Tuesday, June 21, 2022

By Daled Amos

Most Jews consider Israel and Zionism to be part of their Jewish identity, and under normal circumstances that would not be an issue.

But our circumstances rarely fall into the category of "normal." Antisemitism has morphed into anti-Zionism. Just as we have historically been attacked for their Jewish identity -- now Jew-haters feel free to attack Jews for having any connection to Israel.

Einat Wilf, in The BDS Pound of Flesh, describes how the haters -- under the guise of anti-Israel activism --  bully Jews to relinquish the Zionism component of their Jewish identity before they will be accepted in progressive circles.

Her advice?
The only response to anti-Zionism, is Zionism.

How does that work?

A new book claims that Zionism is more than a conscious option open to Jews to express their Jewish identity. Instead, Zionism is developing into a key, indispensable element of Jewish identity. More than that: Zionism today is becoming the glue that will maintain Jewish identity and strengthen it going forward. The author, Gol Kalev, is a former Wall Street investment banker, now living in Israel, where he writes for The Jerusalem Post and is the chair of the America-Israel Friendship League Think Tank.
[Disclaimer: I helped proofread his book]

In his new book, Judaism 3.0: Judaism's Transformation To Zionism, Kalev writes:

Judaism 3.0 is a recognition that the organizing principle of Judaism has shifted from its religious element (Rabbinic Judaism) to its national element (Zionism). This shift is occurring without any compromise to the religious aspect of Judaism, and indeed only strengthens it. As this book shows, Zionism is increasingly becoming the relevant conduit through which Jews relate to their Judaism and the prism by which the outside world perceives the Jews. [p. 11]

He contrasts Judaism 3.0 with Judaism 1.0, when the original organizing principle was the Temple and the physical presence of the Jewish people in Judea -- and with Judaism 2.0, (or Rabbinic Judaism) after the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled. The Temple was replaced by the synagogue and the sacrifices were replaced with prayer. This is when "the insular ghetto replaced the insular life in Judea, and the yearning to return to Zion replaced the actual presence in Jerusalem. [p. 12]"

While he applies this broadly, Kalev also devotes a portion of his book in explaining how this applies to American Jews, at a time when American Jews face a high rate of assimilation on the one hand and outright intimidation and attacks both on colleges and in the streets on the other.

In Chapter VI, The Transformation of Judaism -- American Jews, Kalev notes that political Zionism originally had little to offer Jews in America. Political Zionism was a way to address the misery of the Jews suffering from antisemitism. That was a powerful message in Europe, but America in the 20th century, by contrast, offered Jews freedom and a level of acceptance that they had not experienced in Europe. Jews integrated in American society. They did not need Zionism, and saw it as an encumbrance if not a threat to their status in America.

This integration led to a change in their Jewish identity in America. There was a denationalization from 'Judea' -- the yearning to return to 'Judea' and the association with Israel changed. Judaism went from a nation-religion to being reduced to being a mere religion. 

And then on top of that came the secularization.

With the weakening of religion as the glue that anchored Jewish identity, over the past 80 years, other 'glues' served as substitutes to maintain that sense of Jewish identity:

1. Memory of the Holocaust: The Holocaust has been the most significant Jewish issue that united the Jews in the second half of the 20th century through today. The Holocaust, along with its lessons and memories, drives Jewish organizational policy and has dominated much of the Jewish community ethos...

2. Nostalgia for Ashkenazi/Eastern European roots: The second American Jewish glue was the culture of Yiddish, the shtetl, Jewish food (gefilte fish, bagel and lox) and Eastern European Jewish heritage. [p. 139]

According to Kalev, while the memory of the Holocaust -- and nostalgia for the Eastern Europe past -- have succeeded in replacing "the fading glues of religion, insularity and discrimination," memories of the Holocaust are fading as the generations of Holocaust survivors die. The same holds true for nostalgia for "the old country" -- which may actually be for the best.

On this point Kalev notes:

Astonishingly, nostalgia to the old country became nostalgia to values and elements of life which the Jews utterly detested while they were there. The ghetto life in Poland that was considered miserable in real time, became idolized in America...The retroactive glorification of Yiddish and Polish/Russian old country was done since there was no tangible connection to the real old country -- to Zion. [143; emphasis added]

Today, in the face of the weakening if not outright lack of "glues" for their Jewish identity, for a growing number of Jews, as important as their Jewish identity may be for them, it takes a back seat to other roles and other cultural identities. He is less likely to bring up his synagogue or Jewish school and more likely to bring up his college, a country club or his job. Instead of discussing the weekly parsha, he is more likely to want to talk about the newest restaurant or move.

The concern that Kalev is focusing on in his book is not the Orthodox Jews who connect with their Jewish identity through its religious component, nor what he refers to as "engaged Jews" who are active in Jewish causes and events. 

Instead, the concern is for the majority of the Jews for whom being part of the Jewish community is not an important commitment and is low on their hierarchy of identities and priorities. The culture of the typical American Jew is the American culture. Jewish culture today for many is eating a bagel with lox and cream cheese.

What passes for Jewish culture today for the majority of Jews is not enough to maintain a sustainable connection to their Judaism.

One attempt to create a new expression of Jewish identity in progressive circles is found in the call for Tikkun Olam -- righting wrongs, doing good deeds, doing charitable work and making the world a better place to live. But Kalev writes that as an attempt to strengthen Jewish identity, it is doomed to fail, because

that is a very weak connector, since other groups engage in similar charitable actions. 

If anything, it supports the notion of universalim -- of Judaism not being any different than any other group, religious or otherwise.

Moreover, a Jewish person engaging in such good-doing does not need to do it in a Jewish context. [p. 147]

In other words, the failure of Tikkun Olam as a bond to Judaism lies in the fact that it does the opposite of what it is alleged to do. Instead of connecting Jews to their unique identity, it promotes the idea of universalism, that Judaism is no different from any other religion. No different than any other group. This is especially true when Tikkun Olam is made all about human rights or humanitarian aid. The approach to inspiring Jewish identity through Tikkun Olam is self-defeating and doomed to failure.

Along with this weakening of Jewish identity in the US we are witnessing the ambivalence of Jews towards their Jewish leadership. In the 20th century, these leaders were not only looked up to by American Jews -- they were influential and other leaders, both national and international, met with them regularly. 

But today, while the appearances continue, as new faces replace the old familiar ones, the Jewish community does not accept the Jewish leadership as unquestioningly as it once did. The new leaders do not carry the same gravitas, and besides -- American Jews are free to bypass them:

An American Jew can access his own tailor-made basket of leaders that suits his own evolving preferences: A rabbi, a teacher, a blogger, a progressive Jewish thinker, a comedian, a tour-guide he had in Israel or an Israeli political leader. Hence the Jew can now turn away from Jewish Federations, the UJA and other Jewish structures as the point of orientation for Jewish leadership, and instead turn towards Israel. [p. 151]

Going a step further, Kalev suggests the same applies to the end of the old Jewish icons. He contends that Jerry Seinfeld, Barbara Streisand and Jon Stewart are no more personifications of today's Judaism for those less affiliated than J. R. Ewing and his family are personifications of today's Dallas. Similarly, the old image of the Woody Allen stereotype of the "weak" Jew is now historic and no longer contemporary. Jewish symbols like Yiddish, a pastrami sandwich and bagels & lox are no longer singularly relevant to the Jewish identity as much as they have become "relevant to Americans of all backgrounds as a Jewish reference point...This is just like most customers in Italian restaurants are not Italian and most of those ordering Chinese takeout are not Chinese [p. 155]."

Enter the Israelization of the American-Jewish experience, where

thanks to the expanding array of relatable Israeli products and experiences, Judaism, through Zionism, is becoming increasingly relevant for the young American Jew. This is not by duty, but by choice. [p. 157; emphasis added]

Israel is no longer seen as an object of charity, as symbolized by the blue JNF box. That was in the past. Today, Israel is considered for what it offers, both internationally through its innovations, entrepreneurial spirit, art and culture, wine industry, academic centers and think tanks.

Kalev is not talking about inspiring a sense of Jewish pride and identity on the abstract level. He writes about concrete elements that American Jews can connect with as expressions of their Jewish identity. He suggests that this allows for a non-political connection with Israel, one that makes it possible to embrace Israel even while disagreeing with its policies -- something that Palestinian Arabs are beginning to realize:

The ability to disconnect or suppress politics paved the way for Palestinians in the West Bank to seek employment and mentorship by Israelis, and to even get funding for Palestinian start-ups from Israelis. This underscores how audiences can connect to Israel's success and desirability without endorsing or having a particular opinion on political issues. [p.158; emphasis added]

In a similar way, an American Jew who enjoys Israeli products does not do this as an endorsement of Israeli policies -- and will not suddenly stop identifying with Israel just because of a policy he disagrees with. 

This does not ignore the fact that there are those who support BDS, but there too, due to the wide range of Israeli products it becomes evident that a literal boycott of all Israeli products is not the goal of the BDS movement, but rather the attention that can be gained by advocating for that cause.

The Israelization of the American Jewish community is therefore not a political phenomenon, but rather a cultural one. Israeli shows such as Fauda, Shtisel, Mossad 101 and Tehran are now showing up on American TV, with the result that American Jews are exposed to new Jewish icons.

Today, there is a lot of discussion about the current status of the connection between American Jews and Israel, a connection that is often portrayed as weakening. But there is a development in Zionism that may indicate a change that will help to strengthen those ties: Aliyah. Above, it was pointed out that there is a distinction between duty and choice. The same applies here, as Zionism is understood to go beyond immigration to Israel:

Zionism was perceived to be about the establishment of the State of Israel and making Aliya. Indeed, Aliya was essential in the early years of Israel, and for decades Israeli leaders urged American Jews to make Aliya. A Jew choosing to stay in the Diaspora was viewed with disappointment by Israelis, exerting some degree of guilt feeling -- someone who is not fulfilling his "duty" as a Jew. [161]

Not only were Jews expected to make Aliyah -- once they arrived they were expected to "Israelize". He was expected to shed his Diaspora identity and accept the Israeli culture. Today, there is still an expectation that upon making Aliyah, he will learn Hebrew and speak the language. In the 1920s, this expectation led to the formation of Hebrew Language Brigades which would reprimand people who did not speak Hebrew to each other. Kalev compares this to France today, which has tried to do something similar with its own immigrants. (An obvious difference is that unlike Muslim immigrants to France, Jews returning to Israel have a cultural and historical bond to the country.)

Today, the pitch is not to make Aliya but to maintain strong connections with Israel, including coming to visit Israel, but also to be exposed to the country without having to be on a path toward Aliya -- even experiencing Israel through a phone or laptop -- and don't forget Birthright trips. In addition to the practical side -- Aliyah -- there is also the ideological side. Kalev quotes Herzl that Zionism includes "not only the aspiration to the Promised Land...but also the aspiration to moral and spiritual completion."

The removal of the Aliyah requirement frees the way for unaffiliated American Jews to gain greater involvement and exposure to their Judaism through Zionism. 

Today, since Judaism is not the defining element of the Jewish identity of most American Jews, in order for Judaism to be relevant, it has to be attractive and desirable. According to Kalev, the challenge is that "American Judaism needs to thrive in a non-committal environment."

An American Jew increasingly seeks the non-committal component for his various experiences, including for his affiliation with Judaism. But such non-committal affiliation is not possible under Judaism 2.0. The "ask" for the American Jew is to commit more: join and come to synagogue more often, send your children to Hebrew school, donate to the UJA, be a member of the Jewish community center and the other community Jewish organizations. [p.175]

Kalev contrasts this with those Israeli Jews for whom their religious affiliation is secondary to their Jewish identity. For such an Israeli Jew, his experiences in Israel shape his Jewish identity. Whatever his attitude toward Jewish religiosity may be, he remains committed and fully affiliated with Judaism. This is in contrast with what Kalev calls Judaism 2.0, where Jewish religious affiliation is the primary measure of the depth of one's connection to Judaism.

Those American Jews who are not among the 20% who are Orthodox or among the "strongly committed" are in danger and many are already disaffiliated. For them, Judaism 3.0 -- through Zionism -- is not necessarily going to bring them back to Judaism, but it does provide new ways to connect with Judaism. For some, this will prevent further estrangement, while for others it may serve as a catalyst to reconnect.

Today, one aspect of the lives of American Jews acting as a catalyst is antisemitism, which is reaching levels that just a few years ago would have been unimaginable. We are in a situation where Jews on campus are afraid to openly identify themselves as Jews.

But this rise in antisemitism can have a different effect as well:

This forces the unaffiliated and under-engaged Jew right back into his Jewish identity. But what is this identity? What is the point of Judaism that such a "Jew in abstention" passively seeks to "go back to?" It is not the synagogue which he has not frequented, nor the Holocaust that he does not think much about. The rise of such "Jewish existential thinking" leads the Jew into Israel as his identity benchmark -- this is the relevant association with his Jewish affiliation -- this is where he hears or thinks about Judaism.This reality is exactly what Herzl envisioned when he said that anti-Semitism is a propelling force into Zionism. [p. 177]

From this perspective, the current rise in antisemitism as anti-Zionism pressuring American Jews to criticize Israel actually has a positive dimension. Kalev argues that "the more an American Jew engages with the issues of Israel's policies, the stronger his connection to Judaism." Since much of the criticism directed towards Israel comes from "unaffiliated Jews" who are drifting away from Judaism anyway, "paradoxically, the 'coincidental' engagement with Israel of this group helps keep them Jewish." If Not Now could be seen as an example of this.

Kalev is not suggesting a plan of action. On the contrary, he sees this transformation where Zionism becomes a key component of Jewish identity as something natural and organic. And it is a process that is happening now. Judaism 3.0 is as natural a transformation as the transformation to Rabbinic Judaism from Judaism 1.0.

And the future of Jewish identity depends on it. 

Buy the EoZ book, PROTOCOLS: Exposing Modern Antisemitism  today at Amazon!

Or order from your favorite bookseller, using ISBN 9798985708424. 

Read all about it here!



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