Being Able to Say No

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How can we reverse the growing rift between Israel and diaspora Jewry? Both sides have their work cut out.

Lighting candles commemorating victims of Pittsburgh massacre | Shutterstock

The massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history, and has changed the reality of the American Jewish community forever. The sense of security that American Jews take for granted has been shattered, and another link in the chain of solidarity between Israel and American Jewry has been broken.

Responses from Israel fell short of the expected outstretched arm to a family member in time of need, and ranged from innuendos about the level of “Jewishness” of the Conservative congregation, to unhelpful reminders that American Jews can immigrate to Israel. No doubt this will have far-reaching effects on American Jews’ struggle to reconcile their own growing liberal tendencies with the increasingly conservative nature of Israel’s policies. However, the topic seems to be of little interest to the Israeli press or public. Though the shootings received wide coverage, their possible ramifications for the relationship between the two communities have drawn scant attention.

Put simply: Like almost any other global issue, matters having to do with American Jewry interest the Israeli public only when they have some internal Israeli significance; that is, when the American Jewish community chooses to attack Israel. Sometimes it seems that even the issue of assimilation interests the media only from a largely political perspective – based on the premise that a fall in the number of Jews in the United States and in their public prominence will have a dramatic effect on US political support for Israel. In political circles, as among those with an interest in Diaspora affairs, there are some who claim that the prime minister is already operating on this assumption, and so – is prepared to ignore the complaints of the liberal Jewish denominations, based on the calculation that some four or five million liberal Jews, who are in any case undergoing significant assimilation, are of less significance to Israel than 80 million evangelical Christians.

To attempt to repair this situation, we must to introduce a comprehensive system of intensive and intimate familiarization with diaspora Jewry among Israelis. This should begin by expanding Diaspora Jewry study program that includes student trips to Jewish communities abroad, so that the contact of young Israelis with Diaspora Jews will not be limited to visiting camps and graveyards in Poland, or to brief encounters with rowdy Birthright groups, but rather exposure to the real and complex questions faced by Jews in communities around the world.

There is, of course, another side to this issue. Not only are we drifting apart from the Diaspora; they too, and especially the younger generations, are drifting apart from us. The leadership of the US Jewish establishment claims repeatedly that the main reason for this is anger at Israel, due to both its treatment of the Palestinians and its policies toward liberal Jewish denominations. This is certainly one of the reasons for the growing distance between us, but it is not necessarily the main one. If it were, there would be large numbers of Jews reacting with vehement criticism of Israel, instead of turning away in apathy. It would seem that – as Elliott Abrams, one of the foremost Jewish statesmen in the US, has said repeatedly – the main factor underlying this apathy has been the movement of American Jews away from being Jewish, and thus – also from their connection to Israel.

EVERY MINORITY GROUP in every country in the world over holds two opposing aspirations desires: the aspiration to integrate into the majority society, and become part and parcel of it; and the other is the aspiration to maintain its own unique, separate identity. From this perspective, it is fascinating to compare, for example, the Israeli religious Zionist community – which, despite high rates of secularization among its members, has nevertheless largely succeeded in entering the country’s elites while maintaining its distinct religious identity – with liberal Judaism in the United States, which has been less successful in meeting this dual challenge. Of course, it can be argued that the main difference between the two groups is the fact that religious Zionism has faced this identity challenge in a Jewish-majority country, while US Jewry does so in a non-Jewish environment; but I believe that this is not the main explanation.

Anyone who looks closely at the markers of Jewish identity that are still maintained by liberal Jews can see a conspicuous common denominator. They are all positive and enjoyable traditions and customs such as lighting Hanukkah candles, or Friday night dinner, or holding a Passover Seder and bar/bat mitzvah celebrations as well. But there is no trace of the “negative” identity markers – the prohibitions that nonetheless constitute the majority of Judaism’s commandments.

I recall once asking a group of American Jews whether there was anything they refrained from doing because they were Jewish. I was met with a long silence. In religious Zionism, on the other hand, despite the drive to integrate, there is strict maintenance of separatist identity markers, such as a separate education stream, and even separate religious residential areas.

To maintain a unique minority identity over time, one must be prepared to isolate oneself from one’s environment to at least some degree. Of course, this does not have to entail complete isolation, but it does mean being able to say: My identity as a Jew is important enough for me to also maintain its separatist – and not just its inclusive components – with which any lover of folklore can identify. And thus, perhaps the central thrust of Jewish education in the United States needs to be instilling the idea that every Jew should ask himself/ herself not just what they do as a Jew, but also – and especially – what they refrain from doing. This is not about taking on the full gamut of halachic prohibitions; rather, it would be enough for American Jews to identify with this form of thinking in principle, and choose even a small part of the diverse options offered by Jewish tradition.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.