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Daniel Johnson: Jack, you recently talked about a bipolar model of American Judaism today: a small minority of very active, innovative, creative people, many of them young, are transforming the nature of Jewish life in America, but then a larger group are voting with their feet, not going to synagogue, not participating in the religious life of the community, while still considering themselves to be Jewish. Ruth, how do you see this, looking at it from an academic vantage point at Harvard?  

Ruth R. Wisse: My own vantage point is to see things today in relation to the 1930s. I was born in east-central Europe in 1936. So my question is, "How does it stack up today compared to back then?" The American Jewish community seems to me, in every significant respect, much more dynamic, reliable, morally serious and politically effective than it was in the 1930s. I make the comparison because, immediately after the war, everyone believed that the situation of the Jews was bound to improve. By now, most thinking people realise that it might, in every significant way, be worse. The enemies ranged against the Jews are more powerful today in many respects than they were in the 1930s. In the 1930s there was still the idea of an alternative: the State of Israel would perhaps be created and provide a political alternative. Today the alternative is there so there isn't that new frontier to hope for. Robert Wistrich, one of the world's leading experts on anti-Semitism, thinks that anti-Semitism is a worse force today than it was back then. 

So how does American Jewry today cope with its situation and the situation of the Jews worldwide compared to the 1930s? Back then it was largely an immigrant community, politically disorganised. I don't think Jews had great experience with how they could work within a democratic framework. I look around today and I am astonished. You have AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], which is an extremely effective political organisation that has carved out a niche for itself by providing members of Congress with reliable information which they would find difficult to get otherwise. You have the Conference of  Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, an umbrella organisation which really does try to bring together the presidents of major Jewish organisations into a political framework that can be effective. You have groups which fight disinformation in the media: the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, HonestReporting. Now there's a lot of disinformation and bias in the media, and here you have groups that are organised to fight it. You have a UN Watch in Geneva and a UN Watch here in New York. You have tremendous investigative reporting. There are public opinion writers, like Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol. 

So I think one is incomparably better placed and better organised and more effective. The only thing is, even if all the Jews in America — every single one — were actively engaged in this type of work, on behalf of truth and on behalf of Israel, it might still not be enough. 

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May 9th, 2011
5:05 PM
I believe you are missing the point. Professor Wisse is highlighting that Chabad is willing to say this is what we believe and you can agree if you like. At Hillel, they engage students in conversation, but no position is taken and all positions are acceptable. This is a fundamentally different approach to education. This is part of Hillel's philosophy around the country and has not changed in 2 years.

May 5th, 2011
10:05 PM
With all due respect to Professor Wisse, it is unclear how she is qualified to comment on what happens at Harvard Hillel. That is not to say that Harvard Chabad is not as she describes. The Chabad House is a wonderful organization with a truly committed and dedicated couple running it. But, she admits to visiting Harvard Chabad. On the other hand, Dr. Wisse has not been in Harvard Hillel in at least two years, if not longer. From what basis does she make such free wielding comments about the state of the organization? Harvard Hillel engages its students in deep conversations about Jewish identity, faith and theology. There are classes in Talmud, Jewish thought, Parsha and other topics weekly at Harvard Hillel. Perhaps Dr. Wisse should stay to her expertise on Yiddish and not comment on things she is just simply unqualified to speak on.

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