Will Peter Beinart Debate Me on Israel and School Choice?
Having experienced ferocious criticism for publishing Kosher Jesus from people who confessed to having never read my book, I don’t want to make the same mistake with Peter Beinart’s new tome on Zionism. Despite having received two separate copies from his publisher, I have not yet found the time to indulge. But I saw that in The Daily Beast Beinart responded directly to my recent column where I argue that President Obama’s ‘flexibility doctrine’, articulated to President Medvedev of Russia, makes the President untrustworthy on Israel, should he be reelected. Beinart disagreed with me and defended the President. I also read Beinart’s op-ed in The New York Times where he calls for a boycott of all products produced by all settlers beyond the Green Line. In so doing Beinart seems to have achieved the near impossible, uniting the American Jewish community, who have come together to roundly rebuke him for joining Israel’s leading foes who call for economic divestment. With rare exceptions, Beinart’s demand for a blanket boycott have been rejected outright by Jews of all political stripes – both right and left – who found in it the draconian call of a fanatic, punishing as it does even settlements that will certainly remain in Israeli hands in any future peace settlement.
But just a few days later Beinart published an excellent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for the Jewish community to get behind school vouchers as a means by which to save the Jewish day school movement. Given how disappointed American Jewry was with his call for a boycott, there has been a muted response to his Journal piece, with many even arguing he published it as a means by which to kosher himself in the community.
I think the criticism unfair and look at it differently.
I have two rules about people’s positive actions. The first is that they are always more important that their intentions, whatever they may be. The second is the rule articulated by Maimonides nearly 800 years ago: embrace truth regardless of its source. Beinart is late to the voucher party, but he is a welcome participant and we need every supporter we can find.
A weak American Jewry is not good for Judaism, not good for America, and is certainly not good for Israel. And without robust Jewish day schools, the Jewish community in the United States is bound to decline, as it is already. A study by the United Jewish Communities in 2003 found that the American Jewish population had fallen by approximately five percent over a decade.
America is alone among the leading industrialized nations of the world in not providing any funding for parochial schools, even for their secular departments. This results from an overly zealous interpretation of the separation of Church and State which punishes religious parents by giving them, say in my state of New Jersey, outrageously high property taxes, not one dollar of which is allowed to go to fund their children’s secular departments at parochial schools.
In my community of Englewood we have approximately 700 modern orthodox Jewish families, the overwhelming majority of whom send their children to Jewish day schools. Were we to send our children to the public school system, it would collapse in a day. Still, we have never summoned the political will to organize and demand that even a fraction of some of the highest property taxes in the nation which we pay be put toward offsetting the costs of school tuition or the secular departments of the Yeshivas. The net result is that day school education is now serving as a natural contraceptive, with families having far fewer children because they simply can’t afford to have more.
How serious is this? Among Conservative, Reform, and Secular Jews in the United States, who make up approximately 87% of American Jewry, birth rates per woman are 1.74, 1.36, and 1.29 respectively. That stands in stark comparison to the general population which has a birthrate of 2.1 per woman, and Jews in Israel who are at 2.97 per woman.
Unlike virtually every other religion, Jews rely entirely on their birthrate for survival and continuity. We are not a proselytizing faith, believing as we do that Jew and Gentile alike are born with G-d’s providence and love and non-Jews do not upgrade their existence by becoming Jewish. So when Jewish birthrates decline, the Jewish community declines.
In my area Jewish school tuition averages at approximately $13,000 per child, providing for a comprehensive and quality private education of both religious and secular studies. Compare that with the public school system in Englewood which accosts about $21,000 per child, and that is, of course, only for secular studies. This high expenditure is unfortunately accompanied by an unacceptably high failure rate. Yet even these sobering statistics have not galvanized American Jewry in general, and Jews in our area in particular, to organize in favor of school vouchers.
But Beinart’s piece in the Journal focused only on school vouchers for Jewish day schools when in truth they affect all children. Why should any parent be forced to send their child to a school system against their will? And why should parents be coerced into sending their kids to failing schools? After all, it’s our tax money and we should be allowed to spend it how we wish. In addition, there are few choices as personal, nor as important, as the educational environment into which our children are immersed for most of their waking hours. Yet in the United States of America, unless parents want to borrow heavily to just to afford tuition, they are given little choice as to the schools their children will attend, the teachers who will school them, the friends they will meet, and the values, or lack thereof, to which they will be subject.
The Washington Voucher program, which was just reinstated by the Republican House amid the opposition of House Democrats, is an important case in point. President Obama, who sends his children to Sidwell Friends, considered the best and most expensive private school in the nation’s capitol, cut funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship program in his upcoming budget, thereby denying to many African-American parents the right to send their children to the kind of private school that he and Michelle can afford.
I would welcome discussing and debating these issues with Beinart in the open forum of his choice, both school vouchers for all children and especially his call for a boycott of Israeli settlers and their products. Beinart’s having taken issue with my ideas on Obama and Israel in his column, it would be good for us to continue the discussion before a live audience. The two of us were at Oxford at the same time – he as a Rhodes scholar and I as the head of the L’Chaim Society and Rabbi to the students – where we learned to appreciate the University’s renowned history of open debate. And I promise, should he accept, to read both copies of his book.
Shmuley Boteach, America’s Rabbi, is the winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year Competition and the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. The international best-selling author of 27 books, his newest book Kosher Jesus sparked a worldwide debate. He is running for the United States House of Representatives from New Jersey’s Ninth District. www.shmuleyforcongress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.