We will never find our synthesis

Times of Israel 12/9/16

Of all the wrap-ups of the 2016 US Presidential election, Prof. Yehuda Mirsky’s essay on ‘the new Jewish Question’ has had the most profound impact on me. In a sweeping historical overview, Professor Mirsky comments how the new global populist waves bring Jews back into the passion plays of the right and the left. The tension between Jews as a particularist tribe and Judaism as a universalist creed gives both liberal democrats and ethnic populists something to admire and something to attack.

Mirsky’s diagnosis leaves no instruction other then to safeguard the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of worship and utilize them to help create the new intellectual underpinnings for global politics.

Reading through his essay, I was struck by the systemic view with which he perceives the Jewish people. Here is a tribe, a particular people with familiar links- the Jews. The Jews, however have a universalist mission, Judaism. Jewish values are not distinct to Jews, it is in fact the Jewish mission to bring our values to the world. What we are is a particular delivery system for a universalist message.

That contradiction is what is motivating so much of the Jewish communal angst on so many different levels. For the majority of American Jewry, the liberal Jews who form a key part of the Democratic party, Tikkun Olam is the guiding philosophy. Social justice, repairing the world, the expression of Jewish values writ large, is what we are about. What happens in the shul is less important than the work we do outside of it. It is no surprise that Zionism, the ultimate expression of the Jewish people as a tribe, is causing such heart ache with liberal Jewish America, that is struggling to come to terms with the particularism that liberal nationalism demands.

While the world outside the synagogue walls motivates the majority of US Jews, to the minority that voted for the Republicans it was overwhelmingly the world inside the Shul that mattered. The strong bonds of community, faith and tribe, the particularism of Jews and the needs of Jews as a people link this community far closer to the mindset of the Jews of Israel, where the particularist part of their identity shares more in common with the global populist wave.

While the polices of the government of Israel and the US might make up the foreground of the rifts within the global Jewish community, the background is the tectonic shifts and tensions between our universalist and particularist identities. The unending controversy of ‘who is a Jew’ alongside practice of reform Judaism within the State of Israel is part of the challenging of the paricularist shibboliths that are the bedrock of the tribal leaders of Israeli Jewry.

Reflecting on Mirsky’s writing, I was struck how the oscillation he described resembles a similar struggle that the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) described in his seminal book, ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’. The Rav describes man as both majestic and covenantal. Majestic man is a master of the universe, imposing his knowledge, culture and technology on the world. Covenantal man feels alienation and seeks companionship to relieve him of the existential alienation of creation. The Rav famously describes how we oscillate between these two halves, both being an essential part of the human condition, but that we should not expect to find a synthesis between these two poles.

Looking at Mirsky’s essay I can see how our universalist mission can run alongside the majestic man of faith, global in scope self assured in its value to all. It is also easy to see how our particular instincts fall into the covenantal man, that the world is lonely, and that we seek comfort with others and with G-d as we go about our mission.

For the Rav. the Jews are a covenantal community that tries to bridge both parts of the human condition in their day in and day out activities. Neither aspect of the man of faith is superior. In Mirsky’s categorization, neither our universal values of Judaism nor our particular tribe as Jews takes precedence. Our job is to struggle between them.

In an uncertain world, one in which the political right and left will have their fetishes around Jews, our task is to carefully traverse the complexities of universal values as a particular people. If we manage to do this, without tearing ourselves to pieces, we will continue to be a light onto the nations as the world struggles to find its way forward.

Descent into demography

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 11/24/16

2016 has been a hard year for liberals and progressives around the Western world, but the election of Donald Trump, and the racist Alt-Right that have ridden in on his coattails, is the capstone on a year many of us would rather forget.

This election was not about common ground. It was not about compromises or progress. It was screaming “stop.” Stop to the rising healthcare premiums, stop to the disappearing jobs, stop to the changing demographic face of America, stop to social change that many found disconcerting.

It was a fearful cry.

One of the key characteristics of the Trump voter is social anxiety. Will their kids be as stable as they were in the country of their birth? Will newcomers get fasttracked to the middle class? Will someone listen to them if they are not a minority? Trump won because low-propensity white voters turned out in historic numbers in swing states, and the multiethnic Democratic coalition did not. America’s changing demographic face led Trump to campaign that “this would be the last election” in which a Republican would stand a chance, as amnesty for illegal immigrants would ensure a locked-in Democrat majority.

Demographic fears are something that should be familiar to Israeli voters. The now infamous statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the Arabs voting in “droves” turned out his base to vote for the Likud in 2015. When given the choice between a prime minister that many might have issues with and a threatening demographic situation, Israeli Jews voted ethnicity first for fear of the others coming to get them.

It is not just the Right that has used demography in political campaigns in Israel.

Still today, many in the Center and the Left call for a two-state solution based on the demographic futures that they fear, and believe that this strategy will win over voters to their cause. This strategy has failed for the past decade and continues to create further obstacles to the political possibilities of the Arab parties in the Knesset needed to support a Center-Left coalition, something essential if the Center-Left ever wishes to form a government.

The descent into demography, to looking at someone’s racial identity as political destiny, is a challenging phenomenon for liberal democracies. If racial minorities are seen as demographic threats, every interaction with the minority is threatening and every child born is seen as another solider in the battle for supremacy.

This type of social anxiety is difficult to combat. It assumes a zero-sum game where if one group is succeeding, another by definition must be losing.

It can’t be that the progressive communities answer this social anxiety by giving up on hard-fought wins for marginalized communities. If coming together and listening to each other is just a form of surrender of one community to the other, then the zero-sum game continues and the societal divisions are exacerbated.

Rather than just attempting purposeless dialogue, we need to seek out shared projects where each community has a stake in the success of the outcome. If our communities are hopelessly divided, we need to find the activities that can bond them and help deal with the fear of the other that is fueling so much of the anxiety that hit a boiling point in this past election in America.

The former UK chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has written about a “home we build together” – the joint work of different groups in building shared institutions that form the backbone of a cohesive society.

In both America and in Israel, building inclusive projects, ones that have stakeholders from across the diverse communities that make up each society, are the foundation to realizing the equality that is promised in both Israel and America’s founding statements.

As the Left in both countries tries to examine their path forward, issues rather than demographics should be the rallying cry. Defending hard-won principles while finding common cause across people of different identity is the challenging but true path back to leadership.

If you are going to freak out – do it from informed position

So I posted this on Facebook but thought I would put it up here as well. Big thanks to Steve Schale the guru of Florida and Jon Ralston the guru of Nevada and Harry Enten of 538.

So for Brit friends who are freaking out over US election – I’ve done deep dive over past few days and some data points to keep in mind.

1) 538 odds are so different as they take into account systemic poll failure – so if polls are off in one state they are off in all states by same amount. Despite this every model has Clinton up across the board. If the NV EV is correct (see below) and the affect is systemic failure across the board in polling in every state, Clinton chances jump to 88%. If it is localized she gets a 2.8% bump.

2) With laws changing early voting (EV) is through the roof with perhaps as many as 40% of the vote in before Tuesday. In NV it appears the Dems has built a HUGE firewall that is impossible for GOP to overcome so can add that to HRC column. In addition CO EV 70% is in and things look good.

3) In FL the EV shows both sides neck and neck but record turnout from Hispanics who are making up 15% of electorate (up from 9% in 12). African Americans are at around 12.5% which means the FL electorate is less white then ever. It’s still tight but in the demographic charts far better to be Clinton then trump ATM. It appears that Miami-Dade county is 67% higher in turn out in EV then 2012. If they break for Clinton in same margin as they did for Obama – could be a blue wall of over 200k voters to run up the score. There is a chance that Miami-Dade could be the Clark County of Florida and the Hispanic vote could end the Trump run there.

4) The reason Clinton is finishing in Michigan and PA is because no early voting there. She is up 3-5 points but could be tight so makes sense to push there. She has built huge machines there and unlike in 08 when McCain pulled out of MI with four weeks to go or 12 when the auto bailout made it a lock for Obama it was always going to be tight. Trump decision to go to NV or weirder to Minnesota (to the most liberal district in the country) with 48 hours to go is bonkers.

None of this means it’s in the bag but taking NV off the table the Trump map gets harder and EV demographic data shows some good signs for Clinton in FL. Finally remember that even in states that Trump is ahead (OH, IA) he has to win, Clinton can afford to lose those. Trump has to have a perfect night, win every toss up and turn a big blue state – its a v hard thing to do.

The fact that he is on the ballot is already too close to be complacent but the one thing HRC does is plan and execute. So if you need to freak out so so from informed position (1 in 3 or 1 in 10 it’s still a chance) and know that we should have a clear picture early on if this is a blow out or will go to wire given the EV this year. As Sunday comes to close the polling averages shows a 3 point election for HRC as national base line.

Hope is not a strategy

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post on Oct 9th 2016 and is co-authored with Jeremy Saltan 

When asked about the future of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the White House press pool, Former United States President Bill Clinton, who had just returned from the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, stated that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will happen at some point because the young people in the region will demand it.

The assessment made by Clinton has been made by countless others in the past and is a mainstream position among policy makers –young Israelis will be our saviors. However, if one looks at the data, statistics, and polling of young people in Israel, it is quite clear that the next generation in Israel has a different view than many policy wonks.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on July 17, 2016, found among the 18-29 demographic only 35% supported the principle of ‘two states for two nations’ as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to 53% against it. The youngest voters were the least supportive of the two state solution. The poll results countered Clinton’s argument and found that the older the voter the more likely was voter support of a two state solution.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on the August 31, 2016, found a majority (54%) among the 18-29 demographic considered Haredi control over religion and state issues acceptable compared to a minority (43%) among the 50+ demographic.

The latest Pew poll conducted in Israel, arguably the most comprehensive polling ever conducted in Israel, found the younger age bracket (in this case 18-49) was more religiously observant and less supportive of two states than their elders. The younger demographic is more inclined to be supportive of settlements, believe that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel, believe that security is Israel’s biggest threat, believe that Israel was given to the Jews by G-d, favor gender segregation on public transportation, favor Halachah as a basis of law in Israel, and view the US as not supportive enough of Israel.

The policy positions of young Israelis trickle down to party affiliation and Prime Minister preference. A Midgam poll broadcast by Army Radio in 2015 found 18-29 year olds were the most likely to choose Netanyahu as Prime Minister (57%) and least likely to choose Herzog (19%). Midgam found the older the voter the more likely was support of Herzog over Netanyahu. A Teleseker poll published by Walla in 2013 found 67.6% of Bayit Yehudi voters were between the ages of 18-49, compared to 32.4% over the age of 50.

There is a clear trend that the younger generation is more religious and more right-wing than previous generations. While in most countries the younger population represents a more left wing and socially open constituency, in Israel the trend is actually the opposite.

It is our belief that this is due to at least two factors.

The changing demographics in Israel mean that the next generation is more religious. The official Israeli Social Survey of the Central Bureau of Statistics found the 18-29 demographic is more religious than the older demographics. The Haredi share of the 18-29 population is 12%. The national religious share is 13%, and the traditional share is 31%. Although secular Israelis make up a majority of the 50+ demographic (52%), they make up 44% of the 18-29 demographic. This trend is set to continue in the coming years as 28% of Haredim aged 40 or older have 7 or more children compared to less than 1% of secular Israelis.

These long term demographic changes adjust the make up of the younger generation and, given the separation within the Israeli education system, carries forward their communities’ belief systems in separate tracks.

While the demographics can help explain the religiosity of the younger cohort, their support for the right is not mere biological determinism. This is a generation that came of age during the second Intifada and its aftermath. The hope and promise of the 1990s means little to nothing to young Israelis. The political horizon of young Israelis has been one of stunted visions and conflict management. Given that reality, young Israelis’ skepticism of everything other than what they have experienced is understandable.

The purpose of this snapshot is to ground in reality the current situation of young people in Israel today. To believe young Israelis will demand a future that is different from their current experience, with all things being equal, does not bear out in the data. As time goes on the demographic realities of young Israelis manifest in overall poll numbers, such as a Panels poll in May that found 53% of Israelis in favor of applying Israeli law to at least some settlements in Judea and Samaria/West Bank.

Israeli youth differ from the progressive left wing wave of change that we see elsewhere in the world. The majority of young Israelis resemble and identify more with the governing right-wing religious coalition of Israel, not the left-wing secular opposition.

The hope of a rising youth that will demand the change President Clinton hopes to see coming from Israel is against all trends in the data. Rather than trusting gut feelings and being disappointed when the results don’t bare out, a realistic assessment of the current state of play should drive policy making and strategic considerations. Only with an eyes open approach can those who wish for a change in the status quo begin to build a strategy to achieve it.

Privileged and Victimized, the Duality of the American Jewish Condition

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz September 26th 2016

Two weeks ago Joseph Michael Schreiber, a Jewish man from Florida, was arrested for setting fire to the mosque that the Orlando nightclub gunman Omar Mateen attended. A local rabbi stated that Schreiber had gone to his synagogue last spring to study Torah for about a month, but there was nothing particularly remarkable about him.

The story made a brief appearance in the 24-hour news cycle, and the Jewish press picked it up, but that was it. There were no talking heads, no media stakeout of the synagogue, and no harassment of the family. The presidential candidates did not weigh in and no one paid much attention.

If Schreiber had been Muslim and his target a synagogue, we could be sure of an entire different reaction. The muted response to the case shows a privilege that the U.S. Jewish community holds that the U.S. Islamic community does not.

It is important to recognize and acknowledge that the American Jewish community has achieved a sense of integration, and in many cases assimilation, that provides it with the same protection as other white American groups.

It is incidents like the above that have led many progressive groups to claim that Jews in American are basically white. Our current circumstances are closer to the WASPs of America then to minority groups.

Coming from the U.K. but living in the U.S., it has been a strange experience to be described as white. For me, it was pretty clear from the start that Jews were a minority group within the U.K. like any other ethnic minority – I would always tick ‘other’ when identifying my ethnicity. It was a shock when I first was told that Jews were basically white in America.

Looking at the cesspool that is the “alt-right” that has emerged this election cycle and plagued us all with horrendous anti-Semitism, it should be abundantly clear that Jews are not as “white” as the term Caucasian presumes. American Jewish “otherness” sadly goes beyond the current tumult of this election season.

Looking at the FBI hate crime statistics for 2015, only 9.6% of all hate crimes in the U.S. were perpetrated against Jews. By way of comparison, 30% were against African Americans and 2.7% were against Muslim-Americans.

Even as American Jews enjoy political and economic power, there is a constant fear of a dark horizon that could come crashing down, and remove us from a place that we have worked so hard to get to. It is this tension, the fear that we might be once against subject to be discriminated against as an ‘other,’ that has motivated so many Jews to get involved in social justice issues in the first place. We know how quickly the tide can turn and a society that is truly inclusive for everyone will be a society that will always be inclusive for us as well.

Given our presumed privilege, Jews have found themselves of late outside the ‘intersectional tent’ that is suppose to link every sectors oppression with each other. Intersectionality is today’s progressive glue. Jews it seems are becoming unstuck as a group from within the progressive worldview. Evidence of this can be seen from the campus wars that claimed that the Holocaust was a ‘white on white’ crime to the reductions of the targeting of Jews in acts of terror as mere symbols of the state.

The duality of the American Jewish experience is complex and jarring for many. It is hard to grasp how a community that can get a public pass that the Islamic community could only dream of could also face such a staggering number of hate crimes.

It is precisely this duality however that makes the Jewish community the perfect ally to other ethnic and religious minorities. We know what it is to be accepted; we have seen the fruits of real integration while having an ability to understand what it is to be seen as different.

Despite the challenges, the discomfort and sometimes offense that has been caused of late, American Jews are a core constituency within the progressive movement and the struggle to reclaim our legitimate place within it matters not just for the success for the progressive movement, but for our own well being as well.