Fracturing of the Jewish People

Fracturing of the Jewish People

The “Wars of the Jews” has been a favorite topic since at least the time that ’causeless hatred’ brought down the Second Temple, or maybe even back to the episode of the Golden Calf during the Exodus.  Jewish history is full of them.  Today, however, a time of disunity is clearly upon us again, and it will affect everyone who considers him or herself Jewish, however that is defined.

On one level, this is simply obvious.  Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; “peace camp” or “national camp”; and many other 20th century divisions have long been with us. And vitriol-tossing is not exactly a new sport at Jewish gatherings, public or private.  But I think the current wave of division may represent a new phase where reading each other out of the Jewish people is becoming normative.

My current rumination on this subject was brought on at least partly by a local Washington, D.C. incident, which is already having major national repercussions, precisely because it is so emblematic of what is happening throughout this country and, in some different ways, in Israel.  Last week,
Ari Roth, the Artistic Director of Theater J, which is part of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, was abruptly fired by Carol Zawatsky, the DCJCC’s Executive Director.  Ari had been at his post for 18 years, but tensions had been building recently, largely because of Ari’s insistence on pushing the envelope on Israel in plays like The Admission, and Return to Haifa.  A rightwing group called COPMA has been protesting for years that virtually any criticism of Israel (from the left at least), should not be allowed in Jewish community institutions.  

Whether Zawatsky was knuckling under to pressure from other institutions or donors, or whether she simply supposed that firing Ari would eliminate unpleasant political wrangling from her institution is unknown, and not really the point.  She has come under fierce criticism, and Ari will apparently be setting up a new theater.  For the record, Zawatsky denies that the firing was political and even that Ari was fired.  Ari has received strong support from Israeli theater groups.  A recent article in Ha’aretz was headlined with the provocative title “Firing Ari Roth Made a Fool of U.S. Jewish Discourse.”

While the incident is significant in itself, I think this has to be seen as part of a larger picture that is chiefly, but by no means entirely, about Israel and its current path.  While I and others have been publicly identified with organizations of the ‘peace camp’ for over a quarter century, in the last few years, due partly to the combined, if very different, efforts of Benjamin Netanyahu and J Street, as well as many others, the issue of “Whither Israel” has split us down the middle.  I — and most people reading this blog — are convinced that Israel’s current path is leading to a future that is belligerent, anti-democratic, and potentially fatal to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.  It is only fair that we recognize that at least as many others are just as firmly convinced that Israel’s path is based on self-defense and “ein breira” (no choice).  Both sides see this as truly existential.

While the ‘peace camp’ has often been treated a step-child of the American Jewish community for decades, something has changed recently.  Its numbers, stature, and political clout have increased significantly, though its effect on the conflict itself has been less dramatic.  Perhaps it is also the belief on the left that time is really running out on a two-state solution.  Then there is the growing emphasis on hard-edge Jewish religious nationalism on the right in Israel causing more pushback by American Jews who feel their own values are being trampled  on.  All of these have been coming to a head in different contexts.

I do not claim to be “objective” on this and I doubt anyone can be nowadays.  But the direction we are going in now seems to be leading towards an irreparable split.  If my views cannot be presented at the DCJCC, why should I go there?   I imagine that those on the right feel similarly about other institutions, though they are far more represented in the Jewish establishment that controls most communal institutions.  These institutions used to try to keep political divisions outside their doors, largely by hiding behind a facade of unity that usually meant either presenting just the AIPAC line, or else ignoring the divisions and settling for an insufferable blandness.  The belief in some institutions was (and still is) that strong feelings should not be allowed in, because they might lead to disagreement, God forbid.  That is a caricature of a WASP family, not of a self-confident Jewish community.

I think those who lead Jewish institutions have to carefully consider if their intolerance of what some consider “anti-Israel” will either denude their institutions of serious content, or make them into places where only those with approved opinions are interested in going. Inevitably, new institutions will be formed for those who don’t fit in the old institutions. Perhaps that is what the leaders of the current institutions want; that all of us, following the old joke, have a list of institutions we patronize and a similar list we won’t set foot in.  But I can’t believe that this would be a plus for the future of Judaism or Israel or the Jewish people.

I am working with others to try to set up some sort of dialogue between the sides on this.  I have more than twenty years of experience of organizing and participating in dialogues with Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims.  In some ways, institutionalizing intra-community dialogue between Jews may be even more of a challenge.

As I was finishing this article, my attention was called to a piece in Tablet by the noted Israeli writer and film-maker Etgar Keret, who makes a similar point about Israelis feeling dispossessed in their own country.  He thinks the coming election may help to ameliorate the situation.  I hope he’s right but I’m less optimistic. 

Best wishes for the New Year.

By | 2014-12-26T22:14:00-05:00 December 26th, 2014|Blog|12 Comments


  1. Seth December 26, 2014 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    Your comments are very perceptive and important. The key question is whether you will include Jewish Voice for Peace in your dialogue. In my opinion the initiative will only be valid if it does include JVP.

  2. David Mark December 26, 2014 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    Good luck, Paul. There is the Tale of the Chelmite (Was it Motl? Sure.) whose job it was to sit on a Hill, and wait for Moshiach. The Job didn’t pay, but it was steady. I also resonate with your mentioning Etgar Keret’s point that Israeli Jews are feeling out-of-place in their own land. Jews must always feel that way, wherever they live. It keeps us from assimilating. It is a historical preventative, built into the tribal DNA. I teach college English during the week, and rabbi on weekends. My blog is

  3. Dana December 27, 2014 at 9:58 am - Reply

    Great quote: “The belief in some institutions was (and still is) that strong feelings should not be allowed in, because they might lead to disagreement, God forbid. That is a caricature of a WASP family, not of a self-confident Jewish community.”

    An Israeli friend had just expressed his perplexity upon hearing that in the US, talking about politics is considered impolite. I agree that Jewish institutions would be wise to engage in dialogues about these polarizing issues, in an open and thoughtful manner. The Jewish Dialogue Group is one format that comes to mind, developed for this purpose.
    I wonder if in Israel there are similar initiatives. It seems we have waited too long and conveniently swept under the rug conversations between, say, secular and religious Jews.

  4. Hillel Schenker December 28, 2014 at 9:17 am - Reply

    Paul of course is right about the importance of airing disagreements in the the American Jewish community institutions. And I like Dana’s comment about the caricature of a WASP family, which reminds me of Woody Allen’s visit to Annie’s WASP family.

    Last night I was at a Winter Solstice party in Tel Aviv hosted by a Swedish-born former Mossad agent, and there was a huge argument about whether the Jews are a people/nation, a religion or a community, and who people should vote for in the coming elections and why. That’s how we party in Israel.

    And every taxi ride becomes a political discussion between the driver and the passengers. So why should the JCC in DC be different?

  5. Dan Fleshler January 2, 2015 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    The fear of airing disagreements in public is a vestige of a time when it was much easier to identify and define the “enemies of Israel” in the U.S. –i.e., the “Arab lobby” and others who supported the boycott of Israel during the 60s and 70s

    Malcolm Hoenlein once told me, for the record, that “Israel’s enemies will use our disagreements to drive a Mack truck through the pro-Israel community.” Similarly, some people who are worried about public disagreements between Jews on Israel believe that American Jews’ political accomplishments –e..g. on Soviet Jewry–were possible only because we presented a united front to the outside world. They are not wrong.

    Paul, of course I share your views about the need for a big tent and always have. I’ve been called a self-hating Jew since the early 80s, when I first supported Peace Now. But I think it is important to understand that the fear of a big tent is not merely based on irrational prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Nor is it always based on support for Israel’s right wing. In some people, it is also the product of a political calculation that, at one time, made sense.

  6. Paul L. Scham January 3, 2015 at 3:57 am - Reply

    Response to Dan Fleshler (will respond to the others asap)
    Dear Dan,
    I agree partially what you wrote. I do see your point about solidarity, though I am skeptical that more open dissent would have endangered Israel, at least after 1967. And I certainly recognize that most of those supporting “solidarity” are not themselves fervent right-wingers. But they are the enablers. For decades now, liberal American Jews have held their tongues and their consciences while the ‘Zionist dream’ was hijacked by the right wing – and now by the far right wing. Now, like many adaptive mechanisms, even if it was once useful, that solidarity has now become dangerous to Israel and the Jewish people because, in practice, it means acquiescing in policies that you and I know endanger Israel – as well as being against American interests. This is why I suggested dialogue – and I will let you know if it happens (though I doubt the establishment is interested in it). But for decades now the majority of American Jews have been manipulated into staying quiet and that is breaking apart – even though those doing the manipulating believed wholeheartedly, and probably still do – that what they were doing was for Israel’s good.

  7. Dan Fleshler January 3, 2015 at 4:22 am - Reply

    Paul, I completely agree with you. They are, and will be, enablers. Nothing I wrote was meant to indicate otherwise.

  8. John D. Winston January 4, 2015 at 5:41 am - Reply

    I am afraid that some of the community leadership is devoted to suppressing the views. Some have felt that freedon of speech on Israel is not possible in the United States though it is alive and well in Israel (though some of the Israeli right wing would like to suppress dissent.) I ha e not contributed to the Jewish Federation for years because I felt that the Federation in Sacramento was the “Israel Uber Alles” Society. I have also been cut off of a facebook conversation by someone who disagreed with what I said though his logic was awful.

  9. Anonymous January 4, 2015 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    Dear Paul,

    Great that you are responding to comments from Dan Fleshler. Until now you seem not to have responded to this question from Seth:

    “The key question is whether you will include Jewish Voice for Peace in your dialogue. In my opinion the initiative will only be valid if it does include JVP.”



  10. Paul L. Scham January 8, 2015 at 2:20 am - Reply

    Sorry for not responding earlier to Seth’s question. I don’t consider JVP anti-Israel – and I think their members should be able to present their arguments in Jewish institutions. I am not in favor, in principle, of excluding anyone from debates,left or right. If it comes to hijacking the discussion, which is what the establishment tries to do now, I’m against it. However, I have largely pulled out of the arranging the discussion I referred to; not out of principle but for lack of time.

  11. Seth January 8, 2015 at 2:57 am - Reply

    Paul, I really appreciate your open and inclusive approach to the community. I hope that at some point you are able to convene the type of candid program you discussed.

  12. Warren January 11, 2015 at 10:28 pm - Reply

    I think what I am seeing here, is not an open dialogue but a decidedly one sided discussion that favors the ultra-left (as opposed to the ultra right). It would be helpful to hear both sides of this monumental conflict to assist us all in understanding both sides of the problem. Don’t you all think so?

    And Seth, do you personally approve of the tactics of JVP of pasting eviction notices on the door of students of Northeastern U.?

Leave A Comment