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Response to Kiera Feldman

July 8, 2011

Last month I shut down my blog since, having been chosen as Israel’s State Archivist, a civil servant position, I couldn’t maintain a political blog. Five weeks later the appointment is still one step short of being official, so I’m allowing myself one more fling.

This week a young woman named Kiera Feldman, who describes herself as a baptized child of an intermarriage, wrote a long report in The Nation about how unsavory Birthright programs are; her report is based upon her own participation in 2010. Fortunately, after being accessible for a few days the article is now mostly hidden behind a registration wall, so those of us who don’t wish to be in their database, or are simply too lazy, can read only the first quarter. Before the wall went up Philip Getz, another Birthright alumnus, wrote a rebuttal at Jewish Ideas Daily. His rebuttal is still accessible. (Note to The Nation: open access helps you to propagate your positions, assuming you’re interested in reaching a non-captive audience).

I read Feldman’s article while still possible, and wrote a rebuttal of my own. Unfortunately, Feldman may be a demonstration that intermarriage is unlikely to work, if it’s preservation of the Jewish people one’s interested in.

Hi Kiera,

Yesterday it was still possible to read your entire article on The Nation website; today they’ve put most of it behind their registration wall. Since I have no intention of registering for anything at The Nation, I’ll have to rely on what I remember of your article, rather than on exact quotations. First, however, a disclaimer. I have been a supporter of the Palestinians’ right to a sovereign state alongside Israel since well before you were born. So if you decide to respond, feel free to leave out the slogans.

A number of decades ago there was a public discussion in Israel about whether American Jewry had a future. I think your article is a reasonable demonstration that the pessimists had a solid case, even if it’s still too early to know with certainty what the end of the story will be. You introduce yourself as a baptized child of intermarriage, and go on to show how in your case this means not Jewish, even hostile to Jewish. I don’t know how representative you are.

There are two main problems in your article. The first is the ease with which you make unfounded statements about Israel: it’s a racist society (I don’t have the exact formulation), its occupation of Palestinian territories is illegal (and note: the occupation itself, not the settlements: that’s what I think you said), Gaza is the world’s largest open air prison, and so on and on. I expect these slogans are routinely accepted as fact in the social circles you live in, but I’m wondering if you could substantiate even a single one of them. By substantiate, I mean show what the factual basis of each claim is, then anticipate counter-claims or alternative explanations and demonstrate why they’re not acceptable, and tell what sort of facts could, were they to exist, disprove your claims, their non-existence thus bolstering your own positions.

You can’t, of course. You personally can’t since you don’t have the necessary qualifications such as languages, legal training, military expertise or historical depth. But I insist that whoever your intellectual guides are, the ones from whom you have parroted your slogans, they also can’t seriously substantiate the claims you make; and the reason I’m so certain about this is that for much of the past decade I have been engaged in the study of these matters, not to mention a lifetime of living them, and I know that they cannot be proven. The best some of those statements can hope for is to be plausible interpretations of the reality, ranged against other plausible explanations of the same things; many of them never get anywhere near that intellectual stature, however. They’re simply wrong. The Israelis aren’t who you think they are, and for that matter, the Palestinians aren’t either.

So item one in my case against you is that you thoughtlessly propagate accusations against the Jewish State, and you do so from the position of one who is sort of part of the community – after all, you were eligible to participate in a Birthright program, and that experience is the basis for your report.

Which brings me to the second problem I have with your article. So long as one makes an attempt to be grounded in reality, there’s a broad continuum of legitimate opinions to be held on Israel. There’s also a very rich offer of ways to be Jewish. But in order to be Jewish, they do have to be Jewish, if you know what I mean. Yours isn’t. No-where in your article is there any evidence of any Jewish cultural baggage, and certainly no Jewish affinity. Unlike, say, the Americans who have been culturally active for a few centuries; or the Enlightened European forebears of your intellectual worldview, also only a few centuries ago, the Jews have been culturally creative for an uninterrupted three millennia (not five, as you quip at one point). During this very long period, unequalled by any other living national culture bar, perhaps, the most ancient Asian nations, the Jews have built an extremely rich culture. They’ve also preserved communal bonds and commonly accepted ideas which have enabled them to reach the extreme national age they’ve reached in spite of sustained adversity.

None of this has left any impression on you, if your article is anything to go by. On the contrary, the most you can muster is disdain for some of these central tenets of Judaism: the centrality of the national homeland, for one; the endogamic imperative, for another; the communal responsibility, for a third. When it comes to young American Jews reared outside the community, I don’t expect them to have much of a Jewish education, and you clearly have none of any significance. But one can still be a fine Jew without the erudition, if one accepts the central themes of Jewish community and nationhood. This is all lost on you. Indeed, the entire point of your article is to rebut it.

OK, but accept then that you’re truly an outsider, and don’t claim to criticize from the inside. It’s either/or, I’d say, or it’s intellectually dishonest.

Finally, a small nit-pick which demonstrates that you insist on seeing the world through your very narrow perspective rather than being curious how it really is. At the bottom of the first page of your article, just before the subscription wall blocks further access, you’ve got this odd sentence:

Early Zionism, too, was marked by alarm over intermarriage and demographic decline. Zionists saw the answer in the creation of a “new Jew,” a virile conqueror and tiller of the land who would channel sexual energy into nation-building.

Actually, pre-Holocaust Jewry in Eastern Europe (the heartland of early Zionism) had a very high birthrate; this was one of the many things the antisemites of the day used to complain about. Intermarriage was not unheard of, but in the conditions of the day it was hardly a worry for anyone, expect perhaps in Germany where the Jews generally rejected Zionism. So you’ve got that one flat wrong. As for the second part of the sentence, I’ve read much of the writings of the early Zionists, as you probably haven’t, and don’t recollect ever having come across the ideology you ascribe to them. You just made that up, because it seemed to you a good idea. Or you parroted it from someone else who made it up.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob in Madison permalink
    July 8, 2011 6:50 pm

    So unfair, Yaakov. What’s important is that Ms Feldman heighten her sense of personal drama and significance. Learning to pay attention to what’s actually true about life requires some diminishment of self-importance, and that’s not appealing.

  2. RZS permalink
    July 9, 2011 1:31 am

    Agree with you re: Feldman’s article. It’s a very sad combination of entitled leftie whining and a trendy lack of concern with matters of peoplehood and tradition.

    Just about the Nation’s registration page – just put in a fake e-mail (i.e. screwyou@amyisraelchai.com) and a fake zip code, and you’ll get right through. Apparently, these revolutionaries don’t have much in the way of tech skills.

  3. Dave permalink
    July 9, 2011 1:33 am

    “Zionists saw the answer in the creation of a “new Jew,” a virile conqueror and tiller of the land who would channel sexual energy into nation-building.”

    odd statement. sounds like she based it on Adam Sandler’s “You Dont Mess with the Zohan”

  4. Womble permalink
    July 9, 2011 8:50 am

    In fact, Theodore Herzl’s “The Jewish State” explained the non-viability of assimilation as a solution to anti-Semitism by the fact that “…Assimilation of Jews could be effected only by intermarriage. But the need for mixed marriages would have to be felt by the majority; their mere recognition by law would certainly not suffice.”

    In other words, assimilation was a small and marginal phenomenon which the majority of Jews at the time rejected.

    Herzl’s entire idea of Jewish souvereignity was framed as an assimilation plan- because the Jews were not allowed to assimilate individually, they would assimilate collectively- not as individuals among individuals but as a nation among nations.

  5. Nycerbarb permalink
    July 10, 2011 8:52 pm

    Yaacov, you are going to get a reputation for picking on silly, spoiled American girls! I hope this one is not so foul-mouthed.

    We could create a whole new vocabulary here

    A Beinart – an anti-Israel screed by an unknown, inconsequential writer that raises the hackles of Jews with far more intelligence and gravitas, thereby giving said writer name recognition.

    to jewlure – to gain web traffic by posting a Beinart

    jewbate – the responses of said smart Jews to the jewlure.

    I am glad you posted this for the rest of us, it would have been wasted on Miss Feldman.

    Seriously, I really liked the part you wrote about substantiation. Miss Feldman, on her own, is not terribly interesting. What is important is that she, and others of her ilk, have all these snappy little slogans, and we don’t have snappy little responses.

    Someone says “Israel is an apartheid state.” We respond with a 1 page on the history of South Africa, and then another 6 pages about Israel and minorities and security. The attention span of the average person is 140 characters. We are too smart (or too long winded) for our own good.

    We should respond, “Do you even know what apartheid was?”

    We can substantiate just fine. We need to be able to transubstantiate.(sic.)

    • July 10, 2011 10:35 pm

      Hi Nycerbarb –

      No, this one isn’t foul-mouthed. But she is indeed silly. She and I tweeted back and forth, subsequent to this post, and she seemed highly agitated that I had been “patronizing”. I probably was, but why is this important? It turns her, and her delicate feelings, into the crux of the discussion, rather than more substantial things such as, say, her slander of Israel and Jews.

      • July 11, 2011 10:19 am

        She meant patronising but because her command of her own language is not that great she said paternalistic.

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