Special report in The Economist: Judaism and the Jews

I’ve decided that periodically I’ll highlight special issues of publications. Well, I’ll do it this time and once more at least.  The Invention of Tradition, no?

Special report in The Economist: Judaism and the Jews


  • Alive and well The lead story.
  • Judaism in the diaspora: A buffet to suit all tastes “Despite Conservative and Reform efforts to stop the slide, the largest religious denomination among American Jews today is ‘none’, and it is getting larger” “‘We’re living in an age of pick-and-choose,’ says Amichai Lau-Lavie, a young Israeli teacher and actor who devised this storytelling technique. ‘The Orthodox say Judaism’s not a buffet. Well, guess what: Judaism is a buffet. But most people are not informed enough consumers to make choices. My job as a guide is to provide a really great buffet. Then the next step is how to move from ‘I want to’ to ‘I feel obliged to’.’ Mr Lau-Lavie, who lives in New York, is preparing to return to his homeland—as Israel’s first openly gay rabbi.”
  • An open invitation A rather dry introduction to Chabad, “Steven Cohen, the Reform-affiliated sociologist, notes wryly that with its 3,200 shluchim in America alone, and another 2,000 around the world, Chabad packs a more powerful evangelical punch ‘than all the members of all the non-Orthodox rabbinical associations combined’.”
  • Judaism in Israel: Talmud and cheesecake “46% defined themselves as secular, but only 16% said they did not observe tradition at all. Even that figure was probably too high, the researchers found. Only 6% said that circumcision was not important to them, and only 10% had no time for the Passover seder. Around 70% of the respondents said they eat only kosher food. Most observe the Sabbath, though only a third of the total ‘meticulously’, and most do not favour imposing those restrictions on others. An amazing 20% said they attended all-night study sessions on Shavuot.”  The “cheesecake” part refers to the widely practiced custom of eating dairy foods on Shavuot.
  • Israeli politics: More Jewish than thou “Mr Netanyahu calls his tripartite alliance the ‘national camp’ and implies that it is not only more patriotic than the ‘peace camp’ (meaning mainly those in opposition) but also somehow more Jewish.” “The whole history of the Jews has been a constant struggle to meet the values that we think are immutable…When Israel doesn’t struggle to meet them, then that impacts my identity as a Jew and I am diminished by that.'” “This fusion of Orthodoxy with what Mr Becker calls ‘death-narrative nationalism’ is the underpinning of Mr Netanyahu’s political success.” The author proceeds to argue, very strangely, that the Haredim “ought to be part of the ‘peace camp’, alongside the Israeli doves and the diaspora Jewish liberals.”. The whole special report is fully of similar wishful thinking about the Haredim. Hey, I wish Degel haTorah voted with Meretz and Labor, too, but that doesn’t make it likely. This still is probably the article I liked most.
  • Ideological divisions: Who is a Jew? This is a fun one. “Most German Jewish communities restrict their membership to halachic Jews only; that is, those born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in accordance with the halacha. Many of the Russian immigrants do not qualify for membership. Some of them undergo conversion; most do not, leaving them in a sort of Jewish limbo.” Focuses on the CIS countries, mostly ignores the problems of similar problems of US citizens making aaliyah.
  • Looking ahead: A Jewish spring? Birthright Israel tries to keep away from politics. “During 2,000 years of exile without a state, the Jews developed a sophisticated, sublimated reading of the Bible that is still embraced by the haredim. It would serve the faith better than the fundamentalism of settler rabbis.” “When haredim come up in conversation, diaspora leaders automatically shift from the first person plural to the third. That needs to change.” “Haredism, for all its religious extremism, is the natural enemy of nationalist extremism.” Again, kind of what the hell? In what universe is a liberal arguing for Haredim as a model? Still, this is one of the reasons I love the Economist: its authors are not required to constantly wear a mantel of false neutrality and “present both sides of the debate”, no matter how ludicrous one said is. No, writers for the Economist must simply maintain an air of authority, even if they’re merely a twenty-something Oxbridge grad. It’s actually really refreshing to read a periodical with a consistent conscience that is (weirdly) not afraid to speak truth to power.

Other stories from the issue, but not included in the “special report”:
Israel and Judaism: Pray for the doves Again, though, weirdly optimistic about the Haredim

Israel, Palestine and Hebron: Not so easy Actually, the answer is pretty easy. There’s no way to attach Hebron to Israel. There are only three options for Israel: permanent occupation, complete abandonment, or working out a nice deal to keep part of it under Israeli control (perhaps like Ataturk’s house in Salonica, which literally has the Turkish consulate built around it). Of course, that would require giving the same sovereignty and control to the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa. Painful choices for Israel’s right. It’s just not that hard to conceptualize; it’s just hard to eat one’s cake and have it, too.

Communal living for Jewish youth: An innovative approach to Judaism
A human interest story.

Daily chart: Mapping Judaism:

Mapping Judaism in The Economist

It’s kind of amazing to see it all laid out like that. The US and Israel together are 81%. Smaller communities not listed: Turkey, Colombia, Venezuala, Iran. You probably just were looking at the map, huh? Look at the bar graph, too. Each period is a different story. 1900-1939: the expansion and creation of the American Jewish Community. 1939-1948: the destruction of Eastern European (but not Soviet) Jewry during the Shoah. 1948-1970: the growth of Israel and the exodus of Jews from the Middle East (especially the Arab states) under anti-Semitic pressure 1970-2010: the break-up of the Soviet Union which finally allows Eastern European and CIS Jews to leave.

It’s interesting to think what will happen 2010-2040. Will the consolidation of Jews in the US and Israel continue? Will (Israeli) Jews move back to Europe? The former is what I see in Turkey, the latter is what I read about in newspapers every year (seriously, every few months there’s an article about Israelis in Berlin who are sick of a right-wing or religious Israel, but it seems like more of a NYT trend than a demographic one). Or will there be a major shift with hundreds of thousands of Americans moving to Israel or hundreds of thousands of Israelis moving to America? I honestly have no idea.

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  1. […] this week, I mentioned that I loved the Economist because it has an opinionated editorial voice even in straight news articles, because it seeks (with […]

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