Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Jewish Unity, Chick-fil-A and Time Magazine

LAST WEEK'S TIME MAGAZINE international edition was entitled “The Battle for Jerusalem: How the Holy City Became the Front Line in the Struggle for Israel’s Jewish Identity”. It focuses on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat HaYovel, a secular stronghold that has recently seen a mass migration of Chareidi (often translated as Ultra-Orthodox) Jews. Jerusalem, and Israel, is portrayed as being in the midst of a nationwide religious civil war. Time magazine is correct about the assertion, they are just focusing on the wrong society.

The truth is, America’s religious divide is widening while in Israel it is trending towards unity. The Chick-fil-A controversy shed light on the intense emotions latent in American society about religion.

When Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy said on a radio show that he thought that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, gay rights groups protested, some starting a “kiss-in” in objection to Cathy’s comments. Gay marriage opponents responded by having a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day”, where the fast food chain broke sales records. Republican politicians followed suit, and tweeted out pictures of them and their staff eating Chick-fil-A sandwiches.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) tweeted a picture of a spread of the fast-food chain’s famous sandwiches that served as lunch for his Washington office staff.

Louie Gohmert @replouiegohmert

This might all sound somewhat ridiculous, but I think it actually shows a passionate and religious divide in America today. Our political parties are becoming more and more intertwined with religion and the two sides are becoming hardened in their beliefs.

The gay marriage debate is now in the same place in society as the abortion debate. To be a Democrat means to be pro-choice and pro-gay marriage and to be a Republican means to be pro-life and anti-gay marriage. One’s political affiliations are becoming more and more connected to one’s religious beliefs. There does not seem to be much room for discussion or middle ground, so we are left with protests and counter protests. A candidate simply can’t run for their party’s nomination without making it clear that they fall in line with their party’s position on these two vital social, and religious, issues.

Meanwhile, in Israel, things are slowing getting better. Israel will always be a complicated mix of religion and politics. It is a democracy founded by and for a religious group. That is rife with complexity. Plus, the population of Israel is made up of Jews from all over the world, many of whom have different customs and cultures. It is a real melting pot, and as opposed to America, many of these cultures were thrust together during the founding of the country itself.

Now many generations in to the State of Israel, many of the early cultural differences have subsided. In October 2011, The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick wrote an insightful article pointing out the multitude of ways that Israeli society is becoming more unified. Different segments of the population getting a better understanding of each other, living together and marrying each other. Chareidi IDF conscription rates are at all-time highs and secular Israelis are becoming more connected to their Judaism. It is far from perfect and there are certainly people that are actively creating discord, but they are becoming more and more the exception to the rule. In time, these groups will be shunned.

In America the Jewish community is becoming more unified as well. The denominations are working together and looking at each other less and less as enemies and more as a collective. There are still major ideological differences, but the rancor and animosity is no longer there. Productive conversations are replacing ad homonym attacks as the mode of communication between disparate groups. This very website shows the openness of Rabbis from different denominations to come together for the good of the Jewish people and show that we can share ideas in a respectful way, even as we disagree on fundamental Jewish concepts.

The Time magazine article seemed to be trying to create a controversy where none exists. At its core it is telling the story of a neighborhood changing as a different population moves in. This sounds like the neighborhood where I grew up in Miami. Where was Time magazine to cover that story? Where is the cover story on hipsters moving to Williamsburg or yuppies to the Lower East Side? This isn’t an international cover story; it is barely a pressing local story.

The Jews of Israel and the Diaspora are not perfect nor are we completely unified, but we are trending in that direction. I’m not sure I can say the same about American society.


Joshua Strulowitz (@RabbiStrul on Twitter) is Rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan.