Rabbi Mordechai M. Kaplan would have been proud if he had witnessed the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ Face It, Fight It antisemitism conference last week, October 16–17, 2023, in Ottawa, Ontario. The conference had all the main elements that Kaplan envisioned in his revolutionary 1934 book, “Judaism as a Civilization,” and it is a much more radical follow-up 1948 volume, “The Future of the American Jew,” which was Kaplan’s response to the Holocaust. Just as that volume was a response, so was this conference to the October 7, 2023, attacks on Israel. In this case, nearly 1000 Canadian Jews, all gathering together regardless of religious observance, alliance, or affiliation, in the name of everyday survival against antisemitism, support Israel as Jewish citizens with a common peoplehood and history.
I had the opportunity and was chosen to attend this conference as a student, but as a journalist and historian who researched and wrote about antisemitism in North American Jewish History and reported on the current antisemitic climate for over fifteen years. My primary research focus is Kaplan, Jewish peoplehood and a Jewish civil religion can again unite an increasingly secular Jewish community to support Israel. For two brief days, as a community, we put aside our religious differences and came together for a secular cause in the name of the Jewish people. Instead of fighting each other, we were united against antisemitism, all the more essential coming more than a week after the worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust happened in the place that was supposed to keep us the safest, Eretz Israel.
CIJA’s conference was first announced in June 2023. The Jewish communities in the United States and Canada have been seeing alarming rates of antisemitism, mostly harassment, especially on social media, vandalism, and some violent incidents. The conference was meant to address the increasing rates, with sessions on confronting, teaching, dealing with, and advocating for the Jewish community, especially to government officials. However, early Saturday morning, October 7, 2023, changed everything for the Jewish world as terrorists Hamas attacked Israel in a brutal, medieval barbaric way, leaving destruction in its wake. With over 1,400 Jews murdered as they awoke for Simchat Torah and Shabbat, including 260 youth at an outdoor festival, nearly 3,000 injured, and over 200 taken hostage in Gaza, as thousands of rockets rained down on Israel, only sparing further carnage by Israel’s Iron Dome.
Called Israel’s 9/11 in the name of the 2001 Taliban attack on the United States, the attack did not receive the same outpouring of support Americans did. Instead, we saw blame for Israel and the Jews first response. Palestinian activists were allowed equal airtime to attack Jews and Israel, blaming Israel for a cycle of violence when Israelis have been fighting each other lately more than the Palestinians, extremists, and terrorists surrounding their borders. With this response was a blank check to increase antisemitic attacks on Jews with Palestinian protests in cities worldwide. All Jewish institutions had been on higher alert, with increased security at Jewish institutions, synagogues, schools, and community centers, and significant attacks from student groups and faculty on Jewish students at university campuses that were already troubling at the start of the year. Hamas called for a day of rage the Friday before the conference, leaving everyone in the Jewish community fearing reprisals in their backyards and communities and students afraid to attend class.
Historian Amnon Rubinstein, in his book “The Zionist Dream Revisited: From Herzl to Gush Emunim and Back,” recounts that the Prime Minister used antisemitism, World War II, and the Holocaust as a frame of reference, but “Within a relatively short time, Israel’s image underwent drastic metamorphosis—from darling to knave, from David to Goliath.” (Rubinstein xvi) However, Rubinstein was writing in 1984 about Menachem Begin and the First Lebanon War, but the description echoes how the world sees Israel despite being attacked.
For me, the conference was an experience of a lifetime; my mother had long been sick and traveling, so I did not have the chance to attend conferences. Neither did I want to that much. My mother died last November. My mother has always been my guiding light, my best friend; she was the one who encouraged me and managed my career, which pushed me to excel and keep going and living even after she would go. Everything I do is in her honor. October 7 had a special meaning for me personally; it marked the last official day of mourning in the Jewish calendar for my mother.
I pondered how to put this experience of unity in print. It was indeed a unique phenomenon because of the complete harmony I have never seen within the Jewish community, which is fractured by religious, social, and economic divisions, which, in reality, are hostile to navigate. Whether in Montreal, where I live, or after months of protests in Israel over judicial reform that pitted secular Israelis against the often-extreme right-wing ultra-Orthodox government over their divisive policies, they seemingly forgot their common enemy was the Palestinians and Hamas rather than each other.
As I was taking a nap to contemplate, I realized this unity was the model Kaplan envisioned in his “Judaism as a Civilization,” that is, how to analyze the conference and the Jewish unity we see after the attack on Israel. We think of Kaplan, and we think of Reconstructionism, another liberal form of Judaism. However, creating a new denomination was not Kaplan’s goal; the opposite. His disciplines pushed for the denomination; Kaplan wanted to unite American, Israeli, and world Jewry; he wanted to cross-denominational lines, and he wanted oneness, not divisiveness. The conference was a mini-microcosm of that Jewish civilization Kaplan imagined and advocated an organic Jewish community rising above religion, focusing on identity, survival, and community, but a recognized one as an entity by the secular governments.
For two days, we all sat in the same conference room, listening to sessions from Jews, non-Jews, leaders, and innovators from all backgrounds in the Jewish community and outside of it. We were one as Bono of U2, who so eloquently came to the defense of Israel, once sang. We ate, mingled, networked, and advocated to members of Canada’s Parliament for the safety of the Jewish community and support of Israel. The next generation attended Jewish schools from all over the country, making the trip, including 250 from Montreal. They came to hear the speakers, including the new Israeli Ambassador to Canada, Iddo Moed, and the lunch keynote speaker, McGill University History Professor Gil Troy, who spoke from Israel. A whole new generation and audience got to experience my university mentor’s magic, whose activism and Zionist philosophy still shape my viewpoint.
The attacks on Israel were present every moment as the conference’s focus changed to the dual problem of antisemitism and anti-Zionism at home, abroad, and in Israel. Equally shadowing us was the Holocaust, as we heard about the creation of a monument, the Holocaust Memorial in Ottawa, and visited it on a cold, blustery Ottawa morning, making the visit all the more poignant. The second day was capped off by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the opposition leader Pierre Polievre, and other party leaders delivering the keynote addresses. Some were more in support of the Jewish community than others, but still, their presence spoke volumes. The highlight of the conference was honoring the Honorable Irwin Cotler for his lifetime work fighting against antisemitism in Canada and abroad. The hundreds of Palestinian supporters outside the Shaw Centre could not dampen or diminish the conference’s accomplishment of unity.
My issue for years has been stopping the increasing rise of anti-Zionism on campus, as I had been a victim and advocating for Jewish students on campus. Personal highlights were meeting Cotler the day before and telling him about my work, the history of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and McGill University, which I wrote as a capstone to years of reporting on anti-Zionism on college campuses and advocating to the MP who took over his seat Anthony Housefather on campus issues. I was also one of the few persistent enough to try to get PM Trudeau’s ear for a few seconds and a selfie. I took the moment to honor my mother, telling him how she supported his father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau when he was prime minister and remembered when Trudeau was born and grew up. As our Prime Minister motioned that my words touched his heart, so did it touch mine, giving my mother the spotlight she always deserved.
The foremost biographer on Kaplan, Mel Scult, in his “The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan,” called him “one of the most radical Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.” Scult also highlights that Mordecai Kaplan is a prime example of this most unusual combination” of “dedicated religious thinkers stand in the middle—accepting modernity and democratic individualism and at the same time embracing a religious naturalism compatible with a contemporary understanding of the world.” (Scult 5) Kaplan’s organic community aims to maintain its Jewish identity and promote inclusivity. This shift away from the central role of religious and educational institutions allows for a more inclusive community. The “organic community” aims to embrace all Jewish organizations and protect against antisemitism.
Kaplan’s goal was to Americanize Judaism and ensure its relevancy and survival. He wanted the American Jew to “reinvent its doctrine of salvation” to make it more consistent with democracies and the ability to live in both worlds. Kaplan believed that Judaism needed to be both a system of beliefs and a civilization. Kaplan believed that peoplehood was necessary for the Jews’s salvation and viewed Eretz Yisrael as part of that survival, and Zionism remained a central tenet; ‘however, they have to have “exclusive political allegiance to the country they reside.” Kaplan wanted the Yishuv in Palestine to create a code “applicable also to the life of the Diaspora.” Kaplan envisioned that “united world Jewry” with “claims to peoplehood” the United Nations would recognize and they would support the community in Israel. In 1948, in “The Future of the American Jew,” Kaplan explained, “Likewise, Jews of the Jewish Commonwealth in Eretz Yisrael would be bound by loyalties and interests which are not binding upon the rest of world Jewry. Nevertheless, they and the Jews of the Diaspora would be members of the Jewish people, held together by common religio-cultural loyalties and interests.”(Kaplan 1948 67)
After Kaplan came sociologist Jonathan Woocher, an educator, who saw the federation Judaism of the 1970s and 80s as the realization of a working, living, breathing version of Kaplan’s dream. In his doctoral dissertation, Woocher created the modern concept of American Civil Judaism, the American Jewish community’s civil religion, which he immortalized in his 1986 book, “Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews.” Woocher defined American Jewish Civil Religion as “a way of being Jewish that enabled its adherents to give meaning to their identities as Jews by connecting them to a great historic drama of destruction and rebirth Such Jews made the survival of the Jewish people their sacred cause.” (Woocher 2005) Woocher used the concept as the method that united American Jewry and its different denominations together especially those involved in the “institutional structures of the American Jewish community.” Civil Judaism was an attempt to answer how and why American Jews can remain Jewish in the modern world, building on the one Kaplan started 50 years before.
Kaplan envisioned, and Woocher analyzed a reality of that vision, recounting that the American Jewish community “supported Israel, they gave generously to philanthropies to express their solidarity with fellow Jews and their commitment to the Jewish value of tzedakah (philanthropy and social justice). They educated their children as Jews, and they gathered at key points during their lives and during the year to publicly acknowledge and celebrate their Jewishness and their attachment to Jewish tradition…. They were divided denominationally, but they were substantially united on what “really mattered” : remembering the past (especially the Holocaust), sustaining and caring for other Jews, living both as part of and slightly apart from the American mainstream, and sharing in the special destiny–difficult to name, but proudly affirmed nonetheless – of a noble people.” (Woocher 1986 222)
However, in the years since, we have become more splintered, less of a community, and more focused on the individual than the collective. In 2006, for the twentieth anniversary of his seminal work, Woocher reexamined the American Jewish community’s adherence to its civil religion in a book chapter, “‘Sacred Survival’ Revisited: American Jewish Civil Religion in the New Millennium.” He reviewed how American Jewish civil religion has changed and declined in the twenty years since his original study. Woocher attributes the decline of the collective to the rise of individualism, which he calls “a highly individualized appropriation of Jewish symbols, beliefs and practices as part of the search for personal meaning.” (Woocher 2005) The focus on the individual has only increased since then. Woocher indicates that “freedom of choice” is the new mantra instead of uniting around a community.
After the attacks on Israel, in a time of crisis, we have circled back to Kaplan’s vision and Woocher’s reality of a fulfilling civil Judaism. The original conference CIJA envisioned might have resembled Kaplan circa 1934, a more docile view of Jewish civilization. Instead, they channeled the more radical, urgent, Holocaust responding Kaplan, who, in the months after the Holocaust, wrote “The Future of the American Jew.” We only hope to keep this unity alive when the crisis has passed, when the urgency is no longer there, and where our survival is no longer threatened. When we go back to complacency, can we remain above the divisions, or will we break down again as Kaplan’s ideology did into a new denomination, or will we still harness that feeling into the next step into more than an abstract concept of peoplehood but a Jewish civil religion again united around Israel. I hope so; that is the point of my research: the continuity and unity of world Jewry.