After decades of ominous demographic statistics, the American Jewish community faces a stark choice about its future. Can Israeli culture offer a way out?
I. The Two Threats
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.
It has been going on for a long time, widely discussed since at least 1990, though still quite unsolved. Meanwhile, the numbers are getting worse, and some of the ominous predictions we have heard for decades now are coming true before our eyes. A new generation has risen that wears its identity lightly, and sees “peoplehood” as more a relic than a need.
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.
Parents, too, are disconcerted by Israel. Having built much of their sense of Jewish fulfillment on public support for Israel, they now see Israel’s problems, no less than its enemies, as a cause for angst. Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The New York Jewish Week, put it this way in a famous 2011 column entitled “When Israel Becomes a Source of Embarrassment”:
Most American Jews want to feel proud of the Jewish State, not frustrated or ashamed. It doesn’t help when they read of continued settlement growth, the flotilla debacle, Foreign Minister Lieberman’s hard-line comments about Israeli Arabs and other issues, or that the Knesset conducted inquiries into the funding sources of NGOs, or that the Chief Rabbinate is increasingly rigid on matters of marriage, divorce and conversion.
Since then, we’ve seen the rise of groups like J Street, which describe themselves as “pro-Israel” but make their support contingent on Israel’s behaving a certain way, and consequently spend far greater energies criticizing than praising. In a 2015 statement, the group’s leader Jeremy Ben-Ami said his group stood for “an Israel that is committed to its core democratic principles and Jewish values”—a phrasing he and others have used repeatedly as a veiled threat against any Israel they see as potentially violating these principles and values.
It is important to recognize that this tension or crisis exists not on some objective plane, but principally within the minds and culture of non-Orthodox American Jewry. Outside the confines of that conversation—say, inside Israel, or among the Orthodox, or among America’s evangelical community—the question of whether Israel’s political decision-making has crossed a line that merits the withdrawal of support is not only a non-question, it’s even a bit baffling. For all but a fringe element inside these communities, support for Israel is not a conditional love. Inside non-Orthodox American Jewry, however, it is a burning issue—possibly the central issue of identity in our time.
These two factors—assimilation and Israel-angst—are the real sources of crisis. 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.
Inside non-Orthodox American Jewry, support for Israel is a burning issue—possibly the central issue of identity in our time.
Not long ago I was traveling through a midwestern American city, together with a young colleague. A talented development professional in his mid-twenties whose mother is president of a Reform congregation on the West Coast. Together we attended a “Night to Honor Israel,” a Christian event. He had never been to one of these. The choreography, the power of the commitment, the love and song, the enchanting spectacle, the production values—it all moved him. Though he was not inclined to bring Christ into his heart, he nonetheless felt something that could be called acute jealousy. That Judaism in America was producing nothing remotely parallel in its power to inspire.
“We are really in trouble,” he mused.
Some of the data should strike panic. According to a major study conducted by the Pew Institute in 2013, merely 16 percent of Reform Jews in America see religion as “very important” to them, compared with 56 percent of Americans as a whole. Reform Jews make up 35 percent of American Jewry. For the second biggest group, “Jews of no denomination,” who constitute another 30 percent of American Jewry, the number who say religion is “very important” is just 8 percent. Not unrelated, fully 30 percent of Reform Jews, and 51 percent of non-denominational Jews, had Christmas trees in their homes that year—a classic marker for a clearly differentiated Jewish identity in America.
Commitment to religion is not the only indicator of Jewish identity, of course. Perhaps more alarming are the numbers that point to swift and widespread assimilation. Fifty-eight percent of Jews who married since 2000 have married non-Jews. Of children raised in intermarried families, fully 41 percent do not identify as Jews at all, and another 30 percent are “Jews of no religion”—a category that carries a rate of synagogue membership of about 4 percent, and leads to raising children who themselves do not identify as Jews at a pace of 67 percent.
Some readers may bristle at talking about such matters as indicative of a regressive or vaguely racist approach. But for those of us who still see the preservation of an unalloyed Jewish identity across generations as a vital mission, for those of us who really do not want to be the last link in the chain—for us, the effects of the machinery of assimilation, alongside low fertility, are difficult to deny. For generations, the Jewish part of America has dwindled. In 1948, more than 3.5 percent of the American population were Jews. Today the number is around 1.7 percent. It has been dropping consistently across the decades. The portion of children in America being raised as Jews today is about 1.2 percent.
A generation from now, this community will be much smaller than it is now.
Oblivion knocks. The two obvious alternatives—aliya and Orthodoxy—require so radical a change in one’s lifestyle that they’re non-starters for most American Jews. If those were the only options, most would choose oblivion.
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.
If true, this would suggest only one path forward: A dramatic rethinking of what Jewish identity is. To use a cliché, a disruption.
It will require that Jewish identity itself be reconceived in a way that will make it competitive and inspiring, but which has the resources behind it—financial, spiritual, creative, technical—to offer a sustainable way of life. One that is uniquely Jewish, tapping into the ancient wellspring without demanding an abdication of modern life in America. One that is adaptive to change, because the rapidity of change has become the Achilles’ heel of institutional Judaism. One that will not become, as so many Jewish movements have, obsolete before it has a chance to catch fire.
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.
Today, on a patch of land dreamed about for millennia, millions of Jews are living a different Jewish life. And they are doing it in a way that continues to preserve identity across generations. And increasingly, that unique approach to life and history and identity are exporting themselves—their cultural products, their innovation, their very life essence—to America.
Israel, not as a political cause but as a civilizational one, might offer an opportunity to disrupt Jewish identity in America.
But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.
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. In biblical times, it included prophets and kings as well as the priests of the Temple. Throughout centuries of exile, a concept of halacha, the “way,” included not only ritual practice but everything from civil and criminal law to cosmology to medical advice. In most times and places across history, “Judaism” comprised many of the core institutions of government.
Fast forward to the nineteenth century. Enlightenment and Reform combined with rise of democratic nations to offer Jews of central and western Europe new ways of being Jewish that turned less on ritual, authority and faith, and more on autonomy and citizenship. To the East, socialism and Marxism offered a secular universal struggle, yet Jewish socialists continued to write and create in Yiddish, live as communities, and form their own labor unions—a culture that would later thrive for decades in the United States after waves of immigrants arrived in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Jewish publications like Forward and Algemeiner Journal were secular-facing, Yiddish-language newspapers for decades before launching English-language and online editions. (You can still read Forward online in Yiddish here.) Alongside Reform and Conservative Judaism, religious movements built around rabbis and congregations, a secular Jewish culture emerged that for many decades was thick with its own habits, food, music, and modes of living that mixed political activism (think workers’ rights, racial equality, Soviet Jewry) with a strong sense of “being Jewish” and, for a time, continued teaching its kids in Yiddish-language schools. Another stream, Reconstructionism, was promulgated by the thinker Mordecai Kaplan who envisioned Judaism not so much as observance and worship but as a “civilization,” a modern comprehensive approach to life. Communal institutions like the YMHA/YWHA (which lives on today, for example, in New York’s 92d Street Y) and Jewish Community Centers emerged to add further angles on delivering identity to the next generation of Jews in frameworks separate from religion.
In other words, the division of American Judaism into denominations, and the use of the word “Judaism” to describe only religious streams, has always been incomplete and even misleading. Judaism has many forms, and only some of them have anything to do with Sabbath or kashrut or prayer.
Judaism has many forms, and only some of them have anything to do with Sabbath or kashrut or prayer.
What all these forms have in common, however, is the effort to reorganize Jewish life in a way that draws from our traditions, advances some essence of “being Jewish,” and tries to sustain commitment across generations in the face of dramatic changes in modern life.
These efforts have run into trouble. 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. One version is tikun olam, which in practice means activism through a progressive lens, embodied in institutions like the American Jewish World Service and in social-justice causes, as well as partisan political activity. Another is Holocaust remembrance, which puts relatively little energy into communal mourning or collective Jewish historical self-understanding and much more into the universalization and activation of the Holocaust’s presumed lessons. And so, for example, we find the official website of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, perhaps the pinnacle of Jewish-initiated Holocaust remembrance, opening its About Us page with the following words:
A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.
This is not objectionable in itself. The museum has, in fact, done great things. As an identity-booster it’s been highly effective as well: Fully 73 percent of American Jews see Holocaust remembrance as “essential” to being Jewish, more than any other factor. But the communal choice to focus its most important Jewish museum in Washington, or possibly even in America, on the call to universal activism—and not, say, on documenting the trials and successes of a people, as with Washington’s new National Museum of African-American History and Culture—nonetheless suggests an enormous blind spot that American Jewry has developed on the question of what being Jewish means on a deeper level. Even something as self-evident as celebrating our achievements has become a hard thing: National Jewish Heritage Month, signed into law by President Bush, passes each year with relatively little notice.
And then there is Israel activism. We will come back to Israel activism.
Suffice for now to say that while many American Jews continue to mobilize on behalf of Israel, it is in its essence a form of identity through activism. For many Jews, fighting for Israel is the core of their Jewish engagement.
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?
Activism captures a different part of our psyches, and risks abandoning those parts most critical for channeling deeper rivers of identity we can pass along. It assumes answers rather than asking questions. It abandons the timeless things that require patience, inquisitiveness, or self-criticism to possess.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, who has been such a symbol of Jewish activism, and whose photo with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1965 Selma march hangs in far more American Jewish homes than do images of Theodor Herzl or Golda Meir, has become a lighthouse for the activist Jewish mind. The role of the Jew, it is inferred, is to help bring justice and equality to the greatest nation on earth. “When I marched in Selma,” he famously wrote, “my feet were praying.”
The thing is, Heschel also wrote books. Lots of them. Including one about the Sabbath as an “Island in Time,” which is close to the opposite of activism. They had titles like God in Search of Man. He only became Abraham Joshua Heschel after decades of investment in understanding the texts and teachings of the ancient Jewish spirit and struggling with their relevance in a modern world.
Being Jewish has always been about things much deeper than activism. The biblical prophets and narratives called for justice, but they also called for living one’s life in a profound relationship with the Divine. The rabbinic tradition has many things in it that can point one to peace and a better world, but they placed the study of Torah above everything. Activism does much good, in accordance with the Jewish calling—but it is limited in its ability to inform and deepen one’s own soul, to nourish the spirit and create a multigenerational spiritual engine.
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.
And lately, amid the cascading falls of demographic data, a Jewish identity built on activism has begun to feel like flooring it on the freeway when you’re almost out of gas.
III. What is “Israel”?
A glistening spring night in Beverly Hills, 2011. I’m in one of the two suits I own. (The darker one, I am convinced, travels better.) Necktie dark red in a perfect half-Windsor, the way my sabra father, who grew up being told neckties were a sin against the worker, taught me after he’d been teaching at Princeton long enough. The gala is kosher, the funds supporting Israel in one way or another. I was invited by a silver-haired seventy-something woman who made an issue of being blunt. The hors-d’oeuvres were scarcely palatable, and I was apparently not polite enough about it, because when I was done holding a small plate with something brown and oozy on it, I laid it, together with my stained forklet, on a cloth-covered high table.
“Pick that up,” she snapped. “Don’t be Israeli.”
This was in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Yet to this supporter of Israel, “being Israeli” was still a mark of primitiveness. An epithet. Later at the dinner table, when the inevitable and dreary topic of experiences with Israeli cab drivers came up, she announced, unselfconsiously: “I love Israel. But I hate Israelis!”
The diners laughed. The feeling, it turns out, is common.
Maybe I took it personally—American Jews often seem comfortable insulting “Israelis” in my presence, perhaps not realizing that my parents and my children are all Israeli, perhaps not caring.
But I was also struck by my own failure to understand what she was saying. Even as a joke—what did it mean? How can one love a country while disparaging its people? What exactly is “Israel” if not Israelis?
Indeed, 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.
According to the Pew study, 43 percent of American Jews say caring about Israel is “an essential part of being Jewish,” 69 percent say they are either “somewhat” or “very” attached to Israel. A more recent AJC study similarly showed that fully 73 percent of American Jews either strongly or somewhat agreed that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.”
That’s a lot of love—but of a certain kind. For at the same time, just 27 percent have visited the country more than once, according to the AJC. For a community of which more than half enjoy a household income of above $75,000 (compared with 29 percent of the general population), and ample opportunities exist to go there for free, failing to visit the country you love is an odd choice.
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. Almost half (48 percent) of American Jews do not know the Hebrew alphabet. Eighty-three percent cannot carry a basic conversation in Hebrew. And only 13 percent can understand most or all the words in a written Hebrew sentence. This last statistic, however, is inflated: When you take out the Orthodox, who tend to study Hebrew from childhood, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Israeli-Americans now living in the United States, it suggests that virtually none of non-Orthodox, American-born Jewry is Hebrew-literate. Among the two largest groups, Reform and non-denominational Jews, the number drops to 4 percent and 7 percent, respectively; even these presumably include Israeli-Americans.
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. About securing American political support for Israel. Or about helping Israel achieve peace. (Or, increasingly, about “saving Israel from itself.”)
Such commitments are, for the most part, highly helpful. Israel’s security benefits greatly from the political support of American Jews. Israelis benefit greatly from the enormous philanthropic contributions to its culture, its institutions, its needy, its parks and forests and hospitals, and its military. American Jews may disagree with each other over what really is good for Israel, but they overwhelmingly are committed to helping.
But from the perspective of American Jewish identity, there is still a very big gap between supporting Israel and engaging with the country in the construction of a deeper way of life of your own, a wellspring that your children will be inspired to find their own way into.
And when a significant portion of American Jews have made their support for Israel contingent on its behaving a certain way—“an Israel that is…”—and have, simultaneously, wrapped the core of their Jewish identity in politics, the question of the Israeli government’s policies becomes an acutely sensitive one.
This is the true nature of the Israel-angst crisis: One can only view policy as a threat to one’s core identity if one’s core identity is built around policy.
Consider, for a moment, the other side of the American political map. Have you ever noticed that evangelical support for Israel does not seem to buckle into existential crisis just because Israel—the manifestation of God’s will—is one of the least religious countries on Earth, in which gays thrive and abortions are legal and the government sponsors actual Sharia courts? For evangelicals, the contradictions are not a cause for crisis for the simple reason that their own identity is not dependent on the policies of the Israeli government. Their support flows from identity but does not define it, much the same way that Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement flowed from his deep Jewish identity rather than defined it.
Perhaps Jews, who have suffered for centuries because of the lack of political structures that would keep them safe, may be forgiven for a special sensitivity to threats at the level of politics, and for the reflexive militation of energy to activism. Yet when you do not have a rich bank of deeper, metaphysical and historical foundations to your identity, your ability to properly assess even purely political, geostrategic or communal realities can get blurred. Dissonance between your politics and Israel’s becomes a source of pain.
In my travels and talks and meetings, I am constantly running up against this problem. When people are polite, they often tell me how “difficult” supporting Israel in their communities has become, because of the settlements, or because of offensive statements by Israeli politicians. The problem is a sincere one, but it is a structural one, and will not go away so long as (i) American Jews relate to Israel as principally a political cause rather than a civilizational force, (ii) American Jews relate to some policies and not others as resonating to the core of their own identity as Jews, and (iii) American Jewish politics are so different from Israeli politics, which is unlikely to change.
And that’s when they’re polite.
How many times have I been told, “We put so much money into Israel, the least they can do is to…” followed by demands about security policy, about religious policy, about peace and war that any Israeli leader would be not just politically suicidal but derelict in his duties were he to do so? The consequence of Zionism’s success is that Israelis actually believe in their sovereign democracy, and will not subordinate matters of life-and-death decision-making to the feelings of non-constituent American Jews, any more than a ballplayer will change his swing to suit the complaints of ticket-buying fans. For all his gratitude to them, he’s there to win ballgames, and Israel’s leaders are there to protect Israel. It’s what building our own country, with a democratic process of its own, means.
The consequence of Zionism’s success is that Israelis actually believe in their sovereign democracy, and will not subordinate matters of life-and-death decision-making to the feelings of non-constituent American Jews.
Non-Orthodox American Jews are rightly outraged when Israel’s established Orthodox rabbinate assails their core identity as Jews by not recognizing their conversions or their movements. This is offensive to the heart of diaspora Jews around the world, and makes it difficult for them to see Israel as their home. But while global Jewish concern may well change the course of such Israeli policies through an engagement in its democratic process and an appeal to Israelis’ sense of peoplehood and identification as citizens of the Jewish state, the same cannot be said for matters of security policy and peace agreements.
American Jews are also right to think of their past efforts for Israel as an investment in their own future, and to expect a measure of gratitude or even payback for their historical contributions. They correctly point out that Israel wouldn’t exist today without those contributions. But to insist on changes in Israeli security policy as a sign of that gratitude is misguided and futile. At best, it is like elderly parents demanding that their adult children undertake certain professions and not others, or live one lifestyle and not another, as a sign of gratitude. Just as the goal of parenting was to raise confident adults who could manage their own lives, a sovereign and secure autonomy was the central aim of what has been built in the Holy Land. To demand distortions in policy—or to try and use influence in Washington to pressure Israel against its own policies—is a repudiation of the entire Zionist project.
You want a return on your investment? Look not to changing who Israelis are, but to calling on them when you need help. The place to ask for repayment is where American Jews need it most: In the realm of Jewish identity.
And help is in fact on the way, to those who would receive it.
IV. Cultural Zionism Revisited
I was born in central New Jersey in 1969 to Hebrew-speaking parents. Israel was just 21 years old, but in that brief time it had fought three existentially charged wars and was heading toward a fourth. Its economy had gone through upheaval and rationing and vast immigration. Other than the renowned violinist Yitzhak Perlman and the French singer Mike Brant, its culture had contributed little to the world. Of course, its history predated independence by many decades: My parents were born in the 1930s to pioneering families living in Givatayim and Ramat Gan; their parents had come from Ukraine and Poland in the decade before that.
In the half-century prior to statehood, the population of the yishuv had increased from a few tens of thousands to over half a million, and many of the foundations of what would become an independent Israeli civilization were laid: their own language, universities, democratically elected governing council, educational system, and a vibrant literary life. Between Theodor Herzl’s visit to Jerusalem in 1898 and my parents’ departure for America in 1965, a separate ethos had taken shape. These Jews now spoke Hebrew, fought in wars, sought history through archeology and sanctity through soil, built a life that was their own in way barely conceivable to most American Jews.
Very little of this was known in America. When I was a child in the 1970s, few Americans had ever heard Hebrew spoken as a native tongue. Non-Jewish kids heard my last name and thought I was Italian. I told them it was Israeli, and they literally didn’t know what that was. And this was in one of the most educated towns in America, where the public-school kids were children of Ivy-League professors and the private-school kids had names like Gallup and Benchley.
Even among Jews, Hebrew was for me something of a secret family language. When I visited relatives in the Bronx, they all spoke Yiddish. My great-aunt Gittel asked: “You’re a Jew, and you don’t speak Jewish?”
I had never heard Yiddish being called “Jewish.” I spoke Hebrew, and thought that sufficed.
In Jewish circles, Israel was widely discussed but little understood. Preoccupied by the dangers Israelis faced, the prospects of a “second Holocaust” at the hands of Arab armies, and the need to build a secure homeland, few had any real grasp of the dramatic cultural project the Zionists had undertaken alongside the political project.
Israel was envisioned by its founders as much more than a refuge—it was a multifaceted attempt to reinvent Jewish life itself, a new Jewish identity for a “New Jew.” Some sought a revolutionary communist dream and built kibbutzim. Others, like Herzl, envisioned a sovereign Jewish state that would make possible a dramatic cultural and economic flourishing: “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil…,” he wrote. “The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind.”
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.
Ahad Ha’am believed in creating not an immediate state, not in politics-first, but a cultural and intellectual center for the Jewish people in Palestine, from which a state would one day emerge. He fought Herzl because he thought a state without a culture could bring disaster. He also outlived Herzl by two decades and spent his final years in Tel-Aviv—influencing generations of Zionist luminaries like the poet Chaim Nahman Bialik and Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann.
It turns out they were both right. In the decades that followed, a new Hebrew culture fueled by Herzl’s political institutions and infused with Ahad Ha’am’s vision and spirit, and speaking a resurrected Hebrew language, emerged so rich and layered and constantly evolving as to begin to spill far beyond the confines of the coffee-shop creativity of novels and poems and plays, and into much more capital-intensive cultural efforts. With every wave of immigration, new layers have been added, new visions and angles and complexities. Israeli culture reinvented itself over and again.
After the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionism became a mantra for established American Jewry, as well. Yet unlike the Israelis, the Americans never saw it as a way of life. Zionism for them was a set of organizations, a cross-denominational activist movement whose aim was principally to help the struggling, nascent Jewish state for the same reasons that they later helped Soviet Jews and other Jews in need. In its most hardcore form it also encouraged aliya—physically taking the Jew out of her American context and placing her into the Israeli one, for good. For the most part, however, Jews sent money to Israel to help fellow Jews and build the land. But they didn’t want their kids moving there.
For decades, even generations, the cultural side of Zionism—which Israelis refer to as tarbut ivrit or “Hebrew culture”—was irrelevant to American Jewish life. For one thing, Israel was a poor country, distracted by life-and-death issues of security, immigrant absorption and rudimentary nation-building. Its cultural products were of mixed quality. It also wasn’t really all that accessible to Americans: Those of you too young to remember folding up blue “aerogrammes” to send letters to an Israeli penpal may have a hard time recalling how big the world used to be. There was no Internet, no Google, no Rosetta Stone, no Facebook Live. International phone calls were expensive. Knowing anything at all about Israel required either buying books, reading about occasional wars in the papers, or making an actual family trip to a poor country that was not very accommodating to English-speaking tourists.
For decades, even generations, the cultural side of Zionism was irrelevant to American Jewish life.
But more importantly, Jewish identity in America was itself thick. Adults and children knew Yiddish and had access to literally centuries of Jewish culture—both religious and secular—that was clearly delineated from the church-dominated American culture around them. Internal Jewish debates focused more on the nature of observance, on things like the ordination of women and whether synagogues should have mixed seating, than on questions of global politics. They did not need Israel to help them define themselves.
Those few American Jews who looked into it discovered an Israeli culture radically alien to their own. Yiddish there was more eradicated than abandoned, to make room for the reinvention of Hebrew. The more recent centuries in Europe had been put on ice, seen widely as a problem that needed correcting, in favor of more distant centuries, biblical ones: The study of the Hebrew Bible in the original language—as a secular national treasure rather than a religious code—became fundamental to the education of the Jew. So were hikes through biblical lands. So was archaeology. In the decades following independence, the country’s Jewish population was also nearly half Sephardic, which meant that its own cultural antecedents were different from those of the almost exclusively Ashkenazic Americans. Mandatory military service was not just a strategic need, it was also the central tool for cultural integration. In the wake of the Holocaust and the mass expulsions of Jews from Arab lands, through war and hardship, a new Israeli identity was forged from the shattered remains of world Jewry.
All of this is meant to explain why, when American-Jewish writers worry about how Israel and American Jewry are “growing apart,” I basically have no idea what they are talking about. Israelis and American Jews have never lived on the same planet. It’s just that until recently, American Jews didn’t really notice, because their Israel was a political rather than a cultural reality. They had the English-speaking Golda Meir and Abba Eban, who hit all the right notes; they had Shimon Peres, who spoke of peace around the world. They didn’t really like the rough edges of David Ben-Gurion or Menachem Begin, and, more importantly, cared little about what Israeli teenagers were reading or listening to or dreaming about.
Three changes in the last generation have forced them to notice. First, American Jewish identity has become much more politicized, and thus the political differences much more uncomfortable exactly at a time when the politics of the two communities have increasingly diverged, especially since the collapse of Israel’s old Left that began with the 1977 elections and reached its final demise with the Second Intifada. Second, American Jewish leaders have been more aware of their community’s own existential dangers, and many cannot understand why Israel does not change its political course to respond to their needs. 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. The Israeli-American Council has grown into a powerful organization, with branches across the country, disseminating Hebrew culture. In Washington, DC, where I spent the last four years, there are several distinct Israeli sub-communities, the Avalon Theater across the street showed Israeli films every Wednesday night, and there’s even a Hebrew-language public charter school, founded by Israelis, where Latino and African-American schoolchildren grow up learning to speak Hebrew and singing Israeli songs.
Israeliness is now a “thing,” as the kids say. More precisely, it is its own culture, its own way of approaching the world, its own habits of eating and socializing and innovating and building and raising children. It is distinctly Jewish, having been forged in a collective Hebrew experience, drawing from millennia of Jewish texts and history, and clearly delineated from the American forms of Judaism, and it now has a century of development behind it and many millions engaged in it. It has its own powerful engines of capital. In some industries and arts, Israelis are among the dominant players—from defense and cyber to agriculture and water tech and autonomous vehicles to electronic music and original TV dramas and jazz and culinary arts. As Israel’s economy and population grow, its influence will only increase—not because every growing economy is culturally influential, but because of the unfathomable creative-intellectual disquiet that has always burned hard in the Jewish soul and continues to drive Israeli creativity.
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.
It is precisely this sovereign agency, this sense that the Jew must innovate as part of a national cultural project that can never be fully extracted from its political project, that makes Israeliness not only fascinating but also relevant to the world in ways that a diasporic culture cannot be.
And Americans have taken notice. Not just the IDF. Not just Mobileye and WeWork and Wix. But also at the cultural level. What seems hard to deny today, and which I have known since my early childhood, is that something distinguishes the Israeli, and makes her a fascinating subject of inquiry. Every new breakthrough emerging from the Jewish state carries with it a story of creativity under hardship, of edginess, of children who grew up very differently from their American Jewish counterparts, of the unmediated encounter with the world’s harshest realities and the determination to overcome, of a curiosity-driven commitment to solving problems, an ever-expanding love that begins with the love of one’s own, and of a capacity for technical mastery and daring that makes business look like magic.
Every new breakthrough emerging from the Jewish state carries with it a story of creativity under hardship.
And their stories are, with time, being told. Best-selling books like Seth M. Siegel’s Let There Be Water (2015), about how Israel, apparently out of nowhere but really after a century of sweat and improvisation, solved not only its own desperate water problems but also, quite possibly, those of the whole world; Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project (2016), about how two Israelis, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, revolutionized numerous fields, from economics to sports, by studying the systemic irrationalities in human decisionmaking; or Saul Singer and Dan Senor’s Start-Up Nation (2009), which explores not only Israel’s high-tech boom but also the role that the IDF plays in preparing Israeli kids for it—all point to an underlying common theme, which is that there’s something unique about being Israeli that leads to important new things the world needs to know about.
Israeli characters, too, have begun popping up in TV shows and movies—like the crazy Israeli rabbi Yael in Weeds, which is mainly about California suburbs and drug-dealing; or the Israeli sidekick Avi in Ray Donovan, which is mainly about Boston-bred Catholics, California suburbs, and drug-dealing. Slapstick features like You Don’t Mess With the Zohan may have almost no Israeli actors in them, but something about Israeliness has proven itself worth looking at.
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
What would such an effort look like?
I don’t know whether you can micro-plan a cultural disruption. I certainly can’t. Jewish institutional life in America is almost comically complicated, and it is in the nature of cultural projects that they develop organically from a base of resource and opportunity—that those with power and money facilitate rather than dictate. 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, and towards which, if I could command with the snap of a finger, I would suggest both communal resources and individual choices be diverted.
First, there are the translations. I mean this in the broadest sense. Organically generated efforts to translate Israeliness into an idiom relevant to Americans and American Jews will only go so far, but they can serve as signposts or proof-of-concept for the kinds of things that can be effective in a directed manner. Perhaps there are only so many Israeli series that Netflix can import, on the one hand; and there are certain genres (like stand-up comedy) that probably will never endure extraction from their Hebrew-language milieu. Yet as American culture has grown more open to foreign-language products (think of all those subtitles in Narcos and The Americans), the possibilities of introducing Israeliness grow, and the need for an army of high-quality cultural translators and critics, and of increased investment in bringing Israel to America, will be felt.
This is especially relevant in exploring those parts of Israeliness that directly address Jewish identity, like films and series that address religious issues, translation of works of Jewish scholarship and literature, or the adaptation of dynamic Israeli learning environments like the secular-religious institutes, festivals, and so on. Cultural proliferation depends forever on money meeting talent, and the increase of funding and the encouragement of intermediaries to bring them together, as well as the development of more effective channels of distribution among Jews and beyond, will bring results. But it also depends on demand—meaning on you, looking not for the comfortable but for the alien, not for the familiar but the exotic. It’s time to move beyond what we already know.
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. Without Hebrew, any approach to Israeliness will be like walking into an enormous library in a foreign language but relegated to the tiny English-language section. Moreover, anyone genuinely interested in ever influencing the Israeli discourse on issues like religious recognition will have to do it in Hebrew—for an English-language op-ed has about as much impact in Israel as a Hebrew column does in the United States. Learning languages is hard, but a long-term solution requires widespread investment from an early age.
Without fluency in Hebrew, the engagement with Israeliness will always be a dilution and distortion based on intermediaries.
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. For the individual, however, it means a more profound recognition that the community’s problem is your own, and that solving it begins with expanding yourself. Finding your own Israel.
Go. Don’t be afraid to spend time there. If you fall in love, as many do, follow your urge to spend a month or a year there. Organized trips are an easy first step, and should be invested in on a significantly larger scale, but like translation they have a downside of being artificial constructs, tailored to needs, rather than immersive, spontaneous experiences that come only from just throwing yourself in and hoping you don’t end up in jail. A generation of Israelis have taken a year after their military service to roam the world, from Thailand to Alaska to Bolivia. They just roam, which terrifies their parents but which builds them as worldly, pathbreaking, deepened people. The sudden and total immersion is like jumping into the pool. It’s scary, but you can’t ever swim without it, and you come out the other end as a different person.
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. Ultimately they depend on the individual, ideally at a time in life before they are locked into prohibitive obligations, seeing the country as both foreign and fascinating and deciding to explore and deepen one’s exposure. But there is much that American Jewish leaders, philanthropists, and institutions can do to create opportunities and bring Israeliness in.
With time, new institutions will appear. Some will enjoy Israeli assistance, the way the French government sponsors more than 300 Alliance schools and 100 instituts francais in more than 150 countries around the world. Others will be homegrown, at the initiative of American Jews, built on the recognition that Jewish continuity will depend on Hebrew culture. Some such programs already exist. Taglit-Birthright, which grew out of the demographic concern following the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, has been really the first successful large-scale effort to use a trip to Israel to inspire commitment among young Jews—not as much to pro-Israel activism as to Jewish identity itself.
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 breaking out of your political prism—for one cannot properly taste the croque madame if one is thinking only of Marine Le Pen.
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.
Banner Photo: Warner Bros.