By Ari Y. Kelman
“There’s something we can do about it,” asserts the “Statement on Jewish Vitality” published last week on eJewishPhilanthropy. The “we” of that sentence might refer to the list of luminaries who signed the document. It might refer to “the Jewish community,” however that might be construed or imagined. But the “it” is more troubling.
Generously, “it” seems to refer to “current trends” in the Jewish community which, if left “unchecked” will result in a “smaller and less vital” American Jewish community. But those trends are the results of people and their decisions about how best to live their lives, Jewishly and otherwise.
Well, I am one of those people whose choices represent those “current trends.” So are the document’s signers, and, I imagine, its authors. I live in “current trends.” So do you. So does everyone. If “it” refers to the “alarming trends” born of the ways in which people choose to live their lives, then I am it.
So, I’d like to ask the Statement’s authors: are you it?
I would ask them, but the Statement has no attributed author, which is part of its larger problem. The absence of an author, like grammatical passive voice, creates the appearance of universality and even inevitability. Like the omniscient narrator in a documentary film, it is a literary strategy that to mask the actions of actors or tries to ascribe to those actors some greater force or representative power. But there’s always an author.
I’m not being a grammar nerd here. The deployment of this rhetorical strategy is emblematic of the document’s overall approach to the Jewish community in America, which the authors understand to be “out there,” populated by Jews and non-Jews, and riven with bad life-choices that have led to the “it” about which there’s something to be done. “We,” the omniscient, everpresent, observant, informed authors of the Statement “can do [something] about it.” That very formulation, amplified by the absence of an author separates the “we” who has the solution from the “it” who needs it (at least according to the authorial “we”)
More problematically, this rhetorical approach reveals a sickening blend of paternalism, arrogance and even hostility toward the “it,” representing the vast majority of American Jews who are rendered as the targets of the document’s policy recommendations.
I am it, and, to the authors and signers of the Statement: you are too.
Ari Y Kelman is the Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.