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From “Peoplehood” to Family: The Relationship Between American and Israeli Jews

A family that excels only at diplomatic language and apologetics will not preserve a relationship only growing colder
Dr. Rani Jaeger is a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center and head of the recently formed Tanakh Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He was one of the founders of the Institute’s Be’eri Program for Pluralistic Jewish-Israeli Identity Education. Rani received his doctorate from Bar-Ilan University on Jewish-Israeli culture as perceived by the poet Avraham Shlonsky. He was a participant in the first cohort of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis and received rabbinical ordination

From “Peoplehood” to Family: On the Relationship between American and Israeli Jews Today

The Israeli government has through its declarations and actions abandoned liberal American Judaism. The consternation of American Jewry does not stem from the fact that the Haredim want to push them aside or from their attempts to carry out that goal through politics, but from the government’s almost complete capitulation to them and from the lack of any attempt by the Prime Minister or other ministers to appease liberal American Jews after capitulating to the Haredim and canceling the Kotel deal.

The sense is that, for the first time, the crisis is accompanied by attacks by ministers and close associates on Jewish survivability and the strength of liberal Jewish streams. The Israeli government looks at them as a population whose Jewish identity is steadily weakening and whose demise is expected soon.

The roots of the message the coalition gives off run deeper than identifying the current political weakness of American Jews, most of whom voted for the losing Democrats. At issue is not recognition that Trump is in charge and not Obama, who was considered the man who delivered Israel into the teeth of a dangerous Iranian deal.

Rather, the novel element is the contempt the Israeli government has for the strength of Reform and Conservative Jewish identity and its ability to nourish them, now and in the future. The Republican ascendancy over Democrats is not perceived merely as a change of government that may be reversed in a few years.

Rather, Israeli government leaders see Trump’s rise as undeniable evidence of the collapse of the liberal worldview. Because liberalism is a foundation of American Jewry’s largest religious movements, its failure in the American political arena is seen as an expression of American liberal Judaism’s religious and spiritual diminution.

To be clear: liberalism is a foundation that unifies the Jewish and American identities of millions of American Jews at their root. It is the hyphen in American-Jewish, created through great social, intellectual, cultural, and religious effort. This foundation is now, for the first time, under direct attack from senior Israelis; the political football was kicked directly from the Kotel Plaza into the synagogues of New Jersey and San Francisco. The damage is not in the relationship with Israel, but in the heart of the Jewish identity of 60 percent of American Jews. For the first time, the rhetoric of Israeli government officials casts doubt on whether American liberal Judaism can survive—to the extent that Israel puts more faith in the support of Evangelical Christians and courts them more than they court Reform and Conservative Jews.

Beyond this consternation and offense, there is something else historically unprecedented. The present government’s contempt for any liberal view is so severe that it is leading the majority of the world’s largest Jewish community outside of Israel to disconnect. The leading voices of the national camp are so nationalistic they are estranged from the nation.

It is alienated from millions of flesh-and-blood Jews with composite identities, who have both love and criticism for Israel. If the Israeli government forecast that liberal Judaism will fade away proves correct, then Israel must work to stem that tide. If it is incorrect, it is both morally and strategically wrong to introduce it into this important relationship. In either case, flaunting it as a political trump card, while experiencing schadenfreude, is in direct opposition in the most fundamental sense, to the idea that the State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people.

Roots of the Crisis

Our work would be too easy if we could assign responsibility to the present government and its policies. Politicians do not just shape reality; they also respond to it. The crisis is not a momentary political mood, but the identification of a deep process weakening the connection between most Israeli Jews and most American Jews. It is best to say this explicitly: the problem, at its root, is not with Modern Orthodoxy or Haredi parties. The rift is between the like-minded; most non-Orthodox Israeli Jews are apathetic about most of non-Orthodox American Jewry.

I will examine the Israeli side and analyze the roots of its apathy toward American Jewry, but without promising a magic fix. My starting point is as both an insider and an outsider. I am an Israeli who is often in the US and who is fortunate to have close communication and working relationships with American Jews.

Israelis as Canaanites

With his sharpened senses and renowned ability to formulate ideas, Avraham Shlonsky offered a profound truth about Israeli reality in 1961 in his critique of the Canaanite movement, which was a modern call for an indigenous native local identity to lead to the establishment of a new people in the land of Israel:

It pains me to say that it might be the cruel logic of our existence, of a tomorrow which comes because of our life-circumstances…Canaanism…is found today in almost every sabra, consciously or unconsciously. – Avraham Shlonsky, Maariv, February 17, 1961

Shlonsky drew attention to the gap between the ideological and the existential among sabras, who speak of a “Jewish people” but who live a “Canaanite” existence—not at an ideological level, but on a practical level. Israeli existence is rich in so many ways, but it is also so demanding it fills the life of an Israeli to the point that a non-Israeli Jewish existence is not found in Israel.

This is not intentional. Rather, as Shlonsky describes, it is a “consequence,” willy-nilly. The successful establishment of Israel created an Israeli experience so total and all-embracing (terms that must be distinguished from “perfect”) that it determines the consciousness of those born into it.

This can be seen as success or as local narcissism but must first be recognized as a given.

Exile and Redemption, Language and Consciousness

Although existence determines consciousness, Jews throughout their long exile remained unified despite living within different realities, through a shared conceptual world and consciousness. Every Jew in the traditional world lived in a place with a “gentile” name (Warsaw, Cairo, or Casablanca), but also a Jewish name: “exile.” This name is a peculiar way of indicating time and place. A Jew lived in exile because he was not entirely in his own place or time. The degree of his alienation from time and place varied, but the basic phenomenon was the same, and its resolution was supposed to come in the form of “redemption,” which would bring about a renewed unity of time and space.

The establishment the State of Israel led to the decoupling of this pair of concepts that unified the Jewish world. On one hand, Israel is an interim stage that cannot easily be interpreted by the language of the tradition. In terms of consciousness, we are not entirely in exile but are not entirely redeemed. We have no functional concept, idea, or symbol for the present. This is evident in the term, “the beginning of redemption.” This is a vacillating solution that only attests to conceptual problem’s severity.

On the other hand, most American Jews do not see themselves as living in “exile,” neither spatially nor temporally. They affirm their existence each day as US citizens by acting enthusiastically within the American public sphere as full partners and leaders. In fact, even the Israeli public, in contradistinction to its official rhetoric, recognizes that American Jewry is not making mass aliyah any time soon. Moreover, Israel’s crowded reality, housing prices, and other challenges cause many to question, in moments of self-honesty, the logic of mass aliyah. The ingathering of the exiles, as a stage of redemption in which there is a mass movement toward Israel, is not at the center of the Israeli project today.

If neither American Jews nor Israeli Jews expect aliyah as part of a process of transition from exile to redemption, and they do not share a time that is defined as “exile,” it turns out that both Jewish centers have lost the language that inscribes them within the Jewish narrative and connects them to the other through it.

Israeliness as “Mizrahi” and Americanness as “Ashkenazic”

The ethnic issue would seem to have nothing to do with the relationship between Israelis and American Jews, but it is relevant, given the transformation of Israeli culture over the past 20 years. Israel is more consciously Mediterranean, Levantine, Mizrahi, and Arab – readers can choose their preferred terminology – than it was 40 years ago. I am referring not only to the cultural engagement of Jews from Islamic lands, to important questions about discrimination, to silenced voices of Mizrahim, and to the melting pot, but also to the presence of language, music, literature, custom, and cuisine that determine the character of a society.

Anyone at a recent Piyyut Festival concert, where an Arab symphony from Nazareth played selihot and piyyutim inspired by the works of Arab musicians, recognized that he was at a historic event. The fact that the concert was broadcast live on a rock radio station, a traditional TV channel, and the Voice of Israel in Arabic, showed there is a large audience open to this sort of fusion.

In contrast, the clear majority of American Jewry, and certainly its liberal movements, is “Ashkenazic.” It reflects Jewish demographics before the Holocaust and mass aliyah, when Jews of Arab lands made up 8 percent of world Jewry. At issue is not actual descent from one of the Ashkenazic diasporas, but a cultural reality that is a combination of family narratives, traditions, and customs. Most liberal American Jews do not speak Yiddish, yet when one speaks to them, especially a middle-aged crowd, a sprinkling of Yiddish will draw a chuckle.

As Israel became more “Eastern,” American Jews became more “Western,” not only in terms of relating to familial roots, but in terms of identity, affiliation, and worldview. These are complex issues that demand extensive attention and treatment, but it is not difficult to see that broad-based Israeli apathy regarding the plight of Women of the Wall is connected to how foreign, not to mention strange, a woman in a kippah and tallit seems to most Israelis. Here, in the shared realm of Jewish tradition, a natural and self-evident connection in the eyes of American Jews is bizarre in the eyes of liberal Israeli Jews.

In other words, beneath the scornful filter “Reform,” there is often a rejection of the way gender is expressed in liberal Judaism, a rejection articulated in this context in geographic terms that link place with worldview, and which is related to Israel’s Mediterranean character: “Not from here.”

From Family Discussion to Debate

The fact that David Ben-Gurion’s wife Paula was an American Jew whose basic worldview was far from, even opposed to, the Zionist project, is surely symbolic. It is not necessary to get into the details of this life partnership to presume that their intimate conversations were an encounter of the different worlds they came from and believed in.

This conversation was not the legacy of the Ben-Gurions alone. The mass migration of Jews from Europe to the United States, alongside the smaller aliyah to Palestine, divided many families between Israel and the US. The two centers grew in tandem and their influence became decisive due to the tragic fate of European Jewry. They were family members who sojourned on different paths, but who nevertheless stayed in touch. Often there were sharp ideological differences, yet the “uncle from America” nonetheless remained a common Israeli notion that reflected a real relationship.

This relationship faded over the years; such is the nature of time and distance. Here and there discussions take place about the future of the communities, and there is a small group of people who travel back and forth between Israel and the US, visiting the two centers of living Judaism. However, it is clear that an intimate, wide-ranging, comprehensive, and enduring conversation between Israeli Jews and American Jews simply does not take place.

The fundamentally positive attempt to bridge the lack of connection through a new concept, “peoplehood,” failed because it has no future or mission. It lacked warmth and emptied discussion of the intimacy and confrontation needed from a sort of extended family.

One of the most important meanings of intimacy is the existence of a safe space where one can unburden his heart, for disclosure not only of successes but also of each side’s fears, and even how each of us challenges and even threatens the other.

In such a space it will be possible to discover that American Jewry can become a threatening alternative for some Israelis. For them, life in America is not a challenge to the Jewish or Zionist narrative, but an alternative whose attractiveness distances them from their children and grandchildren. In contrast to the past, an Israeli who moves to Silicon Valley is relocating, not making yeridah, lowering themselves.

American Jews are not at fault for this, but who said that one can get angry only at whoever is at fault? Yet there is something to it, because “they sit there while we guard the place of refuge for when they need it.” Either way, we need a place where it is possible to say these things and not just smile politely at the aunt from America. Otherwise, where and when will we speak about the foreign passports so many Israelis obtain for themselves and their children?

On the other hand, alongside its justifiable pride in Israel’s achievements, where does the American liberal Jewish leadership disclose its concerns to Israelis? When and how do we talk about the decline in the participation of middle-aged and young Jews in synagogues and other Jewish institutions?

It is not easy to talk about these things, and not everything can or must be revealed. However, a family that excels only at diplomatic language and apologetics will not preserve a relationship only growing colder. There is no substitute for a conscious effort to generate intimate discourse, a creative and warm “kitchen conversation,” where family secrets can be aired. Renewal of this intimacy holds a big part of whatever opportunity there is to think together about the future of the Israeli-Diaspora relationship.

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