A View from the Bleachers: Arguing about who and what we are

A View from the Bleachers: Arguing about who and what we are has always sustained the Jewish people


By Rabbi Steven Garten 


‘American Jews and Israeli Jews are headed for a messy breakup” was the headline of a January 4 column by Jonathan Weisman, deputy-Washington-editor of the New York Times. A long-time observer of Jewish life and politics, both in Israel and the United States, his latest book is (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump. He is a member of a Reform Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C.

The premise of Weisman’s piece is that American Jews, overwhelmingly non-Orthodox, overwhelmingly anti-Trump and vocally non-supportive of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, are slowly distancing themselves from the policies of the Israeli government. Consequently, American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel and Israelis, in turn, are distancing themselves from American Jews.

Israelis, Weisman suggests, cannot fathom the American “obsession” with liberal values that continually puts them at odds with the priority that security issues hold in Israeli politics. 

“Israeli politicians – and citizens – are increasingly dismissive of the views of American Jews anyway,” he writes. “Evangelical Christians, ardently pro-Israel, give Jerusalem a power base in Washington that is larger and stronger than the American Jewish population. And with Orthodox American Jews aligned with evangelicals, that coalition has at least an interfaith veneer – even without Conservative and Reform Jews, the bulk of American Jewry.”

American Jews, Israeli Jews, Canadian Jews are not monolith communities. Within all three communities there is a generational split on Israel that goes beyond ideology. Older generations, whose connection to the Shoah and the creation of the State of Israel may be both living memory and lived experience, are more willing to champion policy that is rooted in security and preservation of the Jewish people. Younger generations, with no personal experience of the existential endangerment of Israel, tend to see Israel as a heavily-armed Goliath lashing out at small and defenceless Davids. And young Israelis who serve in the IDF do not have the luxury of philosophical conversations that convulse North American universities. For them, army service and the security of the State of Israel are a forgone conclusion.

The schism that Weisman predicts and worries about is real, yet it is probably not the major issue facing either North American or Israeli Jews. Though both worry about survival, the obsession with each other is often a creative means of distraction from real issues.

In North merica, we face the challenge of changing norms of Jewish identity. Synagogue membership, Jewish day school enrolment, JCC membership, and the percentage of the population contributing to community fundraisers are all on the decline. Once again, it is an older generation that remembers how close we came to extinction that fills the pews, donates to Federation campaigns, and pays for their grandchildren to go to Jewish camps and schools.

Yet, intermarriage is real and all attempts by non-Orthodox denominations to halt it have been for naught. In North America, Judaism is undergoing an overwhelming shift away from Jewish religious identity to a more amorphous form of cultural identity.

We may celebrate Chanukah, light candles, exchange gifts, maybe even recite the blessings, but do we still believe in the miracle that our ancient rabbis taught?

When we observe and celebrate Pesach, we speak of the holiday of freedom, not redemption. It is fairly common for North American Jews to quote Moses saying, “Let my people go,” but only rarely do they add the second part of the verse, “So that they may serve the Lord.”

Even Jewish culture is no longer immune to assimilation. Bagels are served in Tim Hortons, McDonalds and elsewhere without a hint of their cultural origins. Yiddish phrases are now so ingrained in popular culture that the actual the Jewish roots of the words have long since been forgotten.

Fighting about Israel seems to be the most normal expression of Jewish identity. Rather than worrying about it, we might be better served to cultivate the disagreements. As long as the Diaspora and Israel are arguing about “Who is a Jew?” and about the importance of the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel, our sense of self is assured. Arguing bitterly about who and what we are, ironically, has always sustained the Jewish people. Maybe, just maybe, it will be our salvation as well.