Haaretz’s Daphna Berman writes today in ‘Elitist’ Leadership Alienating U.S. Jews, Says Prominent Sociologist, about a fascinating new study by sociologist Chaim Waxman about the nature of youth affiliation (download as pdf) with the American Jewish community. Two elements of the report precisely tracked my own ideas on the subject: the alienating tendencies of American Jewish leadership and the impact of the web on Jewish affiliation and identity.
It took a while but I finally tracked down Waxman’s full paper, Jewish Identity and Identification of America’s Young Jews (pages 173-179 of above pdf download). I haven’t known of Waxman’s work till now, but I must say that considering he comes from a position deep within the communal consensus, he raises some fascinating issues worth considering here:
America[n] Jews’…engagement in civic activities…[has] weakened. Their rate of volunteering for communal causes has also declined, and they are much less likely to join Jewish organizations. Thus, the 2000/2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that there was a decline of close to 20 percent in affiliation with major American Jewish membership organizations between 1990-2000. Another indicator of the weakening bonds of community is in rates of philanthropic giving to Jewish causes. Charity and philanthropy have historically been among the primary manifestations of belonging to the community, and their rates have been declining during the past decade or two.
Some of the reasons for the decline in communal participation relate to the increasing perception that the communal leadership is elitist, parochial, self-serving, and resistant to innovation and to the active involvement of those who are not members of the “good old boys club,” the circle of wealthy, old men who are at the helms of most major Jewish organizations. At least since the 1960s, younger people in the West have been raised to “question authority” and distrust “the Establishment,” and they now they do so, sometimes adamantly.
As I mentioned above, I’ve written about this here and in my chapter of the Independent Jewish Voices book, A Time to Speak Out, which will be published this September. I would slightly broaden Waxman’s critique to include a hidebound unwillingness to confront new political and social ideas especially regarding Israel. In addition to a knee-jerk support for intransigent Israeli policies which refuse to recognize the need to finally resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict on terms that will not necessarily be completely to Israel’s liking.
After reading this blog who can doubt that Waxman’s critique applies to the current crop of gerontological male Jewish leaders like Hoenlein, Foxman, Kohr, Adelson, Harris, Rosen and their respective organizations AIPAC, AJCommittee and Congress, and ADL, etc. This also serves for Jewish journalism and reporters like Rosner’s Haaretz and JTA, especially regarding its Israel coverage.
Waxman also notes the significant impact of the web on Jewish life, identity and affiliation:
The increasing significance of cyberspace has probably played a role in contributing to the decline in communal participation, for several reasons. Cyberspace affords the opportunity for one to feel part of a community without actually being affiliated with it. One can participate virtually in a ide variety of community functions without ever coming into face to face contact with any members of the community (as members) or with any of the organizations of the community. The virtual community offers the opportunity to partake in some of the community’s offering without the cost of having to tolerate undesirable aspects of communal life, and it appears as a “win-win” alternative. On the other hand, it is quite possible that it is in the nature of cyberspace to undermine group identity, to contribute to “post-ethnicity.”
While I appreciate Waxman’s sensitivity to the question of cyberspace and its impact on Jewish life, I think his sense of affiliation with the conventional community has given him too narrow a perspective on this issue. He neglects several important considerations: a Jew may be affiliated with the community yet use the web to broaden and deepen Jewish knowledge; a Jew may be alienated from the community, yet use the web to replace communal engagement with a full and legitimate Jewish identity. Waxman assumes that a traditional sense of affiliation is a be-all and end-all of Jewish identity. He assumes that anything less will lead to an overall decline in the quality of Jewish life. I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that cyberspace could ever replace traditional communal life. But it certainly will supplement it and in some cases replace it for the most alienated Jews.
In short, I do not see the web as “undermining group identity.” If you look at this from the narrow vantage point of Jewish communal infrastructure then this may be so. But I like to see Jewish life as richer than, and not restricted to a few national Jewish organizations and local synagogues. I am not saying that these don’t fulfill valuable roles for many Jews. But we have to look at the truth that a small percentage of Jew affiliate with these institutions. There must be alternative ways to create Jewish identity and Jewish groups must embrace them or be rendered irrelevant (which many currently are except to their specific members).
Though it may be self-serving to say so, I see Jewish blogs as integral to this development. Though some of us are strongly affiliated with the community, many of us see ourselves as outside the consensus. Even if we are affiliated (as I am), we see ourselves as dissidents. We see ourselves as afflicting the comfortable…that elitist, hidebound Jewish leadership. We see our role as introducing ideas into the mainstream that have otherwise been considered anathema. We’re the bomb throwers (not literally), the radicals, the outcasts.
We wait to see how flexible and adaptable our leadership will be to these new ideas. Will it resolutely turn its backs to them, joining rumps like a pack of wildebeests under attack on the African savannah? Or will it, if not welcome, then at least show a begrudging willingness to absorb the best of these ideas into the mainstream discourse?
I think the jury’s out on this. The communal leadership may be open to some new ideas. But its openness may be so constrained that it will be too late for them to have much positive impact. Jewish organizations within a generation may be rendered entirely irrelevant to an even greater proportion of Jews than currently is the case. The motto should be “adapt or die.”
If I may again be a bit self-serving, I think it’s telling that the media outlet which has shown itself most receptive to my writing is not Jewish: the Guardian’s Comment is Free. Haaretz has published a single piece as has the Forward. This despite numerous and repeated attempts to get my perspective heard. I can’t help thinking that my point of view is viewed as too threatening to the consensus. It is true that numerous publications (Jewish and general) have written ABOUT this blog and my ideas. But that appears slightly less intimidating than publishing the ideas from their source.