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by Lawrence Bush
from the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
1. AS FUTURE GENERATIONS OF JEWS TAKE OVER, SO MAY ORTHODOXY
IF THERE IS any solace to be found after the Republican takeover of the U.S. government, it is in the hope that this will be a short burp in history before the rising generations of America restore us to sanity and progress. Bernie Sanders’ pollster, Ben Tulchin, nearly says as much in our recent interview with him: “What we learned through all our research is that millennials [born between 1980 and the late 1990s] are a fundamentally progressive generation. They have a strong sense of economic justice . . . a strong sense of environmental justice and . . . a strong sense of social justice. . . .”
Of course, pollsters have been wrong before -- no kidding! -- yet it does make intuitive sense that a generation raised in a culture that has seen the reduction of racism, sexism, and every other prejudice but class prejudice would be liberal-minded. And it is a fact that Hillary Clinton received 55 percent of the millennial vote.
Nevertheless, according to most data I’ve seen, adults under 40 are pretty evenly split in political identification between what we classically think of as liberal and conservative. While even the conservatives among them are usually socially liberal and committed to multiculturalism, their generation is by no means united on economic issues or in supporting government regulatory power. There are, moreover, plenty of influences that can pull the rising generations rightwards, or redefine the right-left binary altogether -- especially as crises arise for which there are no easy or ready solutions.
What about Jewish millennials, and Jews younger than they? Will they share the ongoing Jewish liberal consensus by the time they reach “retirement age”? Two factors make this uncertain.
First, while the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism in North America have been shrinking for the past two decades, Orthodoxy has been growing — and the rate of abandonment of Orthodox pathways by young Jews is apparently in decline. Steven M. Cohen, who has been charting the Jewish community for decades, recently noted in Moment magazine that fully 35 percent of Jews under age 5 are Orthodox (mostly due to birthrates). In the Forward, Cohen noted that 15 percent of 28- to 45-year-olds are Orthodox, as are 27 percent of Jews under 17.“[O]ver two generations,” he concluded, “the Orthodox pretty much quadrupled in size.”
Samuel Heilman, in the same edition of Moment, observed that Orthodox Jews already serve as the public face of the American Jewish community because liberal Jews “are more interested in less parochial and more cosmopolitan issues. That leaves the Orthodox and people for whom Jewish identity is central” as the community’s most visible representatives. Their misrepresentation of American Jews then creates a feedback loop in which the non-Orthodox are increasingly alienated from the perceived “Jewish community.”
Will the overall increase in Orthodox affiliation among younger generations somehow catalyze change within Orthodoxy itself -- a shedding of its gender rigidity, its parochialism, or its inclination towards the Republican Party (Pew Research in 2013 showed 57 percent of Orthodox Jews leaning Republican)? While some notable corners of “progressive” Orthodoxy have been established by millennial Jews, the community is not undergoing any high-speed evolution.
Israel’s hard-right policy towards the two-state solution and towards American politics is the second polarizing and conservatizing influence within an American Jewish community that has, for two generations, viewed Israel as the only working generator of Jewish electricity for its young people. According to that 2013 Pew study, 40 percent of Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 now “feel no attachment to the State of Israel,” and almost 75 percent believe that Israel is not making a sincere effort toward peace. Despair and distaste are driving young progressive Jews away from feeling inspired by Israel, even while the vocal Jewish right continues to opt for rah-rah and boo-hoo rhetoric.
What countervailing forces exist to cultivate left-leaning Jewish consciousness? I have often argued in these pages that Judaism, Jewish ethics, and Jewish historical experience can be interlocked to form a “counterculture,” a compassionate approach to society that in many ways challenges American values about wealth and poverty, individualism and community, and justice and mercy. This sense of “counterculture” is especially catalyzed when Jews view their Jewishness as a wellspring of social responsibility and self-knowledge rather than as a self-interested religious or tribal identity (which is how Orthodoxy and latter-day Zionism have largely framed Jewish identity).
Does this alternative path stand a chance of being located by Jewish generations to come? Will Jews who shy away from Orthodoxy and cheerleading for Israel nevertheless be literate and passionate about the values of the Jewish counterculture? Much will depend on whether Jewish leaders --someone apart from Sheldon Adelson and Ivanka Trump! -- will serve as role models, expressing themselves in public as Jewishly committed to a politics of conscience and compassion. As an editorial in our magazine observed a few years back, progressive Jewish identity might get a real boost “if activist Jews more often ‘came out’ as people who don’t merely ‘happen to be Jewish’ but are politically active, at least in part, because they are Jewish.” This is a test that Bernie Sanders, unfortunately, dodged in his presidential campaign.
Judging from many of the articles the “millennial voices” issue of JC, however, a whole lot of leftwing millennial Jews are already strongly identifying as Jews in struggles against racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other isms and phobias. Here I find a strong cord of continuity, for hasn’t it always been, for progressive American Jews, that solidarity with other people’s liberation has been one of the strongest bolsterers of our own Jewish identities?
Much of the political complexion of the broader Jewish community in 2050 may also depend upon what liberalism itself offers in an incredibly fast-changing culture -- in which technology will redefine the meaning of work, corporations will be more powerful than most nations, people in wealthy countries will have lifespans of two centuries, scientists will be creating new life forms, and climate change will be creating enormous chaos.
Our associate editor Ron Skolnik, for example, recently pointed out at our website that Trump’s order freezing emigration had prompted Jews “across the denominational and organizational spectra” to “summon . . . their historical memories, proudly honor . . . their ethical heritage, and reject . . . both the hardheartedness and the lack of political wisdom of Trump’s move.” Yay for the Jews! But will such openheartedness toward the “homeless, tempest-tost” withstand the onslaught of the 200 million climate-change refugees predicted by 2050?
This is one of numerous impending issues to which liberalism must respond with creative, realistic, and compassionate policy proposals, or lose the political struggle to fear and reaction. If Trump’s victory teaches anything, it is that the rise of dramatic transformations in our very modern world have made obsolete or at least inadequate some status-quo liberal policy stances. Social Security in a society in which people live to be 150? A book-based education in a society of screens? Minimum-wage increases in an automated economy that replaces low-wage workers with robots? It may be back to the drawing board for those of us who want to save the world from barbarism.
2. CAN WE CHANGE OUR STORY IN TIME TO SURVIVE?
SOME OF the above ruminations were stoked by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015, 443 pages). A sweep-the-surface history of humanity, Sapiens is most compelling in its opening and closing pages -- the former recounting the origin of our species in Africa and our entry into a world that hosted other Homo species, the latter speculating about a future in which science will “change Homo sapiens itself . . .
Bioengineering, immortality, computer intelligence, including the linking of human consciousness by uploading minds onto computer networks -- these are among the developments that will soon make class distinctions biological, warns Harari:
What might happen once medicine becomes preoccupied with enhancing human abilities? ... The pretensions of the upper classes might soon become an objective reality. . . .What is a spaceship compared to an eternally young cyborg . . . who can share thoughts directly with other beings, whose abilities to focus and remember are a thousand times greater than our own, and who is never angry or sad, but has emotions and desires that we cannot begin to imagine?
Most of my baby-boomer friends would cry “oy oy oy” about such a world and feel relieved that immortality will not be theirs to endure. But “oy oy oy” does not serve as a progressive response to anything. Instead, with Trump’s ascent to power, I’ve been forcing myself to reckon with the thought that in a world of vast, unsettling change, much of liberalism’s messaging, at least as presented by status-quo Democratic candidates, holds little promise for people beyond self-congratulatory optimism: We’re doing fine, stay the course. Trump, on the other hand, created a rude and powerful storyline, especially for those who are not doing fine, whether economically or psychologically: that nationalism, ruled over by a hard-driving alpha male, can bring prosperity to the country and a feeling of certainty about the future.
I’m not attacking Trump when I use the word “fiction” to describe his campaign theme. Harari points out that sharing fictions is precisely the trait that makes our enormous power over the planet possible. Like no other creature, Homo sapiens cooperates together in vast global networks of strangers who have never even met one another because we are bonded by fictions such as “money,” “Jesus,” “nation-state,” “the West,” and the “limited liability corporation.”
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths . . . that exist only in people’s collective imagination. . . .Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. . . . Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation . . .Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights — and the money paid out in fees. . . . Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another.
This is, perhaps, the most compelling insight of Harari’s book: that we are able to overcome our small-group tribalism, which was bred in the bone by our early evolution, by sharing beliefs. Yet Harari, seemingly stymied by a sense of fatalism, fails to massage his big idea.
So let me try. It seems to me that the human race is actually ripe for some new stories. The nation-state is in perpetual crisis. Race is a story stamped with a swastika. Religions are encrusted with pre-modern superstition that limits their use as centers for ethical guidance in the modern world. Capitalist progress is like a dystopian novel, set on a planet with a warming, warping climate.
There is one enduringly positive story, however, that is being renewed daily by new scientific knowledge -- a story lodged in the wisdom traditions of humanity and persistent in its power to lessen our wickedness. I’m speaking about the story of our interconnection as human beings.
The best part of this story is that it is not a fiction. It is affirmed by DNA analysis, which points back to our shared homeland, Africa, and our shared mitochondrial mother. It is testified to by our personal origins, our being born through the blending of people, our being mothered and parented, our being civilized through the efforts of community.
Our interconnection is also testified to by the spirituality that seems hardwired into us, our capacity for elevation and purpose, beyond self-aggrandizement, that we access through love, music, study, nature, etc. That spirituality is, at bottom, a surging recognition that we are part of a larger fabric of life. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Jewish Reconstructionism, put it most brilliantly (in The Future of the American Jew, 1948) when he contrasted “natural selection,” the competition for survival to which all beings are subjected, with “spiritual selection,” our unique human capacity “not only to make for the survival of the fittest, but to aim to make the greatest possible number fit to survive.”
Of course, Kaplan’s moral inference (and mine) that this reality mandates a sharing-caring political system is as much a fiction as any of the concepts that people bond around — but at least it is obviously rooted in our human instincts. By contrast, I’m not sure how or why the myths of a god-made-flesh, or of a corporation-made-person (but for whom no persons have real responsibility), wormed their way into human consciousness . . .
How do we go about spreading cultural memes about human interdependence? How do we lend “globalization” meaning beyond NAFTA and McDonald’s? Multicultural themes of peace and creative cooperation in art, film, television, and social media would be an enormous help. A revitalized, culturally savvy United Nations would be another -- and it should sponsor a “Birthright”-style program of international travel for young people all over the planet. A “peace studies” program as widespread as women’s studies and black studies programs at universities would help, too. How about an international Olympics that blended athletes from different countries and regions onto teams, rather than cultivating nationalistic rivalry?
For the past two centuries, secular Jews, in particular, have been very good at spreading such memes about human interdependence. I’m thinking of Danny Kaye’s UNICEF broadcasts from the 1950s; Ludwig Zamenhof’s Esperanto; Einstein’s helping to organize scientists on behalf of international control of nuclear bombs; Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of a worldwide gossip network through Facebook . . .
Perhaps this will prove to be a calling and identity-builder for millennial Jews, notwithstanding the growing influence of Orthodox tribalism and Zionist “normalization” of the Jewish condition.
3. MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE REAL WORLD: IDEAS FOR COUNTERING TRUMP
Enough philosophizing (“It is the way of philosophy,” said the khasidic story-teller Nakhman of Bratslav, “to ask questions that seem difficult and to offer answers that are weak”). Let’s get concrete: There’s a “Tea Party” energy that has emerged on the left during the first months of the Trump presidency. Here are a few ideas for focusing that energy:
• Attitude: Among the thinkers I’ve found most helpful in terms of attitude adjustment is George Lakoff, whose wonderful “Ten Point Plan to Stop Trump” in YES! magazine urges us, first, to recognize that “we represent the majority.” “I hear many American progressives unconsciously talking about Trump defensively,” Lakoff begins, but the fact is that
Three times more people participated in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. than were present at the inauguration the day before. [Trump] lost the popular vote in the election. Many of his own voters admitted in exit polls that they consider him unqualified to be president. Furthermore, Trump plans to target progressive policies that polls find to be supported by solid majorities . . .
Lakoff points for inspiration to the LGBT campaign to legalize gay marriage: Its “lesson is obvious . . . Heighten nonviolent direct action campaigns and start new ones. Instead of defending Obamacare, let’s push for an even more comprehensive health solution, like Medicare for all.”
• Boycotts: I also find it especially encouraging that 2,000 Google employees, with the encouragement of management, walked out to protest Trump’s executive order on immigration, and Apple, Facebook, and more than ninety other companies also filed protests. Notwithstanding Wall Street’s exuberance about Trump’s promised corporate tax cuts and deregulation, there are many business leaders not happy about his nationalistic policies and the racism and antisemitism of his entourage. (Kellogg’s, for one, withdrew its advertising from Breitbart News in late November, and has been joined by Vanguard, 3M, AARP, and others.)
Consumer boycotts and shareholder activism can now be intensified to help pressure corporate America to step up and lead — and those that are getting into bed with Trump should be fiercely targeted. An egregious example is Wells Fargo, which Peter Dreier points to at Huffington Post as “one of the largest funders of the Dakota Access Pipeline . . . a major funder of private prison corporations,” and having a “sordid history of discrimination against low-income consumers and communities of color in its lending practices and . . . a terrible track record of aggressive foreclosures and high-risk predatory loans.” Sounds like Wells Fargo is a bank worth boycotting no matter who is sitting in the White House! — and the City of Seattle, along with thousands of private citizens, are already doing just that.
To be effective, however, boycotts require a high degree of publicity and unity. A visit to the “Ethical Consumer” website shows a ridiculously wide range of ethical boycotts that are supposedly underway for causes that range from animal rights to doing business in West Bank settlements to sponsoring the Washington Redskins. Such scattershot diversity represents political correctness at its least effective. We need focused targets and a central address. One likely target might be Koch Industries, with an array of products that include Brawny Paper Towels, Vanity Fair Napkins, Dixie Cups, and a lot of other things housed in your utility cabinet. And Corporate Accountability International, the group that launched the Nestle’s Boycott (about infant formula versus mother’s milk) in 1977, would be a great central address. Unity, unity!
• Preemptive Voter Registration: There are, at last count, thirty-one states enforcing restrictive voter-I.D. requirements. These are being fought vehemently in the courts — but we can’t entirely rely on the courts. Instead, groups like the NAACP and MoveOn should also be mounting a major voter I.D. campaign, starting right now, to assure that voters in crucial swing states actually obtain whatever documents are needed for them to vote. The same volunteers who have gone to swing states to knock on doors to urge Democratic voters to get out and vote during the Obama and Clinton campaigns should now go and help voters get the I.D. required.
• Preserving FOIA: Trump’s intense animosity towards the press will likely prompt a Congressional attack on the Freedom of Information Act over the next four years. FOIA has been a bone of contention between liberal advocates of open government and conservative advocates of “national security” since it was signed into law by President Johnson in 1968 — and it will be vulnerable to attack because most Americans doesn’t know about it. Media outlets and free-speech advocates should now launch a preemptive public relations campaign that explains the role of FOIA in our democracy. To appeal beyond the choir, such a campaign should underscore that FOIA applies only to the executive branch of government, where power is most easily abused; that it limits disclosure of information to foreign powers; that businesses regularly file FOIA claims in order to limit government regulation.
• Infrastructure — with union labor: Trump probably will work to bring about a boom in infrastructure construction and reconstruction. Isn’t it time for labor unions, civil rights organizations, Democratic politicians, and environmental groups to confer together about demanding unionized labor, fair hiring, environmental safeguards, and progressive taxation during that construction boom?
• A New Vision of Public Education: Betsy DeVos’ appointment as secretary of education makes it clear that public education faces an intensified campaign of privatization, and that teachers’ unions nationwide face assault. It’s past time, then, for teachers unions to unite with educational theorists from the best institutions, and with parents from a broad cross-section of families, to fashion a transformative new vision of public education, one that accounts for the huge changes in literacy wrought by computers, integrates schools with the lives of communities and the agencies that serve those communities, and breaks down the paralyzing teaching-and-testing educational culture. Teachers then need to recruit American voters to their cause through innovative communications.
• Scientists, Strike! Trump’s administration already instructed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove climate-change data and educational resources from its website — and the EPA has been threatened with personnel cuts of up to 50 percent! In response, a plethora of rogue websiteshave sprung up to preserve the censored information — and on April 22, Earth Day, thousands of scientists are expected to attend the March for Science in Washington, DC, and other cities, “to bring people together in a strong unifying message,” says Jacqueline Gill, a Maine paleontologist who initiated the March after Trump’s inauguration, “that science is important to our citizens, it’s important to our nation, and that we are going to hold our elected representatives accountable to that.” I hope this will not be a one-off, but that scientists in every discipline (except, perhaps, the actual delivery of medical services) will mount a work-action on behalf of the planet in 2018. As environmental leader Bill McKibben wrote in 2014, after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that was promptly ignored, “It’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. . . . [It might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more.” Earth Day 2018, anybody?
• Universal Basic Income: To bring the computer revolution to its logical conclusion and let everyone celebrate the fact that robots and computers are making “jobs” obsolete,former president of SEIU Andy Stern is has urged in his new book, Raising the Floor, a universal basic income in the U.S. of $12,000 per adult. The implication — a more leisurely, equitable, happy society that cultivates our humanity more than our productivity — is mind-blowing.
• Don’t wait for government: The Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York recently ran an exhibit called “By the People: Designing a Better America,” showing sixty profoundly innovative community projects, in various stages of development, that promise to transform neighborhoods of persistent poverty into paradigms of smart urban planning and design, community policing, cooperative businesses, and much, much more. We need to remember Obama’s slogan — Yes we can! — because we already are, in many American communities!
These are just a few sketchy ideas that reflect my belief that progressives need to focus on innovation, and that some of the dissatisfaction that brought Trump to power can be steered towards social-justice goals if our innovations speak to working-class needs and desires. By the time this essay sees light of day, half of the proposals will probably be taking form, for there’s energy out there.
Such activism takes money — but hey, the ACLU recently raised $24 million, 600 percent of its annual budget, from more than 350,000 online donors in a single weekend! The money is there — it’s ideas, networking, and sophisticated communication that we need.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.