When MyJewishLearning’s editorial staff got together to consider the top Jewish stories of 2007, the conversation was surprisingly boring: no wars, no major political changes, nothing too out of the ordinary in the arts. We did, however, identify some potentially noteworthy instances in which the Jewish community rethought its positions and priorities. How important are these stories? That all depends on what happens next.
It seems that 2007 was the year that might have mattered. Many of this year’s decisions and events are likely to create some change in the Jewish community. We’re just not sure what that will look like.
The Israel Lobby
2006 saw the publication of two high profile works that were critical of Israel and its supporters abroad: John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s "The Israel Lobby" and Jimmy Carter’s Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.
These works tested the boundaries of what could be said about Israel, and coming from respected academics and a former US president, they also tested who could say it.
This story continued in 2007 with Alvin Rosenfeld’s "Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism," which was published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
The question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism was raised with Walt and Mearsheimer, Carter, and many before them. But Rosenfeld pointed his pen at a different crowd: Members of the Tribe who, according to "Progressive Jewish Thought," are helping to fuel anti-Semitism–and might even be anti-Semitic.
Rosenfeld’s article sparked vociferous debates about the nature and parameters of hostile rhetoric. While many agreed that some of the writers mentioned (Jacqueline Rose, Michael Neumann) likely crossed the line when discussing Israel, Rosenfeld’s decision to include people like Tony Kushner and Richard Cohen in a conversation about anti-Semitism damaged his credibility.
Indeed, the Forward wrote a scathing and bold attack on Rosenfeld in an editorial titled "Infamy," in which the editors opined: "this booklet teaches nothing worth learning about antisemitism or progressive thought. On the other hand, the fact that it was commissioned and published by an organization that once stood for dignity and civility in Jewish communal discourse speaks volumes about the state of Jewish leadership today."
Of course, Rosenfeld’s article was hardly the end of the story. British unions called for a boycott of Israel and a book-length version of Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper was published in the fall.
Yet while left-wing critics of Israel, as well as their critics, have floated deeper into the mainstream discourse about the Middle East, few–if any–have managed to balance rhetorical grace with a passionate call for justice and truth. Rosenfeld, Carter, Walt/Mearsheimer, and the British unions have brought important questions about Israel to the fore, but until now they have been too riddled with flamboyant and ideological excesses.
ADL in the Headlines
The AJC was not the only acronymed Jewish organization to come under fire in 2007. The Anti Defamation League (ADL) has long been opposed to a congressional bill that would recognize the killing of more than a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide.
But in August, members of the Watertown, Mass., town council voted to cancel an ADL-sponsored educational program, "No Place for Hate," because of the organization’s "genocide denial." Former New England ADL regional director Andrew Tarsy at first defended the ADL belief. However, when he changed his mind and spoke against the policy, he was promptly fired.
Abe Foxman, head of the ADL, eventually apologized–somewhat–calling what happened to the Armenians "tantamount to genocide." But the damage was done. Op-eds in a variety of Jewish newspapers called for Foxman’s resignation and questioned the role of the ADL in the Jewish community. In Ha’aretz, writer Evan Goldstein recognized Foxman’s past work that championed civil rights and fought extremism, but said that he is now "both morally obtuse and ethically challenged." Online magazine Jewcy.com led a campaign to hold an anti-Foxman protest at a public speaking engagement.
The ADL historically has been a powerhouse organization that has protected and defended the Jewish community and its civil rights. But the Armenian Genocide episode made many people question its tactics and approach toward "fighting anti-Semitism, bigotry, and extremism."
In 2007, for the first time during his presidency, George W. Bush paid serious attention to restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Just after Thanksgiving, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas came to the United States for the Annapolis Conference. People were skeptical that these two weak leaders could bring about tangible steps toward peace, and rightfully so. The only immediate outcome of the meeting was an agreement to begin actual negotiations in 2008.
But the event renewed debate in the Jewish community about one of the most difficult roadblocks toward peace–the status of Jerusalem. For the first time ever, Agudath Israel (a Ultra-Orthodox umbrella group) took an official stance on political issues connected with giving land to Arabs, speaking against the division of Jerusalem. This was not the only Jewish–or even the only Orthodox–position expressed. Yosef Kanefsky, a leading Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles wrote that Israel, and American Jews, must be open to dividing Jerusalem to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians.
The division of Jerusalem is a political prospect that conjures emotional and religious attachments. However, the matter at hand may not be a decision that needs to be made for a long time, given how little progress has been made toward peace in recent years.
To understand a community’s priorities, just follow the dollar. In 2007 the dollar led right to the Foundation for Jewish Camping (FJC), which received two mega-gifts. The first, a grant of $15 million from an anonymous donor in Chicago, was the single largest donation ever to Jewish summer camps. This money expanded the Campership Incentive Program, which provides scholarships to first-time camp attendees. The other gift, $11.2 million from the Jim Josephs Foundation, launched the Pre-Teen Camper Incentive Initiative, which helps pre-teens west of the Rockies enroll for the first time in a Jewish nonprofit overnight camp.
These donations reflect a growing consensus in Jewish informal education that camping is one of the, if not the most, effective means of engaging young Jews. According to Jerry Silverman, president of FJC, "Studies on the impact of summer camps are clear: children who experience the 24/7 Jewish environment at camp become adults who value their heritage, support Jewish causes, and take on leadership roles in their communities."
Is this just another fad that the community will embrace for a few years, until the next study shows a "better" way to connect to Judaism? That will depend on whether the Foundation for Jewish Camping and its member camps can translate big bucks into big impact.
On July 22, 2007 the New York Times magazine published Harvard professor Noah Feldman’s "Orthodox Paradox," an essay about his relationship to his Modern Orthodox alma mater and upbringing.
What provoked this lengthy confession?
After attending a school reunion with his non-Jewish girlfriend (who’s now his wife), Feldman found himself excised from the event’s official photo.
Feldman’s essay was an attempt to grapple with a community that had both shaped him and rejected him, but this very personal account became, perhaps, the most blogged about Jewish story of the year.
Many in the Orthodox community blasted Feldman for, in their opinion, rejecting Judaism via intermarriage, yet still demanding acceptance. As Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote in the Forward: "Quite simply, my dear Prof. Feldman, you want to have your cake and eat it too."
After the Jewish Week reported that the photo editing may not have been intentional, the Orthodox Union released a statement calling for an apology from the Times and Feldman’s dismissal from his position as a contributing editor.
While the Feldman affair highlighted the Jewish community’s ongoing concern about intermarriage, it also affirmed a continued concern about public relations. Many saw Feldman’s article as a shanda far di goyim, an embarrassing attempt to air insider dirty laundry in front of outsiders.
But the ubiquity of the Feldman story probably had something to do with its tabloid-worthy storyline. The reportage and analysis was dramatic and hyperbolic; and in the end, it was remarkably meaningless when compared to other issues facing American and world Jewry.
Noah Feldman offered us a distraction from our real problems, and like all gossip fodder, he inspired measures of both repulsion and obsession.