American Jews and Israel

The online journal Mosaic currently features a series of pieces on the problematic relationship between American Jewry and Israel. Daniel Gordis wrote the lead feature followed in short order by Hillel Halkin's commentary. 

Both pieces point to the simplicity and the complexity of the subject. Simplicity—or perhaps shallowness might be more correct—i.e. most American Jews little consider Israel. They never or rarely travel there, they count few or no Israelis as acquaintances or friends, they know little of the country's history or core ideas, values, or institutions. It's far from a live option for them as a mode of Jewishness much less as a location for their lives. 

Why would anyone think otherwise about American Jewish commitment to Zionism much less Israel given these specific deficits not to mention the more general characteristics of American Jewish assimilation, illiteracy regarding Judaism and Jewishness, and apathy about the meaning of all of that? 

On the other hand for some American Jews Israel matters more and presents various challenges and complexities which often seem to complicate or wear away commitment. It's too religious. It's too secular. It's too socialist. It's too Middle Eastern. It’s too conflict ridden. It's too unjust to the Palestinians. It's too small and crowded. It's too Jewish. It's a nation-state not a liberal state. It's not religiously pluralistic enough. As Gordis points out many if not most of these perceptions and criticisms seem existential, about what Israel is rather than about what Israel does. So between being little considered and ill-thought of, Israel receives few votes from American Jews. To invoke a metaphor from the realm of romantic courtship, we may date Israel but we're not prepared to marry it.

To that my friend Hillel Halkin adds the important corrective that the alienation and or indifference and ignorance flow both ways in this dysfunctional tribe, as is often the case in families. In addition to each viewing the other mainly if not solely through the prism of utility ("What can Israel do for me as an American Jews?"), each contains admixtures of admiration loathing and condescension vis a vis the other. Americans admire the plucky new Jew that is the Israeli even though it may reinforce all sorts of diasporas anxieties about being a Jew in a non-Jewish world, a reality which requires that Jews possess a psychology and a content and often lack the latter if not also the former. Israelis admire and increasingly envy the individualism and freedom and sheer ease of the bourgeois American life even as they disdain its softness. Israelis display their negation of the diaspora by not even pretending to take an interest in American Jewry's history or its ideas and institutions.

And each community wrestles with the eternal Jewish predicament of particularism and universalism: what it means to be Jewish in a non-Jewish world. American Jews can’t compute such a deep yet overt Jewishness that still somehow leaves many Israelis not knowing the Shema Yisrael. Israelis remain curious about how hard American Jews—at least some—work at Jewishness even as it remains embedded in such a minor key way in their larger American lives. Judaism matters more and more for some here even as it often seems to be about less and less. 

These attitudes come from a deep place. The Enlightenment propounded the notion of religion as private and voluntary, something that ought to be liberal in its reliance upon education and moral suasion rather than corporate community and governance. States conferred citizenship and sanctioned behavior; religious communities functioned in effect as affinity groups with people tied together by history but ultimately by the freedom to choose a set of common beliefs and ritual behaviors.  Jews in the west in most cases accepted this liberal view of religion because it offered to them a new political identity as citizens and the socio-economic integration and acculturation that transformed their material and cultural lives. Given the power of that integrationist model how can anyone expect American Jews to make room for Zionism on the deepest and also most manifest level, a counter claim in modern Jewish life that demanded that Jews must reject integrationist politics as leading ineluctably to assimilation and or anti-Semitism and rather embrace philosophically and practically the Jewish right and need for self-government. 

No wonder then that Zionism earned proportionally far more recruits among the deeply tribal ethnic communities of the east rather than the modernizing and secularizing Jews of the west. American exceptionalism reinforced the American Jewish deep dive into integration: the worse integration worked everywhere else the more it reinforced Jewish gratitude for the blessings of American freedom and equality, especially after the Holocaust.

That Zionism too represented a modernizing, even radicalizing strategy for Jewish life, was beside the point. Looking back it’s clear the Jewish people modernized in multiple ways, as a function of the regions and societies in which they lived. Eastern European Jews argued about here (i.e. remaining in Russia-Poland and creating a new Jewish culture even polity) or there (Palestine, or Uganda, or wherever) as well as debating the merits of Yiddish or Hebrew as the bearers of national consciousness. All of those rich now bygone arguments suggested the depth of Jewishness and the internal resources that some Jews brought to the project of being a modern Jew, a very different project and process than learning French or German or English, improving one’s class position, becoming a professional and adapting one’s private Jewish identity to all that, which is what the Jews of the west pursued. 

The two communities read Jewish history differently as well, something that American Jews in particular seem not to want to acknowledge. Zionism argued that the regeneration of the Jewish people required a radical break with the Jewish past, with its God, its Torah, its notion of sacred community. The waiting for messiah must give way to human agency, Jews building the land and in the process rebuilding themselves. That sort of radicality has little or nothing in common with the slogans of Jewish commitment here that praise "Jewish continuity," as if all that we need to do is to find our way back to tradition.

Because of the huge implications of choosing Judaism and deemphasizing peoplehood rather than the Jewish people and Jewish nationalism, Zionism American style focused on culture for American Jews and politics for the rest of global Jewry. That also operated symbiotically: American Jews need not reexamine their integrationist political commitments even as they relied upon Zionist Hebraism to regenerate American Jewish culture while that instrumentalism reinforced Zionist notions of the inferiority of diaspora and its need for Zion as the center and generator of Jewish light.   

Personally Judaism and Jewish peoplehood changed my life in my teenage years and I haven't been the same since. Not a day goes by that I don't miss Israel and wonder if my life should have been there, both for personal reasons of taste and commitment but also because of these deeper truths. The rabbi in me asks Gordis's question, the normative one that pushes American Jews to take the obligations of peoplehood more seriously, including commitment to Zionism and to Israel. The pragmatist in me thinks like Halkin: based on these historical and philosophical understandings and commitments, the question isn't why there's so little American Jewish attachment to Israel, the question is why are we surprised about that, or why don't we appreciate what commitment there is. Meanwhile we diasporniks will continue to push the rock up the hill, every day, on behalf of the Jewish people and of Israel.