I was leafing through the pages of several Jewish newspapers on my desk, and was struck that nearly every issue worth debating somehow revolved around Israel. Sure, there were other articles of interest, such as the Jewish-Korean family raising their children on “Kugel and Kimchi,” but none so interesting or heart-wrenching as whether J Street should be allowed into the local Jewish community relations council or whether the Israeli government should accept the parameters of President Obama’s recent State Department speech.
On the surface, Israel would seem to be a source of conflict, pitting Jew against Jew. But, I wonder, if it wasn’t for Israel, what would we Jews talk about? Is it possible that on a deeper level, Israel, controversies and all, is the single greatest uniting force among Jews today?
Several weeks ago one of our staff members showed a film by Tiffany Shlain called “The Tribe” at a lunch-and-learn session. The short documentary is a postmodern commentary on the fragmented nature of Jewish life in America today and describes the increasingly decentralized and fluid nature of Jewish identity. One young staff member, reinforcing the film’s main point, spoke of a friend who was Jewish by birth but had little connection to her Jewish heritage. An avid yoga practitioner, the young woman read a book about Jewish Yoga and felt a new sense of connection. The film suggests that this young woman simply pursued one in innumerable equally valid Jewish choices.
A Jewish woman in her 70s told me that in her day she couldn’t have married a non-Jew if she tried. Obviously, things have changed. Today’s American marketplace, be it for marriage, spirituality, community or entertainment, is almost infinitely vast and accessible. Young Jews can be or do whatever they want.
The American Jewish enterprise, we are told, must compete in this mix of opportunity, and provide a strong and compelling “value proposition,” or really multiple highly decentralized value propositions, lest it lose the next generation.
While I don’t fundamentally disagree with this prescription, it suggests that the future of the Jewish people may be so divided that we have little left to discuss. “Jewish” will mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people.
What does the yoga girl really have in common with the religious Jew living in Skokie, Ill., other than a vague, probably unsustainable connection to her Jewish roots? For that matter, what does a committed Conservative Jew living in Newton, Mass., have to do with a haredi Jew living in Brooklyn or Jerusalem?
Thanks to Israel, perhaps more than meets the eye.
Israel forces the encounter among Jews. In Israel, haredi Jews play a role in deciding who gets access to the Kotel. If that Conservative Jew wants his child’s bat mitzvah to take place in this holy space, suddenly haredi Jews matter a lot. The Conservative Jew can no longer retreat to his wonderfully supportive voluntary community in Newton. He has to face the diversity of the Jewish people, and be upset about it, just like an Israeli.
The haredi Jew is also forced to contend with the Conservative Jew, and find ways of accommodating his aspirations.
We think of such confrontations as fundamentally negative, but maybe it’s time we learn to appreciate them, even as we battle over Jerusalem’s policies.
Israel is a sovereign expression of the Jewish people. It forces Jews from very diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, religious practice, and political views, to live together in a defined space, create rules and make decisions. The discourse and myriad of compromises can be excruciatingly frustrating, but ultimately critical to sustaining Jewish peoplehood.
The most important program in instilling Jewish identity today is Birthright Israel. It’s quite a remarkable concept: we send young Jews to Israel to experience what it’s like in a Jewish state, tensions and all, so they will be more likely to live Jewish lives in a much less tension-filled U.S. Hopefully, the young people return with the sense that American Jews need Israel.
While American Jews devolve into increasingly tiny niches of Jewish life, at least there’s some place where they are forced to negotiate the demands of peoplehood. And as long as that’s the case, there will still be an important and often painful conversation going on in the diaspora — not about kugel, kimchi or yoga, but about what’s happening in Israel. We argue, therefore we are.
Without Israel, there would still be Jews, but little trace of the Jewish people.
David Bernstein is executive director of The David Project, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and inspiring strong voices for Israel.