Israel Exports “Radical Extremist Judaism” to U.S. Universities

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I’m writing barely tongue in cheek, but the recent story, which you can read here, of the plan  by the Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry to channel funds to orthodox student groups on college reminds me of the way in which Saudi Arabia has over the years financed the establishment of Wahabi institutions of Islamic learning and community across the Muslim world, twisting and distorting the values of that religious tradition.  That’s one way to read the gross attempt by the government of Israel to remake the liberal American Jewish community into its own right-wing image.

In addition to money for Hillel, the plan funds two orthodox campus groups –Habad and Olami. Which makes one wonder. Will these groups, Hillel included, be promoting democracy, citizenship, pluralism, peace and coexistence, human rights? Or is the point  to sweep the occupation under the rug in the service of tribal ethno-nationalism couched as cheerful hasbarah? And what kind of Judaism? Do the planners think that Orthodox Judaism will be the face of American Jewish culture on the liberal campus? Will they promote Jewish settlement in “Judea and Samaria,” the “right” to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, and rebuilding the Third Temple?

Here are some of the details and first response from voices from the American Jewish establishment as reported in Ha’aretz:

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry has announced a comprehensive project to “strengthen Jewish identity and the connection with Israel” among university students around the world. The budget for the project is 250 million shekels ($65.6 million) over two years, with a third of that sum coming from the government and the rest from Jewish groups and philanthropists. The budget will be divided equally between three organizations that work with Jewish students: Chabad, Olami and Hillel, the first two being Orthodox groups.

 Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform Movement in North America, said he was aware of the new plan, but added, “This funding only addresses 20 percent of Jewish students and their needs since most students are not engaged with any of these organizations. It is a beginning, but we believe that much more needs to be done to reach out to a broad range of Jewish students, especially in a time of great complexity.”

 Other U.S. Jewish sources were less enthusiastic. An official at one American Jewish organization said Israel was poised to give tens of millions of shekels to groups that represent only a small portion of American Jewry, and that are not prepared to work with the other streams. This lack of proportion, he added, gives the impression that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry is trying to export the communal distortions that exist in Israel to communities abroad. He called this a worrisome and dangerous trend.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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12 Responses to Israel Exports “Radical Extremist Judaism” to U.S. Universities

  1. dmf says:

    “Will these groups, Hillel included, be promoting democracy, citizenship, pluralism, peace and coexistence, human rights? Or is the point to sweep the occupation under the rug in the service of tribal ethno-nationalism couched as cheerful hasbarah?” indeed, tragic that this is a real question, in some ways modern democratic interests are contrary to conservation, perhaps this is why some committed democrats/cosmopolitans have turned to philosophical pragmatism and or process theologies to temper their judaism in ways which are more forward looking than backwards?

  2. A says:

    Too bad philosophical pragmatisms and process theologies are sands in which otherwise thoughtful folks seem to bury their heads. Wanna look forward? Look for BDS. Academic retreats from political realities are no way forward, despite seeming more attractive than Hillel to concerned people of conscience.

  3. “Do the planners think that Orthodox Judaism will be the face of American Jewish culture on the liberal campus?” Given a few more decades of assimilation by the non-Orthodox, Orthodox Judaism may well be the face of American Jewish culture period. “This funding only addresses 20 percent of Jewish students and their needs since most students are not engaged with any of these organizations.” I have a feeling that the denominational allegiance of young non-Orthodox American Jews is not so powerful that it precludes their participation in activities associated with Orthodox organizations. As for the “right” to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, I would say it is no more deserving of scare quotations then the “right” of Muslims to pray at the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.

    • zjb says:

      to be sure, a lot of non-orthodox students “like” Habad. It really depends though on the political goods that are going to be put on sale. My bet it that it goes beyond traditional kiruv. At any rate, most Jewish students on campus are non-orthodox, so one wonder about the politics. Re: Jewish religious extremism, this claim to a right to pray at Har Ha’Bayit is of very, very recent vintage and says something about the radicalization of the religious right in Israel. In my day back in the 80s and even 90s, no one even thought this to put this on the agenda.

  4. milx says:

    They obviously believe that Orthodox Judaism is the best way to strengthen Jewish engagement w/ Judaism and Israel. Maybe they’re wrong, but how confident are you? There are a lot of reasons to believe their hypothesis is correct and that investing in weak ties only promotes disengagement, whereas strong ties promote ongoing engagement even among unobservant students. It’s about aspirational culture – is the mean a fully engaged, traditional, invested in foundational theological values Judaism, or a Tikkun olam liberalism borrowing Jewish rhetoric to color an overwhelmingly secular humanist vision of society? The former gets you particularism which the Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry obviously wants. The latter gets you universalism and dissolving bonds. Or at least that’s the [imo, very convincing] theory of the case.

    • dmf says:

      ” strong ties promote ongoing engagement even among unobservant students” not so much when you look at the attendance numbers, that’s the bigger question really does one want conformity/purity and diminishing numbers or tolerance and unruliness/congestion (one can see how a more representative body in the US congress leads to gridlock) ?
      gets messy to say the least in relation to governing nation states as for student groups that’s an increasingly fringe phenomena at best, one wonders also about Jewish studies in the US as the beancounters come to rule administrations.

      • milx says:

        Ultimately the proof is in the pudding. 50 years from now it won’t matter what we prefer, it will only matter what exists. Which isn’t to say that dissent from tradition will disappear, but that it will take on new forms as the critiques of the previous dissent are assimilated and the dissenters have gentile grandchildren (or more likely acc to secular Western trends no grandchildren at all).

      • dmf says:

        sure broadly speaking (tho is there really more to “tradition” than what those who speak in its name/authority say it should be?) but that’s always true and yet we are still faced with the here and now and what we will do and sow, as for secularity and the future the vast majority of folks (even among those who are categorized as “nones” in the surveys) still have some kind of super-natural beliefs (see the recent post here about newage jews) the question seems more how organized/institutionalized will such beliefs/believers be, there I think the atomization/consumerization trends (of social media and the like) will continue as peoples’ work (and so living conditions) become more precarious (not much chance these days in most US cities for non-immigrant community based houses of worship and all).

    • zjb says:

      the other theory is that Israel is selling a smelly bill of goods that only orthodox Jews are willing to purchase

      • dmf says:

        there are certainly cost/benefit possibilities, to switch it a bit to yer day job one doesn’t have to go down the whole derridean route to see that the idea(l) of remaining true/faithful is in some sense an invoking of extra/supra-human author-ity , as we poor alltoohuman critters cannot help but makes things different just by using them (in varying settings, for varying purposes, in varying ways, with/for varying assemblies, etc) and so seems to raise the question of are ( and or can) our evolving norms more than contingent collages of the desires/interests of the players at hand and the means they employ?

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