Do Israeli politics pose a risk to American Judaism?

When I was a graduate student studying ancient Jewish History, I had to pour through hundreds of primary sources — each with their own bias and agenda — in an attempt to arrive at somewhat of an objective picture of a historical situation.

In a couple hundred years, when future Jewish historians want to understand our current moment, it seems that all they will need is Facebook and Twitter records.

I can imagine a budding school of thought among Jewish social media historians, one that focuses not on any of the explicit factors surrounding various posts, but rather how the algorithms decide to spread it. As we are increasingly discovering, social media, in an attempt to maximize our time spent on the platform, predominantly shows us things that we want to see — even if we don’t realize it.

In my daily life as a rabbi and Jewish educator I use social media as a teaching tool. While I’m not popular enough to be the center of any future study (perhaps I’ll merit a footnote in a dissertation) I often analyze responses and views on my own social media as a good indicator of what our wider community is thinking about and interested in.

When it comes to my Facebook audience of mostly American Jews, I have noticed an interesting, alarming and even potentially disastrous trend. All of my posts, aside from the occasional rock climbing photo, have to do with either Judaism or Israel. Yet Facebook alerts me that my posts about Israel get viewed and interacted with exponentially more than those about Judaism.

Community | Do Israeli politics pose a risk to American Judaism?

Just over 100 years ago, Ahad Ha’am, the Zionist visionary whom many would later deem a secular prophet, envisioned a future Israel that would act as a cultural center for the global Jewish people. It wasn’t realistic, he taught, to expect the entirety of the Jewish world to immigrate to Israel. Rather, the spirit of Judaism as a living tradition would flow out from Israel onto the diasporic communities, who would primarily experience Judaism as a stale religious tradition. Think of the stereotypical boring Hebrew school experience versus the thrill of going on Birthright.

I fear that while Ahad Ha’am was essentially correct in this vision of diasporic Jews being connected to Israel as a Jewish cultural center, American Jews are increasingly connected to Israel as a political entity more than a source of Judaism. This, in turn, cultivates a situation where American Jewish identity is becoming increasingly centered around a body politic in which American Jews are usually not directly involved.

It starts with American Jewish institutions outsourcing Jewish inspiration to Israel. I understand that choice. The wars of 1948 and 1967 seem more exciting and relevant than the escape from Egypt or the war of Hanukkah. Telling Jewish high school students that American campuses are central to some cosmic battle centered around BDS and Zionism makes for a more exciting tale than admitting that the biggest threat to Jewish campus life is that students will never find their way into Hillel or Chabad.

I have previously written for the Forward about what I believe to be the most poignant critique of Zionism: that attempting to nationalize Judaism constrains a dynamic and potentially infinite tradition. (I should add that I am a proud Zionist). But this problem is something different. This is a problem of what happens when hundreds of thousands of American Jews, connected to their Judaism primarily through the state of Israel, no longer feel that Israel is reflecting back their identity.

What happens to an American Jewish community that has centered much of their identity around being advocates for Israel if the major threats to Israel simply subside? What if the BDS movement slowly withers away as Israel becomes normalized across the wider Arab world, and the strongest threats to modern day Israel continue to lose influence and military power?

Israel is certainly an integral part of American Jewish identity but it mustn’t be the primary focal point. We as an American Jewish community need to invest in serious Jewish connection and learning, cultivating Jewish identity that hinges not on a small political entity thousands of miles away but a robust tradition that stretches back thousands of years.

Community | Do Israeli politics pose a risk to American Judaism?

Moshe Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel and a Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah. He can be reached at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Do Israeli politics pose a risk to American Judaism?

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