by Daniel Kieval
I recently heard a lecture by J. J. Goldberg, senior columnist for The Forward, about the current state of American Judaism and its relationship to Israel. Goldberg spoke about intermarriage and what he termed the “Seinfeld effect,” in which the national popularity of Jewish figures such as Jerry Seinfeld (or, these days, Jon Stewart) leads children of interfaith (or secular Jewish) parents to embrace the Jewish side of their identity. He also argued, like Peter Beinart in a much-discussed article earlier this year, that the right-wing position of major American Jewish organizations toward Israel has the opposite impact on these mostly liberal young people, turning them off of Judaism completely—we could call this the “AIPAC effect.” AIPAC, popularly referred to as the “Israel lobby,” has drawn criticism from liberals, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, for its policy of supporting the decisions of the Israeli government no matter what and condemning anyone who publicly criticizes those decisions.
According to Goldberg, about half of all American Jews marry non-Jews; if you work out the math, that means that for every three marriages that involve a Jewish person, only one is between two Jews. Therefore, about two-thirds of American children who have at least one Jewish parent grow up with some other tradition in addition to Judaism, whether that means another religion, a different ethnic background, or simply a strong secularism. Even many children with two Jewish parents inherit some disconnectedness from Jewish culture and tradition. These children will not be “Jewish by default,” but will need to actively choose to explore their Jewish identity as they get older if they are to keep it at all.
For this reason, says Goldberg, the way Jews and Judaism are perceived in the United States will largely determine the fate of the American Jewish community. Create a positive image, attract many of these independent-minded youth, and the community will grow and flourish. Create a negative one, and the community will diminish until only the much smaller group of religiously committed Jews remains. The Jewish community’s concern, then, should be to ensure that liberal, uncommitted young people see Judaism as appealing and in line with their own values. While Jews continue to be well-liked by Americans as a whole, some worry that the association of Judaism with AIPAC’s right-wing stance on Israel is gradually eroding the ability of the Jewish community to connect to this generation.
Goldberg is partially right. As much as the American Jewish establishment might not appreciate the realization that it does not speak to or for the majority of American Jews, in the long run this truth could be beneficial. It will force Jewish organizations to pay attention to the ways in which people do and do not feel connected to Judaism, and to find new ways of reaching out to those who are more distant. Perhaps it will also lead to the creation of a new relationship with Israel, one that strongly supports the Jewish state without alienating the liberal majority of American Jews.
However, merely making Judaism more attractive and relatable is not enough. Jewish religion and culture are overflowing with substance, from spirituality to social and environmental justice to history, literature, and music. Synagogues and other Jewish organizations must tap into this vast reservoir of tradition and teach that Judaism is more than just a glitzy bar-mitzvah party or an Israel fair serving microwaved falafel on paper plates. Seinfeld and AIPAC may represent opposing front lines in the struggle for young Jews’ hearts, but they are only the beginning; they cannot be the whole struggle. In short, if American Jewish leaders are going to bring more people to the doorway of Judaism, as they should, they must also ensure that there is something worthwhile on the other side.
4 thoughts on “AIPAC vs. Seinfeld”
Recently, I read Arthur Hailey’s “Hotel”. One of its characters, an unscrupulous bartender has been selling an expensive liquor diluted by less expensive or water. In a way, “Seinfeld effect” is similar. Intermarriage leads to ostensible Jews who are less sensitive to Jewish or Israel matters, who, for an example, are more inclined to apply ‘moral equivalence’ when comparing Israel and Gaza. Sometimes, pro Israel non Jews are more passioned on the issue probably because of locking of moral baggage tied to being ostensibly Jewish. The popularity of organizations like AIPAC reflect the fact that Israel is becoming more and more as ‘surrogate’ Judaism to contemporary Jews.
JJ Goldberg here as I see in many of his editorials at the forward posits a false premise from which he then proceeds to make incorrect conclusions that fit his political world view.
AIPAC for better or worse is not a left or right organization. AIPAC advocates on behalf of Israel the people and the nation. Israel has since the 70s steered a politically consistent course to the centre or centre/right. People like JJ grew up with this romantic notion of Israel as left wing socialist utopian experiment. The experiment was considered by most Israelis a failure.
The Likud, and for what it is worth I am not a supporter of the Likud and generally don’t like them, has been the head of numerous governments of Israel and AIPAC, just as they did in the days of left wing dominated Israel, has defended and advocated on behalf of Israel. That is there ‘mission statement’ as it were. AIPAC is not a subsidiary of the Likud as they are more and more frequently portrayed, not least of all by those who wish to deligitamize AIPAC.
AIPAC is an american organization advocating on behalf of American Jews for Israel. AIPAC does not represent American Jews, nor should it, in dictating Israeli policy.
What JJ seems to prefer is the J Street approach where the discredited left wing parties failing in the elections can do an end run to America and Europe and have their positions forced on Israel.
This is another of the false premises that JJ likes to circulate that the Israeli ‘right’ is not interested in Peace. He would seem to have people believe that only the most fringe left wing groups are sincere in their desires for peace. He fails to comprehend the burdens that every Israeli carries regardless of political persuasion and that a pretty consistent 70% of the people accept land for peace.
JJ consistently is unable to to distinguish taking a hard line in peace negotiations and a rejection of negotiations.
Repeating something over and over does not make it so. For years, I have tried to reconcile myself with what I hear at AIPAC meetings, from AIPAC materials, from AIPAC speakers, and time and time again, it just doesn’t resonate. Yes, AIPAC, in its earlier years, did a spectacular job in its work – to bring awareness of Israel and its needs to both sides of the political aisles in Congress. But they have gone beyond that now, and for this devoted and highly engaged Jew, both personally and professionally, with family members in the IDF, JStreet makes far more sense. And that’s not just me – that’s my IDF/Israeli family, too.
Contrary to Socrates, lately the Israeli leaders and their colleagues in America have subscribed to the philosophy of “the unexamined life is the only kind worth living”. We can’t afford that, on either side of the ocean. We, as Jews, need to re-evaluate ourselves, our relationships to those around us, and be willing to see ourselves in a truer light, without the lens of victimhood. There has to be a reason to be Jewish, much less Israel-loving, that goes beyond the Holocaust, and unless the leaders of the community, of which I consider myself one, can bring that Jewish awareness to the next generation or two, we will have no one else to blame for the further dilution of identity.