Friday, July 9, 2010

Jewish Isolation and Radicalism

Yaacov Lozowick has published, with profound insight born of observation and experience, a post on the development of left-wing Jewish radicalism. His remarks, and his alone, in this past month, have broken my hiatus from blogging - a time I took to address more urgent issues in my life.

The subject of Jewish progressive radicalism interests me, having been exposed to it, as extensively as I have, in the process of advocating on behalf of Israel, Jewish rights and Jewish lives. I am drawn to understand the seemingly inexplicable nature of individual Jews working against the interests of a community of Jews.

For all the concerns I have about the Jewish community, both locally, nationally, and in the wider world, no matter the health of my personal relationships with fellow Jews, it is intensely outside my capacity to understand how a Jewish individual could bring themselves to negatively impact the lives of Jews they don't know, whose experiences they don't share, in willful disregard of all but their own ideological priorities.

What Yaacov does not address in his piece, and the outcome my interest in Jewish radicalism serves, is figuring out a way to reverse this cycle. It was once said, in the context of modern, secular life, that the pattern of Jews removed from Yiddishkeit (observant Jewish life) becoming isolated and apathetic was irreversible; it wasn't. Despite setbacks, the dynamic growth in Jewish observance and the overall ba'al teshuvah movement in the last half century, has laid to rest the notion that a Jew, any Jew, no matter their background or place in the world. is irretrievably disconnected from their identity.

However, isolation and apathy are relatively passive - they're easier to approach and address because they have no direction or purpose, no drive. The phenomena of Jews actively seeking to remove themselves from the greater Jewish community, and to punish that community by rallying the non-Jewish world against it, is rooted in estrangement and anger. That anger is not based on a particular set of circumstances; it is purpose-driven. The purpose is to punish and pain - to induce suffering, in a general way - not to achieve a particular, real-world outcome.

We know this, because once a desired outcome is achieved, or is close to achievement - as in the case of a Palestinian state - the anger of Jewish radicals is not pacified. Indeed, the anger grows beyond the confines required by the outcome. What once was understandable, even just - Jewish self-determination, even the collective right of Jews to self-defense - becomes unreasonable, intolerable, perverse. The goal posts shift, the desired outcomes change, the anger remains.

The "organized", "official" Jewish community has increasingly dealt with Jewish radicals by bringing them out of self-imposed isolation, by attempting to draw them into becoming stakeholders in the system. It's one thing to criticize from the outside, goes the argument, but once one has to deal with reality and make choices that affect people, one realizes how constrained the range of options becomes. This addresses the estrangement, but not the accompanying anger. It's like inviting an arsonist to live in your home so that he won't burn it down. Such an action doesn't pacify the arsonist's urges; it merely provides a legitimate outlet for their expression. Whereas, at one point, the arsonist was considered a reckless criminal, now he can claim to be responsibly acting in the interests of the home itself - it is an unsafe living environment, he'll say - even as he burns it down. Instead of tempering his destructive urges, the arsonist is now empowered to save the home from itself, through its own destruction. While the problem of isolation is addressed, the drive, the anger is not appeased, it is institutionalized.

If isolation and anger are at root of left-wing Jewish radicalism, then dealing with one, without addressing the other, is courting disaster. The only remedy for anger that I know of, is time. The bellicose American social radicals of the 60s and 70s now live comfortable lives, driving Subaru Foresters and Toyota Prius (-es, plural: Priora), growing urban gardens and listening to NPR, former passions tempered by reality and disillusionment. Perhaps, such would be the case with Jewish radicals, too, were their anger not endorsed and their ambitions resourced by groups and governments which share a vision of perpetual Jewish suffering.

Yet, I believe, with sincere faith and its imperfect expression, that every Jew is a part of me, and I a part of them; that no one gave us permission to write a single Jew off, or to cast a single Jew aside, and that so many of the answers we seek about our identity, we will find in bringing close those Jews who seem so bitterly far away.

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