Jewish Life at the Crossroads

Posted August 4, 2018 11:48 a.m. EDT

Every #metoo scandal is different, but most are alike in at least one way: Whether among Hollywood moguls or Southern Baptists, congressmen or Catholic bishops, the fall of prominent men usually accelerates some pre-existing debate about where the larger institution or culture should be going, and which side of its internal arguments deserves to gain.

Lately the American Jewish community has presented an interesting case study, with the series of accusations against Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who has spent much of his career studying the demography of American Jewish life, and linking trends in Jewish intermarriage and fertility to his people’s cultural continuity.

In answering his accusers Cohen has embraced the clichés of male big shot contrition — promising a “consultation with clergy, therapists and professional experts” and “a process of education, recognition, remorse and repair.” But meanwhile, his fall has inspired a critique not only of his behavior but also his life’s work, with three female historians writing in The Forward that his sexual sins should prompt a larger reappraisal of “the troubling gender and sexual politics long embedded in communal discussions of Jewish continuity and survival.”

What Cohen’s critics have in mind, specifically, is the way that the long-standing angst within the American Jewish community around assimilation, intermarriage and fertility tends to sustain a kind of soft traditionalist pressure even in liberal Jewish life — one that defines Jewish identity in exclusionist terms, they complain, while marginalizing “single women, queer people, unwed parents, and childless individuals or couples.”

What the authors are describing pejoratively, the way that a general Jewish liberalism can coexist with more conservative impulses and attitudes, has long been particularly obvious in debates about the state of Israel, where the most cosmopolitan of Jewish liberals can suddenly sound like strident nationalists. (Or as the writers of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” put it in their “rap battle” between two rivalrous female Jewish lawyers: “Cause we’re liberals/ duh, progressive as hell / though of course, I support Israel.”) But it extends to a general Jewish interest in, and sometimes alarmism about, issues like fertility rates and cultural preservation that in the world of Gentile politics are associated with the social and cultural right.

This combination has often frustrated more thoroughgoing conservatives — Jewish ones especially — who don’t understand why more American Jews don’t extend their conservative impulses beyond the tribe and vote Republican. But a “liberalism without/conservatism within” combination is common to minority populations, and it’s a particularly reasonable reaction to the experience of Jewish history: An oft-persecuted people’s flourishing can both depend on maintaining a certain conservatism about its own patterns of marrying and begetting and cultural transmission (and, in the case of Israel, the safety of its lonely nation-state), and on encouraging liberalism and cosmopolitanism in the wider, potentially-hostile order in which the diaspora subsists. The interesting question is whether the combination can survive the pressures of our own era. One form of pressure comes from the left, which is increasingly intent on rooting out all residues of traditionalism within the liberal order — treating any form of nationalism as suspect, any policing of religious orthodoxy as dangerous, any approach to sex and family and child rearing that isn’t purely gender-egalitarian as a dangerous atavism.

That spirit, seeking ideological consistency and opposing (to quote Cohen’s critics) “patriarchal, misogynistic, and anachronist assumptions about what is good for the Jews,” may not be able to tolerate the mix of cosmopolitanism and tribalism, liberalism and traditionalism, that has defined American Judaism for years.

At the same time, there is a different pressure from Israel itself. As the Jewish state’s political and cultural debate has shifted to the right, Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced the view that European Jewry’s old enemy, Christian nationalism, is less dangerous to the Jewish future than the dissolving effects of liberal cosmopolitanism and the threat posed by Islamist anti-Semitism. Thus you have the striking phenomenon of the Netanyahu government cultivating friends like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, on the grounds that joining an alliance of conservative nationalisms actually offers a surer ground for the Jewish state’s survival than sticking with the secularism and anti-nationalism of the present liberal project.

These centrifugal forces, pulling leftward and rightward, have already alienated younger liberal Jews in the United States from the uncomplicated pro-Israel sentiments of their grandparents. And they may portend a future where the “liberal politics with a dose of cultural conservatism” combination gives way to a sharper choice for many Jews: a more consistently conservative Judaism bound to Israeli nationalism, and a liberal Judaism that’s more consistently liberal and less identitarian — and perhaps ultimately more secularized and assimilated.

As for whether this divergence will ultimately be, as they say, good for the Jews — well, that’s a question this Gentile columnist leaves to the chosen people to debate.

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