Sizing Up The Year To Come
Tue, 12/31/2013

 “No deal is better than a bad deal!” That was Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s pronouncement on the interim deal hammered out in Geneva to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But the complexity and thorniness of that issue could hold for any of the stories that will likely resonate in 2014. As 2013 comes to a close, Jews in New York and nationally are looking at Iran; at the governing coalition in Israel — will it address the haredi dilemma?; at Jewish security in Europe; at the peace process; and at nothing less than the present and future of America’s Jews in light of new demographic data.

Iran and Nukes

Netanyahu’s “No deal is better than a bad deal!” will tested in 2014, as an interim agreement on Iran reached on Nov. 24, will keep Iran’s nuclear program in check for six months while the parties pursue a tougher and more lasting accord. Under the terms of the pact, Iran will constrain its nuclear effort, and get some relief from financial sanctions from the U.S. and its partners.

The agreement illumined the fundamental differences between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Said Kerry: “The United States and Israel have the same goal” — that of pressuring Iran in order to slow down the nuclear program, in effect move the clock back. But the deal offers Iranian President Hassan Rouhani incentives so that he can sell the deal to his country. Said Netanyahu: the agreement is a disaster. The Israeli leader views himself as a Churchill, one who recalls that at Munich “appeasement” was not a bad word, but who said that appeasement would create war — as it did. With the Iran deal, argues Netanyahu, the same thing will happen, and the consequences will be disastrous. 

The Iran dilemma is one in which the experts on regional and global security classically advance a stronger position than do the diplomats; but the security gurus always distance themselves from armed conflict. So when the security establishment suggests that Israel will bomb Iran — as many security experts are suggesting — attention ought be paid. What truly are the risks to Israel?

But the underlying questions for 2014 in the Iran matter are those of American leadership on the world stage: “Is America retreating?” and “How will America’s direction on Iran will affect the U.S.-Israel relationship?”

The Coalition in Israel

The year gone by was a year of elections in Israel; the year ahead will be one that tests two key partners of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) which became surprising and key components of that coalition, the first one in living memory that managed to exclude haredi parties.  Will Bennett and Lapid — who have pledged to work toward haredi participation in key institutions of the society (the army and the workforce) — be able to act on their promises? Or will the haredi problem be too tough a nut to crack in the short term, especially with Iran and the peace process as minefields littering the political terrain? Also, will “good-government” parties like Yesh Atid simply disappear, in the pattern of Meimad, the Democratic Movement for Change, and Haderech Hashlishi of bygone times? As American Jewish Committee official Steven Bayme recalled, “Third-party reformist political parties dot the landscape of Israel’s history; the test of their viability is whether they can sustain public interest past their initial electoral foray.”

The Peace Process

Related, of course, is the peace process, a major question for 2014. The Obama administration seems to have woken up at long last, and Secretary of State Kerry has brought more energy to the job than anyone since Madeleine Albright. Kerry’s nine-month “window” — a proposal for Palestinians and Israelis to remain engaged in final-status negotiations for nine months — will expire in April. What happens when the window closes in April and no deal is reached? That’s the question for 2014. Analysts suggest that if there is no progress after six months (February), the U.S. may put its own proposal on the table. If Kerry asserts, “Israel is the problem,” there will be rifts in the U.S.-Israel relationship, and internally, in the Israeli coalition. 

Demographics of American Jews

Garnering much attention — sometimes even for the right reasons — were the findings from a survey of American Jews attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Center and released in October.  Among the Pew findings were that 22 percent of American Jews are “Nones,” claiming no religion; and that the phenomenon is generational, with the largest percentages of Nones among those born after 1980. Further, intermarriage is rising, and — most scary for the denominations — is the fact that they cannot seem to hold on to their members, even in the Orthodox world. For instance, the number of Conservative Jews has shrunk to 18 percent of all Jews, down significantly in a decade.

Reactions from the movements have been along the lines of the Talmudic “Kol ha-doresh, doresh l’atzmo” — “The one who analyzes, analyzes in his own interest.” There have been a number of analyses of the data, but so far we have seen mostly reflexive, defensive responses, especially from the movements. Thus Chabad: “We were undercounted!” Conservative: in effect, “We are interested in quality, not quantity.” And the Orthodox, triumphantly: “We told you so!”

One of the dilemmas emerging from the Pew numbers, a question that will be pondered in 2014 and long after, is that of what the future “face” of American Judaism will look like. Even with Orthodox success, the fact is that even the most progressive, the most lenient, of Modern Orthodox are completely out of touch with most of American Jewry on normative halachic issues. This reality, coupled with the decline of Conservative, leads some analysts to the view that, demographically, whatever Judaism there will be in America may come from Reform. This proposition will be tested in 2014.

The questions emerging from Pew are largely, but not exclusively, directed at the non-Orthodox movements, which are demographically challenged. More generally, however, the study asks, Are we losing our faith? Will there be a dumbing-down of what it means to be Jewish? The Pew story for 2014 will be whether the report will be a wake-up call, not only to the religious movements but to Jews generally; or will each group continue to validate what it is doing?

Jewish Security in Europe

Are the anti-Semites at the gates in Europe? Is murder of Jews again on the agenda in European lands? Hardly, but you wouldn’t know it from some of the rhetoric. Whichever view one takes, there is plenty to look at in Europe in 2014. 

American Jews will pay attention in 2014 to four discrete anti-Jewish expressions:

First, the rise of anti-Semitic political groups across Europe.  Long-standing questions of national identity have led to a new appeal of populist parties, with some of the mainstream population taken over by an extremist right. Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece, a resurgent Le Pen party in France, coming out of deep economic and social dissatisfaction, are dramatic examples, and will give Jews pause in 2014.

Second, the continued anti-circumcision campaign, a 21st-century expression of the old Enlightenment view of religion — especially Jewish religion — as a morass of superstition and barbarism.

Third, the rise of radical Islam in Europe.

Fourth, the denigration of Israel in some quarters — especially among British academics — as the worst state in the world.

Put together these four dynamics, and you have a Europe that may be becoming, for the first time since the 1930s, a place that is inhospitable to Jews. American Jews will watch for government reaction in European countries, and to European Jewish response, to these developments.

Jewish Communal Affairs

It doesn’t garner headlines, but arguably the most important Jewish story of the year is the status of our communal agencies. Whither our communal agenda, whither our Jewish infrastructure? Thirty years ago, the national agencies had full, vibrant, agendas — and they had an impact. With few exceptions, the national affairs agenda of Jewish groups is much diminished. This shift, together with the shift of the organizational center of gravity from “national” to “local,” is a major change in American Jewish life.

But the larger story to watch in 2014 is how Jewish communal agencies will manage the tensions between particularism and universalism; it’s one that is always present in American Jewish life, but — as demonstrated by the Pew numbers — it is now more pointed as we enter 2014. “Does Judaism need to include the outside world?” is a question that may be increasingly heard in the corridors of some agencies.

Agunot

Finally, almost a sideshow to the massive public-affairs agenda and to internal Jewish communal issues, the eternal agunah — “chained wife” — matter may be coming toward resolution. The issue, important in itself, has in recent decades become the typology of the Modern Orthodox-sectarian haredi strife. The otherwise-beleaguered progressive Orthodox community has announced the creation of an international bet din, or religious court, to address the issue, with sanction and support of a congeries of halachic experts and decisors from Israel, America and Europe.  The question raised by many Jews is not whether this court will, at long last, lead to a resolution of what is an unjust law, but why the agunah issue, long a priority for Jews of all stripes, has been with us for so long without solution.

Jerome Chanes, a frequent contributor, is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs and history.