Moderated by Howard Weisband – Jerusalem Center Fellow and Board Member, former Secretary General of the Jewish Agency for Israel
The first question is from David Elazar. Are American Jews worried about anti-Semitism on the campuses, which will have a greater impact on the future of the United States? I see this as more dangerous than anti-Semitism on the right which has been around for decades.
Every poll that we have looked at in terms of the issues of anti-Semitism would suggest that the campus agenda deserves and requires a good deal of attention. Part of that is specifically tied to the notion of a kind of racist theory or identity theory that sort of suggests the cancel culture notions, the idea of intersectionality, and the discounting of Israel as somehow a pariah a state. So my concern here is that the attention of the established Jewish community to this issue and to the politics surrounding it is of critical importance moving forward
I’ll agree with that absolutely. Bari Weiss in Tablet Magazine wrote a big piece that focuses on this very issue. It is something the American Jewish community is very focused on, working with partners at Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition and others to push back on the scourge of anti-Semitism on campus. We are in a place I believe where we can’t pick and choose and say that this brand of anti-Semitism is more or less polite or dangerous or okay than any other sort of brand. So whether it’s coming from the left or the right or from Islamist radicals I think that we need to use the same sledgehammer to pound it down.
On the issue of anti-Semitism, we had a new variant this past week that I want to single out as anti-Semitism. I’m speaking about the statement of Christiane Amanpour. Anybody who takes the Holocaust and makes light of it by saying that there are other forms of anti-Semitism out there and make a comparison between President Trump and what happened in Nazi Germany, that cheapens the Holocaust and sets the stage for relating to it in a very superficial and hurtful manner for the Jewish people. So I think that’s a new variant. You might have seen it before, but I think it’s a real problem and it’s a problem we have to answer firmly and not just let it slide away because a half of an apology came out from CNN.
Regarding the issue of anti-Semitism on campus, I think we have to really be careful in how we use the term “on campus.” There are thousands of campuses in the United States. If we’re going to say that the average Jewish college student experiences anti-Semitism on campus, we have to back that up with data and I’m not so sure we can do that. I know that on certain campuses there are questionable issues and there’s certainly anti-Semitic faculty and a lot of horrible things going on, but I think we have to be objective and consistent in how we look at it and we might be able to refine the word “on campus” to really direct it to specific campuses.
The next question is from Sheldon Shore. Will Biden pursue Israel’s path of normalization with its Arab neighbors with the same energy and interest as Trump?
Tthere is a problem that exists, but it’s very repairable with goodwill. In certain liberal quarters in the United States there is a dislike of the Arab Gulf States. There is a preference for doing business with the Palestinians and the Arab Gulf States come under a greater deal of criticism. Therefore, I can see that a Biden administration might be reluctant to put all the stress of diplomacy on the Arab Gulf States and might try and go back to Mahmoud Abbas, either alone or in concert with a few other countries. But I think that should be dealt with and I think these countries – and I speak to them – need to be assured that America is there for them, that America will help them with their security challenge coming from Iran, and will not be negligent about the national security of our Gulf partners.
I would agree with that commentary as being something we need to be on the lookout for. In public and private conversations with folks around Vice President Biden, they express a commitment to continuing down this path, a recognition of probably one of the few achievements that they would publicly speak about to Trump’s foreign policy. But the issues surrounding looking at the Gulf States through a human rights, political rights magnifying glass is something that is very vocally connected to progressive elements here in Washington in the think tank community and elsewhere.
My thinking on it is that maybe that is exactly the sort of card that those Gulf States could use. Pulling out a normalization card with Israel is a way to push back against that breeze that’s blowing. Because it seems to me if, for instance, our Saudi cousins were to really jump into this and put normalization with Israel on the table, it would be a very quick way to silence that portion of the progressive community as far as the influence they would have on the incoming Biden administration. So I think the door is open. I think it’s something we need to be cautious of and I think it’s something that frankly we all and the State of Israel should work towards ensuring that there’s a smoother glide path towards achievement.
A last and far-reaching question: Lately there have been many very pessimistic opinions about the future of American Jewry and the questioner would like comments from the panel on the future of American Jewry.
I am a person who focuses on the possibilities rather than the negative scenarios. My sense is that we are seeing a huge amount of creativity. Even in this moment of the pandemic, the extraordinary amount of Jewish learning that is going on, the capacity to even engage in conversations around Israel, and the dynamics of change that is happening in the American Jewish community. Yes, it will be a community in major transition demographically, economically, and structurally, but it is a community that also has this extraordinary capacity for creative reinvention and adaptability, and that is what we will see. The question will be where Israel fits into that scenario, and that will be one of the major testing issues or challenges.
I agree with Professor Windmueller enthusiastically. When we started our podcast five years ago, we were anticipating that a Jewish podcast would gather something along the lines of maybe a few thousand listeners, maybe tens of thousands if we were lucky. The number now is in the many millions, which is not primarily a testament to what we do, but a testament to the tremendous interest and engagement that so many people have. If you’re looking for the same kind of institutional structures or commitments or ways of expressing your Jewish identity that we have seen for decades, you’re not going to find it there. But if you travel, as I did before we were all quarantined, and talk to people and get people to share their own Jewish journeys, you see not just how passionate so many people are about discovering their own paths into Judaism, but also how passionate they are about making these paths their own. We’re now seeing all these diverse engagements that are no less – in fact much more – profound, meaningful, and true for being truly authentic to how people engage with their own faith in their own community.
I was just asked by Mosaic Magazine to do a lecture series on the Arab-Israel conflict and the Middle East, and I do not remember anything like that occurring when I lived in Morningside Heights and went to Columbia. That did not exist, but now it does, and now there are people who are interested. These are creative ideas that are coming up of how to share Jewish and Israel topics between the Israeli and the American Jewish community.
I would just add that I agree for sure there are major problems in the American Jewish community and continuity and connectivity and the whole sort of bowling alone endeavor where folks are not joining organizations. I do think that in this pandemic we’ve seen a bright potential future as we have adapted as a people. I’m reminded of David Harris from the American Jewish Committee who used to hold up a 1964 cover story of Look Magazine where the cover was on the vanishing American Jew, and David says, well, 56 years later Look Magazine has vanished, but the American Jewish community is still here. So I think it’s important to take a step back and have a long view on these issues.