The Future According to the Jewish Jules Verne '

Nathan Guttman
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Nathan Guttman

WASHINGTON - The pessimistic scenario: It is 2025 and the Jewish people's very existence is threatened - the number of Jews worldwide has dropped to 10 million, 6 million of which live in Israel; the intermarriage rate is climbing and most children of mixed marriages have no links to Judaism. In Israel, society is choosing "normalcy" over Jewish existence, the security situation is deteriorating and social unity is disintegrating; in the Diaspora, the strength of Jewish communities and of Jewish education is ebbing, the bonds between the Diaspora and Israel are particularly weak and Jewish financial fortunes are in decline; anti-Semitism is rising, as is the Muslim world's hostility toward the Jews. This is the pessimistic scenario, which is described as a "realistic nightmare."

There is also a reverse scenario for 2025, one described as the "realistic vision," in which the Jewish people is flourishing with about 18 million Jews, two-thirds of whom live in Israel; Jewish identity in Israel is gaining strength, along with the securing of regional stability and economic growth; in the Diaspora, most Jewish children are enrolled in Jewish educational institutions, the connection with Israel is getting stronger and economic and political might of the Jews is on the upswing; the Jewish nation is leading the way in "tikkun olam" (repairing the world) and is enjoying a period of prosperity in its relations with Christians and Muslims.

Both of these extreme scenarios, practically polar opposites of one another, were presented two weeks ago to a group of about 20 contemporary Jewish social leaders in an attempt to formulate a plan to navigate the way of the Jewish people through the decades to come, to realize the optimistic vision and avoid the nightmare scenario. The group convened far from the media spotlight and almost in secret, at the Wye Plantation, near Washington, D.C. Wye is familiar to Israeli history buffs as the place where Israelis and Palestinians secluded themselves and worked out the famous "Wye Agreement."

However, this time it was not statesmen and politicians around the table, but rather an assortment of the most prominent names in the contemporary Jewish gallery, including attorney Alan Dershowitz, former deputy treasury secretary Stuart Eizenstat, Natan Sharansky, Rabbi Samuel Sirat, the former chief rabbi of France, Michael Steinhardt, one of the leading Jewish philanthropists in the U.S., Dennis Ross, Prof. Yehezkel Dror, Jacques Attali, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and others. Incidentally, some participants asked to keep their attendance a secret. Steven Spielberg was compelled to cancel at the last minute, but promised to come to the next event.

Members of the group spent 24 hours together at the site, which is relatively isolated and distant from the hustle bustle of Washington, in an attempt to consider what needs to be done to ensure a better future for the Jewish people. "Our object is to understand what should be done now to make the future of the Jewish people better," says Avi Gil, the former Foreign Ministry director general who chaired the project. It was organized by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI), an independent think tank set up by the Jewish Agency that studies issues related to the Jewish people.

The biggest threat

The Wye Plantation gathering, described as a brainstorming session, is the end-stage of a project entitled "Alternate Futures for the Jewish People." Over the past few months, various experts drafted papers that plumbed the options available to Israeli and world Jewry in spheres such as demography, geopolitics, Jewish identity, economy, technology and Israel-Diaspora relations. Each sub-section attempted to gauge current trends and determine where they might lead two decades from now. The experts tried to identify the points of possible intervention, in order to divert these trends toward a positive direction.

"This group is the Jules Verne of the Jewish world," says Avinoam Bar-Yosef, who heads the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, referring to the group that gathered at Wye to discuss scenarios. But unlike Jules Verne, they made no attempt to predict the future, only to influence it.

"When I left I was definitely worried, but also a bit optimistic," says Prof. Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, a participant in the group. Like most of the others, Reinharz believes there are genuine concerns about the loss of Jewish identity and decline in the size of the Jewish people, so much so that it would make it hard for Judaism to continue functioning. The only reason he finds for optimism is that 20 very busy Jews took the time to consider how it can save the Jewish people, and tried to devise solutions to the situation. It may be the indication of a positive shift in the approach to dealing with the problems of the Jewish people.

Most participants agreed that the biggest threat to the Jewish people in the next few decades is weakening Jewish identity. In the modern world, Jewish identity competes in a big market of ideas and ideologies that are open to every individual. The difficulty of linking Jews, primarily younger Jews, to their Jewish identity eventually leads to estrangement from Jewish communal life, distancing from the State of Israel, and rise in intermarriage, which in the second generation causes a quantitative loss of Jews.

The American Jewish community lost between 300,000 and 500,000 members in the past decade, a number that concerns anyone engaged in the subject. "In the past few years, colossal efforts have been made to maintain Jewish identity, to find Jews and see to it that they remain in the community, but these efforts have been only partially successful," says Reinharz.

Incidentally, the Jewish identity crisis does not only exist among Diaspora Jews. A document prepared by the JPPPI reveals the concerns about a major weakening of Jewish identity in Israel, particularly in light of calls for turning Israel into a "normal" country in which the Jewish identity component would be downplayed in favor of an Israeli identity.

Not all participants in the gathering agreed that the greatest danger facing the Jewish people is internal. Prof. Alan Dershowitz held the minority opinion. He considers the external threat to be the most significant. He feels that anti-Semitism is mounting, and that attempts to delegitimize Israel and the possibility of Iranian nuclear arms are what truly endanger the future of the Jewish people. "As long as Jews are free to choose their identity, I am confident the Jewish people will continue to flourish, despite the decline in numbers," Dershowitz said.

Stuart Eizenstat, who aside from his position in the American administration also coordinated the issue of Jewish property claims from the Holocaust era, refers to the demographic crisis threatening the Jewish people. In the Diaspora, it is an absolute demographic crisis stemming from intermarriage, low birth rates and aging of the community, whereas in Israel the crisis is relative - in comparison to the Palestinian population. Participants in the gathering concurred that the cliche about quality and quantity is no longer relevant to the Jewish people, and that if there is significant quantitative loss, any possible quality that the community might germinate would still fail to maintain true Jewish life, especially in the Diaspora.

A visit to Israel helps

How do you contend with the loss of identity and thinning out of the Jewish people? Most participants in the brainstorming session agreed that the key lies in opening up the gates of the Jewish people and extending a hand to those now on the margins. "We need to lower the entry level of participation in Jewish organizational and religious life," says Eizenstat. "We need to work with those who are less connected to the community, those who traditionally were not part of the community." These "marginal Jews" include non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages, children of mixed marriages who were not raised in a Jewish home, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who never received Jewish education or whose Jewish lineage is in doubt.

Until now, the Jewish community has pushed away such groups, and imposed demands on those wishing to join in Jewish life. As a result, these "marginal Jews" distanced themselves from Jewish life, and their children grew up without one iota of Jewish identity. "It isn't a matter of conscious desire to leave the Jewish community; it just happens at the everyday level, drop by drop," adds Reinharz.

Even the brainstorming at the Wye Plantation could not find a magic elixir for bringing back into the fold those Jews who have slipped away from the community. But it is clear where these solutions may be found. One, in the realm of Jewish leadership. "The Jewish people lacks spiritual leadership capable of formulating new inspirational content for Jewish identity that will inspire, provide meaning and gain relevance," stated the press release issued after the gathering. Another solution lies in hands-on contact with Israel. To date, the only solution that has proved itself in reinforcing Jewish identity among Diaspora Jews (primarily from North America) is spending time in Israel. Even short visits like the 10-day birthright israel experience have shown that they can bring participants much closer to their Jewish identity.

Does this mean that a young person taking part in the program will not marry the non-Jewish love of his or her life because of a newly discovered Jewish identity? The answer is no, but the chances are definitely greater that after intermarriage this young person will aspire to have a Jewish home and raise the children as Jews.

Participants in the gathering noted, as a special mention of sorts, the Orthodox community, which maintains full Jewish identity - 100 percent Jewish education, 0 percent intermarriage, and high birthrates. But in the same breath they explained that because it is a closed society, it cannot serve as a model for Jewish life in the current era.

The buzzword at the gathering was "aggressiveness" - the need to act immediately and resolutely, enlisting all available forces to halt the skid of the Jewish people. At present, Jewish activity is not characterized by any sense of panic or urgency. Birthright, for example, which earns approbations from all quarters, suffers from budgetary constraints that prevent all of the young Jews wanting to visit Israel from being able to do so. Meanwhile, 80 percent of funds contributed by American Jews are directed to non-Jewish objectives.

It is clear that if the Jewish community believed it faced an emergency, much could be changed; both in areas requiring significant monetary input and areas requiring a firm stand against the organizational and religious establishment, in a demand to open the gates of Judaism to assimilated and disenfranchised Jews.

"There is a lot of Jewish energy and thinking in the world that is not being exploited for the benefit of the Jewish people," says Avinoam Bar-Yosef, who hopes the institute he heads will succeed in enlisting these Jewish energies. But Jehuda Reinharz feels the community is complacent. "American Jews are so pleased with themselves, due to the illusion that they have a lot of political and economic power here," says Reinharz, who warns that the community has only a "window of another few years" before the American political reality shifts and the political power of the Jewish community is lost, in favor of the large Hispanic minority and the American Muslim community.

Is anyone listening to these warning shots? Avi Gil, the head of the project, feels there is greater willingness now to hear ideas from the outside, and is therefore acting to present practical recommendations for the future. The conclusions of the team of experts that gathered at the Wye Plantation were presented last week to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and a special Knesset session will be devoted to them in the near future.



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