Forward Thinking

Should Jews Build Bridges or Fortresses?

By Naomi Zeveloff

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Imagine that contemporary American Jews run their own government system made up of just three ministries. Depending on how you see the world, you work in one of the three. Are you a Department of Defense Jew — someone who sees threats to Jews and Israel at every turn? A Department of Education Jew — someone committed to religion and education? Or a Department of Health and Human Services Jew — a person devoted to progressivism, looking beyond the Jewish community to make common cause with other groups?

The three categories — more succinctly described as “protective,” “expressive,” and “progressive” — capture the ideological breadth of active American Jews, according to Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner School. Cohen spelled out the distinctions at a BJPA event, during which a Department of Defense Jew and a Department Health and Human Services Jew dialogued about the tension between expressing Jewish values and advancing Jewish interests.

The Department of Defense Jew was Ruth Wisse, a Harvard professor of Yiddish. Her counterpart in the in the Department of Health and Human Services was Joy Levitt, the Executive Director of Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center.

For Levitt, living out Jewish values sometimes means the abdication of real or perceived Jewish interests. In one recent example, Levitt said, the JCC opened its gym on Saturday mornings to non-Jewish community groups who use it for sports practice for impoverished kids. Though the gym wasn’t in use by the Jewish members on Saturday morning, Levitt said that she was confronted by one individual who saw her as prioritizing the needs of the arguably needier non-Jewish kids over those of the Jewish members. And yet, Levitt said, she stood by the project as the JCC’s “finest program — and not a single Jewish child benefits from it.”

In another example, Levitt said that the Jewish community found itself grappling over a false choice between its interests and its values when it came to support for the Cordoba Initiative, the proposed Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan, which sought to emulate the JCC. Rather than standing “firmly” behind the community center — dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque” by its critics — the Jewish community lamentably waffled, with some Jewish leaders like the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman saying it would be better for the group to build elsewhere.

But where Levitt saw the need to build bridges with non-Jewish groups, her Department of Defense co-presenter saw the need for fortresses against some of them. Wisse began her presentation saying that there are two major challenges to Jews today: assimilation and global anti-Semitism. Unlike their European predecessors, Jews in America aren’t forced into identifying Jewishly by the state. “American Jews are Jews by choice,” she said, but the ability to assimilate is both “our greatest blessing” and “our greatest challenge” as Jews succumb to intermarriage. Also a seminal challenge: shifting the conversation around Israel from one in which Israel is a defendant on the world stage to one in which Israel is the plaintiff, prosecuting what she sees as Arab misdeeds. Jews lack moral confidence, she said. “Jews want acceptance from those who transgress against them.”

After Wisse spoke, Cohen asked her how she might map her philosophy onto to the real world challenges elaborated by Levitt. In essence, how would the Department of Defense handle the work of the Department of Health and Human Services? “I want to understand the application of your values,” said Cohen. Would she open the JCC on Saturday morning for local, non-Jewish kids? Would she partner with Muslim groups in the name of coexistence?

Wisse said that inviting non-Jews to use the gym of the JCC on Saturday morning was “not problematic at all.” But on the second topic, she warned against Jewish naiveté in partnering with organizations without doing their research ahead of time. Jews “should know better” than to join with groups without first looking into them.

Much of the question and answer session that followed was filled with hand wringing over inclusivity. If the Jewish communal world espoused Wisse’s strict interpretation of Jewish interests, would it isolate young, liberal Jews? Wisse balked at the idea that left-leaning Jews were not having their say in the Jewish communal world. “I would like to see one person whose voice has been still in our community.” In fact, she said, she is a marginalized voice at Harvard.

Then, in the spirit of cooperation between two very different types of Jews, Levitt offered Wisse a platform — at least in theory: “If you lived in New York I would invite you to be on my board,” she said.

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