Jewish peoplehood in Israel and America

I am an American-Israeli, an American-born Jew who has lived about 17% of his life in Israel. I made aliyah back in 1979, lived on a kibbutz for nine years, and then returned to the US for 26 years, before coming back to stay four years ago. Unsurprisingly, I am interested in the relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state.

I was born in 1942, and I grew up in non-Jewish neighborhoods. The Jews I did know were mostly secular. I had what was supposed to be a bar mitzvah in a Reform Temple (my grandfather insisted), but since I stubbornly refused to learn anything in the obligatory religious school, it was embarrassingly pointless. Later, during summer jobs at Jewish camps, I came to know some Orthodox Jews who finally taught me a little about Judaism.

Nevertheless I always had a very strong sense, from my earliest days, of belonging to the Jewish people, though I would not have expressed it that way for some years. We lived with my grandparents for the first 8 years of my life, and after that nearby, and although they were not “religious” at all, they understood Jewish peoplehood in a way that only those who had lived as Jews in pre-revolutionary Russia (or perhaps an Arab country) could. I interacted with them more than with my parents, who were born in the US, and whose formative experiences were the Depression and WWII. They were Jewish and their friends were Jewish, but their “peoplehood,” if this makes sense, was American.

My grandparents lost siblings and cousins in the Holocaust. I was just old enough to begin to understand what had happened when they received the final confirmation of their fears. They had lived in the part of the Pale of Settlement where the Germans simply shot every Jew they could get their hands on, and as far as I know, my only living relatives are descended from those who left Europe long before the war. It was very clear to me, even as a child, that this happened to them because they were members of an extended family, a family that the evil Nazis hated. My family.

So it was natural for me to strongly identify with the new Jewish state, a place of refuge for my extended Jewish family. It was also the country that allowed my people to regain their self-respect after being treated like vermin in Europe and the Arab world. My people. I cheered when Israel won wars and when it hanged Eichmann. And I have a feeling of admiration and identification when I see the flag of the state of Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people. Nothing made me more proud than the opportunity to wear the uniform of the IDF, unless it was seeing my children wearing it.

I am representative of an older generation of American Jews, a generation that is now stepping back from active participation in the institutions of society in favor of playing with their grandchildren. We remember when there wasn’t a Jewish state, and some of us remember what that actually meant in terms of Jewish blood.

But younger American Jews have different experiences. The Holocaust recedes and they are less likely to meet survivors or know anyone who lost close relatives or friends. They know about Israel’s wars as one-sided victories, and they don’t remember when her continued existence was in doubt. They don’t know about the weeks before the outbreak of the 1967 war, when Nasser and other Arabs were bragging about the massacre they planned to perpetrate, and volunteers were preemptively digging graves in Tel Aviv parks. They don’t remember the early days of the Yom Kippur war, when massive Syrian and Egyptian forces were on the verge of breaking through.

What they do know is the story they see in the media and on the net, which is almost all contrived to present Israel as a colonial superpower which oppresses the “native” Palestinians. In its mildest form, they are told that there is a “cycle of violence” which only a “two-state solution” can end. This served the interests of several US administrations and the oil companies, which were concerned to force Israel back to pre-1967 lines in order to mollify the Arab countries that controlled the world’s oil supply. At worst (and most recently) they are presented with propaganda intended to delegitimize and demonize Israel in order to set the stage for her destruction.

The millennial generation (born in the 1980s and 1990s) walked into a fusillade of vicious anti-Israel hatred in the universities from groups like Students for Justice in Palestine. Today they face the “intersectional” Left which associates opposition to Israel with support for every kind of minority rights, and demands compliance as the price of social acceptance. Those who do not comply are ostracized as “racists” or “fascists.”

Many American Jews, especially younger ones, are not able to withstand the assault – or don’t even recognize it as such – on their sense of peoplehood. It’s not surprising, because this identification has been suppressed by the American educational system and media from their earliest years. Although certain minority groups are encouraged to feel pride in their heritage and their cultures, Jews are not included as one of these groups – they are considered “white,” which is to say, colorless. Therefore they are required to appreciate the minority cultures (and to feel guilty for their oppression by the majority of “whites”), but not to express their own pride in their culture or of their homeland.

Indeed, if they do so, they may be accused of having “dual loyalty.”

The Israeli experience has been significantly different. There are more Holocaust survivors around. Everyone knows veterans of Israel’s wars, most have served in the IDF, and while there may be a lesser sense of vulnerability among younger people, most people understand that the Jewish state’s continued existence isn’t guaranteed. The hierarchy of victimhood of minorities and the concept of intersectionality that have so damaged intergroup relations in America haven’t appeared in Israel. Although there is much room for improvement, the teaching of Jewish and Israeli history to Israelis is better than what most American Jews get.

Jewish Israelis know they are living in the state of the Jewish people. There is no existential contradiction, no continuous reminder that you are a guest in somebody else’s state. They are Jews in the Jewish state.

A new survey of American and Israeli Jews by the American Jewish Committee confirms that Americans are far less Jewishly identified than Israelis. Only 40% said that being Jewish is “very” or “most” important in their lives, while 81% of the Israelis felt this way.

I don’t like the question about “being Jewish” because it is ambiguous between peoplehood and religion. I would have asked a question about “being part of the Jewish people.” I know that at any time in my life after about the age of 15, I would have answered that being a member of the Jewish people is the most important part of my identity. And this is why it turned out that I feel more comfortable and secure here than I did in the US.

Unfortunately, no age breakdown was included in the results as published. But other surveys have consistently showed that their Jewish identity is less important to younger Jews than older ones, for the reasons above.

The survey showed that there are various other divergences, particularly over the chances for a peace agreement with the Palestinians (Americans think it’s possible and Israelis are doubtful), and Donald Trump (Israeli Jews approve of him; American Jews overwhelmingly don’t). There are disagreements about the role of religion and state in Israel, about which the Reform movement in the US has chosen to stir the pot. But these are minor matters that can be worked out. Identity is the big thing.

American Jews are losing the connection with the Jewish people. America has been good to them and they are happy being Americans. If the situation changes – and historically, that’s a good bet – then they may yet be reminded of who they are.

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