Open Zion

10.24.13

Israel as a Totem for Jewish Identity

Jews are smarter than everyone else. A Chinese woman who visits a synagogue is surely shopping for a Jewish husband. Pakistan has “managed to produce absolutely nothing" in its entire history [besides nuclear weapons]. A two-state solution would be a good idea if the state on the other side of Israel's border was Canada. The Palestinians have to “earn” the right to self determination. Thus spake Bret Stephens, former editor of the Jerusalem Post and current Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist, at Tuesday night's Yeshiva University panel discussion on the future of the Jewish people.

The Lamport Auditorium at the university's Washington Heights campus was packed with men wearing yarmulkes and women in modest dress who applauded these and similar remarks made by Stephens, who won a Pulitzer Prize—which I know, because moderator Shmuley Boteach (“America's rabbi”) mentioned the fact several times.

Boteach and Stephens were joined by Yeshiva University president Richard M. Joel, who is currently dealing with the dire fallout from a $380 million class action sex abuse suit brought by former students, and by Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul who is one of the richest men in the world. The latter fact was mentioned quite a few times over the course of the event, which lasted for nearly two hours (oops! no time for questions).

The topic was supposed to be whether or not Jews would continue to exist in the face of “Iran, Assimilation, and the Threat to Israel and Jewish Survival,” But Boteach did not seem very prepared and the conversation was unfocused and rambling. Ultimately it devolved into a congratulatory and reactionary exchange about Jewish superiority, which involved a lot of name dropping.

Boteach tried to win the famous name game by mentioning his time as an outreach rabbi to students at Oxford University, where he befriended senator-elect Cory Booker. But Adelson, who really should be a poster boy for campaign finance reform, won with his “deep, personal knowledge of Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] and Olmert.” Which he mentioned a couple of times.

Adelson also mentioned, as reported by several media outlets, that the United States should lob a nuclear bomb at a swathe of unpopulated Iranian desert as a means of forcing the Islamic Republic to give up its enrichment program. Strength, said Adelson, “Is all they understand.”

According to Adelson, there is no such thing as a Palestinian people (apparently Palestinians are actually “southern Syrians”) and Yasser Arafat stood for the destruction of the Jewish people. While the casino billionaire cheerfully acknowledged, almost as a matter of pride, that he did not actually know the difference between Shi'a and Sunni Islam, he insisted that former Iranian president Ahmadenijad believed in “something called a Hidden Imam” who was a messiah, and that according to his religious belief all the Jews needed to be dead before the imam could reveal himself. Which was why Iran threatened Israel, because Ahmadenijad was a “radical Jew hater” who wanted to bring the Hidden Imam to his people.

None of the other panelists challenged the casino mogul on his remarks, which were greeted with loud cracks of applause from the receptive audience. President Joel let the other three men enjoy being bombastic, while he limited himself to touting Jewish family values and Birthright, the free Israel trip available to young adults, as a means of saving the Jewish people from assimilation. Adelson donates heavily to Birthright.

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But the men seemed rather confused about their fears, hopes and aspirations for the Jewish people. Joel talked up religious values and parochial day schools, while Stephens described himself as a Jew so secular that he risked “tipping into Unitarianism,” adding that his primary Jewish quality was “loyalty.” Israel's existence, said Stephens, was the reason “super secular” types like himself were proud to identify as Jews. The primarily Orthodox audience approved of both men's definition of Jewishness.

Israel, it seemed, was not actually a country filled with disparate, flawed individuals, but an identity totem for Jews of the diaspora.

The panelists spoke in chauvinistic cliches about the intellectual superiority of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, totting up Nobel laureates. Stephens bemoaned the fact that this year's Nobel laureates in physics included two Israeli academics who had migrated to American universities. “We have to find a way to keep them in Israel,” declaimed the man who left Jerusalem to take up a position with the Wall Street Journal.

But on the other hand the men seemed to agree that Israel was teetering on the edge of imminent catastrophe and destruction. The list of threats included Iranian nukes, murderous Arabs and assimilation.

One can perhaps tolerate the views expressed on Tuesday night in semi demented, rich old uncles. But not from a man who purchases and wields political influence at the highest levels. And not from someone who writes for one of the most important newspapers in America. It was embarrassing to witness this anti-intellectual event, particularly at an academic institution that was supposed to be the crown jewel of Judaism's modern Orthodox movement.