It was the generational divide in the Jewish community laid bare.
On one side of the canyon was Malcolm Hoenlein, the 68-year-old executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the consummate Jewish establishment figure. On the other was Yehuda Kurtzer, the 36-year-old president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America think tank, a young “idea” guy who represents a frontal assault on the Jewish establishment.
The two shared a stage at Sutton Place Synagogue on the East Side last Tuesday night in a program on the U.S.-Israel relationship sponsored by The Jewish Week and moderated by the paper’s editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt. But there was little else they shared.
Hoenlein, whose grandparents perished in the Holocaust and who cut his teeth as a leader of the Soviet Jewry movement, represents the power politics of a Jewish community he has served throughout his career. Feared by some, widely respected on the national and international scene, his view of Jewish life is animated by the twin pillars of Jewish powerlessness and Jewish power. For Hoenlein, when it comes to Israel and the Jews (apologies to the great soul singer Jerry Butler), only the strong survive.
Kurtzer, who is of diplomatic royalty (his father, Dan Kurtzer, is a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt), was born after the “miracles” of 1948 and 1967. For him, Jewish identity isn’t defined by fear, where enemies lurk around every corner. Kurtzer wants to be a “convener of conversations” about what being Jewish means in 2013, with the Holocaust and ’48 and ’67 in the rear-view mirror and fading fast for Jews his age.
During the hour-long conversation the two jabbed at one another politely. On Israel’s plan to build in the controversial E1 area of the West Bank, Hoenlein railed at the media’s coverage of the “barren hillside” and how other problems were much more pressing. “Then why keep it?” Kurtzer retorted. “You can’t have it both ways.”
About the bloated roster of Jewish organizations, Hoenlein said many do a better job than they’re given credit for, though there was probably some duplication. Kurtzer said they should all be made to prove their relevance to a new generation. He pointed to the success of the independent minyan movement, which tapped a desire for meaningful worship that young people felt they weren’t getting in the Conservative movement. And he told a revealing story about asking an official at a major Jewish organization what the group’s plan was for attracting Jews under 50. When they turn 50, they’ll join, Kurtzer was told.
The generational divide between the two opened widest when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the notion of Jewish power. Hoenlein, while admitting Israel makes mistakes, laid the blame for the impasse squarely at the feet of a weak Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, making a strong case that there is no partner with whom to negotiate. Kurtzer countered that Hoenlein was looking at the conflict purely from a political point of view. Kurtzer argued that a moral dimension must be brought into play. Israel, he said, despite living in a very rough neighborhood and strapped with an imperfect partner, has to use its power in a way that tries to advance peace.
In a phrase, he said, the conversation on Israel and Jewish identity today had to be “morally aspirational” to better connect with young Jews today. It may be a fuzzy phrase, and some would say naïve. But, underscoring the divide between the older establishment and younger critics, it loomed on stage like a generational San Andreas Fault.