Politics: Holy War

A controversial anti-Obama letter that rocked the Jewish community — and the reputations of the prominent Philadelphians who signed it — brought the conflict in the Middle East to the banks of the Schuylkill

The average American Jew is seven years older than his non-Jew counterpart; more than half of American Jews are marrying non-Jews. Worse still, the Jewish birthrate is significantly lower than the average American birthrate. At the same time, young Jews are becoming increasingly removed from Israel. “Will the Zionists become extinct?” the Jewish Exponent asked on the 100th anniversary of the modern Zionist movement, adding that “we face a drastic change in Jewish thinking, as every major Jewish membership organization fears possible extinction in [the 21st] century.” A 2007 study reported that only 48 percent of Jews younger than 35 agree that Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy; just 54 percent say they are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” The journalist Anshel Pfeffer of the Israeli daily Haaretz wrote in January that the de-Zionification of Jews in the Diaspora could be seen in their reaction (or lack thereof) to the latest Gaza offensive. “A vast number,” Pfeffer wrote, “I hesitate to say the majority, are just not that interested.”
All of which has a fair segment of the Jewish leadership in a panic. And nowhere is that panic more evident than in Philadelphia, which may explain why the Obama letter got postmarked here. For area Zionists, what is at stake is more than just political posturing. What’s at stake, they say, is the survival of Judaism itself.
Gary Erlbaum, the multimillionaire owner of Greentree Properties in Ardmore, is one of the region’s most high-profile, vocal proponents of Zionism. He’s described his efforts to preserve Judaism, especially to prevent intermarrying, as “hand-to-hand combat.” “It is most troubling,” Erlbaum tells me of Jews’ declining population numbers, and the accompanying dearth of involvement in Israeli advocacy and politics. “The beauty of America is how open we are and how walls have fallen and doors have opened, and Jews have taken the path that most other groups have taken, which is to become assimilated. I have no problem with Jews being good Americans, which I think is imperative. But losing our culture and our religion is a disaster.”
PHILADELPHIANS HAVE LONG held conflicting opinions about Zionism. Even though seminal Zionist meetings were held in the city (it was here that the first American Jewish Congress voted for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1918, its delegates proceeding to Independence Hall to float the Jewish flag from a window and sing “America” and “Hatikvah”), many Philadelphians, at least before the Holocaust, remained quiet to the cause. Following World War II, however, a shift took place. Philadelphia Jews, long the subject of deeply entrenched anti-Semitism, gained wider acceptance.

The result is that today, the Philadelphia region — ranked eighth in the world in Jewish population (in the U.S., only New York, L.A. and the Miami area have larger populations) — has emerged as something of a hotbed for Zionist thought and influence. This is the city where Daniel Pipes, the controversial academic and neoconservative accused by some of Islamaphobia, chooses to headquarter his influential pro-Israel think tank, the Middle East Forum. Philadelphia is also the address of the influential Morton Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America.