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Debate | Should American Jews celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut?

Columnists Ari Hoffman and Joel Swanson discuss.

For half a century, Israel has been a mainstay in American Jewish identity. The ties that bind our diaspora community to the State of Israel and its people are undeniably strong. At the same time, the values and perspective we have developed as a Jewish minority living in a country that is a majority Christian diverge at times from our Israeli brothers and sisters, who enjoy the status of a majority in the Jewish state. And these days, it feels like these differences are ever more present, and ever more pressing.

It led us to wonder, given these differences, should American Jews even celebrate Israeli Independence Day?

We turned to Forward contributing columnists Joel Swanson and Ari Hoffman to debate the issue.

JOEL SWANSON: Last August, President Trump sparked outrage in the American Jewish community by accusing Jews who vote Democratic (a group which, in 2018, comprised 79% of American Jews) of “great disloyalty.”

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Whether Trump realized it or not, he was invoking the long history of the anti-Semitic dual loyalty trope — the idea that diaspora Jews cannot be trusted because we are more loyal to the Jewish people than to our adopted nations. “Polish, German, and French Jews are primarily Jews because that is their race,” argued nineteenth-century German nationalist Constantin Frantz while opposing citizenship for German Jews. “Polish feeling, German or French feeling cannot enter his soul as long as he remains a Jew.”

But when he was asked to apologize for his dual loyalty slander, Trump did something interesting: He inverted it, clarifying that American Jews who vote Democratic are “very disloyal to Israel.” If for the nineteenth-century European nationalist, the Jew could not be trusted as a loyal citizen because she represented “a foreign element in an organism,” for Trump, in contrast, American Jews ought to prioritize the interests of Israel — which would lead us to vote for him.

It’s deeply ironic: Trump thinks it’s bad that American Jews fail to do exactly what nineteenth-century anti-Semites accused us of doing; he condemns us as disloyal because when we go to the ballot box in the United States, only four percent of us consider Israeli politics one of our top priorities. Trump wants us to have dual loyalties that we don’t have.

This is the context in which I want us to think about Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. Jewish calendars list this day as a Jewish holiday; synagogues often list it on their holiday calendars. The question is, why?

Yom Ha’atzmaut is a holiday that celebrates the independence of a modern state where, by definition, American Jews do not live. Why should we base our culture as American Jews on the celebrations of another country? It’s not a historically Jewish holiday; it has only existed since 1948, and it certainly isn’t attested in the Torah or the Talmud or any other traditional Jewish text. Indeed, some Haredi Jews in the land of Israel refuse to acknowledge the holiday at all, considering it idolatry to conflate a nation-state with a religious holiday.

Of course, some American Jews have family in Israel or have lived there, and might well celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut for that reason, just as Jews with French ancestry might choose to celebrate Bastille Day for similar reasons. No one suggests it should go on our synagogue calendars.

If Israeli national identity, which is what Yom Ha’atzmaut explicitly celebrates, is a central part of Jewishness, doesn’t that mean Israeli Jews are more complete Jews than we are? If we base celebrations of our Jewish identity around a country where we do not live, we can only ever be secondary, always defined in relation to a national identity we aren’t fulfilling.

Would it not be better instead to get to work making new holidays that celebrate being here, where we are, the lives we’re building in our adopted lands?

ARI HOFFMAN: It’s good to be back at it.

Let me start with your final point. I would argue that far from undermining American Jewish identity, the blending of American and pro-Israel stances is natural rather than untenable. To quote a mentor of mine, Ruth Wisse, a strong attachment to both Israel and America, to the Jewish arc of history and the American story, is not dual loyalty but rather doubled loyalty, twice as strong rather than twice suspect. When it comes to national love, there is no demand that we be monogamous, apart from extreme cases of espionage, or taking up arms.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

But it goes farther than that. Many people, and not just Jews, see their support for both Israel and America as funded by the same moral and imaginative capital; many Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, support the rhetorical and aspirational overlap between the American and Israeli projects, an alliance that feels different in degree as well as kind from that enjoyed with other countries (giving the lie to the accusation that it’s “all about the Benjamins” as one of our illustrious stateswomen surmised).

A sense of investment in Israel does — and should — lead one to a shared vision of the world. The harder case to make is certainly the one made by those who accuse Jews of disloyalty while professing support or sympathy for nations and movements that are avowedly anti-American, whether the socialist butchers in Venezuela, the theocrats in Iran, or the bouquet of anti-American factions in Palestinian society.

But your aversion to celebrating Israeli Independence Day makes even less sense to me in an American context. The idea that an American is not one thing but many is one of the great joys of living here. At its best, being an American means opting out of the binary loyalty tests that held (and hold) sway for so many minorities for centuries in the lands of Christendom and Islam, where your citizenship was a matter for clerics and bureaucrats to prod and inspect.

By conceiving of a country tied together by principles and aspiration rather than faith and blood, the founders made accusations of dual loyalty a stain on America’s canvas, rather than its primary color. We celebrate the 4th of July, and many of us celebrate the storming of the Bastille ten days later.

Finally, the celebration of a holiday not on the general calendar is close to the core of what it means to be a Jew. We mark giving of laws besides the U.S. Constitution, liberation that happened in a world away from our own, harvests that have little to do with the North American agricultural cycle and palace intrigue in far-away lands.

We bring these holidays wherever we go, trooping around in time as well as in space.

Yom Ha’atzmaut is firmly in this tradition. To be sure, the recentness of Yom Ha’atzmaut has precipitated rich debate, much of it in the religious community. What does it mean to re-open prophetic history? How do we celebrate an occasion without Biblical guidance? Are we sure we see the hand of the God of History, or are our goggles just foggy? These questions are fascinating; they indicate a people living in history rather than nostalgia-stricken over its past.

The Jewish experience in the twentieth century was every bit as catastrophic and miraculous as the events recounted in the Bible. The eradication of European Jewry and the restoration of a Jewish commonwealth in its shadow are so extraordinary as to demand the witness of all Jews.

JOEL SWANSON: I began with President Trump’s scurrilous accusations of American Jewish disloyalty to Israel because I think they actually get at an important truth of American Jewish identities today. I obviously disagree with President Trump in his moral evaluation of the fact that American Jews do not make the modern nation-state of Israel central to our identities, but he’s right that we don’t. When we actually ask American Jews about how we define ourselves, the nation-state of Israel isn’t nearly as foundational to our identities as a lot of the American Jewish establishment might have you believe.

Only 30% of American Jews describe themselves as “very emotionally attached” to the state of Israel, lower than the 31% of American Jews who say they are “not at all” attached to Israel. Fewer than half of us — just 43% — have ever even visited Israel.

And when you ask American Jews what it means to be an American Jew, only 43% of us say “caring about Israel” is essential to Jewish identity — far lower than the percentage who say remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of being Jewish (73%), leading an ethical or moral life (69%), working for justice and equality (56%), and even “being intellectually curious” (49%).

It might, then, be more relevant to American Jewish identity to have a holiday devoted to intellectual argumentation — perhaps a holiday that you and I are celebrating right now, in our way!

Making Yom Ha’atzmaut a central part of the American Jewish calendar seems to me to impose a political litmus test on American Jewish identity that actually delimits the full scope of potential for our diverse, pluralist identities — a political litmus test that, after all, cannot be met by the one in five American Jews who are not Zionists.

Yom Ha’atzmaut is just about the only Jewish holiday that requires accepting a political program — support for political Zionism and a Jewish state — and not just Jewish cultural and religious identity. You don’t have to have specific politics to celebrate Pesach or Sukkot. You do in order to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.

And for me, the great potential of American Jewish identity is that being Jewish doesn’t have to force you into only one specific political position, doesn’t have to limit your political imagination, a political pluralism, and freedom that so many other societies have denied to Jews.

I celebrate that multiplicity and pluralism, and part of it ought to include offering a wide range of Jewish holidays that celebrate the diverse range of Jewish experiences throughout our history — Zionists, diasporists, non-Zionist Orthodox, Bundists, and all the rest.

For American Jews for whom Zionism and the state of Israel is an important part of their Jewish identity, I don’t object to celebrations of Yom Ha’atzmaut. If you want to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut because it is relevant to you, go right ahead! Far be it from me to stop you. But it seems to me that including it as part of our Jewish liturgical calendar, in ways that holidays for other forms of Jewish political identity such as Bundism are not included, seems to me to limit rather than celebrate the full scope of identities and politics that defines the rich tapestry of American Jewry.

ARI HOFFMAN: I take it that your objection is to granting that event a religious significance. I would imagine that for the vast majority of synagogues, Yom Ha’azmaut is celebrated as mostly a civic holiday, akin to the 4th of July, or in the way that Thanksgiving-themed events make their way into a shul calendar.

But I doubt that this would assuage your concerns, which seem to militate against any presence of Israel in the space of the synagogue. I just don’t think most synagogue-goers would agree; for them, it is perfectly natural to see Israeli and American flags flapping in the wind outside or stationed in the sanctuary itself. On a walk this morning, I saw just that outside the Reform congregation in my hometown.

I think the vast majority of Jews who do celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut would demur from claiming that it is a holiday on par with Passover or Yom Kippur. The liturgy that has been developed is relatively sparse and consists mostly of prayers of thanksgiving that can be recited at any time. There is some dancing and some singing. There is no halachic prohibition on labor, or specifically designated Torah reading.

I think there is another element to this as well. The simple reality is that what happens in the Land of Israel plays an outsized role in the Jewish imagination. In ancient times, the calendar itself was determined by spying the New Moon in Jerusalem. Every single “religious” holiday bears some signature of the Land of Israel — its cycles and seasons, memories of exile and homecoming. Israel has been at the core of Jewish religious practices for as long as there have been Jews. I don’t see why that should change in 2020.

I also think that Yom Ha’atzmaut pitches a bigger tent than you describe. In Israel, it is not seen as a “right-wing” event and brings together Israeli Jews of all stripes, as well as some Arab Israelis and Druze. You might suggest that the operative word there is Israeli. But the resonances and implications of the return to Zion are so large, so synced into the Jewish bloodstream, as to transcend a more narrow definition of national culture.

JOEL SWANSON: It seems to me that you and I have two basic points of disagreement here, and we should be careful not to conflate them. There’s the descriptive and the prescriptive, the question of how American Jews should feel about Israel and the question of how we do feel.

And while these two questions are obviously not unrelated, it strikes me as important to tease them apart. It seems to me that the elevation of Yom Ha’atzmaut to the level of a religious holiday — even one that, as you say, doesn’t come with the same halachic prohibitions as a holiday like Yom Kippur or Shabbat — is an attempt not to provide American Jews with holidays that celebrate our identities as we are, but to construct our identities politically.

The fact is, I just don’t think the state of Israel is as central to American Jewish identity as you seem to think it is. (I am here speaking of the state founded in 1948, not the land of Israel upon which the cycles of the Jewish calendar are based. There’s an entire branch of Jewish theological thought devoted to distinguishing between land and state.)

The numbers show that the majority of American Jews do not consider caring about the state of Israel an essential part of Jewish identity.

And when you describe the foundation of the state of Israel as “a seminal event in the history of the Jewish people,” I don’t disagree. But the fact is, American Jews do not consider the foundation of the state of Israel the most important historical event in twentieth-century Jewish history. By a 30-point margin, we think of the Holocaust that way.

Only 31% of American Jews belong to a synagogue at all, and even fewer, 18%, are members of Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Congress.

And when you interview young American Jews who disaffiliate, the politics of Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations come up as a major reason why. For example, one Jewish student said she stopped going to synagogue on campus because of the false impression that “all Jewish students were pro-Israel and all people who were pro-Israel were Jewish,” while another said, “even if I want to go to a Shabbat dinner and stuff, I feel like it still has that political climate, which I’m not a fan of.”

At a time when the American Jewish community is increasingly concerned about declining Jewish affiliation, it seems hypocritical and self-defeating to impose a political litmus test.

I would never say Jews who personally want to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut ought to be excluded from any Jewish community, nor would I say all American Jews need to celebrate the unique cultural holidays of the Jewish Labour Bund. Why, then, do we consider a 72-year-old political holiday part of the Jewish liturgical calendar?

If we do, it is worth thinking about the voices we are leaving out.

ARI HOFFMAN: I appreciate your distinction between the prescriptive and the normative, but I think that’s a blurring I’m willing to accept, largely because it is self-sorting in a variety of ways. My guess is that the majority of these folks don’t drop out of synagogue life because it’s too political; they are likely to seek Jewish spaces that are more avowedly political, usually with a leftist bent.

I would love to see more Jewish engagement, more holidays, more past histories and alternative achievements commemorated and celebrated. But one of those surely is the creation of the State of Israel, a miracle so large that it would have staggered even the prophets.

Part of being a Jew is believing history is linear — we live in our time, do our best, try to separate meaning from the mundane. And when the clouds part a little bit, you dance. And I wish every Jew would feel that joy.

I’ll drink and dance to that.

Ari Hoffman and Joel Swanson are both contributing columnists at the Forward.

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