There needs to be a place on the spectrum for the recognition that Israel is not the natural center of American Jewish life. Unfortunately, the lack of such recognition reflects a deeper problem among American Jews — a mistaken notion that solidarity with Israel will substitute for deeper reflection about our Jewish purpose. Indeed, while many of the most basic American Jewish institutions, including Hebrew schools, day schools and synagogues, devote great effort to promoting a love of and support for Israel, the intensity of this effort is not balanced by an equal attention to the depth and meaning of American Jewish life itself.
Few communal leaders have presented an approach that integrates support for Israel into an active and thoughtful American Jewish community. For example, the Web site of the $300 million Birthright Israel program, which sends enthusiastic teenagers to Israel for free, justifies the endeavor with a laundry list of expected benefits to Israel and to our relationship with Israel, not on the basis of any benefit to the Jewish Diaspora at large. Yet Birthright Israel has been presented as the Jewish community’s big-ticket solution to the so-called “Jewish identity crisis.”
In a typical New York synagogue, a series of talks on Israel repeat one and the same theme: American Jews should support and visit Israel. None of these talks explore the extent to which American Jewish life depends or should depend on Israel, and the actual relationship between American Jews and Israel is never or rarely addressed — only affirmed.
In many Hebrew schools in New York, Israeli instructors and Israel-themed instruction are often resorted to by default. Administrators of these schools don’t find pedagogic value in the American Jewish community because “Hebrew” has become associated in the American Jewish mind, as in the Israeli mind, with modern Hebrew culture, giving short shrift to millennia of Jewish literary and religious tradition. Israel has assumed pride of place in the Hebrew schools because American Jewish educators do not know enough about the Judaism that existed before Israel, and exists with it and outside of it today.
Even our involvement-at-a-distance lacks depth. American Jews do not, by and large, know or use modern, spoken Hebrew — let alone the language of traditional Jewish texts — are generally ignorant of Hebrew literature, know next to nothing about the true spectrum of religious life and controversy in Israel and do not know what Israelis actually think about them, if Israelis do think about them at all.
Support for Israel by American Jews is important. Judging from the best publicized initiatives of our organizations, however, it seems that their widely promoted support for Israel is dependent on certain unquestioned assumptions, true enough for the sake of promoting a then-weak Zionist enterprise in the first years of the State of Israel, but now woefully insufficient to ground communal initiatives in a positive vision of American Jewish life.
The first assumption is that the Zionist experiment is the greatest Jewish accomplishment of the last 2,000 years. No one is denying that the State of Israel represents a unique and worthy development in Jewish life — indeed, some characterize it as “the first flowering of [the messianic] redemption.” However, explicitly comparing the rise of a modern state to the accomplishments of past generations, as if each could be assigned a rating, is always difficult and never without unforeseen consequences. Is the State of Israel a greater accomplishment than the composition of the Talmud? Than Jewish resistance to the Holocaust? Than the elaboration of chasidism and mitnagdism? Such juxtapositions are invidious. If one crowns the State of Israel with the title of “Most Important Jewish Enterprise,” haven’t we relegated our future endeavors to an inferior role even before we’ve begun?
The second assumption, that Israel is critical to sustaining American Jewish life, is sweepingly general but widely shared, to judge from recent opinion polls. Does a sustained American Jewish life critically depend on our brothers and sisters in Israel? If so, how does this dependence operate? By reference to what deeply held principles? If we believe, for example, that kol Yisrael areivim ze la ze — that all Jews are responsible for one another — and that therefore our fellow Jews in Israel must be supported, how does this mutual responsibility sustain Jewish life in America? Is our good feeling toward Israelis enough to hold us together and constitute a goal?
On the other hand, if the center of our American Jewish life is indeed occupied by something more than support for Israel — what is it? Why are we not discussing it with the same passion we devote to our sermons, breakfast-table arguments and letters to the editor on behalf of Israel? If we believe in the Torah and its commandments, why do we hold this belief, and how? If we are secularists, how is our secularism of substance, and how do we justify it and pass it on to our descendants? If we speak only English, how do we tap the riches of Hebrew and Yiddish? How should we improve American society and the world at large — both as Americans and as Jews? Above all, why are we American Jews?
The answer is not one of those that often come to mind. We cannot respond: “Because Hitler tried to kill us in the Holocaust” or “Because we prefer to associate with fellow Jews.” By the same token, we cannot respond: “Because we support Israel.” Support for Israel by itself does not a philosophy make, and a Jewish leadership that makes support for Israel its chief concern will soon discover its community losing interest.
Let us build an American Judaism whose vigor, commitment and intellectual engagement justify our support for Israel — not out of a nagging sense that the true enterprise is somewhere “over there,” but out of a thoroughgoing investment in Jewish lives and ideals, and in the honest discussion that makes such investment possible.
Zackary Sholem Berger is a Hebrew and Yiddish teacher at the Ivry Prozdor, a Jewish supplementary school affiliated with the Jewish Theological Seminary.