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  • Continuity Crisis:The History and Sexual Politics of an American Jewish Communal Project1
  • Lila Corwin Berman (bio), Kate Rosenblatt (bio), and Ronit Y. Stahl (bio)

For decades, rumors about the sexual impropriety of certain high-profile men in Jewish studies and Jewish communal institutions circulated through whisper networks. In the ferment of #MeToo, a movement that erupted in the fall of 2017 to tackle rampant but unaddressed sexual harassment and assault, these hushed voices became louder.2 Amplified by a public chorus of people fed up with silence around sexual violence, women in Jewish studies began to speak out.3 The following summer, in July 2018, investigative journalist Hannah Dreyfus reported that eight women had accused sociologist Steven M. Cohen of sexual harassment.4

Much like in other #MeToo cases, the immediate response to the allegations against Cohen drew focus to individual misconduct and traumas. Missing from this outcry was an examination of the broad historical structures and narratives that enabled the harassment of Jewish women by other Jews in Jewish communities (academic and otherwise) to flourish. We—three historians—collaborated on an opinion piece, published in the Forward the day after the Cohen story broke. Foregrounded in [End Page 167] the breaking news and Dreyfus's extraordinary reporting, our article sought to open new conversations by highlighting "the troubling gender and sexual politics long embedded in communal discussions of Jewish continuity and survival."5

We welcome the invitation to revisit our Forward article here not because we wish to rehash a painful moment in many individuals' lives, but rather because we believe that power, expertise, and gender norms are operative and entangled forces in Jewish studies and Jewish communal life deserving of historically grounded analysis. Undoubtedly, a full accounting of individual perpetrators and harms is necessary, but it is not sufficient. In the wake of our opinion piece, some critics charged us with confusing the misdeeds of one individual with the workings of an entire communal structure. We believe this is far from the case. Indeed, our analysis of the historical context in which this particular episode occurred reveals the shortsightedness of an individualized and ahistorical approach. Here we have expanded our historical discussion to demonstrate more clearly how American Jewish continuity discourse was embedded within patriarchal and misogynistic structures.6

A Jewish continuity paradigm emerged forcefully in the 1970s as a set of expert pronouncements and community policies that treated women and their bodies as data points in service of a particular vision of Jewish communal survival. As social scientist Michal Kravel-Tovi proposes, contrary to imagining numbers and data as "dry"—"objective, straightforward, and factual"—we would do better to acknowledge their "wetness": the "affective work invested by the leaders of the American Jewish community in the production and distribution of population statistics."7 Condemning intermarriage and decrying low child-bearing rates became signature features of the affective work of Jewish communal research. As it moved toward paradigmatic status—encapsulating and naturalizing a way of thinking and capable of controlling discourse and resources—Jewish continuity fixed its normative and affective power on [End Page 168] women and their bodies. According to this paradigm, a thriving Jewish future required surveying, judging, and directing (or redirecting) women's marriage and fertility choices, regardless of the nature of these choices or whether they were choices at all. Instead, the continuity paradigm gained vital communal investment and made its patriarchal and misogynistic structures appear necessary and, often, unremarkable.

In reflecting on the charged and critical responses we received to our Forward piece, we recognize the importance of revealing the construction and tenacity of the continuity paradigm and its deep entrenchment in the politics of Jewish social research and communal priority-setting. In so doing, we also identify its connections to and resonance with American political culture's twentieth-century emphasis on the family and "family values." In this article, we trace the emergence of the continuity paradigm to document its multiple contexts and historical contingencies. We conclude with an analysis of the criticism of our Forward article, arguing that some of this criticism made manifest the exact patterns we sought to document.

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Neither the ideological framework of continuity nor...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3141
Print ISSN
0164-0178
Pages
pp. 167-194
Launched on MUSE
2020-12-08
Open Access
No
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