God is in the Crowd (& Goliath is in the Wings): A Review of Tal Keinan’s New Book

IMG_7244When you go to the Holy Land and discuss the current realities of Israelis and Palestinians, you’ll often hear about two biblical characters—David and Goliath.  Palestinians will point out how they have been consigned to two small patches of their former homeland—Gaza and the West Bank, how Israeli settlements and security encroach on these, and how many rights they do not have.  Little David against a great Goliath.

Israelis will point out that their country, the world’s only Jewish democracy, is just a small sliver of land hugging the Mediterranean—only nine miles wide at one point, that it is surrounded by Arab nations that have sought, on multiple occasions, to sweep it into the sea, and that they are the refuge of last resort for the Jewish people. Little David against Goliath.

Tal Keinan’s new book, God is in the Crowd: Twenty-first Century Judaism, doesn’t invoke the biblical story of the boy and the giant, but he wants to issue a clarion call in the face of a new giant threat. The difference is that the threat is not from external foes but from forces within and its not just to Israel but to Judaism itself.

I met Tal Keinan on trips I have led to Israel and Palestine.  Keinan is an Israeli-American entrepreneur who co-founded Clarity Capital, which has offices in New York and Tel Aviv.  He also chairs Koret Israel Economic Development Funds, a nonprofit lender supporting development projects that include Israeli Palestinian businesses. There’s a whole lot more to say about him. He’s a former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot, a social activist, a visionary, and, from what I understand, a pretty good skateboarder.

All of that, (with the possible exception of the skateboarding), comes into play in this compelling book in which Keinan sketches out the crisis of contemporary Judaism and his thought experiment about a possible future.

It’s not that the old David and Goliath story that Israelis tell themselves doesn’t concern Keinan. He has his eyes wide open to the threats and the combat experience to know what they look like. He also has given thought to what an endgame with the Palestinians might look like.  It is isn’t pretty. Surveying the landscape of settlements, Palestinian resistance, and broken dreams of peace, he sees only one avenue for Israelis to take—a withdrawal from the West Bank, if necessary, unilaterally, to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. 

That the resulting state could look a lot like the chaos of Gaza is a reality Keinan recognizes. He also acknowledges that many Israeli Jews would see the abandonment of historic Judea and Samaria, (the names most Israelis use for the West Bank), as “an egregious injustice.”

“But,” he says, “fairness is not the most compelling objective here. For many Israelis, most I hope, Israel’s survival is the most compelling objective. Israel is not likely to survive if the Jews become a minority. It is not likely to survive as an undemocratic state. This leaves only one option.” (78)

If the Palestinian question does not occupy center stage in this book, it is because Keinan wants to turn the attention to the crisis facing Judaism. The picture he paints is stark. Despite the creation of Israel as a national homeland of the Jewish people, despite the end of generations of exile and the general lack of persecution of Jews in modern Western societies, despite a kind of victory of Zionism, Keinan sees the prospect of “the last generation of Judaism as we know it.” (296)

Keinan’s focus is on Israel and North America which now contain 90% of the world’s Jewish population, a shocking change from just a century ago when Jews had substantial communities across the world in places like Baghdad. In America, notwithstanding periodic atrocities like the recent synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Jews have assimilated fully into the culture. Along with this remarkable success have come new questions.

“By my generation,” Keinan says, “we were taking ownership in America for granted…If our Jewishness mattered little to the Gentiles around us, why should it matter to us?” (52)

Jews have made themselves at home here. Keinan grew up in a secular family and attended Exeter, a WASP institution if there ever was one. He has siblings, who like 58% of American Jews, married non-Jews. But something stirred in Keinan to connect him to his Jewish roots—an awareness, forged in his Israeli military service, (well-documented and vividly related here), that there was a value in his Jewish identity.

It was also a recognition that Judaism could die. “In the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Holocaust, Jewish extinction would have been the cumulative result of the violent deaths of millions of individual Jews. In America, it will have been the result of love.” (62) 

But only in America. For global Judaism to lose its connection to its identity and to Israel would mean a much more violent end for the Jews of Israel.

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Tal Keinan

Keinan’s description of Israel’s realities is rich and extensive. He introduces you to four segments of Israeli society: the Territorialists, who are besotted with a vision of greater Israel that includes the Palestinian territories, the Theocrats, whose restrictive hold on definitions of Judaism ruffle other Jews, the Secularists, who dominate the military and economic sectors, and the Fourth Israel, those who struggle to achieve the Israeli dream, including Israeli Arabs. 

Keinan’s sympathies are clearly with the Secularists, the group to which he belongs. He sees their sacrifices as critical for Israel’s survival and yet they are generally unrecognized. He also knows how tenuous their connection to Israel can be. “Individual Jews, in America and Israel, are beginning to vote with their feet [by abandoning Israel]. The breaking point will arrive without warning.” (295)

Given the urgency of this scenario, Keinan proposes “medicine” drawn from centuries of Jewish tradition…and his own expertise in capital fund management. He sees, in the reformation of the Jewish religion around the Talmud, the development of a kind of crowd wisdom that allowed diverse populations of Jews to survive the Diaspora for 1900 years. He sees a form of that same wisdom in markets, which can be analyzed using a moving average model that reads a running trend rather than random points of data.

In the final section, Keinan delineates a code that might define Jewish identity in the twenty-first century. He builds on three pillars: a technological method to aggregate Jewish thought and provide a picture of the wisdom of the crowd, a new Jewish World Endowment that would invite Jewish families into an educational project that would include summer experiences during high school built around Jewish education and service and free college tuition, and a reformed Israeli presidency that would give a global community of Jews a say in maintaining Israel as the nation-state of the Jews.

If you come to this looking for a theological narrative, you won’t find it here. Keinan’s God in the Crowd is not an entity beyond that crowd wisdom. But his sense of the crisis is real, his analysis strong, and his proposal intriguing, even for someone like me who stands outside the community. It is an exemplar of what I have always appreciated in my visits to Israel—the energy, creativity, and ability to reimagine that makes for a vibrant society. We can only hope that leaders with gifts like Keinan’s will continue to commit to Israel as an idea or his darkest fears will surely materialize.

We could also hope for some leaders like that in America.

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