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Ha’aretz to American Jews: Reconsider Opposition to Gov't Support for Religious Schools

By Daniel Treiman

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The liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz is urging American Jews to reconsider one of the cornerstones of our community’s liberalism: opposition to government funding for religious schools. In an editorial on the importance of Jewish education for maintaining Jewish identity, citing in particular the effectiveness of day schools, Ha’aretz writes:

If Jewish community leaders in the United States are genuine in their desire to slow the processes weakening their community, they would do well to reexamine their entrenched opposition to state or federal support for religious education, including Jewish education. They fear that such support, even in the form of tax rebates, would violate the absolute separation of church and state, which could in the long term harm the Jews above all. But it would appear that the proven danger of assimilation must take precedence over fears of potential dangers, particularly after the experience of other Jewish communities that receive funding from the countries they live in without being hurt as a result.

This recommendation, in addition to being surprising, is problematic on two fronts.

First, as a matter of policy, America’s public schools have served — and should serve — as a means for cultivating civic identity, building a cohesive nation out of perhaps the most ethnically and religiously diverse society to have ever existed. Would we be better off if the government subsidized separate school systems for Hasidim, Reform Jews, Catholics, Sunnis, Shiites, Evangelicals, black Muslims, Buddhists etc.? I don’t think so. American society has always been a tug of war between groups trying to maintain their own distinct identities and the forces of assimilation, foremost among these the public schools. This has yielded a healthy tension, and we wouldn’t be better off as a country if one side quit tugging. Indeed, the gaping divide between religious (particularly ultra-Orthodox Jews) and secular in Israel, if anything, illustrates the pitfalls of state support for sectarian schools.

Second, as a matter of principle, it’s troubling that Ha’aretz would appeal solely to American Jews’ parochial interests on a matter of such national import. Let me be clear: I do believe that increasing Jewish day-school enrollments is crucial to maintaining Diaspora Jewish identity. And it stands to reason that public subsidies for religious schools would yield such increases. But liberalism isn’t simply a matter of tending to your own. Liberalism involves working to advance the common good. American Jews — to our credit — get this. That’s why, as Milton Himmelfarb famously quipped, Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking out for the interests of your specific ethnic or religious group, but there is also a duty to prioritize the well being of the country as a whole. That’s what it means to be an American, and it’s what it means to be an American Jew.


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Comments
David Wed. Jul 18, 2007

The most revealing sentence in the Ha'aretz piece, and the one which illustrates a COMPLETE failure of understanding both of the American Jewish community and of Jewish (and world) history is the following: "...the proven danger of assimilation must take precedence over fears of potential dangers, particularly after the experience of other Jewish communities that receive funding from the countries they live in without being hurt as a result." On the contrary, the historical experience of Jewish communities in countries that did not maintain a very strict wall between church and state has been a far greater danger than assimilation. History and Jewish experience goes back a lot further than 1945.

Yehuda Tue. Jul 17, 2007

The central difference between Jewish identity in Israel and Jewish identity in the American Diaspora lies in primacy. For an Israeli, one's core identity is Jewish, and there is no other historic identity. For an English-speaking American Jew, one's core identity is American, and Jewishness has to be expressed as a secondary identity. Hence, Ha-Aretz's recommendation is NOT surprising. Ha-Aretz is not concerned with the making of an American civic society and "building a cohesive (American)nation", nor would it "prioritize the well-being of the (American) country as a whole". Ha-Aretz, like all Israeli society, is concerned with the centrality of the Jewish experience. Ha-Aretz sees the continuity of Jewish identity as the essence of Jewish survival. It is a primary concern. The secondary nature of the Jewish experience in America is, all in all, a break with the historical Jewish reality in which Jews defined themselves as a people in its own right.

Ben Levi Wed. Jul 18, 2007

I also don't find anything "surprising" about Ha-Aretz's recommendation. Moreover, the appeal to American Jewry is likewise not "troubling". It is a very large Jewish community, and yet sadly the state of Jewish literacy in America in particular is simply terrible. Ha-Aretz defines as urgent the educational needs of the Jews whose historic identity as a Diaspora peoplehood has been eroded by generations of less than minimal Jewish schooling. It's only natural that Ha-Aretz would editorialize about such a topic that is of importance to Jewish continuity.

tarshisha Fri. Jul 20, 2007

Israeli Jews this is not the same as American Jews. What is works in Israel not exactly works in US, and vice versa. Nor Zionism, nor Reform or Hassidic Judaism has a satisfactory message to my kids. Why? Read prof. Dershowitz “The Vanishing American Jew”




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