July 31, 2011

Does mediocrity really suit American Jews?

It used to be that Jewish organizations took pride in creating new solutions and defending Israel's existence. We have reached a point where our community now gets fired up to keep peace pressure off the Netanyahu government and to oppose United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state.

The problem is, fewer Jews are getting fired up. The more uncompromising Israel becomes, the more alienated many young Jews are (if they're even connected enough to be alienated). We have a "hasbara" (pro-Israel spin) industry that has become an end in itself. Most of the effort and effect seems to be convincing Israelis and American Jews that Israel's image isn't as bad as the rest of the world thinks. How art the mighty fallen...

Regardless of who is to blame for the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (actually, the lack of any negotiations at all), there is a much lower level of diplomatic performance than at any time in decades. And the current Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are the most moderate since Palestinians became identified as a political group. It's astounding that so much progress was made -- on the ground and around the world -- while Yasser Arafat was still in charge, and today the Israeli Prime Minister can't even find a way to sit down with his Palestinian counterparts.

If Israel's government spent as much time really TRYING to get negotiations back on track as it has on undermining U.S. efforts and trying to convince the world it's not to blame... Well, what if?

There was a time when great men and women didn't consistently fall back on excuses and justifications, when they led their nation rather than following the polling reports. Lately, a critical mass of American Jewish organizations balked at the Knesset law banning boycotts of Jewish West Bank settlements. And Ronald S. Lauder, Netanyahu's staunchest of American supporters, suggested the need for greater engagement on the Palestinian front. These are definitely positive signs.

But as a general matter, our community here suffers from a dual weakness. On the one hand, we are complacent with business as usual, and on the other we fall over ourselves every time a great new Big Idea comes our way (see under: Birthright Israel, "peoplehood", "ROI", Makor).


Even after so many millions were lost to Madoff, how many community professionals have lost their jobs as a result? Aside from those directly implicated in actual wrongdoing, how many board members have lost their seats due to their lax oversight? Few community leaders ever lose their positions when fraud is uncovered on their watch, and curiously their currency often increases. 

So, how thrilling that so many organizations will now be able to campaign against a Palestinian state at the UN. Meanwhile, barely a word to Netanyahu about getting the peace process back on track while there's still a chance to beat out the Hamas challenge to Abbas and Fayyad. Aside from pulling the wind out of the sails of unilateral statehood, it might even lead to genuine peace... but we're told Israel is too vulnerable to try it, and thanks to the dysfunctional diplomacy more and more Israelis are inclined to agree.


Rather than doing the hard, boring work of implementing best practices and matching programs to actual needs, it's much more fun to discover some novel approach to fundraising or outreach or -- the biggest catch -- "young leadership". The idea that some new "idea" will come and save us is the non-Orthodox version of messianism, a day dream that all will work out if we can just win the Powerball Jackpot. And at the end of the day, be it Birthright, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), Steinhardt, Israeli President Peres' annual "Tomorrow" conference or the "peoplehood" buzz, we don't seem to be making much progress as a people.

(As for Orthodox Jewry, the big new idea this year has been trying to stop same-sex marriage from being legalized -- a waste of resources, a losing battle, and not even an obvious priority on our very crowded halachic and social agenda. Thousands of our women remain chained to recalcitrant husbands who have moved on but refuse to grant them religious divorce. It's only thanks to the Catholic Church that our track record on sex abuse isn't headline news. Our proportion of career Torah students is miraculously expanding with no apparent means for supporting their families and communities in the future. And that's not all...)

Israel's big idea used to be establishing a true democratic outpost in the Middle East, while working to reconcile with neighboring nations. In the last couple of years, absent any imminent threat to the survival of the state, freedom of speech and political expression are under constant threat, and the possibility of peace with the Palestinians seems increasingly unattainable. 

Again, let's disagree on the desirability of negotiations with the Palestinians. The inescapable conclusion here is that the best our community can do is to look busy trying to keep Israel from looking bad and shave a few votes off a sweeping pro-Palestinian UN vote in September. So much for driving the agenda, redefining the parameters, or affecting the course of world history.

And the worst part? I am an optimist.

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