A Preference for Politics and Jewish Spirituality: An Interview with Dr. Ron Feldman
Written by Zachary Brenner
Illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz
Dr. Ron Feldman attended UC Santa Cruz from 1973 until 1977, where he served as editor for Leviathan after the original founders of the paper graduated. Upon first contacting Dr. Feldman, he responded to our initial prompt with interest in exploring Jewish diasporic activism and Israel activism. He also is very interested in Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. We spoke on the phone to explore his role as an editor of Leviathan, his ultimate joining of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in San Francisco, and his spiritual interests.
Zachary Brenner: So jumping right in… at UC Santa Cruz, and I’ve seen this in other left leaning spaces as well, there seems to be an anti-establishment mentality which extends, oftentimes, to nonprofits because of things like donor politics. Was this the case when you were at UCSC and if so, how did that play into your eventual decision to join the JCC?
Dr. Ron Feldman: There’s a long stretch of time between those two things. When I was at a Leviathan, we did have some issues with our donors. I think some of the funding at least was provided by the San Francisco Federation at the time. And there was not a Hillel per se. There was an informal Jewish student organization and a couple of different things happening, including Leviathan. So we ran afoul of the Federation in ‘75. You’ll find an editorial that we co-signed that I wrote up protesting some of Israel’s actions on what was called Land Day. I can’t say I was the lead person on this, but what I heard was that the year later the Federation cut off our funding because they didn’t like what we wrote — critical of Israel. I would say most of our positions were fairly progressive, left-wing Israel positions. I spent a gap year [in Israel] before going to Santa Cruz. A few weeks after I got to Santa Cruz, the Yom Kippur War broke out in ‘73. So it was an intense time. We were having lots of debates. I was at Merrill, the core course had a book by a Palestinian, but there was no book by Israelis and I think we complained about that and the next year they started including an Israeli book. So we had some impact.
There were a lot of political debates. I think that a key thing was ‘73 seemed to be the last of the existential wars in Israel. All the ones after that were not really about Israel’s existence, but more about political issues between Israel and the Palestinians or the Arabs and the neighboring countries. I ended up going after college, living in Israel and then coming back and working in high tech and then ended up working in nonprofits, especially the Jewish Community Centers. I think my work in the Jewish community [has] been rewarding because it’s about creating Jewish community. There are people with a range of opinions about Israel, but they’re not directly related to the day-to-day work.
ZB: Do you feel like the Jewish establishments today are changing from what they once were? My parents say it used to be that all the Jewish children would participate in things like USY or NIFTY or a bunch of other JCC-related events. Yet it seems like today there’s a lot of resistance because of how divisive topics like Israel are. Do you feel that the Jewish establishments, are actively engaging with young Jews who have more polarizing or particularly anti-Israel beliefs?
Dr. Feldman: I can’t really speak for the establishment. I don’t work for a Federation or for a national organization. My perspective is pretty much in the trenches with one kind of organization. I’ve worked at two different JCCs. I do see the Jewish community, as a whole, worried about continuity and the next generation and Jewish peoplehood — they have their various labels for it. And overall, nationally, funders have been forthcoming with all kinds of methods to engage younger people, whether it’s Birthright or in the Bay Area programs like Urban Adamah or Wilderness Torah that seem to be successful in meeting younger Jews where they are rather than where people want to be. I don’t know how many people are involved with, you know, BBYO (a movement for participating in Jewish experiences geared toward Jewish teens).
I do think that the political part of the organized Jewish community is quite concerned about the left wing perspectives, especially BDS. Israel is concerned about that too. I’ve been reading some editorials from right-wing locations that are concerned about that. There’s always going to be the struggle over what counts as Jewish and what doesn’t and what’s good for the Jews and what’s not. So right now, clearly between the US and Israel, the right-wing is very ascendant and is doing their best to delegitimize their critics.
I think there really is a generation gap. I went there during the period of the 73 war, and Israel, at least, I would say, until the first Lebanon war in ‘81, was really a uniting point for most of the Jewish community. And even for most of the non-Jewish community with the Jewish community. Israel was seen as struggling for survival. Unless you believe Netanyahu, that Iran is an existential threat because of its nuclear capabilities — I personally don’t hold to that view — Israel’s conflicts over the last 40 years have not been existential. And Israel is now seen as not the David in the David and Goliath story, but the Goliath in the David and Goliath story. And for the most part, Israel is not the same kind of uniting point of agreement amongst all Jews and it’s very fraught for younger Jews for all kinds of political reasons. The result that I see is that the successful programs that happen with younger Jews are not oriented around Israel. The topic of Israel is somewhat sidestepped, at least, maybe I’m most familiar with what’s going on in the Bay Area. Israel is so controversial that we need to find other things that Jews are interested in that can bring us together. Israel is not in tremendous need the way it was in ‘67 or ‘73. The Israel that appears on the nightly news is not always the heroes of Entebbe, you know, so…
ZB: Do you think that the Israel activism has gone in a positive or negative direction?
Dr. Feldman: First of all, I’m not really on campus, so it’s hard for me to say. It may vary campus to campus too. I’m not 100 percent sure what’s going on in Santa Cruz, in particular. My sense is that Israel is a very challenging topic. So there are students who don’t mind being at the forefront of challenging topics, whatever their political position. But I think that for most people in most situations, they have other things they’d rather do and Israel is not a charmed topic. It’s a problematic topic that has no easy answers and therefore they’d rather just avoid it.
I’m just in touch with a lot of younger Jews, in their twenties and thirties, for whom Israel is an element, but not a key element to their Jewish involvement. I think there’s probably a lot more who don’t want to have anything to do with it. There’s a lot folks you just don’t hear about because they’re not in the conversation. It’s kind of like Holocaust survivors. There’s a lot of Holocaust survivors who are happy to talk about it. And then occasionally you hear these stories about Holocaust survivors who, after the war, just wanted to forget and they assimilated. They converted to Christianity or Catholicism or something like that. Their progeny discovered the deep secret that one of these ancestors was Jewish. You almost never hear about those people because they’re not talking about it. So, I think there’s a lot of people who are avoiding the Israel issue because it’s kind of a no-win. I think there was a moment in Jewish history, like in the late sixties, early seventies where the interests of American Jews and Israeli Jews overlapped. They didn’t really understand each other, but they had similar goals. I think now, 40 years later, that doesn’t overlap. I think it’s good to learn from each other and to try to have connections. I think that the sad part is mostly they don’t really understand each other because there’s rather different existential situations.
ZB: What were you and your staff compelled to write about when on Leviathan and have these interests changed?
Dr. Feldman: You are probably better off than I by looking back at those issues, which I don’t have in front of me, but I know we did write a lot about Middle East politics. We wrote about Jewish culture, and different things that interested us. I remember an essay or two about the use of cannabis on Shabbat. I think there was some creative writing and poetry and interviews. I know I personally was mostly interested in the political stuff at that time. There was a whole school of people, and I think it got reflected in the paper a bit, that were interested in alternative Jewish spirituality or religion. There were a bunch of people who became rabbis in that era and then people like Gershom [Gorenberg] who became journalists, or writers.
ZB: Would you write similar content today or have your interests changed?
Dr. Feldman: You mean if I was writing for Leviathan today? I think maybe I just haven’t changed much since then, but I think the key Jewish topics today are still the Middle East, Holocaust memorialization, spiritual practices, community — you know, what does it mean to be connected to people? I think there were people who wrote about environmental things and I think that was fairly early in the Jewish environmental movement, you might say. Yes, we were early and you know, particularly Santa Cruz was very early in thinking about environmental issues and trying to integrate that with their Jewish concerns.
ZB: This question is from one of our non-Jewish staffers. As a religious intellectual, what do you make of other world religions outside of Judaism? Do you see all religions as striving for the same goal or are these systems of belief distinct in their mission? If they are the same, why practice Judaism? What makes it unique?
Dr. Feldman: I’m a kind of a religious relativist. I think they all have their particular cultural origins and perspectives. I think there’s some religions, for example, that strive to be universal and see themselves a faith for everyone in the world, such as Catholicism or Islam; at times they have sought to impose their beliefs on others. Well, Judaism and some other religions do not believe that they need to impose themselves on others. So there are differences. And clearly there’s some differences in belief. What I’ve studied is that a lot of the mystical schools of different religions are often more similar because they’re trying to have some more in depth personal relationship with the divine. But what happens is some people get revelations and they think they’re the Messiah or they need to impose the truth that has been revealed to them onto others. And that is often problematic and leads to a lot of strife. I don’t think Judaism is inherently better or worse than others. I think each one may have a truth, but not the truth. I don’t believe in “the truth” of anything. I started out agnostic. I’ve tried to bring in more spirituality into my life and I think the way for me to do that, given who I am, was in a Jewish way. But I don’t think that’s inherently a better or worse way than any other way. I think every tradition has some legitimacy as long as no one is trying to impose their truth on others. I think that’s the thing I’m most allergic to. Including the imposition of Orthodox Jewish practices on non-Orthodox Jews.
You have the Jewish people and you have the Jewish religion. And Judaism has always been considered more a process of practice than belief, although there are some beliefs like in one G-d. But when you convert to Judaism, you join the Jewish people. It’s not that you’ve just proclaimed your faith in something. So in that way, a little bit more of a tribal model than these universalist religions. I personally enjoy the practices and the rituals and the holidays quite a bit, as they connect me to the cycles of life and the cycles of the seasons. I’m a little bit more iffy about any kind of faith in the divine and how that manifests or is experienced.
I think my approach is very historical as opposed to anything else. Judaism itself is a modern concept, but if you take a look at what Jews have done over history, Jews have always been a minority and their practices have modified based on the context within which they live. Whether it was the ancient Persian period, in Judea or under the Romans or later on, as Jews found themselves in various countries. As the sociopolitical environment shifted, the Jews’ self-definition shifted along with this definition from non-Jews of Jews. So for example, in the Middle Ages it was mutually understood and mutually convenient to see the Jews as a diaspora people, as exiled. The Jews felt they were exiled and the Christians felt that the Jews were exiled because they didn’t accept Jesus. There was a certain kind of consensus. In the modern period, Jews have been redefined. In the modern era we saw the definition of Jews shift towards that of a religious group as a way of fitting as citizens in European-style nation states. Today we see a partial evolution in the wake of Zionism towards Jews being seen — and defining themselves — as someone who’s in Israel or an Israel supporter. I think a lot of non Jews think that the essence of being Jewish is being aligned with Israel. They have [little] concept of the Jewish religion or Jewish peoplehood or Jewish culture as distinct from Israel. But that’s what’s in the news.
ZB: The last question I have is whether you have any regrets from your time in Leviathan. Anything you wish you could correct? What would you hope those in Leviathan today would write about?
Dr. Feldman: No, I don’t have any regrets. I thought it was a great learning experience for me and for some of my fellow students, where it was an exercise in self expression about our Jewish identity, or our Jewish experience. So it was a great learning process to learn to write and edit and put ideas out there and have other people read them and get feedback, in the days way before the Internet. A lot of us started to learn how to have a written voice. So I don’t have any regrets of anything I did or wrote about. I think it’s helped me. I’ve continued to write on all kinds of topics, mainly Jewish topics, over the years.
In terms of what people are writing about today, I think Jewish students should write about whatever they think is important in terms of the Jewish aspect of their lives. I believe in complete free speech. If people have critical perspectives, I think they need to be engaged in debates. Censorship is not appropriate particularly in the academy, and particularly if we want people to be thinking and learning, and learning to express themselves. I think vigorous debate is important and valuable. I think sadly, a lot of what has come down in politics is, not so much trying to promote your perspective, but trying to delegitimize the other perspective. Whether you’re on the Right trying to say that this other perspective like the BDS perspective, is anti-Semitic or talking about Jews as all colonialists. I’m giving extreme examples, but I think neither way is really helping us clarify what the complex and indeed fraught issues are in today’s political realities. But that’s just me.
ZB: Thank you so much for talking.