Pushing aside competition and even hostility, Jewish leaders sat together last weekend for the first time and discussed what they agree is the unclear future of their people.
WASHINGTON - The following disparity tells us more about human nature than about the future of the Jewish world: The executive branch - the heads of the large Jewish organizations, on the whole - are optimistic and believe Judaism has a glowing future, while the intellectuals and thinkers are much more pessimistic and insist on mentioning the pitfalls and obstacles the coming years hold in store. Those who are entrusted with carrying out affairs must be convinced there is a point to what they do - and what is the point if there is no future?
Two groups of Jews gathered together last weekend at Wye Plantation, Maryland for a long discussion on the situation of the Jewish people. The first group, which met Wednesday and Thursday, consisted of the heads of 15 Jewish organizations such as the Presidents' Conference, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the American Jewish Committee and others. In the second group were the "thinkers," as the organizers termed them: Natan Sharansky from Israel, Charles Krauthammer from The Washington Post, former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, former Jewish Agency head Sallai Meridor and many others.
The Institute for Policy Planning of the Jewish People had organized this gathering. It had a somewhat ambitious aim - a strategic debate about the future of the Jewish people. In actuality, it focused on three issues: the challenge posed by Islam, the situation in Israel, and the weighty question of whether the Jewish people are on the rise or on the wane.
Their conclusions, in brief: The future is unclear. And in greater detail: There are many risks, and it is time to roll up our sleeves. The institute and its heads - Dennis Ross, Prof. Yehezkel Dror, Avi Gil, Avinoam Bar-Yosef - are already doing their homework.
One of the papers that was prepared in advance and presented to the participants in the conferences was that written by Dr. Shalom Wald. He chose 14 well-known historians, from Thucydides to Gibbon, Spangler, Toynbee and Kennedy, and examined their theories concerning the circumstances in which civilizations flourish or collapse. Then he tried to examine how these theories can be applied to the context of the Jewish people.
Several of his conclusions provoked disagreement. For example: "Getting all Jews into the same shape and country, even if it is Israel, as recently advocated by an Israeli [writer, A.B. Yehoshua - S.R.] is not the best survival strategy." Some of the Israeli participants did not like that idea. Granting official legitimacy to the Diaspora would be a mistake, Meridor said, according to some of those who participated. That would be the end of Zionism as we know it.
The fear expressed that "a real decline of the West, particularly the United States, would have dramatic consequences for the Jewish people," also led to controversy. Brandeis University president Jehuda Reinharz agreed that this type of decline can be expected "in the coming two decades" - but Stuart Eisenstadt was less emphatic about it. He believes the United States will remain the leading power. In all events, it was agreed the Jews "should strengthen cultural links with non-Western civilizations, particularly China and also India," powers that are on the ascent. This is not a question of preference or closeness; it is a question of survival, of readiness for the future. How should this be done? That will have to be the topic of discussion in the next gatherings already being planned.
Abraham Foxman of the ADL says he came to the conference full of skepticism but left satisfied at its conclusion. That was the feeling of most of those who participated in the first gathering. They agree about one thing: The very gathering itself is the achievement. It is the first time the heads of Jewish organizations have sat down round the same table and sought ways to cooperate, pushing aside the competition, suspicions and sometimes even latent hostility. "If there were barriers in the beginning, they were removed," says Malcolm Hoenlein of the Presidents' Conference. "There is a commitment to continue working together," says Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb of the Orthodox Union. It also was possible to sit at the same table without provoking conflicts. One of the participants said Weinre b, an Orthodox rabbi, had no problem calling the Reform rabbi, David Ellenson, up to the Torah - even though President Moshe Katsav refuses to attach the title of "rabbi" to his name.
However, on the substance of the agreement to "work together" there are various opinions. Some of the participants believe it was agreed that a mechanism would be set up for "joint work in the future" while others told Haaretz that "not too much came out of it." Nevertheless, they managed to define aims and goals. First and foremost - investing in education for the young generation. The philanthropist Michael Steinhardt put great emphasis on this point, as well as on "lowering the price of Jewish life" in America. This means lowering the price of access to synagogues, Jewish schools, cultural centers and other activities.
Last year the institute held similar strategic conferences, but with slightly different participants. Then, too, in general, agreement was reached on more than a few topics. For example, that it was necessary to draw those on the fringes of Jewish civilization inward. This year, at the opening of the meeting, Bar-Yosef, the institute's director, presented a general report on the situation of the Jewish people. One sentence from that survey can sum up the results of that agreement better than any other - "The Jewish people: worldwide zero growth."
The better-known historians mentioned in Wald's review, particularly the earlier ones, also agreed for the most part that "the Jews will survive as a people and civilization." But there was nevertheless one who dissented - Oswald Spangler. What kept the Jews together as a people, he stated, was "magic consensus" but, he added, this is vanishing with the years. The Jews of the Western world have assimilated into general Western culture and will disappear with it. The Jews will disappear from a historical perspective; that is inevitable, he said.
There were several interesting arguments. One was over whether the Jews of America have to worry about the social welfare of the Jews of Israel. The Americans said yes - "All Jews are responsible for one another." The Israelis said no way; leave the social problems in Israel for us to deal with. Yisrael Maimon, the government representative, proposed a partnership with the Americans in technology, education, "brain investments." But the improvement of the lot of the poor, he said, must be left to the Israeli government.
Prof. Dror also stressed the importance of investing in improving the situation of education in Israel. One of the central aims he presented was "to develop Israel into a learning-knowledge society." Those present discussed the level of the universities in Israel and some of them even proposed the level of at least one of these institutions be raised sufficiently to attract students from abroad in higher numbers.
Reinharz of Brandeis is among those who are concerned about the situation of Jewish education. The main conclusion from the conference, he told Haaretz, was that Jewish education "is the most important element both in Israel and in the Diaspora." But an important corollary of this is that "it would be worthwhile thinking about education that is carried out in coordination." He terms this a "core curriculum" - that is, a study program whose basic content would be taught to every Jew no matter where he or she is.
That is a real challenge, but its difficulty can be clearly seen: Who will decide on the program, who will provide the contents, how will they be agreed upon? Israel has many urgent problems, Reinharz says, and it is hard to see how it will find time to seriously deal with the future of the Jewish people. Other participants were of the opinion that the proposal would lead to quarrels and disputes.
Reinharz: "Let us say we have decided there are certain chapters of the Bible that every Jew must know - how exactly will we decide which chapters these should be? Every decision of this sort takes into account values, and there will be tremendous differences of opinion between the preferences presented by the Israelis and those the Jews of the Diaspora would like, as well as divergences of opinion between the different streams of Judaism. The Reform Jews will want to stress universal and humane prophesies while the Orthodox will want to focus on particular prophesies."
The Jewish schools in America are currently undergoing renewed popularity. An almost 30 percent growth in the number of those registering - but those, as Bar-Yosef pointed out, are "mostly those who are already affiliated." The schools have to become a center of attraction for others as well.
And in all events, the question must be asked - what do these schools teach? Reinharz is concerned that the Jews of the Diaspora do not know enough about Israel. In the Jewish schools today, they concentrate on studying the prayer book and stories from the Bible, with less emphasis on history. He feels pupils both in Israel and the Diaspora should study the history of Zionism and the State of Israel more thoroughly.