May 2009

This issue Current issue

      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!!