Robert H. Mnookin

Harvard author updates his book about uniting the American Jewish community



Harvard author updates his book about uniting the American Jewish community

Robert H. Mnookin

Harvard Law School professor Robert H. Mnookin knows how to take the long view. He is an expert in negotiation, and his nine published books include a study of dealmaker extraordinaire Henry Kissinger. The long view also informed Mnookin’s approach when he tackled his most personal book: “The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World.”

“It was a wonderful journey for me,” Mnookin said. “I learned a great deal about American Jewish history.”

Yet it was current events that prompted him to release a new edition of the book. With a March 28 publication date, the new version incorporates chapters on antisemitism in the United States, and the relationship American Jews have to Israel. These chapters include concerns over right-wing surges in the U.S. and in Israel.

“The rise of white nationalism and of antisemitism by white nationalists certainly did influence my decision,” Mnookin said. “There were incipient aspects of it even in the first year or so of the Trump administration. Since then, I think, we’ve seen more evidence of extreme right-wing antisemitism.”

As for Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned to power in 2022 following a year’s absence, Mnookin said, “I think the challenges we’re all reading about in the daily press – exactly what I described in the first edition – have become more conspicuous now. Can Israel remain both a Jewish and democratic state? I think it’s very important that it be both.”

The book reflects its author’s care about both Judaism and Israel. Raised in a Reform Jewish family in Kansas City, he has held numerous leadership positions in Jewish organizations, including at Harvard, where he is a board officer at the Hillel Foundation.

He researched American and Israeli history to explore current concerns over the future of American Jewry. One such concern is interfaith marriage: He cited about 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. intermarry, yet notes that many non-Jewish spouses are helping their partners raise children in the Jewish faith.

This informed his recommendation of what he called a “Big Tent approach” for the American Jewish community: Welcome anyone who truly wishes to self-identify as a Jew, regardless of conversion status or parentage. He added that individual denominations can maintain their own membership standards.

Mnookin found a precedent of sorts from Israeli history: Until the late 1950s, all one needed to make Aliyah to the fledgling Jewish state was self-identifying as a Jew. He noted a contemporary irony: Today, having a Jewish grandparent can qualify someone for Aliyah, but it does not necessarily religiously qualify as a Jew in Israel.

The author said he is worried about “the extent to which the Orthodox and the Haredim are being permitted in Israel to define authentic Judaism,” and also about “the occupation of the West Bank and the treatment of Palestinians.”

“Paradoxically, in some ways,” Mnookin said, “Israel is making it harder, not easier, for many” when it comes to holding on to the next generation of Jewish Americans. Many Jews are quite liberal, particularly young Jews. Many feel uncomfortable with some Israeli policies. That complicates things.”

He cited a model from Harvard Hillel – the Israel Trek program, a one-week extension of the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. Jewish Harvard undergraduates who extend their birthright trip through Israel Trek get what Mnookin called a more nuanced view through such experiences as visiting the West Bank and meeting Palestinians.

“I think it’s very valuable for young people who are college-aged to visit Israel and see the full complexity of the society,” Mnookin said. “There are some remarkable strengths and some terrible weaknesses – like our own.”

He recalled “the traditional Zionist view that Jews outside of Israel were going to be doomed,” either through antisemitism or assimilation. “America stands as the great exception to that. I think it’s quite vibrant and vigorous.”

The author has seen a marked improvement in many aspects from the early to mid-20th century, when American Jews were prohibited from home ownership in many areas, including some neighborhoods in his hometown of Kansas City. He noted that in that era, numerous employers, including top New York law firms, refused to hire Jews.

However, Mnookin has grown more concerned about antisemitism in America since he wrote the first edition of his book.

“There have been antisemitic killings in recent years in synagogues,” he said. “They have to be condemned, broadly condemned. If organizations in any way encourage this kind of behavior, they have to be condemned.”

Today, he is concerned about “the impact of social networks and the Internet in terms of permitting extreme antisemites to sort of find each other, reinforce each other. I think technology has made a difference.” Θ

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