Jan 11th 2007 | JERUSALEM, LONDON AND NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
Jews all around the world are gradually ceasing to regard Israel as a focal point. As a result, many are re-examining what it means to be Jewish
“THE choice for our people, Mr President, is between statehood and extermination.” Thus wrote Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organisation, to Harry Truman, president of America, on April 9th 1948. Five weeks later Weizmann was elected president of the newly declared Jewish state. Truman granted recognition within hours.
Weizmann's words were only partly true. European Jewry faced extinction at the hands of the Nazis, but Jews who had fled eastern Europe's pogroms for America two generations earlier already felt safe and established there. Still, even for them, Israel became the centre of the Jewish world—not merely as a place to run to if things got bad, but as part of what they were. If their grandparents' Judaism was about religion, learning and community, theirs meant something else: being a nation that had lost a third of its people but gained a homeland.
Right from its foundation, the existence of Israel created new questions for world Jewry. If Israel's purpose was to accommodate a nation that could never be safe or fully itself in any other place, was it still possible for self-conscious Jews to flourish in “exile”? Some felt Jews had only two options: assimilate in the countries where they lived, or identify very closely with the new state, if not migrate there.
Another dilemma arose from the idiosyncrasies of religious life in the new state. Many Israelis are secular—but religious authority in the country is in the hands of the Orthodox. Where does that leave Jews outside Israel who practise more liberal forms of the faith? And the biggest dilemma is this: however proud world Jewry felt of Israel during its early struggle to survive, how should a conscientious Jew react to Israel's new image as military giant and flawed oppressor? Faced with these puzzles, Jews all over the world are finding new ways to assert their identity and a new relationship with Israel.
Most diaspora Jews still support Israel strongly. But now that its profile in the world is no longer that of heroic victim, their ambivalence has grown. Many are disturbed by the occupation of the Palestinian territories or more recently by images of Israeli bombing in Lebanon; some fear they give grist to anti-Semites. Quite a few think Jewish religious and cultural life in Israel is stunted. Others question the point of a safe haven that, thanks to its wars and conflicts, is now arguably the place where most Jews are killed because they are Jews. The most radical say, as the Palestinians do, that the idea of an ethnically based state is racist and archaic.
What is more, the last great waves of aliyah, immigration to Israel, have ended. Barring a new burst of anti-Semitism, the map of world Jewry will change slowly from now on. Each community is evolving in its own way. Some are seeing a revival unthinkable a few years ago. And young Jews especially are asking what Israel means to them. Some, say Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, two American scholars, in a recent book, “New Jews” (New York University Press), reject the notion that they are in a “diaspora”, which “envisions the Jewish world hierarchically with Israel on top, the diaspora on [the] bottom.”
Aliyah literally means “ascent”, while leaving Israel is yeridah, “descent”. Repeated banishment—to Egypt, Assyria, Babylon—and return are the backbone of the Jewish historical narrative. The Hebrew word that usually refers to the diaspora, gola, implies forced exile.
But as early as 1950 Jacob Blaustein, the head of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), told David Ben-Gurion, Israel's prime minister, that “American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile.” In November Ze'ev Bielski, the head of the Jewish Agency, the Israeli body responsible for promoting aliyah, got in hot water for saying that one day American Jews “will realise they have no future as Jews in the US due to assimilation and intermarriage”. America has provided a mere 120,000 Israelis since 1948, and still has as many Jews as Israel. A survey two years ago by Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at New York's Hebrew Union College, found that just 17% of American Jews called themselves Zionists.
Nonetheless, Jewish Americans have long been Israel's strongest supporters. Many of the most zealous West Bank settlers come from America. The main Jewish lobby groups have tended to back right-wing Israeli governments and avoid criticising their policies. The fact that Israel is America's strongest ally emboldens this gung-ho stance. So does the ultra-Zionist stance of some American Christians.
But Jews too young to have watched Israel rout three Arab armies in six days in 1967 are less likely to see it as heroic, morally superior, in need of help, or even relevant. “Israel in the Age of Eminem”, a report written in 2003 for the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, a Jewish charity, concluded that “There is a distance and detachment between young American Jews and their Israeli cousins that does not exist among young American Arabs and has not existed in the American Jewish community until now.” In Mr Cohen's survey, only 57% of American Jews said that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being Jewish”, down from 73% in a similar survey in 1989.
The culprit is not just the Arab-Israeli conflict. American Jewry is pluralistic—many of its members belong to progressive denominations such as Reform and Conservative Judaism—while Israel's Orthodox establishment does not recognise conversions or marriages by other kinds of rabbis. Clashes over “who is a Jew” cooled American-Jewish attitudes to Israel well before the second Palestinian intifada.
The intifada, like any crisis, rallied support. Howard Rieger, president of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), an American umbrella body, recalls that when the UJC launched appeals to help suicide-bomb victims and their families, “it was the first time [in recent years that] Israel had been put at risk and the response was similar to that of the previous generation.” This summer, a UJC appeal during Israel's war against Hizbullah in Lebanon raised $340m in just six weeks.
Leaping to Israel's defence is still what the Jewish establishment does best. After the war, the Israel On Campus Coalition, a student organisation, issued a 129-page guide with contributions from all the major Jewish and pro-Israel bodies, packed with set-piece talking points for knocking down critics of Israel. But Jewish students who wanted a real debate about the war—like the debate by then raging furiously in Israel itself—had to look elsewhere.
“There has to be something better for North Americans to do [with Israel] than respond to crisis,” says Roger Bennett, director of special projects at the Bronfman foundation. Mr Rieger agrees. One thing they could do, he thinks, is work with Israelis on resolving the “identity question”, namely, the Jewish character of life in the Jewish state, where religious identity is often displaced by a secular, national one.
The trouble, says Mr Bennett, is that the mainstream American Jewish institutions were born to make the case for Israel and to fight anti-Semitism. Young Jews today, however, are searching for identity, spirituality, meaning and roots. Unlike their grandparents, they are not concentrated among other Jews but spread out across society. They do not meet people in synagogues or other Jewish forums, but form their own networks. “Jewish” is just one part of their multi-faceted American identity, and Israel does not seem that relevant.
An ambitious attempt to resist assimilation and the loss of Jewishness is the “birthright israel” programme, sponsored by a group of Jewish philanthropists, which since 1998 has given over 100,000 young Jews from around the world a free ten-day trip to the country. It aims less to promote aliyah than to give an instant hit of Jewishness. Surveys show it works. Mark Hanis, an Ecuadorean-born 24-year-old who did the trip in 2001, calls it “transformative”, a word Jewish leaders love. “The big impact for me”, he relates, “was seeing children in the streets playing soccer like you always saw in Ecuador, but wearing yarmulkes instead of crosses.”
Ironically, though, many returning birthrighters have embarked on a search for new ways of what is colloquially called “doing Jewish” that have little to do with Israel or even religion. A lot of it is based on tikkun olam, literally “world repair”, the Jewish duty of social activism. Thus Mr Hanis, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, decided that Jews have a duty to fight genocide, and founded the Genocide Intervention Network, a campaign against the killings in Darfur. A young leaders' conference, ROI120, ambitiously decided, at its first meeting last summer, to create “the cultural expectation that Jewish youth will spend a year engaged in social service” after finishing school. The American Jewish World Service, which works on everything from microcredit in El Salvador to women's rights in Rwanda, has more than doubled its intake of volunteers in the past four years.
Then there is the growth of synagogues that welcome gay and transsexual Jews; of Jewish cultural centres; and of museums that celebrate Jewish history instead of mourning the Holocaust. New York has produced avant-garde projects such as Reboot, a forum for creative young Jews that in turn has spawned a magazine, a record label and a publishing house. As all these new ways of “doing Jewish” reanimate young Americans' sense of belonging, the far-off country where they could in theory go may start to matter even less.
Some groups try to keep Israel relevant but in new ways. The New Israel Fund, for instance, holds traditional fund-raising appeals for Israel, but gives a lot of the money to untraditional causes like gay or Arab civil rights. It is also less afraid of politics: it published a newspaper article in November criticising the inclusion of Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing extremist, in the Israeli government, while groups like the AJC kept an embarrassed silence.
But the pro-Israel heavy guns still predominate. And their one-sided discourse risks turning young people off. It is often seen, Mr Cohen says, “as demanding loyalty to certain objectionable Israeli policies”. In the long run, he predicts a polarisation in American Jewry: a small group growing more pious and attached to Israel, while a larger one drifts away.
If American Jews worry about assimilation depleting their numbers, so much more do the already less numerous Jews of Europe. Israel ought to matter more to them; it is also closer. But European Jewry is a patchwork quilt, where the bond with Israel depends greatly on local conditions.
In Britain, even more than in America, Israel is an anchor of Jewish identity. Britons are far more likely to have visited Israel, have family there and call themselves Zionists, even though their political view of Israel is sometimes more critical.
But Rabbi Rodney Mariner is worried. A survey of his flock in London's Belsize Square found “a very low level of enthusiasm and commitment to Israel among pretty much all the middle-to-younger members”. Coming from British Jewry's Liberal camp, he notes that the only growth is at the other end of the spectrum: among the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, whose garb and close inter-communal ties set them apart. “I don't see something outside ultra-Orthodoxy, other than Israel, that can hold a Jewish community together in the long run,” Rabbi Mariner says. That troubles him, because Israel seems poor glue. He has qualms about its policies, little faith in its leadership, and doubts about “the value of Israel in Jewish terms”. Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, is of a somewhat similar mind. He has cautiously criticised Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and recently chided it for lacking “a Jewish sense of ethics permeating the great institutions of society”.
France, by contrast, has more Jews than anywhere else in western Europe, estimated at half to three-quarters of a million. But most of France's Jewish families came two or three generations ago from North Africa. They are less attached to France than their counterparts over the Channel are to Britain, says Jean-Jacques Wahl, director-general of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris; almost all have family ties to Israel, or have lived there.
Young French Jews, he adds, are also likely to be more anti-Arab and right-wing: “I think that Bibi [Binyamin Netanyahu, head of Israel's right-of-centre Likud party] is more popular in France than in Israel.” On top of that, a series of anti-Semitic attacks in recent years—a period when Muslim-Jewish antagonism has compounded the old anti-Semitism of the French right—are stoking fear and making aliyah seem more attractive. Last year 3,000 Jews moved from France to Israel, a level rarely seen in the past 30 years.
And yet even France's Jews bridled when Ariel Sharon, then Israel's prime minister, said in 2004 that they should move to Israel. Mr Wahl thinks the community, less split along denominational lines than elsewhere, is there to stay.
Contrast Israel's gravitational pull on French and British Jewry with its relationship to Germany and Russia. Russian Jews, in fact, predominate in both countries. For 13 years Germany offered all Jews from the former Soviet Union automatic residency, and today the community numbers 115,000, four times what it was before the Iron Curtain fell. In September, in a stirring epitaph to the country's Nazi past, new rabbis were ordained on German soil for the first time since the Holocaust.
But having moved once, few Russian immigrants feel like moving again. Young Jews in Germany, says Michael Brenner, a historian at Ludwig Maximilien University in Munich, are less likely to go to Israel than to England, “to study and find a Jewish partner and a more normal and diverse Jewish life”. Among Jews in Germany, criticism of Israel is muted. But Zionist activism, says Rabbi Walter Homolka, the principal of the Abraham Geiger College, the seminary where the three new rabbis were trained, gets “very little response”. For him, the big worry is whether the Russian arrivals, whose priority is integrating into German society, will stay Jewish too. And the way to bind them in, he thinks, is not some artificial bond to Israel, but local attractions, such as Jewish day schools.
The world's least-expected Jewish revival, however, is going on in Russia itself. Once it was a place that Jews only wanted to leave; more than a million moved to Israel after 1990. But there are still hundreds of thousands left. Jewish identity is naturally strong in Russia, where Soviet rule quashed religious life but insisted on the separateness of Jewish ethnicity. These days, even Jews who have never been to a synagogue are happy to assert that separateness: they are rossiiskiye, Russian citizens, but not russkiye, “Russians”. The ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch movement, which works to bring lapsed Jews around the world back into the fold, can take some credit. But probably the main factor is Russia's economic boom. Synagogues and community centres are opening everywhere, with funds that once came from a few Jewish tycoons but now flow in from newly middle-class businessmen.
As many as 100,000 Russian-Israelis have gone back to Russia, says Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the director of the Lubavitch-run Federation of Jewish Communities, one of Russia's two main (and rival) umbrella groups. In a fast-growing market with a population over 20 times the size of Israel's, they often get better work. Today, a Russian Jew in Moscow will be more expensively dressed than his cousin in Tel Aviv: a big reversal from ten years ago.
Israel's government dislikes acknowledging this apparent yeridah, but as Rabbi Berkowitz argues, “It's a win-win situation for both Israel and Russia.” Most of the returnees retain ties with Israel; they often leave families there, and invest earnings there, in homes and education. This makes for a new kind of diaspora: these days, as one listens to the sound of Russian in Old Jerusalem or Hebrew on the canals of St Petersburg, it can be hard to tell where Israel ends and Russia begins.
Don't worry, be Jewish
In fact, a Jewish cultural revival is going on not just in Russia and Germany, but all across Europe. Tony Lerman of the Jewish Policy Research Institute in London cites steep rises in the numbers of Jewish museums, Jewish day schools and academic Jewish studies courses; more people are studying Yiddish, a dying language not long ago; Jewish film, music and cultural festivals are flourishing everywhere, even in Poland, a cradle of anti-Semitism.
Partly this reflects a fad for exotica among non-Jews. Still, it suggests that many Jews are reacting to anti-Semitism and fears of assimilation not by moving to Israel, but by rediscovering what it means to be Jewish outside it. Mr Shneer and Ms Aviv make the intriguing prophecy that in ten years, American Jewish foundations “will spend as much money sending young Jews to Vilnius to study Yiddish or Prague to study Jewish art or architecture as they do sending young Jews to Israel.”
The old-style attachment to Israel, treating it as a potential future home, a shield against assimilation, and an ongoing emergency needing support, is a mistake, Mr Lerman argues. “The way to continue it is with common concerns about education, civil society, human rights and values.” Even the Jewish Agency, a bastion of traditional Zionism, is changing tack. Makom, one of its partner agencies, now sends envoys to American Jews with a new brief: to get young Jews interested in Israel not by “hugging” it but by “wrestling” with it and its contradictions.
Accepting this challenge may be Israel's best chance to stay relevant to non-Israeli Jews. Israelis may still speak of the gola; but the Jews who fled to the Hellenistic world after the destruction of Jerusalem's Second Temple in 70 AD deliberately adopted the Greek word diaspora, “dispersal”, because it was more neutral. “Diasporism”—the idea that Jews are better off outside the Holy Land—is a tradition that began with the prophet Jeremiah and still exists among a few ultra-Orthodox Jews. But increasingly, today's young Jews see the future not as a choice between Zion and exile, but as a fruitful fusion of both.