Panelists Differ over Whether Jewish Self-interest Leads to Isolation

Panelists looking into the attitudes of the American Jewish community agreed here that American Jews are “turning inward” but differed sharply over whether this meant a trend toward Jewish self-isolation. The discussion took place during the annual plenary of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC) which closed over the weekend.

Rabbi Balfour Brickner, directer of inter-faith activities for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, decried the “withdrawal mentality” which, he said, “concentrates only on Israel, Soviet Jews, Jewish education and similar issues which are considered survivalistic interests.” He warned that this can push American Jewry “into an uncharacteristic posture of social and political conservatism.” The Reform rabbi expressed concern that the Jewish community could “lose our youth” if an “hysterical approach” is left unchallenged to threaten Jewish life with “suicide by assimilation or introversion.”

But Sidney Z. Vincent, executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, contended that by “turning inward,” Jews are acting with enlightened self-interest. He claimed that becoming more Jewish does not mean a turn toward isolationism. “The best of our Jewishly committed young people have not resigned one whit of social vision,” he declared.

He said that a consequence of the new trend is that Jewish institutions–community centers, social service agencies and others–”are being increasingly examined not only on technical excellence, but on their Jewish credentials.”

Judge Jacob T. Zuckerman, president of the Jewish Labor Committee, saw the Jewish community “confused” and its leadership divided by a polarization between two versions of liberalism. One interprets liberalism in traditional terms of “equal treatment for all” while the new liberalism has relaxed the standard in favor of “preferential treatment” for disadvantaged groups, Judge Zuckerman said. He warned that “many Jews are part of Middle America” and would abandon the liberal movement “if we abandon our advocacy of equal justice.”

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