09/11 Haaretz: The year assimilation took a backseat

Last update - 23:54 11/09/2007
The year assimilation took a backseat
By Yair Sheleg

The most noticeable aspect of the first international gathering of the Jewish People Planning Policy Institute (JPPPI) in Jerusalem two months ago was the change in focus of Jewish concern - from the issue of assimilation, which was the crux of all Jewish conferences in recent years, to the physical threat to the Jewish people's existence, especially the Iranian threat against Israel.

The Iranian threat also seems to have been the most important item of Jewish news for the entire year of 5767: the existential threat has returned to the headlines, and concern over assimilation has increasingly turned into a luxury left for educators and philanthropists.

Now, says Prof. Sergio Della Pergola, one of the JPPPI's heads, this change of focus could also affect another important issue - the question of Israel's centrality in the Jewish world.

"If the threat of assimilation is the focus, the claim for Israel's centrality is very significant," Della Pergola says. "But if the existential threat is the focus, Israel loses part of the argument in favor of its centrality to the Jewish people, as the best place to assure the future of the Jewish people."

This change was all the more evident in recent days, following the release of a study by Prof. Steven Cohen and Prof. Ari Kelman, which indicates the decline in the identification of American Jewish youths with Israel: Only 48 percent of non-Orthodox youngsters felt that Israel's destruction would be a personal tragedy for them, and only 54 percent feel comfortable with the very existence of the state.

On the other hand, fear among Jewish communities in Europe (especially France) of the substantial growth of the continent's Muslim population has led to increased immigration to Israel, and to a rise in the acquisition of apartments and in visits by French Jews. (French Jewry constitute the third-largest Jewish community in the world, after the United States and Israel.)

American-Jewish identification with Israel suffered several other major blows this year, in a series of public attacks claiming that the Israel lobby in the U.S. works to ensure Israel's interests at the expense of American ones, with the war in Iraq being the primary example.

These claims were raised in an article (and also in a recent book) written by prominent researchers Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, but it had an even more dramatic impact when former U.S. president Jimmy Carter made similar claims in his own book, and in a series of lectures he gave on the topic. Carter embarrassed the Jewish establishment so badly that, for the first time in a long while, an American president was labeled "anti-Semitic."

Despite the fact that concern over Israel's future has become the primary Jewish concern, assimilation continues to be a major worry. Another study conducted by Steven Cohen that was published this year indicates that two types of Jewish communities are evolving in the U.S.: those with two Jewish spouses in one household, who are therefore certain of their Jewish identity; and those households with intermarried spouses (43 percent of the community's young people), where the number of those who light Shabbat candles is equal to those who set up a fir tree on Christmas.

There were numerous efforts in 5767 to cope with assimilation. A $25 million donation from the Jewish millionaire Sheldon Adelson injected new momentum to one of the major undertakings in this area, the Taglit birthright project, which sends young Diaspora Jews on a free 10-day trip to Israel.

According to participants and research evidence, these visits usually succeed in deepening their interest in both Israel and Judaism.

In addition, Adelson promised - following complaints by Taglit officials that due to budgetary limitations they are only able to bring a third of Jewish students to Israel - to issue an open check to fund whatever number of students the organization's workers manage to enlist.

In order to deal with these simultaneous crises, former president Moshe Katsav formulated the concept several years ago of the Jewish Parliament, which was to gather the brightest Jewish minds from across the world for discussions and decision-making. However, Katsav's downfall this year has led to the collapse of the program.

While Akiva Tor, the head of the Foreign Ministry's Diaspora department who served as Katsav's Diaspora Affairs adviser, says that the new president, Shimon Peres, is interested in reviving the effort, it remains unclear if and when this will happen.

Tor adds that there is a noticeable gap between the general picture of a decline among Diaspora Jewry - especially in the U.S. - and the success of certain groups within it in reviving themselves.

Most notable in this respect is the continued recovery and growth of the Orthodox Jewish community, as opposed to the weakening of the two more liberal streams of Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements.

Yet even among these two streams there are signs of interesting processes to renew their agenda, even though such a tendency is still not necessarily reflected in quantitative terms: The Reform movement has increased its commitment to learning Torah, kashrut and other traditional elements.

At the same time, the Conservative movement - which in recent years experienced a substantial decline in popularity - took two dramatic steps this year: for the first time in many years, it appointed a prominent academic researcher of American Jewry, Prof. Arnold Eisen, as head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement's main rabbinical and academic learning center, instead of handing the position to a rabbi.

Eisen has already welcomed another revolutionary process led by the Conservative movement's Va'ad Hahalakha: approving same-sex marriages as well as ordaining homosexual male and female rabbis.

This year, two prominent Jewish organizations experienced considerable turmoil. For one of them, the World Jewish Congress, the turmoil had been going on for several years, following the exposure of charges of embezzlement by the previous chairman, Dr. Israel Singer, who was instrumental in leading the Jewish campaign for the return of Holocaust victims' assets.

While it seemed as though the WJC had survived the ordeal - following the New York State Attorney General's report acquitting Singer of criminal fault - the story took an interesting turn this year when the WJC president, millionaire Edgar Bronfman, suddenly announced he had discovered that the charges were true, and ordered Singer's immediate dismissal.

At the same time, Bronf-man announced his own resignation, and was replaced by another Jewish millionaire, Ron Lauder, in the hope that this would finally calm the situation at the WJC.

The organization's European branch also had a tough year, thanks to a scandal involving racism. The former president of the European Jewish Congress, Pierre Besnainou of France, was pushed out in favor of a Russian Jewish financial baron, Moshe Kantor.

The scandal involved the disclosure of a memorandum written by Steven Herbits, the WJC's secretary-general who has since resigned, stating that Besnainou's loyalty could not be counted on because he is a Frenchman and a Tunisian, and "works like an Arab." Until his deposal, Besnainou was the first senior WJC official of Middle Eastern descent.

The second organization in turmoil is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which became embroiled in a conflict between its self-determined goal of fighting racism and hate crimes, and its association with and loyalty to Israel.

Americans of Armenian descent asked the ADL to join their fight to gain official American recognition of the Turkish massacre of Armenians during World War I as genocide. However, this claim contradicts the position of the government of Israel, which is very careful not to anger the Turks and risk Israeli interests in maintaining good ties with Turkey.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman found himself maneuvering between opposition to the Armenian request for help in their political struggle, and recognition that the Turkish massacre was indeed genocide.

Here are a few other things that happened in 5767:

b Jewish oil baron Ronald Stanton donated $100 million to Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy in the U.S. The donation is considered the highest ever given to a Jewish organization.

b The Catholic Church again approved the use of a mass that includes a prayer for the conversion of the Jews. The move created tension in Jewish circles, and a sense that the current pope, Benedict XVI, is reversing the policy of his predecessor, John Paul II, who strove to deepen the rapprochement between Jews and Catholics.

b Florida marked the opening of the Ben Gamla Jewish School, which is not run by one of the American Jewish movements or communal institutions, but by a private company called Academica. The director is an Orthodox rabbi, Adam Segal.

Source: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArtVty.jhtml?sw=ADL+&itemNo=902925