaism'' bandwagon. Many Reform and Conservative rabbis devoted their weekly synagogue sermons to the advocacy of liberal causes. ''Social action'' committees abounded in synagogues and other Jewish community institutions, where ''social action'' meant only one thing — the liberal political agenda.
Liberalism Comes Home To Roost
From the start, though, there were problems with the formula of ''Liberalism as Judaism'' — that is, with the assertion that the essence of Judaism is nothing other than moral sentiments that may be conscripted in support of liberal ideological fads.
The chief problem was that if one accepted the equating of Judaism with liberalism, there really was no reason to remain Jewish. Surely Jewish tradition speaks nobly and highly of the search for justice and peace, but so does virtually every other religious or non-religious humanist tradition. After all, to paraphrase that famous old ad for Levy's rye bread, you don't have to be Jewish to be a liberal. And there were far easier ways to express and advocate liberalism and social justice.
Thus what had begun as a mass public-relations scam — a sort of play-acting by insecure Western Jews seeking a method for making themselves appear more acceptable to the non-Jewish majorities surrounding them — eventually became an avenue for assimilation. For the new generations of Jews growing up in Western freedom and tolerance, there was little if any reason to retain their Jewishness. As secularism and higher education spread, religiosity diminished, particularly among the educated classes in which Jews were concentrated.
Once national identity and ritual observance were abandoned, there was little if anything to motivate retention of Jewish identity, whether religious or secular. The result was rampant assimilation. By the 1970's, large segments of the non-Orthodox Jewish community in America (and to a somewhat lesser extent the non-Orthodox in other Western countries) had ceased to be Jews in any meaningful sense.
This phenomenon was especially evident among young American Jews, as intermarriage rates climbed past the 20 percent, 30 percent and 40 percent marks, finally crossing the 50 percent barrier by the late 1980's.
The response to all this from the non-Orthodox was to dilute their versions of Judaism even further — and to hew closer than ever to the liberal party line. But if the ''Liberalism as Judaism'' approach served as the catalyst for Jewish assimilationism, from the 1970's onward it suffered from other problems as well.
First, there was never any real American consensus that ''progress, freedom and justice'' were synonymous with the liberal political agenda. (This was a Jewish delusion going back to the 1930's.) Certainly by the late 1970's liberalism had become largely discredited in the U.S. among the non-Jewish majority as it became ever more extreme and divorced from the American mainstream.
The civil rights movement, to which Jewish organizations had enthusiastically hitched their wagons in the 1960's, was supplanted to a large extent among black Americans by racist paranoia, radicalism and Afro-Fascism, even — perhaps especially — among much of the educated black middle class.
Liberalism in general seemed more and more preoccupied with things most Americans regarded as wacky or immoral, such as animal rights, homosexuality and radical feminism. Liberalism also was increasingly associated with affirmative action and quotas, which never enjoyed the support of more than about 30 percent of Americans. It was also associated with a sort of national isolationism and quest for unilateral disarmament.
In addition, liberalism was increasingly discredited by the failures of applied liberal political programs and liberal social engineering. Affirmative action had enraged the American majority. The unpopularity of liberal isolationism became increasingly apparent during Reagan years and was proved beyond doubt during the Gulf War. Liberal fads in education were increasingly blamed for the dismal situation in American public schools. Liberal social welfare programs were being identified more and more in the American mind with destruction of the family, rising crime rates, illiterate school children, and sociopathological behavior.
At the same time, conservatism was enjoying an intellectual revival. If in the 1950's it had seemed axiomatic that liberalism and the striving for freedom and justice were one and the same, it certainly was not so by the 1980's. Conservatives had their own program for freedom and justice that was regarded as credible by large segments of the American public.
The ''Liberalism as Judaism'' party line of the Jewish community was proving more and more anachronistic. Liberalism was evolving into little more than a parochial manifestation of Jewish peculiarity and provinciality, an endangered species outside the Jewish and black communities. Judaism was still being used by the ''Liberalism as Judaism School'' as religious artillery support for programs that were no longer regarded as just or moral by the majority of Americans, programs whose costs often outweighed their benefits, programs increasingly discredited by social science.
But the support by the Jewish Establishment for liberalism had never been based upon any serious study of social science methodologies and tools of analysis, but rather upon self-righteousness, compassionate posturing, and the appeal to smug moral high-mindedness. With rare exceptions, Jewish community leaders and liberal rabbis had no training in policy analysis, economics, statistics or accounting. Their liberalism was based on making themselves feel righteous and accepted, not on resolving real world problems.
As long as Intellectual America was united in regarding liberalism as just and right, there was no problem. But American Jews had a uniquely vested interest in the preservation of liberalism, having intentionally misdefined it as being synonymous with ''Jewish values.''
By the late 1980's, American Jews and American blacks were the only ethnic groups in the country still endorsing liberalism in any appreciable numbers. In the case of American blacks, this was due to their continued belief that liberalism served their interests. In the case of American Jews, it was due solely to their anachronistic assimilationist self-definition.
Irony of ironies, by the closing years of the 20th century liberalism had become the peculiarist religion that separated American Jews from the majority of American gentiles.
With all the stiff-necked obstinacy of their biblical predecessors, American Jews adhered to liberalism in spite of everything. They advocated the black political agenda with religious devotion, in spite of growing black anti-Semitism — indeed in the face of numerous studies showing that American blacks constituted the most anti-Semitic group in the country.
Not only were Jews the only white ethnic group to continue to show sizeable support for affirmative action, even while majorities of Asians, Hispanics (and occasionally even blacks!) opposed it, but Jews also supported the social liberal agenda — including feminism and gay rights — considerably more so than any other group. Never mind that Judaism was absolutely opposed to homosexuality and unambiguous about the roles of men and women — true Jewish tradition had long been displaced among most American Jews by the religion of ''Liberalism as Judaism.''
Perhaps inevitably, there arose at the fringes of the Establishment Liberalism of American Jews a ''Radicalism as Judaism'' twist on the new religion. If socialists and communists were once described as ''liberals in a hurry,'' then the new advocates of ''Leftism as Judaism'' were simply assimilationist Jewish liberals in a hurry, differing from the Liberal Jewish Establishment only in their more extreme radicalism. Like the Liberal Establishment, they argued that Judaism was in fact nothing more and nothing less than fashionable progressive political causes and sentiments. Their political instincts were simply somewhat more extreme than those of the Jewish Establishment.
Soon the world was confronted by a whole family of ''Radicalism as Judaism'' assimilationist institutions, including Tikkun magazine and activist groups like the New Jewish Agenda, the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, and Jewish environmentalist radicals. These endorsed virtually every political fad to emerge from the secular politically-correct Left, including defense of all forms of sexual perversion; environmentalism in its most anti-rational, paganist-pantheist forms; radical redistributionist programs for America; support for leftist and Marxist movements around the world; and, to a large extent, support for Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism.
Although Jewish ''self-hatred'' has been part and parcel of Jewish Diaspora assimilationism for generations, the term as applied in most cases is misleading. Most Diaspora Jewish assimilationists are more properly described as being indifferent to their Jewishness, not anti-Semitic or hostile to Jews as such. Most do not seek to see Jews killed, injured or persecuted (although there are exceptions), and are generally at least as willing to protect Jews from violence and assault as they are willing to defend dolphins and squirrels and rain forests.
The exceptions to the above observation are to be found among the Jewish radicals of the far left, those who support Arab violence against Jews and, as in the case of MIT professor Noam Chomsky, even defend the views of Holocaust deniers. Thankfully, these most extreme cases are still a tiny minority among Diaspora Jewish assimilationists.
For the first few decades of Israel's existence, Jewish liberal assimilationists generally maintained a minimally pro-Israel ideological position. They supported Israel's rights to defend itself and opposed Arab aggression and terror. They advocated American support for Israel. By and large they did so because there was no conflict between their residual Jewish identity and their liberalism. When forced to make a choice, they would opt for liberalism over Jewish self-interest, as when in 1972 American Jews supported the liberal George McGovern over the non-liberal Nixon (who went on to rescue Israel from destruction in the 1973 Yom Kippur War).
But as support for Israel lost its popularity in non-Jewish liberal circles, support for Israel by assimilationist American Jews also showed signs of wavering. In the 1982 Peace for Galilee campaign by Israel in Lebanon, many American Jewish liberals reacted more as liberals than as self-interested Jews and joined the liberal bandwagon in denouncing Israel, often even endorsing calls for American sanctions against Israel.
During the era of Likud rule in Israel, American Jewish liberals exhibited increasing uneasiness about being seen as pro-Zionist and greater willingness to ally themselves against Israel in public debate. They were rescued, only temporarily, as it turned out, from their ideological dilemma when the Israeli Labor Party veered off to the extreme left after 1992, endorsing most forms of ''political correctness'' and ''progressive'' fads along the way. Once again, assimilationist Jews could avoid making hard choices between their ''religion of liberalism'' and being Jewish.
Going Against The Grain
While the bulk of the American Jewish community, and to a lesser extent other Western Diaspora Jewish communities, was carried away by the new ''religion'' of liberalism, there remained two smaller opposition movements to ''Liberalism as Judaism.''
The first opponents were the Orthodox, who had never substituted liberalism — or for that matter anything else — for traditional Judaism. Orthodoxy had never jettisoned the nationalist aspects of Jewish tradition and identity.
The Orthodox, though in numbers a minority among world Jewry, were and are unapologetic Jews, unwilling to dilute their tradition and undergo partial-Protestantization of their religious practice.
The other, even smaller, minority were the Zionists, who by definition rejected the attempt by assimilationists and ''reformers'' to jettison Jewish national identity. While Zionists ranged in terms of religiosity from the Orthodox to the radical-secularist, they were united in their celebration of Jewish nationality, especially in its main manifestation — Jewish statehood in Israel.
So, then, far from being a movement whose time has passed, Zionism can play a vital opposition role to the liberal pseudo-Judaism of the Diaspora. Because Zionism, whatever its other shortcomings, is necessarily and quintessentially a negation of the assimilationist ''Liberalism as Judaism'' orthodoxy that dominates American (and other Western) Jewry.
Steven Plaut, a professor at the University of Haifa, is author of “The Scout,” published by Gefen.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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