Israel Is Not a Birthright: Why We Should Stop Investing in American Jewry
Over the past few years, the rift between the American diaspora communities and the Israeli government has grown and deepened. Issues with the Israeli rabbinate, Israeli politics, heritage sites (e.g. the Kotel) and religious practices have developed to an extent that coexistence between the American and Israeli Jewish communities has become quite difficult to maintain. American Jews feel alienated and disenfranchised from Israeli society and political decision-making and have begun to ask why.
While some Israeli figures and politicians have responded with calls for outreach and understanding, the overwhelming consensus here in Israel has emerged as defiant disaffection and apathy. The far left, influenced by the New Israel Fund and other American-based NGOs, routinely brings up the issues as broadcasted by the leaders of liberal American Judaism, and cries of solidarity in support of Haredi draft protesters do sometimes reach the ears of the Israeli religious population, but they are easily drowned out in the mundane disaster of Israeli political muckraking. Though I have lived with Israelis these past few years, I hardly remember hearing such issues arise in discussions, and even if some of my friends showed interest, they would have been considered renegade liberals in the main corpus of Israeli Jewry. To put it bluntly: Israelis don’t give a damn about American Jewry, and we can do very little to ameliorate the situation.
Over the years, Israeli society has diverged from traditional Ashkenazi Jewry in many ways. The nascent state took in nearly a million Jewish-Arab refugees in the 1950s, and the internal dynamics of Israeli society have changed with them. The elitist Ashkenazi halutzim, the forebears of modern Israel, slowly made way for the new arrivals, and, after years of infighting and strife, lost their previous-held status. The Mizrahi Jews themselves underwent Ashekenazification at the hands of the Israeli “melting pot” and the conflict between East and West. As a result, Israelis have forged a new Jewish identity for themselves. We have returned to our fatherland, we have reconnected with our long-distant cousins and have started to regroup and grow after the horrid conditions of a long exile. Our language is Hebrew, our religion is Masoretic Judaism and our consciousness embodies the millions of Jews who yearned for Zion and dreamed to call this small country their home.
American Jewry, on the contrary, never experienced the internal struggle of contradicting cultures, and thus does not share the experience or history that has so altered Modern Israeli Jewry’s course. American Jews today look and act much like European Jews on the eve of the Holocaust: Yiddish-speaking Hasidim on the one hand and ultra-secular/Reform non-practicing Jews on the other, both anti-Zionist. The Western mentality, split between fundamentalist spirituality and secular emancipation, lives on in our American communities. The tribalist Arab persona, so vital for our continued presence in the Middle-East, has not met American Jewry; they have been left behind. American Jews have withered away, intermarrying and hellenizing. They also remain adamantly against the idea of moving to Israel, and do not consider themselves likely to even refuge in her borders in the event of rising anti-Semitism.
This cultural gap, language dissonance, political discord and national fissure took their toll on our ability to bridge the two different traditions of Jews, and I don’t think we can possibly succeed in repairing the damage.
For too long we let our relationship with American Jewry waste away, for too long we forgot to involve them in the progress of Israeli society. For too long we waited for the day that we could call ourselves a functional, modern democracy and finally reach out to our fellow brethren who remained unwilling to sacrifice their Western comforts for aliyah. We waited for them and for us, and, in the meantime, we lost them.
Western society, acutely felt in the dominating power of American society, has corrupted and destroyed most of the Jews remaining in her grasp. Liberal Jewry has bled itself to near-death, losing most of her sons and daughters to the banality of suburban luxury, while the neo-Hasidic communities of (mostly) metropolitan New York have, in their crazed obsession to repopulate following the calamity of the Holocaust, forged for themselves independent identities completely distinct from those of Zionist Israelis. The Israeli Hasidim, under great influence of Israeli society, have made great sacrifices in their beliefs, practices and identity in order to remain at one with other Jews, but no such pressure existed outside the confines of the modern Jewish kibbutz-state. America offered them safety and serenity and, unwilling to relinquish their chosen identities, they chose to disconnect hermetically from most of their fellow American Jews.
This, sadly, describes the reality of my experiences as a young Modern Orthodox Jew. I grew up in New York, the haven of post-WWII Jewry, and I had next to no interaction with either my reform or Hasidic neighbors. When I grew older and sought out a community of Jews large enough to satisfy my communal needs, I never once considered joining the ranks of Hasidim or registering as a member at a Reform temple. For me, I understood intuitively that my allegiances lay with the Modern Orthodox/Yeshivish communities and Israel. With that in mind, I studied Hebrew with the expectation that someday I might immigrate, and prepared spiritually for the ensuing culture-shock.
Israelis, unlike Americans, don’t approach the Jewish identity in merely Western terms. We are not Jews as a result of direct biological (maternal) lineage, nor do we fantasize about Jewish culture or our shared Jewish heritage. Israeli society, owing to its distinct makeup, defines Judaism in an intrinsic, intuitive way, one based on shared histories, beliefs and practices. The main uniting factor in Israeli society remains military service, traditional religious rites and taboos and the irrational, innate knowledge of knowing that we are all family. We rise together, suffer together and share our experiences as a united people, and no newfangled definitions of Judaism or hollow gestures of familiarity can change that!
Israelis bear resentment over the inaction of American Jewry at our times of need (remember the Intifadas?), and though we appreciate some of the political support and money that we receive from our brethren overseas, we now feel that we can fend for ourselves. We have accomplished the Zionist dream of developing a functional society out of the sand dunes of Tel Aviv, and we can manage ourselves relatively well even without AIPAC’s support. American Jewry has become obsolete for most of our most pressing needs, and has recently become a liability.
Instead of recognizing the waning power and influence of American Jewry in Israel’s political sphere, instead of quietly resigning to the overwhelming feeling of disaffection that most feel towards the state, leaders in American non-Orthodox communities decided to call for reinforcements. They decided, against the interests of both American and Israeli communities, to reopen the wounds of a deeply divided diaspora and actively seek out conflict and strife in the smallest of issues: conversion, the Kotel and the army. These topics do not bother the average Israeli, but by offering an ultimatum to the Israeli people, American rabbis have reminded us all of what we have tried to repress: much of American Jewry has gone.
Not all, surely, but major portions of American Jewry will not and cannot take an active role in the future of the Jewish people. Having decided years ago to forego their natural birthright and move to Israel, they have lost their ability to fully adapt and integrate into the dynamic Israel, and have thus been faded the continuum of Jewish history. I do not wish to delve into speculation regarding the actual numbers, but it would surprise me if even 10 percent of American Jews showed any sign of willingness to move, even upon the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah.
“Ki akhlu et Ya’akov, va’akhaluhu vayekhaluhu.”
“For they have eaten up Jacob, and devoured him, and consumed him.” (Jeremiah 10:25)
This further complicates matters for American Modern-Orthodox/Yeshivish Jews. We do not want to suffer antagonism from our fellow coreligionists, but we must make ourselves aware of our divergent paths. We have maintained contact with our Israeli brethren, thus granting us an incalculable advantage to our eventual integration in Israeli society. Our religion and our general mentality has been redefined by our dialogue with Israeli society, our constant presence as olim hadashim and our true yearning for our return to Zion. We must not disconnect from our fellow brothers and sisters in America — there may yet lie among them those who will want to join our ranks — but I insist on calling upon the Modern Orthodox community to refocus on ourselves. We cannot risk the expenditure of energies, money, vitality and religiosity on large swaths of Jews who cannot, through worldly means, be redeemed. We can only hope that our communities do not suffer the same Americanized fate of the others. We must hold on tight and prepare for our eventual departure.
Photo Caption: President Trump at AIPAC.
Photo Credit: Politico