Peter Beinart: One of a dozen works we were assigned for this discussion was Leon Wieseltier’s “Against Identity.” Of course I’m not really sure that anyone here is actually or entirely against identity. I’m not even sure I understand all of what Leon suggests in that essay, and I suspect he’ll agree with a lot of what I’m going to say, and in fact note that some of what I say was very influenced by him. But Bob Boyers invited me here to talk a bit about Jewish identity in a somewhat personal vein, and inevitably I’m also addressing some of the larger questions involved in American Jewish identity.
I’ll begin by observing that my wife and I are friends with people who are surprised by the fact that we send our children to a Jewish school. They start the day with prayer, do half the day in Hebrew, and have to go to synagogue every week and on the holidays. I spend a fair amount of time with both my kids reading the Hebrew bible, and we’ve gone through it now twice with my seven-year old, through the weekly cycles, the weekly Torah readings, and he wants now to move on to the Prophetic sections. The good news is that he really likes it. The bad news is that I realize the reason he likes it is because it’s so bloodthirsty. And in fact that’s why he’s even happier now than before, now that we’re reading books like Joshua and Judges. As it just gets more and more bloodthirsty, he gets happier and happier. In fact, you have to realize that it’s very easy to appeal to a five, six, seven-year-old boy with this stuff. He came home to me one day crestfallen because he said someone at his school had said that when the Messiah comes there will be no more wars and he was devastated by this prospect.
Now I know that the decision to bring up kids this way has costs, and I won’t suggest that I don’t have a fair amount of ambivalence about it. The costs are made clear to me all the time, and sometimes in the strangest ways. For instance, when my son was four or five, he said to me, “does my friend Ian go to schul? To synagogue?” And I said, “Um, no, I think he’s a Christian, I don’t think he’s Jewish.” So my son said, “Well, does he go to church?” And I said, “No, I don’t think he goes to church.” Then there was a pause and he said, “Are there not enough chairs?” Which did strike me as suggesting a rather limited idea of what was possible. And a little bit later we tried to kind of break my kids out of this ghettoized Jewish environment by sending them to learn violin, because we were sure that all the others kids would be Asian, and they were, and far better than my kids at violin. We thought this would really be a broadening experience. And really we loved the families, they were wonderful, and so we decided we would have them over for a Shabbat meal, for Friday night dinner. I said to my daughter, “They may not have had this experience, so there may be some things that you should walk them through.” She said, “Why?” and I said, “Well because they probably haven’t had a Shabbat meal before.” She said, “But they’re Jewish.” And I said, “No, there’s a Chinese kid, a Korean kid and a Japanese kid and none of them are Jewish.” Then I realized that the broadening experience had actually not penetrated her quite as much as I had imagined it would. So, there are the downsides.
But to get to the question of identity let me give you four defenses of our decision as they relate to identity in this particular case. The first thing is that unless they get a strong foundation in Jewish text and Jewish practice and Jewish beliefs, my kids won’t be able to make a choice, so that actually I don’t see it as a decision against choice, but ultimately as a way of giving them the tools to make a meaningful choice. This is the tradition that they inherited from their parents, and if they’re going to decide that they are not interested in it, then they should at least know what it is they are discarding. They can’t know what they are discarding unless we facilitate it being taught to them. So, the way I defend it to myself is that we’re giving them the tools for an informed choice about whether they want to live Jewish lives or not. I can’t inform them about everything, I probably couldn’t teach them Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, all of the different forms of secularism, but I can teach them one thing so that they can make an informed yes or no decision about that. Then they can decide if they want to educate themselves about lots of other things and make informed yes/no decisions about those things.
So that’s one defense. The second is, I actually think, or like to think, that this will facilitate and help their engagement as Americans. I mean, one of the biggest sources of disconnection that really worries me has to do with the gap between most American Jews and American society. Most American Jews don’t actually know anything about religion. They don’t actually know very much about the bible, and that makes it hard for them to understand America. This is not true only of Jews, but Jews are a very large and disproportionate part of the blue state American culture. I remember, when George W. Bush was President, he would always give speeches, and people would say he’s speaking in code, there are secret messages that he’s transmitting to the rest of the country that we don’t know about. This is the Hebrew bible that he’s making references to, much of the time, sometimes the Christian bible, and the fact is that Jews, although pretty well educated in general, are so uneducated when it comes to their own sacred text, that it’s really hard for them to interact with red state America.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that my family or my kids are any sort of paragon. In lots and lots of ways they are not. And yet I was really struck, just driving through Pennsylvania once with my son, how often he pointed out that the names of the towns he was passing were names that he recognized from the bible. And that seemed to be the beginning of a good engagement with rural Pennsylvania. He had some sense of identification as we went through Hebron, Pennsylvania, for instance, that I think he wouldn’t have had otherwise. I hope that’s the beginning or harbinger of a more fruitful interchange.
The third defense is that I feel like it could be the basis for a meaningful kind of multiculturalism. It’s not meaningful if all it amounts to is kids from different traditions going to college and sitting in rooms together and basically saying, “Oh, so you’re Jewish, what does that mean?” and “So, you’re Christian, what does that mean?” This isn’t meaningful interaction. But you can have another kind of conversation about Islam or Christianity if you have your own tradition as a basis for comparison. Again, I can’t claim this inevitably happens at the most profound of levels, but it’s something at least. I did go to Chichen Itza with my kids and we talked about the pyramids, and the tour guide said that most of the people who constructed them were slaves. And so my daughter said, “If only they’d had plagues, they could be liberated from this slavery.” I don’t mean to suggest that this is an especially profound comparative idea, but you saw there some way of drawing upon your own tradition to make sense of some other group’s history of slavery.
The fourth defense, and the last point I’ll make, is that a stronger foundation in Jewish education can potentially allow my kids to see Israel as it really is and not use it as an identity crutch. This is something I’ve been writing about recently. If you look at the organized American Jewish community in the post-war decades, of the 1950’s and 60’s, there was very little focus on Israel. The dominant focus, and Orlando made reference to this earlier, of American organized Jewish life in the 1950’s and 60’s was civil rights. And there was in this a kind of enlightened self-interest. Jews figured, look, we are a highly recognizable minority, and African Americans are the key brutalized minority. If they succeed then we will kind of ride on their coattails and be fully accepted. If they fail, then bad people out there will come for us next, so we should really support the black people. The level of involvement was quite remarkable. At one point, the American Jewish Congress had more lawyers working on civil rights than either the NAACP or the Department of Justice. There was a long tradition of the leaders of the American Jewish organizations having seats on the board of the NAACP legal defense fund. Jews were very involved in it, and again, it was enlightened self-interest, and they believed it would hasten the integrationist project. By the 1970’s the organized American Jewish community was a little bit like the dog that’s caught up to the car, which is to say that integration had succeeded too well. With the civil rights movement it had succeeded in the most basic legal terms. Jews were very dramatically riding on those civil rights coattails so that almost all the social barriers to Jews were rapidly disappearing.
Of course this could play out in unexpected ways, as on the marriage or intermarriage front. Even in the early 1970’s there was a sitcom, I think on ABC, about a Jewish cab driver and a catholic teacher, and the Jewish organizations lobbied to get it taken off the air. Why? By the 1970’s there was a growing, terrible panic about inter-marriage, which in some ways made no sense. After all, these were the groups that had just been pushing for full integration into society, which would naturally lead to exactly the thing that then freaked them out and terrified them. And so in the 1970’s, which is really the decade in which the organized Jewish American establishment of today was created, you see this really interesting turn. The turn is away from the integrationist push. It’s not that lots of American Jews were not still involved in all kinds of movements for social justice; they still remained very disproportionately involved. But they were not involved through the Jewish organizations anymore. The Jewish organizations kind of re-cast themselves basically as Israel defense organizations. Groups like the AIPAC, which is now the most powerful American Jewish organization, were so marginal in the early 1970’s because they were focused only on Israel, when most American Jewish organizations weren’t focused on Israel at all. The more important organizations like the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League : For them Israel was very marginal, they didn’t even have offices in Israel until the late 1960’s, largely in response to what they called the new anti-Semitism, which is the turn by the global left and the American left against Israel, culminating in the Zionism equals racism resolution in 1975, but also including the African and Communist countries against Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur war. The American Jewish organizations recast themselves as Israel defense organizations.
It’s not that there is nothing to that at all. The global turn on the left was real, and it did bother lots of American Jewish liberals. But to really understand what was happening you have to understand that a part of all of this is that Israel became involved in the struggle against inter-marriage, and in revisiting the holocaust. There’s a debate about this amongst historians, but there is a strong argument that the holocaust was not nearly as important to American Jewish life in the 50’s and 60’s as it became in the 1970’s when debate about Israel also became more prominent. So for instance when AIPAC was fighting, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, against the AWAC sale of planes to Saudi Arabia, they sent a copy of the mini-series Holocaust to all members of the congress. Israel and the holocaust were linked. And what was the message to young American Jews? You may think the others now love you, but they don’t really, because the same old anti-Semitic tendencies and hatreds, which you need to remember from the holocaust, are now being focused on Israel. So this portrayed Israel as the kind of contemporary Warsaw ghetto, now threatened with extermination from an incorrigibly anti-Semitic world. This became central to efforts by the organized American Jewish community to convince young American Jews to remain Jewish.
To me this is terribly ironic, because really what happens to Israel in the 1970’s is that it takes over the West Bank and Gaza Strip and starts to deal with the dilemmas not of weakness but of power in a much more profound way than it needed to. All of a sudden they’re controlling millions of people who don’t have citizenship and basic rights, and so the question of how to think about the Jewish tradition’s relationship to power becomes really central more than ever before. But instead you have this very powerful shift towards focusing on victimhood as a way of maintaining identity. And I think for American Jews, it’s particularly a compelling vision because the idea is that American Jews can use their influence in the United States to save Israel from the prospect of another holocaust. And I think you can’t understand the power of this trope without understanding the tremendous amount of guilt that existed in the American Jewish community for the fact that American Jews didn’t do more during the holocaust. Remember, this generation of American Jews tended to be people whose parents, during the 1940’s and 1950’s, were fairly marginal in society and fatalistic and timid, though by the 70’s they had achieved a much greater sense of self-confidence and could redeem their parents’ inaction by protecting Israel against the potential of a second holocaust. It’s a little bit like the reenactment of the Purim story, the story of the book of Esther, where you become like Esther whispering in the ear of the king and saving your people. For instance, one of the stories that was often told at AIPAC that I think really caught people emotionally is the story of an American Jewish soldier who’s part of some unit that liberates a concentration camp. He comes up to one of the survivors, I don’t know if this story is true, but I’ve heard it told a bunch of times. The story is that this American Jewish soldier comes up to the concentration camp survivor and says, “I’m a Jew and you’re free.” And the survivor spits in his face and says, “You’re too late.” The emotional resonance of that moment very much helps to impel the idea that we have to mobilize to protect Israel against a holocaust.
What does any of this have to do with the question of Jewish schools and Jewish education? The strategy adopted was to use Israel to buttress American Jewish Identity, locking Israel into a permanent victim role in which you are called upon to protect it, in that way also fighting against the assimilationist challenges in the United States. To me, the choice not made by the American Jewish community in the 1970’s was the choice of Jewish education. The American Jewish school system is extremely weak compared to other diaspora communities. Believe me, I know from first hand experience that the schools are very expensive and in academic terms often fairly mediocre, certainly in teaching secular subjects. This is much less true if you go to Australia or Canada or England or South Africa, for instance. So the Jewish education choice was a choice not made. This has been bad in several ways, the focus on Israel and the holocaust a tremendous failure. It turns out that Israel and the holocaust are just vicarious identities that are not strong enough—if you are an American Jew today—to give you a reason not to marry the lovely Christian boy or girl next door, who has the same values you have. For me, I see the value of a rich Jewish education as actually in some ways liberating you to not need Israel as the centerpiece of your Jewish Identity and allowing you to engage with Israel as it is, feeling a connection to Israel because it’s a Jewish state, it’s on biblical land, and it’s got lots of Jews there. You feel a connection to it, but your Jewish identity is strong enough as your lived experiences and as an expression of your own learning, so that you don’t need to try to use it in the other very shallow or inauthentic ways.
Carolyn Forché : Does the school not encourage support of Israel? Can a Jewish school be more or less neutral on the subject of Israel?
Peter Beinart: No. Not neutral. But they can, some of the time, get the kids to think by giving them the history and the facts, which are anyway highly charged and problematic. Even the maps are contested, after all. In my daughter’s Kindergarten class I can find there are maps with no green line, in which the entire area of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza included, is all depicted as Israel. This can be very chastening when we remember how moralistic we are about what the Palestinians are teaching the kids in their schools. I remember I had a conversation with my son, last year in first grade, and he said, “We just learned about the Egyptian leader Sadat and the Israeli leader Menachem Begin.” I thought well that’s great, they are learning about peace and Camp David and coming to terms with enemies, and he said, “When Begin went to Egypt, that was…” and I said, “They taught you that he went to Egypt instead of Sadat coming to Israel?” I don’t think they had actually told him that, but somehow they told it in such a way that had so much valorized Begin that actually my son had gotten the impression that it was Begin who had been the one to get on the plane. So no, or yes, there’s a lot of problematic stuff here. In fact when we went to Israel the first time I asked my son where he wanted to go and he said, “Well I want to go to Mt. Sinai.” I said, “Well we can’t do that because that’s in the Sinai region which they gave to Egypt.” And there was a pause and he said, “They gave it to Pharaoh?” So I think there’s a significant amount of counter-programming one needs to do on the Jewish education front.
Still, if you look at the younger people who are involved in groups like J Street, the ones who are really pushing to try to be critical of Israeli policy, they are very disproportionately graduates of Jewish schools. Sure, the right wing kids are also disproportionately from Jewish schools, but the difference is that the J Street kids came out of that environment and then interacted with the Palestinians and felt their heads explode, and soon felt they had to reconstruct things for themselves and to struggle against what was wrong. Whereas very often what you see with the Jewish kids who didn’t have any of that Jewish education, is that you can’t get them engaged. If you tell them that there are problems with what Israel is doing, they’ll say, “Fine, I agree there are problems with what Israel is doing, why should I care? There are much bigger problems going on, in the Congo for instance.” They are so universalistic that you can’t actually engage them very successfully on the questions they might otherwise want to take on.
Orlando Patterson: Thanks for that really very wonderful analysis. I wonder whether one factor wasn’t left out in explaining the shift in the source of Jewish identity. And that’s secularization. If you have a temple, a strong religious faith and so on, your identity is rooted in that. But the Jewish population is one of the most secular in the nation, and that’s a fairly recent development, isn’t it?
Peter Beinart: It’s true that American Jews are wildly secular. In fact, American Jews are half as likely to say they believe in God as American Christians and one-third as likely to go to religious services every week. In fact, it’s often noted that Jews are disproportionately liberal, as in the famous Milton Himmelfarb line that “Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.” The dirty little secret is that Jewish Political behavior is basically identical to atheist political behavior. What matters politically is not their Jewishness; it’s their secularism. In fact, if you look at religious Jews, Orthodox Jews, they vote now at seventy-five per-cent for the Republican Party. It’s basically the same divide between religious and secular that you see in the Christian world. The difference is that seventy-five per-cent of Jews are basically secular. But I think that the secularism began earlier than we might suppose. I think the secularism was very strong already by the 50’s and 60’s. I mean yes, people might belong to synagogues, but they were already basically secular in their outlook. I think the big shift has been the collapse of what I would call the identity of the secular tribalist. If you look at the people who have basically been the mainstay of groups of American Jewish organizations going back to the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, they are basically secular tribalist. They’re not people who are particularly religious, but they are people whose religion is Jewish peoplehood and who held a belief in the need for the protection of the Jewish people.
For my recent book I interviewed Tom Dine, the guy who made AIPAC and ran it from ‘81 to '93, which is really when it became a powerhouse. Tom Dine is a very, very secular guy. He’s inter-married, doesn’t have a Jewish wife, and I said to him, why did you devote your life to this and he said, “Well, let me tell you a story.” He said, “I was growing up in Cincinnati, I was in high school and one day, maybe it was the late '40s, I walked by the Catholic family across the street and they invited me in to play, when I went in they tied me up and beat me and yelled Christ-killer until an adult came.” When I heard that I guess I first wondered how common that sort of thing was in Dine’s generation.
Robert Boyers: Not common at all, I think. Not for my generation of New York Jews, and very far from any American Jewish experience I ever heard one of my friends talk about. But okay. Believable, I suppose.
Peter Beinart: And if you told a young American Jewish kid that today it would be like describing the Kishinev Pogrom. It would be so completely outside their orbit, much further than out of yours, I think. And the story does totally help to explain why Dine would be such a strong secular tribalist, right? Because his personal experience in Cincinnati was a kind of echo of the terrifying anti-Semitism he could see around the world. Of course, that’s changing. The secular tribalists are dying off and their children are just secular and not tribal. The dominant group, I think, in the more organized American Jewish community is going to be Orthodox kids, who are multiplying, and now have more self-confidence and money. So if you go to any AIPAC meeting today, or to smaller groups like the Zionist Organization of America, and you look at the people under the age of forty, you see that a majority of them are Orthodox.
James Miller: I want to ask you a quick question and then I want to make a comment. What kind of temple do you go to?
Peter Beinart: We go to a synagogue that considers itself Orthodox though there is a debate amongst Orthodox Jews about whether it deserves to be called Orthodox. It identifies itself with a movement called Open Orthodoxy in which there’s more of a space for women than in a traditional Orthodox synagogue.
James Miller: I married a reform Jewish woman and I’m not Jewish. So I was the intermarriage nightmare for the kind of identity politics you’ve been describing. And reform Judaism, it seems to me, had a big problem with it. My children all had to have—well, my wife insisted they have—a Jewish education, but it was a preposterous education of the sort that you’re describing. It was not a frank wrestling with the bible or with religion or literature or much of anything. What you’re describing about the holocaust and Israel, it’s amazing how much of the curriculum was taken up with that rather than attending to the bible. Their attitude was hypocritical in an interesting way, in that the temple we ended up joining would allow mixed couples to join but wouldn’t conduct a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, which is actually a fairly typical reform temple arrangement. I just want to present an anecdote and I don’t know what you want to make of this. My middle son Michael has a de-facto fiancée, who was born about a hundred miles south of Shanghai, named Shen Ying. And one day we were driving, about a year ago, and I think the question came up about when they were planning to get married. They had been living together for about six years, and I said, “Well, you know if you…” and they said, “oh yes, we’re going to get married.” And Shen Ying knew I wanted to have grand-children, so I said, “Have you thought about how you’ll raise your children?” Because in a way the question of religious education cuts to the quick of identity decisions for many, many families. Of my three children Michael is the only one who has preserved anything of a Jewish identity, and he immediately opined that of course he would want their children to be raised Jewish and that he would want to give them an authentic choice. He didn’t use exactly your language but came close to it. He then added something you didn’t say, which is that you need to have some kind of religious training or you won’t have a moral sensibility. Then we stopped—I was driving—and I said, “Did you ever wonder what my position was in all of these debates in the family?” He admitted that he had not and he said, “Well I thought it didn’t matter because you know, you don’t believe in God.” And I said, “Well did you consider that you also might be marrying someone who also doesn’t believe in God because she’s been raised in China and her parents are atheists?” And it had never ever occurred to him, at which point Shen Ying just laid into him and said, “Are you saying that I’m not moral because I had no religious background,” and so on. And I don’t know where that story is ending but in terms of the kind of culture that Orlando takes great pleasure in documenting, of intermarriage among Americans, what do you do in that situation? The stakes for Shen Ying were pretty serious. I mean, I’m a recovering Lutheran, not really an atheist. But she’s really an atheist. How do you compromise? It seems like for people like my son and his girlfriend these are incommensurable positions. And of course it is the case that some of the time identity problems really stem from just such incommensurable positions.
Carolyn Forché: This very rich exchange has opened up a hundred questions I’d like to ask, but the primary one has again to do with religious education and its relation not only to tribalism but also to fundamentalism. What about parochial education, madrasas, true believers and so on** :** Do you imagine that a multi-cultural society would be possible if more people sent their children to religious schools of different faiths?
Peter Beinart: I’m not sure. I think I’m comfortable saying that our multi-cultural society would be better if more people were better educated in their own religious tradition. But the choice of schools comes with a lot of costs, doesn’t it? For example, there’s the cost for kids who attend religious schools, especially those with a fundamentalist orientation, of not meeting people outside their own religious tradition until later on, or not meeting them very much, or at all. Obviously one of the big problems of sending your kids to an all-Jewish environment is that it’s usually also almost always an entirely white environment. So even if you’re not thinking about it in those terms, that’s a natural consequences of it, which is very problematic. I’m not necessarily sure I want to go out on a limb and say everyone should do what I do. But I do think to the degree that people feel themselves as having some kind of tradition that they come from, their conversations with others can be much more meaningful, especially if they can actually compare impressions about what their religious traditions say about the important questions that they struggle with, or talk about common texts. Those things can be tremendous sources of connection and empathy.
Akeel Bilgrami: Thanks for those honorable opening remarks. Two quick, very frivolous points. You know the story, or jokes, about the Upper West Side Jew who sends his child to the Cathedral School? So she goes to this Cathedral School and she keeps coming back each evening saying, “You know there’s this constant talk of three in one. I can’t figure it out, how many Gods are there?” So this goes on for a week. She says, “Were there three or is it one?” Then the father says, “Listen, we’re Jews and there’s one God and we don’t believe in him.”
Peter Beinart: I should note that Akeel also sends his kids to a Jewish school; it’s called Horace Mann.
Akeel Bilgrami: The other point is, I can’t remember whether it’s the American Heritage or the Webster’s dictionary, but the first entry for Bethlehem is “steel town in Pennsylvania.” Now that’s secularism! Two very quick questions. One is, you know you were trying to diagnose some of the shifts in the sort of complexion of Jewish Identity when they were side-by-side fighting with African Americans and so on. But then with what happened in the '70s** : **how much do you think that has to do with suburban flight? That really happened just about at that time when the shift took place. The other is—this has to do with Carolyn’s question, it’s a more general question about Muslims or Jews : from my experience at Columbia, I note that there is a constant tendency to regard a few very aggressive Zionists groups within the Jewish student body as speaking for the Jewish kids on campus. I mean it’s extraordinary how this happens, so I just wonder how and why the loudest voices get counted as representative just because they are loud? Right? Just because they show up, and keep at it. This isn’t any kind of new insight, but I’m curious about the fact that we still don’t know how to deal with this fact. In Islam, of course, this sort of thing is rampant and colors our understanding of Islamic identity. I suppose there can be no remedy for this except by democratizing the community. Democracy means that you calibrate representation with numbers; that’s some minimum idea of democracy. But we have no idea how to democratize communities. We have ideas about representation at the federal level, at the state level, at the city level, the municipal level, but what is it to democratize a community? Communities are scattered all over and people have little hope of stopping certain persons or factions from speaking in their name.
Patrick Keane: You know, there’s that wonderful remark about Santayana, who spent his last years in a nunnery—I can’t recall who summed up his position by saying, “George believes there is no God and Mary is his mother.” Nice. But I’m less amused by other things we’re considering here. I applauded quietly when Peter was talking about giving his children a religious education which will allow them to make an informed choice. And then Carolyn asked if he would extrapolate out to all religious schooling, and I felt myself shrinking, especially when she mentioned madrasas. Not that I don’t have comparable dreads and misgivings when it comes to other non-Islamic fundamentalisms. Sorry, but the spectacle of young people rocking back and forth in a madrasa is not one that makes me feel warm or optimistic about the deeply informed choices the devout are likely to make. On the other hand, I agree that in our culture religious and biblical illiteracy can be really frightening. Once, when I was teaching Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a young woman, a Catholic student came to me, thinking that I would be happy to hear her news, announced that after having been a Catholic for eighteen years she had just given it up as a result of having gotten to page 220 of The Portrait. Why, I wondered, did she assume that I would be happy about this? I figured I must have given some signal as a fallen Catholic myself, gestured in some ways that encouraged her, in spite of the fact that she hadn’t struggled and suffered with the decision the way Joyce had. So I felt there was something shallow in this young woman’s way of thinking about this decision of hers, and when we spoke further about it I saw that, like virtually all of the students I taught for many years, she had little familiarity with texts or with the religious tradition, in spite of what had been her nominal adherence to Catholicism.
Robert Boyers: There’s the problem of religious illiteracy, of course, and it’s pretty easy for us to say that’s a bad thing. But then there are these other problems which are less easy to talk about, including the fact—as Pat noted—that a large proportion of kids who are educated in madrasas or Yeshivas and other religious schools won’t be enthusiastic about engaging in meaningful conversation with kids from different religious backgrounds. And a lot of those educated in these schools will not only be studying sacred texts and the tradition but mastering a litany of grievances.
Orlando Patterson: I’m afraid I have to agree with Bob on that, and yet I want to cite one thing that’s a little more optimistic. As I was listening to Peter, I was thinking again of how identities influence each other. When I lived in Britain in the '60s and I had a deep interest in Jewish history and culture, I remember frequently trying to engage with my British Jewish fellow students who were even more secular than groups here in this country today. And I remember that I was especially mystified by the lack of real interest in the holocaust. And of course, once that situation changed, what also developed was a growing interest in the question of evil, how people could hope to understand it and deal with it, and how people who had been victims of an evil system could embrace the reality of their subjection as a central element of their identity without losing their self-respect. Leading Jewish thinkers took on this question in ways that were important to me and have been important to some black intellectuals in the United States. It’s not surprising that minority groups that have suffered from oppression should be concerned about the relationship between victimization and identity.
In some ways I’d say that the struggle along these lines, engaged in by a variety of thinkers reflecting on the holocaust, was perhaps the last great gift of Jews to black Americans. It’s not insignificant that we’re only just now building a memorial to slavery in America, long after there was a holocaust memorial. When Disney went to Virginia and tried to have a slave village constructed people there were absolutely horrified. But after the Jewish confrontation with the problem of evil, and efforts to consider how you can make the narrative of suffering and victimization part of your identity without succumbing to rage and self-loathing, black Americans began to feel that a comparable effort might be made with their own history.
Bina Gogineni: I’m not persuaded that the emphasis here gives us reason for optimism. Though I’ve been very much intrigued by the reasons Peter laid out for his children’s Jewish education, I can’t help wondering whether things are likely to work out in the way Peter described. Sure, education gives kids a basis for comparative conversation. On the other hand, the two kids that you were joking about, Peter, the hypothetical children who have no idea what it is to be Jewish and no idea what it is to be Christian, could conceivably enter into another kind of meaningful conversation that has some bearing on identity. Why privilege religion as the source, the primary source of identity? And also, why do the kids need the religious context to achieve religious literacy? Is that the best way to achieve that in our multicultural society? When interreligious interaction is often so fraught, might we think about leaving it to secular institutions to teach and promote religious literacy for our children?
Ruth Franklin: What I have to say is a little bit along similar lines. I too wonder what really is the best way to promote multicultural education and what exactly this can mean. And like Pat Keane and Bina, I’m wondering about the religious education model as a promising way to achieve the desired ends. My impression is that many things offered in most religious schools don’t quite correspond with the liberal ideal. I’m sure that there are madrasas that are progressive, and of course we also know that there are some that are not. So too with Orthodox schooling offered by other religious groups. So that my question to Peter is how do you reconcile the Jewish literacy that’s provided at school with the amount of liberal re-education that you then have to do at home?
Peter Beinart: I think you just kind of answered the question yourself, Ruth. If religious identity is a part of what you want for kids, then you have to be committed to liberal re-education at home. In some ways you choose your poison. I would rather my kids have this foundational knowledge and foundational commitment, although I’m not claiming that choice isn’t problematic. Sure, you want parents to help kids to question what they’re getting at a religious school, and if they don’t, well, then you have…what?
Robert Boyers: Then you have fanaticism and blindness, and intolerance. The last thing you then have is conversation and meaningful interaction.
Bina Gogineni: And that’s why I still wonder if religious education in an Orthodox setting is usually beneficial.
Peter Beinart: Even a generation ago things were very different. Certainly this was the case for American Jews. Joseph Lieberman, for example, grew up in an orthodox family but went to public school. This was once fairly common in the United States where, especially amongst the older generation of Jews, you can find very knowledgeable people who went entirely through a public school system. That’s much less common today, partly because the Orthodox all moved into the Jewish school system and partly because that earlier generation had parents who could teach them about religion at home. And those kids weren’t as involved with going to soccer, gymnastics, ice-skating, I don’t know. For whatever reasons it was more possible in some ways to provide religious literacy without religious schooling. And if you did the job entirely at home then you could entirely craft the way you wanted your kids to respond to it. Although you still have to deal with the texts. At first with my son, I just censored stuff. Then, as he got older, I would read it to him and say, “For what it’s worth, I think this is horrible. And it’s terrible, that’s just your father’s opinion here,” just to create a little bit of cognitive dissonance.
I suppose everyone confronts this to some degree. As to the question, why privilege this identity, well, I think it’s a really good question. To me religious identity has value because it links my children to a chain going back a very, very long time. And that feels precious to me. I feel that there’s a tremendous culture of learning the kids can tap into. Others here have underlined some of the problems, though I don’t always see problems where some of my colleagues at the table do. I bristled a little bit when I heard the phrase “rocking back and forth in the madrasa,” because rocking back and forth in a madrasa doesn’t seem to me to have any negative connotation at all. Kids rock back and forth in yeshivas too. They might be learning terrible things, they might be going out and burning the olive groves of Palestinians, or the madrasa kids might be going and doing other terrible things, but still, rocking back and forth in a madrasa or a yeshiva has to me no moral or problematic dimension in itself.
Patrick Keane: Sorry if that sounded harsh, and yet I would still stick by it, because you were talking about educating and providing a foundation and a basis for choice. A lot of time the children are rocking back and forth not knowing even what they are reading, they are simply committing words to memory. Some religious schools, as you surely know, Peter, are mainly schools of indoctrination, and do not have any potential for opening up a multicultural education. What proportion of religious schools are in the business of seriously educating children to think for themselves I can’t say, of course, but we do have considerable evidence to suggest that there are often problems.
David Steiner: I hope it won’t seem reductive when I say that in some respects we’re debating the old conflict between Athens and Jerusalem. The Athenian tradition we take to be cosmopolitan, or liberal, as Amy Gutmann would say, offering the promise of critical self-consciousness, the ability to stand nowhere in particular but to do so with enormous intelligence. The Jerusalem education, on the other hand, offers an immensely rich tradition, also, at its best, with intelligence and the choice- making that parents want, in the framework of modern liberal Judaism. My own education was utterly secular, but also tribal. I had anti-Semitic experiences of the most trivial kind when I stood at the Oxford Union; there I had two hundred and eighty ballots with anti-Semitic remarks put on them. On the other hand, when I got into Oxford, my father took his Oxford scarf, wrapped it around me and said, “Another defeat for Hitler.” That was my kind of Judaism.
But I do think that what binds us together here is much more important than our differences. We sense, I think, that the necessity to choose between Athens and Jerusalem may be a false choice. What we have allegiance to is the quality, the thickness of a genuine education, be it Athenian or from Jerusalem. That is, what makes your children’s education possible is the dialectical relation between the school, the rich tradition and what you as parents provide. I mean, none of us would want our children in settings where they are being indoctrinated. We hope that what they’re receiving there will be the tools both for identity-building and also for critical discourse. Is this what we find in the education most kids are getting? My sense, as I’ve said, is that public American democratic education is water-thin, and that much of religious education is ossified and that straight indoctrination really is often a primary goal.
When I was commissioner a few years ago, I had to adjudicate a case involving a community of Orthodox Jews in East Ramapo, New York where the Ultra-Orthodox mobilized to have kids there classified as special education students, then claimed that there were no adequate resources to teach them properly, so that they could then pull them out of public schools and put them in the Yeshivas of their friends, the Ultra-Orthodox. And the sadness there was that the kids were deliberately deprived of a great deal. The parents wanted schooling that was essentially indoctrination. The case I’m describing is, or was, in some respects quite complicated, and included an FBI investigation, but the reality is that often religious education, like so much secular public education, is far from what we want it to be.
Orlando Patterson: Just a very brief word to say that a number of Catholic schools have been unusually successful in educating black inner-city kids. It’s a story that’s not sufficiently well known, and it’s not quite clear what they do to achieve this success.
Tom Healy: My partner, who is Jewish, has an answer for that. He said there was a Jewish couple who sent their kid to a Jewish school, but within a few weeks he was thrown out of the school because he was lazy and just wasn’t doing the work, and also there were behavioral problems. So they sent him to private school…same problem, then sent him to public school…even worse. Finally they sent him to Catholic school, and after a few months, terrific** :** the kid’s getting good grades, the teacher is sending home notes and everything is great. So the father says to the son, “Why are you doing so well here?” The son says, “Dad, have you ever been in a Catholic school?” The father says, “No, I haven’t been.” “Every classroom has a Jewish man nailed to a cross.”
But seriously, Peter, in your eloquent defense of religious education you didn’t mention the issue of creating an identity that would give kids the strength to withstand prejudice. And I’m curious if that isn’t an issue for you. I have spent a lot of time in Muslim countries in the last three years, and I am struck still by the easy, not always mild or casual anti-Semitism among intellectuals and people on the street. And when I have Jewish friends and family with me it’s especially disturbing to me. So I’m just wondering if, as I say, the ability to deal with this sort of thing can be a goal in what is a still very often a hostile world?
Peter Beinart: Your story about the Jewish boy in the Catholic school reminds me of something that happened to me. When we lived in Washington, we had a catholic neighbor who knocked on our door one day and said, in very urgent tones, “My husband is very sick, he’s in the hospital at Georgetown. I think he’s going to die and though he never talks about it, he’s a Jew, and do you know a rabbi?” Obviously they knew we were Jewish, and so of course I tried to think of a rabbi who would bother and thought of the Chabad, the Lubavitch rabbi, because they’ll do this kind of thing. So I said, “Well actually we do know somebody, he’s the Chabad rabbi.” And she said, “No, that one’s too Jewish.” And I thought, “Listen lady, your husband’s on his deathbed and now you’re saying he’s too Jewish, I mean give me a break.” This isn’t about anti-Semitism and giving people strength to deal with it, but anyways, I think today anti-Semitism exists in America only among people who don’t have any power. Poorly educated people, mainly. So kids are not likely to encounter it very much. I think it’s harder to give kids the strength to resist the kind of consumerist, materialistic kind of society we have. In a way a great virtue of Shabbat is that it’s a day when observant people—even if they’re not very religious—can have a disconnected time that can be tremendously precious. This can be created in lots of environments, but if you have a pre-existing way of doing it in some ways it makes it easier.
Funny, we went and spent a Shabbat weekend in Utah, Salt Lake City. I’ve never met a happier group of Jews in my entire life, the religious Jews of Salt Lake City, Utah. Because the people around them were so religious that any time out they claimed on religious grounds was not only fine, but also people applauded it. It can be that way in certain places where in effect your identity and the practices associated with it are readily accepted. The worst was when we lived in Washington, where the constant line you heard on Capitol Hill was that if you worked for a right-wing Evangelical Republican member of congress you were set. If you worked for a liberal, secular Jewish Democratic member of congress, it was hell to try and get off any time. Someone who worked for the Anti-Defamation League—remember, this is the group that counters anti-Jewish prejudice—once told me it gets dark very early in the winter, so if you observe Shabbat you have to leave quite early, maybe at 3pm on a Friday, or even earlier. So he said to his boss at the Anti-Defamation League he would like to leave early to observe Shabbat, and his boss said, “No.” So he said to me, had I been working anywhere else I would have called the Anti-Defamation League to complain, but here I couldn’t.
The only other point I’ll make here is that attitudes on important issues, even within the Jewish world, can differ drastically depending on where people come from. Nowadays an increasingly large percentage of the American Jewish population comes from the Middle East. Their voices will be heard more as time goes on, because right now they are a first generation community and sort of punch below their weight politically, but soon they’ll become a second-generation community. In LA, it’s especially Persians; in New York it tends to be more Syrians. Their numbers are much larger than people recognize. At Ramaz, which is the fanciest Orthodox school, the population is now a third of Jews from the Middle East, Sephardi. At Yeshiva Flatbush, which is the most prestigious in Brooklyn, it’s now eighty percent. In those communities, or if you go to Great Neck, which is very Persian, in those communities the long experience of prejudice and persecution is so strong that the conversation about Israel is completely different; in fact, it’s impossible to really have any criticism of Israel. Whereas, among the reform and secular American Ashkenazi Jews, to be Jewish is to be liberal and to keep alive the memory of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman. I mean literally, if you talk to Jews from the Middle East, you’ll see that they have absolutely no idea what you mean by linking Jewishness and liberalism. The idea is completely alien to them.
Carolyn Forché: Often I’ve heard people say that religious schools cultivate the consciousness of an inner life, that this just goes with religious education.
Tom Healy: Not at the Catholic school I attended.
Carolyn Forché: And not at the one I attended for a dozen years either.
Orlando Patterson: I don’t know. What I do think religious education does is provide an element of discipline which is perhaps not possible in the public schools because of the long-settled norms and expectations. I’m thinking again of the Catholic schools that have been fairly effective with black kids. Because of course the big problem in the lives of many black kids is an absence of discipline, of structure, a genuine framework in the absence of fathers and overworked mothers. And it may be as simple as that. The nuns and their rules may be much more important than the content of the religion or having to say the mass, although ritual is a kind of discipline too, and saying the mass in Latin, where that is possible.
Regina Janes [audience]: One of the things that’s interesting in this discussion is that from the point of view of what you might call sentimental Philo-Semitism, the Jewish tradition, in contrast to the Christian tradition, seems much more discursive and debative and eager to invite clashing interpretations. On the other hand, the imposition of dogma, which is more fundamentally a Christian position, seems to be increasingly central to this new world of Ultra-Zionists, Ultra-Orthodox and so on. Is that a fair reading?
Peter Beinart: That’s difficult to un-pack. I think there’s a lot of Philo-Semitism in the United States and I think what’s fascinating is that there are two different groups of non-Jews who love Jews for exactly opposite reasons. I think liberals like Jews, there’s a Philo-Semitism in blue state liberal culture, because the Jews are largely liberal and intellectual and because they’re secular. What you find among conservative Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, is that they love Jews because Jews bring them closer to the bible. You know a lot of Christian Evangelicals learn Hebrew, and some churches now meet on Saturday, blow shofars, and try to do all kinds of things to bring them closer to the bible. A common friend of ours, Hanna Rosin, whose family are Yemenite Jews from the city of Aden, who looks middle Eastern and was the religion correspondent for the Washington Post for a while, went to a very conservative Evangelical church to interview people, and she told me that one guy stared at her for a long time. And she said to him finally, “Can I help you, is there an issue here?” And he said, “You look like Jesus.” So I think for Christian Conservatives, Jews serve as a kind of vehicle for getting back to the authentic.
As for Judaism itself, you do have texts which include very rich debates between different points of view, but certainly if you’re in an Orthodox Jewish framework or even within the Conservative movement, the debate also has an end-point. It’s not an endless or completely open debate where all things are acceptable. And if there is at least a structure, it’s not like Protestantism where I would imagine you could go to the text and say I see this in the text. The Jewish methodology is that you have to first learn what Rashi thought about the text and what Maimonides thought about the text as a prerequisite. You’re not asked what you think about the text in the sort of way we associate with liberal skepticism. Once you achieve a lot of learning maybe you can give an opinion, sure, but you’re still way below the canonized interpreters.
The other thing I would say is that, even though Judaism has this allowance for debate, Judaism also tries to regulate life far, far more dramatically than Christianity does and also more dramatically than Islam does, although Islam does try to regulate very intimate and mundane aspects of people’s lives : what they’re eating, to some degree what they’re wearing, when they are praying, etc. I realized the impact that regulations at this level can have when we had a mouse in our house and my son was fascinated. At one point he turned to me and said, “Can Christian people eat mice?” And I said, “What are you talking about? No! Of course not.” But then I realized what he understood was that he wasn’t able to eat certain things while Christian people can eat anything, which really was for him extraordinary. And I have to say, very exciting. He didn’t know what this entailed. He had this idea of Christianity as like this space of radical liberation from the mundane restrictions on life and on food, in particular. As I say, or want to say, there are all sorts of surprises you discover, when you think about religion and the expectations that are built into the shaping of your own identity and the impression you have about other people’s identities and practices.
Bina Gogineni: One further point. Still thinking about David’s earlier point about the thickness of a great religious education. Recently I was teaching Erich Auerbach’s essay “Odysseus’ Scar,” in which Auerbach is comparing Homer’s Odyssey to the Elohist Old Testament. One of the major distinctions that he makes is that The Odyssey is there to entertain whereas the Old Testament exerts an indisputable authority through the claim on truth, so that all of the interpretive richness that transpires within the framework of the sacred text is still in the service of subjecting the reader to that exclusive and very powerful authority. You know, I don’t know how to think about that richness when I think of the definite end to which it is bent.
James Miller: And there you put your finger on the very thing we’ve been circling around throughout this discussion.