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DROWNING IN THE MAINSTREAM BY SY SCHECHTMAN
An eminent Jewish theologian, Emil Fackenheim, during the sad holocaust years, in his book “After Aushwitz” stated categorically that the 614th commandment was “Do not give Hitler any posthumous victory. One must stand in place in his Jewish heritage.” All other speculation about the meaning of this most cataclysmic event in human history was nebulous and a mysterium tremendum, perhaps beyond our present limited understanding of the Deity in our evolving and expanding universe, and our limited anthropomorphic current knowledge of the infinity about us. Slowly and gradually, however, we are sinking below the level of commitment in this very crucial area of Jewish survival in this earthly environment. One noted demographer just several weeks ago stated that the the number of people who identify as Jews fell to 1.2 percent, compared to 2% ten years ago. The National Jewish Population Survey, which does a ten year survey every decade stated that 19 years ago the Jewish population in the United States was 1.8% of the overall population in the world and in the 2001 survey it had slipped to 1.4%. That still is about 5,000,000 people, but somewhat less than we had about about two thousand years ago!
At that time, just at the millennial calendar time of anno domini, the so called Christian Calendar, our western time mode instituted two thousand years ago, the estimated Jewish population was about six million people and the very large Christian (2.1 billion), Moslem(1.5 billion) and Hindu(900 million) were either just nascent or hardly on the civilized horizon. The total Jewish population today is a mere 14 million world wide, and the reason for its’ rather minuscule growth is a complex of items, some of which will be evident as we go forth here. Most disturbing, from a longer range standpoint, is the Jewish/Arab ratio today both in this country and in Israel, for the explicit biblical injunction “be fruitful and multiply” is mostly honored in the breach by most of God’s original Chosen People—the Jews--- and the Moslem population here is starting to approach that of American Jews. So far the Jews have a preponderance of visibility and power here with significant representation both in the Senate and House of Representatives and in the prominent print media, and the Moslem minority here is not publicly evident, except in the important upper echelon debate at our higher elite institutions of learning, where free speech perimeters are stretched perhaps to uncomfortable or unrealistc limits. Most exchanges in debate and discussion seem to forget that the underlying but only quietly avowed basic premise is the Arab wish to ultimately destroy Israel and “drive them into the sea”. It is regrettably true that Israel has some settlements in what was formerly Arab territory, but it is very hard to surrender all prime defensive areas to an avowed enemy that has started three wars against Israel and refuses to remove from its foundational documents the complete annihilation of the country as a precondition to negotiation. And teaches children in early public school grades how to remove the pin from a live grenade and throw it before the count of ten—when it will explode-- at a Israeli soldier. (Very crucial counting lesson indeed!)
The example of the irrevocable Hitler pledge to make the world “Judenrein” and its chilling resonance today with Ahmadinejad’s strong avowal to crush Israel makes for very tentative and perhaps only temporary progress in any current peace talks. Indeed, the unsuccessful negotiations when Clinton spearheaded the abortive Oslo Accords, when after years of talks Israel had agreed to return at least 90 percent of occupied territory, the then Arab leader, Arafat, demurred and insisted that the right of return of the displaced Palestinians must be included in the settlement---something that had not even been on the table of talk until then---convinced many of the pro Israel advocates of the of the stalling and intransigence of the Arab position. Indeed, as of now, most ironic is the millennial old the Jewish toast “Next Year in Jeruasalem!” The Jews are there now, almost on the providential and miraculous end of many persecutions and dead ends, including the 6 million slaughter of the Holocaust. But the goal of a secure and proud Jewish State is almost as elusive as ever. And --crowning irony of all!-- despite having the most well equipped and valiant army in the area!
One prime problem has been Zionism’s failure to account for the indigenous Arabs, who have now acquired the mantle of Palestinians, although never before the new Jewish state was created in 1948 was there ever such an entity existing, merely an inchoate Arab group of meager means and organization. Many of them drawn to that area by the pioneer Jewish Zionists who had bought tracts of land from Arab landlords and employed many prior nomad Arabs, happy to have steady work for the first time. A group that has been carefully kept homeless and semi impoverished after the l948 war by their relatively affluent millions of Arab and other Moslem kinsmen, and trumpeted world wide to be an Israeli atrocity although there was a superfluity of Arab acres empty and able to easily be occupied and financed by burgeoning Moslem oil weath. There was only a relative paucity of arable Israeli land altogether, and mostly Negev desert, but the Jews have repatriated over a million Jews worldwide in the ensuing years and employed them most productively to create a prime industrial state with no assist from oil revenue of any kind. The original homeless displaced Arab group, most of whom were urged to stay in place by the defending Israelis during the war were estimated to be about 750,000 and now has an estimated number of about 4.5 million, many still living in refugee camps 65 years later!
The resettlement of these people and also the fate of the Arab citizens of the state of Israel are prime problems. While the fate of the Palestinian refugees may not be an Israeli problem directly, most certainly the fact that over 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arab and not too enthralled in what most of them consider “second class” status, seems like a ticking time bomb, endangering the concept of the “Jewish State”. Arab fertility in Israel is still significantly higher than Jewish fertility, even though it is also declining. But in 20 years or so the Arab minority may well approach 40% and have a significant influence in the deliberations of the Knesset and perhaps even in higher level cabinet decisions. And, as we shall discuss again below, intermarriage and assimilation may significantly alter attitudes. Remember what a bracing, or noxious tonic democratic free elections can be----the AfroAmerican vote was only about 12% of the total in America just the day before yesterday..and most of us voted for Obama, although one year before that Hilary Clinton had the Democratic nomination most certainly! While my heart still belongs to the democratic ideal one must have the strength and courage to follow where it sometimes leads you. The world is still a hot bed of anti Semitism and Judaism is still the scape coat of choice world wide and Israel must survive somehow as a beacon unifying Judaism’s diminishing reserves!
The United States is, of course, the last bastion of substantial Jewish strength. The place where the Jew has had the freedom to prosper and achieve his potential in many ways----and made inestimable contributions to the growth and strength of this most welcoming country. ( A country, too, that flouted much anti Semitism, too, in bygone years, but not now. Not uncommon years ago in relatively fine sites, but in small type, was the declaration that “no Jews or dogs” were allowed!) It is not good news that this last bastion of Jewish strength understands in general the slow disintegration in numbers of Jews in this country. Only an indifferent shrug when we comfortable Jews here consider Israel’s almost chronic Arab dilemma in the middle east, or even the slow demise of our numbers and ultimate power here. It is as if we are numb and inert from eons of pushing the Jewish cause upwards against the indifference or outright enmity of the many, and while we here, as of old, do not exactly yearn for “the fleshpots of Egypt” but are sunk in the inertia of our own comfort and assimilation. Our semi sarcastic answer being that at least the diligent and persistent Orthodox will still be around.
Too much success and acceptance!! Especially in the last 50 years. Intermarriage is a most common “affliction” if you are, perhaps, looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The positive answer being that this was a golden opportunity for spreading Jewishness around to the previous unaffiliated mate. The resounding and frightening retort proper in the 2000 year ten year survey of the NJPS-was that the intermarriage was at about 50% and only 28% of the intermarrieds were raising their children Jewishly. This was as of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the 10 year survey mentioned above. Every one waited expectantly for the 2000 year survey, but it was somewhat mysteriously waylaid or delayed. When finally released the population figure was reported as 5.2 million, “stable” but still down from 5.5 million ten years prior. If this was stable it was the crowning euphemism of the century, for in that decade the population of the country grew by almost 14%, over 32.7 million people! The survey did not mention the Jewish children per se, but enough evidence exists to fear that this dismal rate has only minimally been corrected.
Literally a shock wave of great proportions greeted the Jewish community almost 20 years ago on the news of this survey, but it has simmered down to the “stable” level of losing just a few percent per ten year time frame!!.But in the Reform movement at that time, when I was still quite active, almost overnight a drastic change occurred. The most obvious mitzvah then was helping thy brother, Jew or Gentile, in the field of social action. Love your neighbor as your self, do unto others as to yourself……etc. But now the updated thrust was Torah Study, and learning the true complicity of God in all this and the agony and joy of rendering the Torah and allied documents of Jewish history, besides the emphasis on the Prophets who stressed only the fashionable modes of social action. That God, the ruler of history, had a somewhat more complicated path for his initially Chosen people, but its holy path was discernible by more study of the basic texts. The rest of the Hebrew Bible, select midrash, and ongoing Jewish history and, of course, the Holocaust. But not to wallow in it!
Let us have less of the present cultural morass we are trapped in. Too much mourning over the 6 million dead still leaves us confronting, now, the slow inexorable posthumous victory of the Hitler Nazi Judenrein nightmare.We must realize, before it is too late, that we are drowning in the mainstream of our welcoming American culture. The Orthodox and even more conservative Chassidim have the most separation from it, with rigid food requirements (Kashruth), very modest, discreet apparel, and less mingling of the sexes before marriage. And more frequent religious requirements by far, such as prayer 3 times daily and more meticulous holiday services. But the majority of affiliated Jews,----Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist---find this regimen too demanding. I spoke above about the somewhat radical Reform move more to the center of religious study and away from just skimming for social action, but the odds still seem to favor this slow downward drift of Jews if left to interact
essentially with an ever larger mass of non Jews. There are no large pools of “captive” Jews, as in the Soviet Union, who in the last few decades were finally allowed to emigrate, finally allowed to emigrate ----to Brighton Beach,Brooklyn(!) as well as Israel and other places. And the fertility rate of Jewish women in this country is below replacement level. The majority female non orthodox groups are mostly college and career bound, postponing motherhood until only one or two children at most are feasible, and at a much later age. The average age of Jewish parents is above the mean, since marriage is usually delayed until the career is underway, unless subsidized by grandma and grandpa. In traditional Orthodoxy family growth comes first and then the maternal careers start flourishing. (Fertility replacement stability is about 2.3 children)
Considering intermarriage rates of 50% and many lapses in crucial rearing of the children jewishly we seem to be going somewhat ignominiously into the sunset of our once priceless Jewish heritage. But this country is still the goldene medina of our 2500 year diaspora existence, and we Jews have always had a significant “finger in the pot” helping to stir the crucial elements that make our heritage more vibrant and meaningful. From the degradation of biblical slavery and Reed Sea miracle to the dissolution of the strong Jewish disapora community of ancient Alexandria, and the various flowerings and dissolutions of our sites in Spain and Northern Europe and finally here in America, where the Jewish diaspora experience has been the most fruitful ever. Indeed, necessity has made for a oblique but necessary healing between the normally disparate and somewhat fractious Jewish dimensions. Indeed I find myself a Reconservadox practicing Jew, with strong family ties in the four major Jewish sects,---Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstruction-- with many children, grandchildren even a few great grandchildren. Certainly it has been a roller coaster up and down with some angst along the way as our very progressive progeny pulled the parental reins hither and yon. But all one relatively strong, caring and united group, very proud of each other even though our differences are always a factor we most seriously tolerate, respect, and even admire many times!
May this be one saving example of the way upward and outward of our current declining phase. From my hopeful prayer to God’s holy playbook!!