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The ‘Israel Problem’

We are in a transition period in which the nature of Jewish identity, religiosity, and commitment are being redefined
Photo: LevT/AdobeStock
Photo: LevT/AdobeStock
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the Boundaries of Judaism, and Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. His latest book, Who are the Jews and Who Can We Become, was a 2023 Jewish Book Council Award Finalist.  Donniel is also the host of the award-winning podcast For Heaven’s Sake, together with his colleague Yossi Klein

Posted originally on Times of Israel

Why are North American Jews increasingly alienated from Israel? Elliott Abrams and my friend and colleague Daniel Gordis in their recent essays on Mosaic posit that the answer lies not in the political makeup and policies of the current Israeli government, but in the shifting nature of contemporary American Jewish life – it being less religious, less observant, less knowledgeable, less committed, and more intermarried.

Consequently, if anything is to be “blamed” for the increasing estrangement, it is not what Israel is doing or not doing, but rather the fundamental deterioration in American Jewish identity.

Neither Abrams nor Gordis offer a “solution” for the malaise of contemporary North American Jewish life. To be fair, this was not the mandate or intent of their articles. In fact, their analysis leaves both of them profoundly pessimistic, for they recognize that shifting the blame away from Israel does little to solve the problem.

That contemporary North American Jewish identity is clearly different, is unquestionable, and it definitely suffers from the Jewish take on original sin, i.e., being born later. In addition, we are most certainly an intermarried people to an extent heretofore unprecedented. Whether we are less knowledgeable, committed, identified, and religious than in the past, is less certain. This is often less a simple factual question and more an ideological one, for it depends on what parameters one uses to measure religiosity and commitment. If the parameter is intermarriage itself, we are simply assuming a prior definition for commitment instead of searching for its current possible manifestations.

We are in a transition period in which the nature of Jewish identity, religiosity, and commitment are being redefined. I do not want to celebrate the achievements of contemporary Jewish life, but I also do not want to lament it either. Whether and how Judaism will fare is not clear, and the answer depends not merely on who “they” are, but on what “we” do from this moment on. Similar to other transitional moments in our history, our survival and vitality will be contingent on our ability to innovate and inspire, and to offer a vision of Judaism that adds value to our lives.

Whether we are “less” than our parents and grandparents or “better” is in my estimation largely irrelevant. As an educator, I am dismayed by the blame game, which instead of offering a plan for the future, bifurcates Jews between us and them, the good and the bad, those who “get it,” from those who do not.

As we all know, we live in an era where one’s identity, loyalties, and affiliations are no longer simply inherited. They must be chosen. In this sense, all Jews must become Jews by choice, Jews who choose to see themselves as part of the Jewish people and Jewish story. What is interesting is that 2,000 years ago our rabbinic tradition obligated precisely this as a core commandment of the holiday of Passover — that every Jew see themselves as if they, personally, had come out of Egypt.

What the rabbis possibly did not take into account was how difficult fulfilling this commandment might become. In the past, it might have been sufficient to tell the story. Knowledge of the story assumed identification with it, for after all, it was yours. Today, we are the receivers of many stories competing for our identity and loyalty – Jewish, American, Canadian, gender, socioeconomic, geopolitical, to name but a few. Which ones we choose as our inheritance, in which ones we choose to play, to whom we give our loyalty, is the question.

For Judaism to “win” in the open marketplace of identities it must compete, and not simply tell, and certainly not retell, its story. It can no longer guilt one into Jewishness nor frighten one into identification. Judaism must inspire, challenge, enrich, and ennoble. It must innovate and create, speak to people where they are, and offer a vision of who they might become. Anything less will relegate it to the sidelines of contemporary consciousness.

Israel itself is no different, and is not immune from having to compete for our people’s loyalty. We cannot simply retell the story of Israel’s past achievements in the hope that it will engender new-found loyalty. We cannot simply advocate for Israel’s justice in relation to its enemies under the hope that its relative moral advantage will suffice. It will not. These may be sufficient to convince the committed to stay. They are not sufficient to inspire the new generation of Jews to choose to see Israel as an integral part of their Jewish story.

One of the silliest conversations bandied about is whether anti-Semitism is on the rise or in decline, whether we are better off or not, under the illusion that bad news will lead to a “win” in increased identification with Israel. In an era in which identities must be chosen, no one of sound mind and healthy temperament will choose to belong to a death and crisis narrative when they have an option to belong to one which offers peace and safety. Anti-Semitism is no longer a charge to connect, but a catalyst to assimilate.

The central issue for those concerned with “the Israel problem” is not to focus on the cause, but on that which might be part of a solution. Like Abrams and Gordis, I too believe that it is superficial to locate the singular cause in Israel’s current policies. That does not mean, however, that a change in Israel’s policies or the ability to work to build the Israel you want, is not a necessary part of the solution.

Israel does not need to die nobly on the altar of naive moral aspirations in order to become “valuable” or “engage-able” for North American Jews. It is not with a dead Israel that we seek identification but with a living one, one which values its own rights and just claims to safety and security, as it must be concerned with and for the rights of others.

The Israel I love is the place where Jewish values meet the pavement, where our commitment to the value of all human life meets the checkpoint. Where the homeland of the Jewish people needs to embrace in the fullest sense the best of liberal democracy.

Israel is not a museum honoring our commitment to utopian principles but rather a living reality struggling to embody goodness, to the best of our ability, in the Middle East. To stand for our values in the midst of danger. To compromise in an unredeemed world without losing our core mission “to walk in the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.” (Genesis 18)

My experience has shown me that an Israel which embodies these aspirations, which is self-critical, even to a fault, and which refuses to be defined by reality, but instead struggles to define it, all the while respecting its legitimate right to survive, is an Israel that inspires identification. A Jewish community unafraid of criticism and which is united around the values that ought to infuse Israel’s policies, generates an Israel conversation which fosters engagement from the less committed.

Like Abrams and Gordis, I doubt whether a critical conversation of Israel will alone inspire commitment. I do know, however, that an uncritical conversation of Israel, which advocates for the celebration of Israel as it is, instead of challenging one and enabling one to think about the Israel one wants, will make such a commitment impossible. A change in Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and the place of liberal Jewish values in Israeli society, will not alone foster a new engagement with Israel. However, without such a change in policy or at the very least without the existence of an expansive space to work to change these policies, no such engagement with Israel will occur.

Pessimism is a luxury that we cannot afford, and the blame game is destructive to our future. To be a Jew is to be a part of a people, loyal to them regardless of who they are and not simply in love with who they were. It is time for our community to transcend its political and ideological divides, to welcome our future people with all of their complexity and to start to speak to them, and aspire to inspire them. If we do so, we may find the path forward to overcoming the Israel problem.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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