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By BERNIE BELLAN In an op-ed elsewhere on this site you can read a piece by Alon Weinberg in response to the column I wrote about staunch Israel critic Jeff Helper.

In his piece Weinberg takes strong issue with how I wrote about my recent interview with  Halper. Just to remind you - in case you didn’t read my Short Takes column in the Feb. 18 issue, I reported on the frustration I experienced in interviewing Halper before a live audience at the Free Press News Café on February 9. Halper is highly critical of Israeli government policy toward Palestinians, and he’s very articulate in expressing himself, but I complained in my piece that it was impossible to conduct a lively and interesting interview with him because he would go on – and on – and on.
Alon takes me to task for not being a more effective interviewer, suggesting that I was too polite to Halper, but he also points out that my depiction of that interview was not entirely fair to Halper’s position. In fact I haven’t been able to sit through an entire replaying of that interview myself (which you can watch on our website - jewish because I find it just too boring, but I do accept many of Alon’s criticisms as valid. I agree with him on one point in particular – and it’s something that I might have mentioned in my own column: Halper did indicate that he identifies strongly as a Jew, much to my surprise. I had honestly been expecting him to disavow his Jewish roots, but far from that, Halper was eloquent in arguing that he is very much a Jew - and very much an Israeli as well.

That leads me to wonder, yet again, how much the whole issue of Jewish identity is open to question? In his letter to the editor, Alon Weinberg argues forcefully that Jewish identity is being conflated with love for Israel entirely too much. Again, I largely agree with him  on that point.
I’ve written about the Pew Report on Jewish American identity before, but it’s worth bringing up that landmark study yet again.

In 2013 the Pew Research Centre published the results of its study of modern American Jews and what were the most important factors in determining a Jewish identity for American Jews.
In the chart here you can see the results of that study:

While caring about Israel is clearly important to American Jews, it is not the most important value, if the Pew Report is to be believed. The study also notes the huge difference in priorities between older and younger American Jews. While 22% of American Jews actually say that they have no religion at all, they still proudly identify as Jews, the study found. Thus, it is not incongruous to think that someone like Jeff Halper can be an atheist - which he says he is, and highly critical of Israel - which he is; yet, remain a proud Jew nonetheless.

But, if being a Jew means such different things to different individuals, what does that say about the future of Jewish identity, not only in the U.S., but here in Canada as well?
Recently it was reported that Ottawa will be closing its Jewish high school. According to a story in the Canadian Jewish News that high school, which included Grades 9-12, had only 24 students this past year and next year would have only 20 at best. According to the National Household Survey of 2011, Ottawa had 11,695 individuals who identified as Jewish by ethnicity and 10,655 who identified as Jewish by religion. (Interestingly those figures are amazingly close to the figures for our own Winnipeg Jewish population which, according to the NHS, had 11,750 Jews by ethnicity and 10,740 by religion.)
If a city with a Jewish population the size of Ottawa’s can attract only 20 students to a Jewish high school from Grades 9-12, what does that say about the future of Jewish identity for Ottawa’s Jewish community?
Now, while I’ve written before about the huge drop in enrolment at the Gray Academy this past school year (from 600 to 510), we are nowhere near Ottawa’s situation. Yet the trend is obvious: Enrolment in Jewish schools is on the decline everywhere in Canada and the U.S. and, in some cases, that decline is precipitous. I suppose that, in some ways, we should be proud that, when you add enrolment at the Gray Academy to enrolments in the Brock Corydon Hebrew Bilingual program and the Oholei Torah school operated by the Chabad Lubavitch, a significant proportion of young Winnipeg Jews receive some form of Jewish instruction in their school programs.
However, as I also noted in an earlier column, the total size of the school age cohort of Jewish children (up to age 15) is much smaller than it used to be: only 1,430. Thus, one can’t be all that optimistic about the prospects of Winnipeg’s Jewish community if it is to be based on the size of its youngest generation.
(In a related note, I should mention that, although there has been no public announcement as yet, Gray Academy Head of School Rory Paul has announced that he he will be retiring at the end of this school year. We will have more on that in a a future issue.)

Add to the reduction in the number of students at the Gray Academy the ongoing decline in synagogue membership in Winnipeg and the traditional sources of Jewish identity are certainly up against it when it comes to being relied upon to preserve our sense of what it means to be Jewish.
So, if Israel doesn’t occupy nearly as important a place in the minds of a great many Jews in determining a sense of Jewish identity as it might have in years past; and if religion is also of much less importance, can an appreciation of the significance of the Holocaust be sufficient to preserve our identity – which is what the Pew Report seems to be concluding is what most American Jews believe?
Certainly at a time when a heightened awareness of anti-Semitism is deeply felt among a great many more Jews worldwide, remembering the Holocaust is probably something particularly resonant these days – but is that a sufficient ingredient for preserving a Jewish identity?
That’s why the observations that Along Weinberg makes about what might be regarded as the “fetishization” of support for Israel deserve our attention. And, as we approach the upcoming Israeli election, with the very strong possibility that Israel will turn even further rightward than it already has – with a coalition government led by Bibi Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, how much more difficult is it going to be for North American Jews to remain as committed to defending policies of the State of Israel than they have been?
During my interview with Jeff Halper I complained to him that, in the face of the type of withering criticism of so much of Israeli government policy that is commonplace these days, liberal Jews like me often feel compelled to come to Israel’s defence, uncomfortable as that may make many of us feel. But, just as the ground beneath us seems to be shifting so incredibly fast when it comes to world events, support for Israel and the traditional pillars of Jewish identity are also quickly evolving. I’m just not sure how many people are prepared to recognize that reality.




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