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July 3, 2010: Israeli and American Jews

September 21, 2010

Motzei Shabbat (After Shabbat) 

A change of pace — there is time tomorrow for a return to the news, which certainly brings no great joy to the heart these days.  Here I would like to share thought-stimulating highlights of a lecture delivered at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on Thursday by Rabbi Dr. Edward Rettig, acting director of the American Jewish Committee, here in Jerusalem, on the differences between the Jewish identity of Israelis and Americans.
 
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Background summary:
 
The Shoah (Holocaust) destroyed the cultural and demographic center of the Jewish world of that time period.  What we are looking at today in terms of Jewish community is discontinuous from that earlier time — in that sense, revolutionary.
 
Today 80% of Jews live in either the US or Israel, roughly 40% — give or take — in each place, with some 2/3 to 3/4 of diaspora Jewry living in the US.  (As was noted during discussion, however, the Jewish population of Israel is on the increase, while the number of American Jews is decreasing.) 
 
These two Jewish population centers are very different from each other (and from the Jewish world of the past 2,000 years) and are working with entirely different language in terms of what it means to be Jewish.  The language is shaped by values: the experience of being Jewish is different in Israel and America.
 
Thus, while Israeli and American Jews need each other, they are lacking a common language for effective communication.  There is a disconnect that has serious consequences.  I touch here upon key differences.
 
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1) Power.
 
The Zionist movement is about Jewish power, and Israel today displays power as a nation, with all that this signifies.  This means, to a large extent, physical power and the military.
 
In America, Jews see power in terms of such things as political influence.  Right now the American Jewish community is flowering.  But there are concerns about continuity and the specter of Jewish powerlessness.
 
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My comment: It seems to me that some sold percentage of American Jews — even as they worry about powerlessness –are not quite comfortable with the idea of Jewish military power.  That discomfort — which may not even be totally conscious — makes progressive or liberal American Jews, in particular, vulnerable to unease or embarrassment in the face of anti-Israel charges.  It leads to a sense of alienation or disassociation from Israel.
 
We Jews, in a world that is witnessing growing anti-Semitism, do not have the luxury of imagining, ever, that relative powerlessness is “OK.”  And I sometimes wonder if American Jews born since 1948 fully comprehend the increased reflected power that accrued to the American Jewish community by virtue of the founding of Israel. 
 
Dr. Rettig provided a significant perspective with this information:  During WWII, 1.4 million Jews served in Allied armed forces.  But those 1.4 million were spread among various forces of the allied nations.  Thus, they found that they did not have the power to influence military thinking so that saving the Jews became a military priority — even with regard to such matters as bombing the railway tracks leading to the camps.  A stark reminder of a crisis of powerlessness.
 
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2) Religious legitimacy.
 
America was founded as a Protestant nation.  This means the center of religious legitimacy is seen as residing with the individual. American Jews absorbed this approach founded in individuation.
 
Israel was founded by Jews who came out of a world that was untouched by the Reformation.  Religious legitimacy is found in tradition and the words of religious leaders.  Religious authority is normative.
 
This merits some contemplation — it explains a great deal.
 
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3) Constructing Jewish identity.
 
In the US, this is seen as a choice.  You don’t want to be Jewish any more?  You can opt out, assimilate, lose that identity.
 
In Israel, it is seen as fate.  You are Jewish.
 
Fascinating:  Israeli educators sent to the US to work with and motivate Jewish kids there have trouble speaking in terms they can understand.  These educators know well how to speak to disaffected Israeli Jewish youngsters — how to get them to grapple with their Jewishness, which is a given, and to turn it into something positive.  But reaching kids who have the option of simply walking away from their Jewishness is something else.
 
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4) Secular Jews.
 
This follows from the above. 
 
In the US, Jews who are devoid of religious feeling face a quandary as to who they are and what defines them.  They are likely to meld into the majority, non-Jewish, culture.
 
In Israel, a secular Jewish identity is not uncommon.  For those who are secular, Jewishness is still part of their identity, as they are part of the Zionist culture.
 
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5) Sacrifice and Memorialization
 
Dr. Rettig’s perceptions here stimulate not insignificant insights.
 
In the US, Jews seek Judaism as a way to be happy or fulfilled.  It’s supposed to give the individual something.  Women, for example, are exhorted to light Shabbat candles because they will find it a beautiful experience.  American Judaism, additionally, is centered to a considerable degree in the present.
 
In Israel, Jews see their Jewishness as an inheritance (the “fate” I spoke about above) that requires both looking backward, and the need for making sacrifices.  American Jews have difficulty understanding or relating to this.
 
American Jews at 18 and 19 are often having the time of their lives.  Israelis at this age are in the military, undergoing rigorous training, and facing the fact that they may one day die in battle.  The society as a whole accepts this reality.
 
Dr. Rettig provided this startling statistic:  The number of Jews in Israel who stand in silence for two minutes when the siren blows on Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for those who have fallen for the State of Israel) is greater than the number of Jews in the world who regularly light Shabbat candles.  The memorialization is a significant part of the Israeli cultural ethic.
 
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Other thoughts raised in discussion following the lecture:
 
In the US, Jews have to work against the majority culture to be Jewish.
 
This statement resonated deeply with me — it’s something I speak about frequently.  Here in Israel, we are on Jewish time and in sync with Jewish mores.  A large clock on a wall at the entrance to Jerusalem announces the time when Shabbat begins. Someone who has lost an immediate relative is automatically given time off from work for the shiva week (immediate mourning period).  And on, and on… No conflict between living fully in the society and living fully Jewishly.  There is an eleme
nt of struggle in Jewish identity that disappears here — it’s part of a more natural flow.
 
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The individuation of religious identity that is valued in American Jewry carries within it the seeds of this community’s destruction.  The American Jewish community is diminishing in numbers.
 
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