Old Beliefs Die Hard

The Jewish New Year was a big deal for both my family and the Jewish community in which I grew up. The synagogue in our community had mostly fallen into disuse by the beginning of the decade of the 1970s, though the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur still brought people back to the beautiful old building in a small town in Rhode Island for at least a few years during that decade. Most families, or their children, had moved away and to different lives. As a kid, I remember the wife of the temple’s elder, Mrs. Sternback, her shoulders gently heaving in the front pew of the sanctuary, her tears shed for her son, one of three Jews from our town who were killed in World War II, whose picture hung in the common room of the temple and whose name was memorialized on a plaque that hung on a wall only a few feet from this bereft old woman.

Mrs. Sternback was not to be defined solely by her grief, however. She built a business from its beginnings selling kerosene to residents of the town into a thriving service station long before the deleterious effects of fossil fuels were known.

I knew I was different and an outsider in my community, but tolerance of those different from most people there seemed to be a given, or at least that’s how it seemed to a kid.

Now, as a member of the aging generation of baby boomers, I still have substantial feelings about my heritage, even though the religious aspect of my background has long since fallen away. Synagogues that I’ve joined over the years were necessarily different from that of my childhood. The mobility of the society moved people far away, and with the loss of the immigrants who founded the Rhode Island temple in my small town, came the loss of cohesiveness that I mourn even now.

When I joined a temple in upstate New York a few years ago, it was mostly a way of connecting to others and trying to preserve a part of that feeling of community from so many years ago, but it didn’t work and I found myself at odds with the temple’s rabbi over an issue of militarism and almost like a stranger among the temple’s membership. When I tried again this year to reconnect with that temple, the same feelings of apprehension came back and I knew that what once was could never happen again. I could never replicate the sense of community, no matter how hard I searched.

A few years ago, I joined a peace group close to the town where the temple was located. I found the same sense of strangeness when I spoke to the group’s leader about an issue relating to anti-Semitism I had experienced in the town where I now live in Massachusetts. He, the group’s leader, seemed disinterested in the issue, as had been a local rabbi from a nearby temple to which I did not belong.

Among secular Jews and what’s known as unaffiliated Jews, those who belong to no synagogue, such as myself, Zionism remains an issue that presents a flash point.

The Pew Research Center’s May 2021 report “U.S. Jews have widely differing views on Israel” seems in keeping with trends in the attitudes of US Jews:

Israel, the world’s only Jewish-majority country, is a subject of special concern to many Jews in the United States. Caring about Israel is “essential” to what being Jewish means to 45% of U.S. Jewish adults, and an additional 37% say it is “important, but not essential,” according to a new Pew Research Center survey that was fielded from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020 – well before the latest surge of violence in the region. Just 16% of U.S. Jewish adults say that caring about Israel is “not important” to their Jewish identity.

A majority of Jews in the US want the conflict between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors to end peacefully with a just result. However, those attitudes are complex and can be fueled and manipulated by new flare ups of violence in the region that seem unending and part of the geopolitical landscape of a seemingly endless and costly set of circumstances that the majority of US political leaders have long ago jettisoned and is primarily a human rights issue. To those in power in the US and to those in power in Israel, Israel’s role in the ongoing mayhem in the Middle East makes a Palestinian state a solution which appears farther and farther away on a disappearing horizon. Full rights for Palestinians within Israel is also a pipe dream.

Support and funding of Israel within the ruling duopoly is nearly unanimous and woe to any politician who opposes Israel’s military interests or military spending. Criticize Zionism as a Jew and legions of naysayers will either libel or slander a person as a self-hating Jew. The demand of those in power is to ignore the fact that both the Gaza Strip and West Bank need to be an independant Palestinian state.

In February 2022, these were the figures for proposed US foreign aid to Israel:

For FY2022, the Biden Administration requested $3.3 billion in FMF for Israel and $500 million in missile defense aid to mark the fourth year of the MOU. The Administration also requested $5 million in Migration and Refugee Assistance humanitarian funding for migrants to Israel.

If a Jew is critical of these kinds of outlays considering the Jewish admonition to repair the world and stop doing that which is reprehensible to others, then the self-hating Jew slander will come into play. It’s about money and it’s about power. And the money and power have now fallen on the war in Ukraine and on Russia, so the plight of the Palestinian people falls into the background.

Membership in a church and church attendance has fallen sharply in the US according to a Gallup poll (March 21, 2021):

Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

The latter is meaningless when religious fundamentalism is factored in as it operates in the US. Religious fundamentalism remains an opiate for some and casts significant influence on the Republican Party. Among some fundamentalists, Israel remains a place where they hope the final battle of humankind will be waged.

When I see the banner “I stand with Israel” on the Facebook photos of relatives and others, I recoil at how that point of view does nothing to solve Israel’s role as a security state in the Middle East and how the plight of the Palestinian people seems almost as an afterthought for many, or a roadblock to others of Israel’s hegemony in the Middle East.

My secular connection to Judaism comes from my days of resistance to the Vietnam War and my connection to the New Left. I am a true believer of those ancient beliefs to repair a broken world and not to do to others that which one finds reprehensible. Even in the mayhem of the real world, those beliefs remain unshakable and they give me solace. Faced with the far right’s tenacity with the extreme chants of “Jews will not replace us!”, and with the US moving toward the right, the demand for informed believers on the left is as great as ever.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).