David Hazony, Israeli Identity and the Future of American Jewry
Two great problems face American Jewry today. From a certain perspective, they amount to an existential crisis.
The first one is called “assimilation,” or “continuity,” or “identity,” and it relates to the failure of Jewish organizations, philanthropists, religious movements, and parents to successfully transmit the Jewish collective commitment from one generation to the next. It is measured in intermarriage rates, synagogue membership, household rituals, fertility, and other metrics...
The second one may be called the “Israel problem,” and it is rapidly becoming a major concern. Young Jews who have grown up on the ideal of tikun olam, “repairing the world,” do not understand how their parents’ commitment to an armed ethnic nation-state, born of last century’s fears, led by “right-wing” leaders, fits into their Jewish identity. For some, the things they have heard about the occupation, religious issues, and the treatment of minorities—some true, some false—suggest to them that Israel should be criticized rather than championed. For others, the complexity of the issues and the discomfort of being a Jew in public leads them to “tune out,” not just about Israel but about Jewish commitment more broadly.
These and not others, like anti-Semitism or terrorism, because they are problems of the spirit: a collective Jewish spirit that is no longer sure of its future or even its present, an insecurity that both expresses and exacerbates the problem. These issues have, simply, made “being Jewish” into something problematic for the next generation of non-Orthodox Jews.
This next generation is no longer moored to Jewish peoplehood through guilt, or habit, or peer pressure. Jewish identity, if it is to reside in them at all, will have to compete for their allegiance in a brutally efficient market of identification. So far, “Jewish” is failing to compete....
So what can be done? Though part of the problem may be alleviated through increased investment in education and convincing non-Orthodox parents to have more kids, such noble efforts today feel like putting oil on a hinge that has already rusted through. In other words, it’s time to ask whether the problem is not in the marketing, but in the product itself. Perhaps Jewish identity, as understood in non-Orthodox America in the past century, is inherently incapable of winning adherents among its own children in sustainable numbers today...
Increasingly, one such alternative form of Jewish identity is taking shape. It is, for lack of a better term, “Israeliness.” Israel, which has for generations occupied the place in the American Jewish mind of a political cause, has suddenly emerged as something very different: A civilizational force. It has just begun to unleash itself on the world.
II. What is “Judaism”?
Can “Israeliness” really be considered a form of Judaism?
It can, if we properly understand the forms Judaism has taken in the past. While in America we speak in terms of religion, religion itself is a category that has been imposed from without: Whenever we see a combination of theology, ritual, and houses of worship, we call it a religion.
Judaism never really saw itself this way, however. It had these, but it also had other things—a collective narrative and sense of “peoplehood”; an ethnic component; a metaphysical, spiritual path; a textual tradition and the practice of study; “secular” communal institutions alongside and intertwined with “religious” ones; a political worldview. It was a comprehensive way of life, centered not just in the synagogue but, no less so, in the home and the study house; and not just for the individual but for a self-defining collective, a “people,” as well.....
...America is a great place for Jews, and much of Jewish effort has been to ensure that it stays that way by forging an unbreakable secular space in American law and culture. But the downside is that the same secular space offers an ideal environment for assimilation. Unless you are willing to either embrace an Orthodox way of life or move to Israel, few communal institutions today can give you confidence that your grandchildren will remain committed Jews.
This is perhaps the reason that so many Jews have turned to activism as a vehicle for identity-building. Activism, which began as an outgrowth or application of Jewish identity, has in many cases come to replace it....
What unites all these forms of activism is the hope that by making the world better, we will build ourselves as well. That by investment of energy and money and time and adrenaline, we come out of it with a sense of Jewish commitment, and through our example pass that commitment along to our children.
But is this true? Activism does much good, but if this logic of Jewish identity-building were correct, we would not be seeing the assimilation statistics we do now. When activism is relied upon to provide identity instead of reflect it, we discover how little there is left for deeper things. If I am already engaged, why struggle with Hebrew? If I believe so strongly in making the world better, why bore myself with spirituality and text?...
Being Jewish has always been about things much deeper than activism....
It also rarely transmits across generations the way you planned. By your example you might convince your kids to fight for the same things you do. But a more likely result is that you’ve taught them to care about their world but fight for causes of their own choosing—just as you did—and to make such choices early in life.
III. What is “Israel”?
The numbers suggest that among a great many American Jews, “love” of Israel does not correlate with a curiosity or desire to understand how Israelis think or feel or live.
They’re not too interested in learning the Israelis’ language, either. ..
This creates a sense of paradox: American Jews in fact seem to care about Israel much more than they are drawn to the Israeli experience. They relate very differently to Israel than, say, the way some Americans catch a bug about France or Italy or Japan. In such cases, to fall in love with a country is to want to visit frequently, to learn its language, to get inside its mind, to drink its culture, to try even living there for a while. A love that includes a desire for the other.
For many American Jews, it seems, Israel doesn’t really qualify as a foreign country or an object of desire, as much as a communal project—something they already have rather than need to get.
I’ve asked American Jews: If you care so much, why not study Hebrew and make sure your children know it?
“Learning Hebrew is hard,” I’m told. “The kids don’t like it.”
Or: “You’re asking too much of Americans. We don’t learn languages.”
When I press them, however, the answer often changes. It’s not about Israeli “culture,” they say. It’s about a safe Israel, a secure Jewish homeland. It’s about helping Jews. ..
IV. Cultural Zionism Revisited
But perhaps the most relevant Zionist thinker in this regard was Ahad Ha’am, the founder of what became known as “cultural Zionism.” In 1897 he wrote that Judaism:
seeks to return to its historic centre, in order to live there a life of natural development, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture, to develop and perfect those national possessions which it has acquired up to now, and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity, in the future as in the past, a great national culture, the fruit of the unhampered activity of a people living according to its own spirit. … This Jewish settlement, which will be a gradual growth, will become in course of time the centre of the nation, wherein its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable. Then from this centre the spirit of Judaism will go forth to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, and will breathe new life into them and preserve their unity...
Three changes in the last generation have forced them to notice....But perhaps most importantly, Israel itself has grown into a civilizational force that can no longer be ignored. Israelis are not “growing apart” from their American brethren; they are merely growing, in power and influence, making themselves heard, just when the American Jewish voice has grown equivocal and muffled.
American Jews may dismiss such talk as “Israeli triumphalism,” but the fact remains: it is they who have been slow to recognize the implications of the fruition of Ahad Ha’am and Herzl’s visions of a spiritual, economic, and cultural center for their own lives.
Yes, they take vicarious pride in the success of Israeli-originating TV shows like “In Treatment,” “Homeland,” and “Fauda,” or actresses like Gal Gadot and Natalie Portman, or writers like Amos Oz, or scholars like Yuval Noah Harari, or chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi. But what this might have to do with their own Judaism is, to most, still very unclear.
V. Israeliness Discovered
Increasingly, however, Israeliness is inserting itself into American Jews’ lives. In America today, there are probably at least 200,000 Israelis—enough that the U.S. Census Bureau has started including “Israeli” as a category to track alongside other ethnicities. Israeli-Americans are organizing themselves as a discrete ethnic group, after decades of feeling shunned by both Israelis who saw them as yordim (“those who have gone down”) and American Jews who couldn’t handle their alien mores. Hebrew-language websites, newspapers, and social organizations have been launched in major American cities, as have stores specializing in Israeli products...
Israeliness is now a “thing,” as the kids say....
Israeliness also contains within it a fundamental statement of the Jew’s place on earth. And perhaps this is the most sensitive point. Part of what makes Israeliness so different is that it is grounded in a belief in a proud, assertive, sovereign agency, in collective Jewish action in history that is not restricted only to matters of moral messages to the world, to a universal teaching, but also in a biblical, particularistic sense that only by taking responsibility for the entire envelope of human life—including high politics and sports and the economy and farming and cleaning one’s streets—and doing so in an unabashed way, does the Jew fulfill his historic role.
It also contains an implicit critique of how Americans have been approaching Jewish identity and tikun olam: That to claim to have a lesson for the world when you do not face the same challenges that nations face is ineffective, and will be taken by others as arrogant.
That to fail to champion your unique identity, to fail to celebrate your achievements and mark your tragedies and assert your collective value in public not only encourages those who paint a picture of the Jew as the ultimate conspirator, but—worse—misunderstands an America that respects ethnic pride, and—still worse—sends a mixed message to our children about the importance of being Jewish at all.
Israelis are not quiet about their achievements, and if you call it triumphalism or find it distasteful or dismiss it as “hasbara,” I would suggest that such a habit of celebration is, also, part of the nature of creating our own country, a crucial flip-side to the endless internal Israeli self-criticism, a habit that every successful nation in history has undertaken to maintain its place on earth and its spiritual health, a vital act of collective self-defense in a world where communication kills...
The point of my whole argument, however, is not about how cool Israel is, because how cool it is has already begun to be discovered by an America forever looking for cool things. The point is that American Jews as a community risk missing a tremendous opportunity to fend off oblivion if they cannot see that Israeliness is not just interesting in its own right but specifically as a form of Jewish identity, exactly when a new form of Jewish identity is the only thing that can save them.
VI. Towards an American Jewish Israeliness
We can, however, point to three components or principles that would have to be part of any comprehensive approach to making Israeliness a central element in the identity of American Jews...
First, there are the translations. I mean this in the broadest sense...
Second, language. Vast investment in the Hebrew language is both the simplest and most difficult change, because it requires not just concerted effort, but also a change in life habits. Yet without fluency in Hebrew, the engagement with Israeliness will always be a dilution and distortion based on intermediaries looking to explain things for Americans rather than the immersive, direct exposure that a personal journey requires. Only the language carries the nuance, the instinct, and, ironically, all that is unsaid. ..
And then, there is travel. This is both a communal and an individual imperative. For the community, it means creating new opportunities, not just for short trips like Birthright but also year-long explorations like Young Judea’s Year Course, as well as specialized, profession- or interest-based trips.
If these seem familiar, it’s because they are exactly the things anyone who falls in love with a country does, and any country that wants to be discovered makes possible...
There are many other initiatives as well, coming from both the Israeli and American-Jewish sides. But what is missing is the coherent recognition, the express goal, that the civilizational power of Israel is, for American Jews, the most obviously fruitful way forward.
Relating to Israel this way will be hard, for it will require a different set of instincts and tools than the ones American Jews currently use to relate both to Israel and to their own Jewish identity....
It means rediscovering Israel as a country, not just a cause, and yourself as someone searching rather than acting out of certainty. Playing a long game. Developing a new spiritual infrastructure. Having the confidence of who you are that is required to expand who you are—to see the Israeli other not as a threat but as a resource for your own journey.
Because every true baseball fan has played the game, and imagines himself in the outfield making that diving catch. And everyone who genuinely dedicates themselves to both the defense of Israel and the crafting of a durable and multilayered Jewish identity will have to, at one point or another in their lives, dabble with Israeliness.
Not as a problem, but as the beginning of a solution.