Bridging the Growing Gap between Israeli and North American Jews

Posted on Feb 15, 2018

Adapted from the text prepared for delivery at a consultation on this subject sponsored by Shaharit, an Israeli think tank, at Beit Avichai in Jerusalem on January 25, 2018

Good afternoon. It’s a great honor for me to be here with you today, introduced by a close friend, to address a subject that I literally think and worry about day and night. It’s a special pleasure to do so before an audience of Israelis who care about the relationship between our two Jewish communities as much as I do. And it’s particularly meaningful for me to speak with you today about this matter in Jerusalem, in this 70th year of Israel’s independence. 

Let me say at the outset that I will address you today not only as a scholar of modern Judaism whose research has long focused on Jewish thought in North America and Israel, and as the chancellor of JTS, a major institution of Jewish learning and the center of Conservative Judaism for over a century. I will also speak personally, one Jew to others, one member of what President Rivlin has recently called the “fifth tribe” of Israel to members of the other four. I will speak out of personal experiences and longings far more than books or surveys—an approach that I trust will lead to the sort of frank and fruitful conversation that must take place more regularly between our two Jewries, and within them both, if we are to draw closer together and bridge the divides that seem to grow deeper with each passing year.

Gershom Scholem concluded the powerful address that he gave on our subject in 1969 by emphasizing that the future of relations between Israel and the Diaspora was very much a personal affair, dependent less on government policy or organizational initiatives than on individual commitments by Jews like you and me.  “It is the personal factor in this mutual concern that will be decisive when all is said and done . . . [whether each and every one of us] will discover the unity in our differences.” I believe that that remains the case almost half a century later. Scholem began his address, quite uncharacteristically, by confessing to doubt, uncertainty, and a lack of answers to the problem he was about to analyze. That too remains appropriate in the current situation. I make the very same confession here today.

My life’s story has been intimately bound up with Israel since I arrived in Jerusalem in 1975 to begin a PhD at Hebrew University. I fell in love with both the country and the Hebrew language that year; formed friendships with several Israelis that to this day are among the most precious I have in life; and had the formative intellectual and existential experience of hearing Professor Eliezer Schweid’s brilliant lectures on modern Jewish thought. The corpus of texts that Schweid presented included “religious” thinkers such as Buber, Rosenzweig, and Rav Kook, as well as Zionist thinkers such as Ahad Ha’am and A.D. Gordon. He taught a crucial lesson that I have in turn passed on to my own students: modern Jewish thought has been preoccupied since Moses Mendelssohn with two questions above all. One was political: Where could Jews manage to stand in the modern order, a world very different from the Middle Ages in which our place had been defined by Christian or Islamic rulers and societies? The second question was theological (or religious and cultural): What sorts of Judaism could Jews develop that would be suited to those political realities? The Jewish people has to this day found only two viable answers to the first question, Schweid explained: life in a sovereign Jewish state, protected by Jewish arms and by alliances with more powerful nations like America; or life in a Diaspora democracy, protected by whatever rights the state affords and Jewish communities can protect, with the future of the community dependent on the ability to persuade successive generations to commit to their minority culture, religion, and community. Neither strategy was without risks. That was obvious to all, sitting in Jerusalem in 1975, a mere two years after Israel had faced the threat of imminent destruction. The dangers facing Diaspora Jewry—chiefly assimilation and anti-Semitism—were also obvious in 1975, and are, if anything, still more apparent today.   

My view of modern Jews and Judaism was shaped no less during those personally formative years by experiences that took place outside the classroom: trips on Egged buses where I discovered the Jewish people in all its diversity, and began to feel responsibility for its welfare;  getting to know distant Israeli cousins who became close family;  friendships with Israelis who had fought in the recent war while I had been studying in Oxford, and who joined me in long, honest probes of  the similarities and differences between our Jewish convictions and sensibilities. I was deeply impressed by the fact that, two years after a terrible war, no one I met seemed to be afraid. Every Israeli without exception seemed to have strong opinions on how to solve Israel’s formidable problems and what the government position should be in upcoming peace talks. Argument was vociferous, sober, and frank—but I sensed no fear, and certainly no despair. Yiheyeh tov, they assured me. Yiheyeh beseder. Al tidag, eikhshehu zeh yistader. Things would work out. I used to laugh at this sort of optimism. It seemed naïve to me, mere foolish bluster. Now, as the head of a major institution, I could not lead without similar confidence in the future. Problems will arise, and when they do, we will take care of them.

That’s the quality that first drew me to President Rivlin’s speech about the four “tribes” (secular, nationalist Orthodox, Haredi, and Palestinian Israelis): confidence that Israelis can and will solve the problems confronting them if only they face up to these problems and see them clearly. I was similarly pleased when the president spoke about North American Jewry at the most recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America as the “fifth tribe”—one no less internally divided than the four in Israel, and having the additional problem that only about 40 percent of the Jews counted as members of the North American community actually belong to any Jewish organization or institution, and only about 20 percent can  be said to live a substantively Jewish life in any form. I don’t despair of the future for my community, quite the opposite. I urge you not to despair either and to appreciate the many positive developments taking place among North American Jews, even as we look squarely together at what is not positive, and at the growing gap between us.

That said, I must state my belief that there is no easy answer to either of these problems, and that they are intimately related. Without stronger attachment among North American Jews to Judaism and/or the Jewish people, those Jews will not exhibit stronger attachment to Israel. That holds true from the Israeli side as well. Nor can we turn to past models of Israel-Diaspora relations to guide us, when it is obvious that neither one of our communities in 2018 is remotely like what it was when the Oslo agreement was signed in 1993, or when I arrived in Israel to do graduate work in 1975, or when David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein reached their famous understanding in 1950. New thinking is urgently required if we are to bridge the gap between us.  Concerted action must be undertaken on both sides.

I will devote the remainder of my remarks to three points intended to explain the status and causes of the current relationship between North American Jews and Israel, and offer a new conceptual framework that I believe would help to improve it.

First: let’s understand that the problem we face is not new. In my opinion it has been exacerbated by some policies of the current Israeli government, by the growing influence of Haredi authorities and actions taken by the Israeli chief rabbinate, and by the intersection between the two in matters like the Kotel decision and proposed legislation on conversion. Lack of progress toward a negotiated settlement of the Palestinian conflict takes its toll. It does not strengthen the relation between us when the prime minister of Israel is said to believe that only the Orthodox Jews among us have a future worth supporting, or aligns himself closely with one of the two major American political parties and has become the most vocal supporter among world leaders of a president who—despite welcome recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—is detested by a significant number of American Jews. These things do not help matters. But they are not the cause of the problem. The divide between us has existed for a very long time. It will not easily be overcome.

I know this because in 1990 I prepared a paper on the subject for the American Jewish Committee. It listed a number of factors causing North American Jews to feel distant from Israel: differences of ethnic origin and generational distance from immigration; differences in ethos and experience; different political systems and patterns of religious belief and observance; the fact that very few Jews in North America are literate in Hebrew and most have not bothered to go deep into Israeli culture even in translation, or to visit Israel even once; and—perhaps most important of all—the fact that North American Jews, a tiny minority among the larger population, live their daily lives in intimate encounter with non-Jews: co-workers, friends, family members, and increasingly spouses and children. Israeli Jews, a majority in their country, do not. This situation has long been cause and effect of the high value we place on pluralism, a value that has for many North American Jews outside the Haredi world become integral to their Judaism. This value, for understandable reasons, is much less widespread in Israel.

There is no getting away from the fact that a place far away from daily life and its concerns can be grasped as myth—by which I mean a larger- than-life story that tells an important truth about one’s life or the world—but not as fact. American Jews for the most part are attached to Israel in this way, if they are attached to it at all (only around 30 percent report feeling “strongly attached,” about the same number that reports feeling no connection whatever). Few know Israel as a real place—incredibly complex and ever-changing. Most Israelis, I would argue, have a similarly mythic view of my community and lack interest or incentive to learn more. 

In 1990, sociologists Charles Liebman and Steven M. Cohen published an extremely perceptive study called Two Worlds of Judaism that pointed to differences of attitude and behavior rooted in the nature and structure of the two Jewries. In North American one has to choose again and again to be Jewish. In Israel Jewish identity comes with the territory for the vast majority of the population—and comes with obligations, such as army service and taxation. A voluntarist community stands over against a coercive state. On one side, Jewishness is a highly individual matter. On the other, it is overwhelmingly collective. In North America, Judaism is conceived largely in universalist terms. In Israel, particularism is paramount. Judaism in the former stresses personal morality and social ethics. In the latter it focuses on history and destiny.

The piece that I wrote for the American Jewish Year Book in 1998, marking the 50th anniversary of statehood, noted the paradox that support for Israel loomed large in North American Jewish philanthropy, organizational life, and politics but that the state had never been awarded centrality in Jewish communal life, prayer, religious thought, or literature. I will not review that argument here. Suffice it to note that Abraham Joshua Heschel, author of a moving book about Israel written in the aftermath of the 1967 war, was famous for his dictum that Jews sanctify time rather than space—a claim that one is not likely to find in Israeli Jewish thought. The Land and State of Israel are not crucial—indeed, I believe they are not mentioned—in Joseph Soloveitchik’s influential depictions of Halakhic Man and The Lonely Man of Faith.  Mordecai Kaplan probably spoke for many North American Jews then and since when we wrote in his book on the subject in 1955 that “Zionism has to be redefined so as to secure a permanent place for Diaspora Judaism.”

Israelis, for their part, including Israeli Jewish religious thinkers, are virtually united in the “negation of Diaspora” that has long been common to all streams of Zionism. Indeed, this is virtually the only feature that is shared across the board in that way. A.B. Yehoshua is not alone in believing, and announcing to Diaspora Jews, that we have no future. Scholem, for all his concern for greater unity, shared the conviction of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and a host of Israeli intellectuals and political leaders, that Jews had existed outside of history for two millennia and re-entered history only with the rise of Zionism. Leading American Jewish historians such as my predecessors as chancellor of JTS, Gerson Cohen and Ismar Schorsch, have argued strongly against this view. I doubt we will see a meeting of the minds on the point anytime soon.

We do not need to reach consensus on contentious matters such as this, I believe, but only to understand our points of difference and to make sure that the leaders of our two Jewries take the trouble to learn more about one another, lest the divide become unbridgeable. It often seems to Diaspora Jews that Israelis do not think there is anything much to be learned from them, whether in terms of Jewish belief and practice, cultural innovation, interactions with non-Jewish communities and cultures, or modes of at-home-ness in the world as well as in our Jewish skins. I fear that many people in Israel want our support and applause for current government policy, whatever that policy is, but not serious input or thought and certainly not critique. This is not a recipe for adult conversation, and the very opposite of mutual respect.

In a word, the divide between our Jewries is of long standing. Like the enduring bonds between us, it is built into the very structure of who we are as Jews. The gap will not be bridged unless Jews on both sides care more about their personal and collective relations to Judaism and/or the Jewish people. Assimilation among North American Jews of course pushes in the opposition direction. Israeli Jews, although they are more inclined to attachment to both the Jewish people and to Judaism, generally lack pressing reason or a clear path to the relationship with Jews far away and with their very different forms of Judaism. How shall we get the two sides to think and act differently? 

I would suggest—my second point—that we begin with Schweid’s conceptual framework of modern Jewish thought: two questions, the “political” and the “theological,” and two answers to the first question,  one called “Zionism” and the other “Emancipation.”  Let’s bypass the contentious issue of whether the contemporary Jewish world has one center, Israel, or two, “Bavel” and “Jerusalem.” Add to this framework a second pairing: the shared task, in the revolutionary realities of a sovereign Jewish state on the one hand and a voluntarist Diaspora community of unparalleled achievement, influence, and resources on the other, of creating and sustaining new sorts of Jewish communities and developing new articulations in word and deed of Jewish tradition.

Community: It is obvious that Tel Aviv of 2020 cannot be same sort of Jewish community as Warsaw or Baghdad of the 1920s. Neither can it be the same as New York or Los Angeles today, or as contemporary Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Beit HaShita, or Tzfat. The “four tribes” usefully point to the variety of actual and imagined models of communities here and there. Indeed, there is so much variety, on both sides, that we should probably stop speaking about “the North American Jewish community” as one entity or “Israeli Jews” as another. The state contains many communities and many sorts of communities within it.  So does North American Jewry. The differences within each are as significant as the differences between them.

Tradition: So much is happening on this score in both Israel and North America, inside and outside the precincts of the synagogue. There is a veritable outpouring of ritual and liturgy, innovative celebrations of holidays and life-cycle events, and Jewish culture in all media. I am excited to see the many ways in which Judaism informs and is informed by social action in the public sphere, how feminism has transformed every sort of Judaism and is changing the role of women in the Haredi world, how technology has impacted concrete activities such as Jewish education as well as the way we think about what it is to be human and try to imagine God.

For Jews like me, the dichotomy of “tradition” and “change” no longer captures the reality of diverse Jewish communities and diverse forms of Jewish tradition, if it ever did, any more than the dichotomy of dati and hiloni captures the complexities of contemporary Jewish allegiance. This is cause for excitement—and occasion for dialogue.

I believe a third element—parallel but different—should be added to this conceptual framework. North American Jews and Israelis seek in different ways a balance between covenant and normalcy. I have intentionally chosen a word from the eternal Jewish lexicon, covenant, for me the very heart of what it means to be a Jew, and one from the Zionist lexicon that is likewise central to Jewish history and teaching from biblical times to the present. Jews have to protect our survival, our vital interests, our capacity to thrive. Our sages have always taught this. Vahai bahem. “You shall live by them.” I believe that now more than ever before, Am Yisrael Chai is the civil religion that binds Jews everywhere. It comes with widespread recognition that the State of Israel, in its way, like Diaspora Jews in theirs, must do what is needed to insure Jewish survival and thriving in a world that is often far from supportive of either. Under the impact of 20th-century history, I read the prophet Zechariah’s famous declaration—“not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts,” as “not only by might, not only by power, but also with spirit.” Without normalcy, there can be no convent—and vice versa. Without Jews, there will be no Judaism. But without Judaism of some substantive, normative variety, there will be no Jews.

Let me conclude—my third and final point—with a few general principles that should guide the renewed dialogue between us.

The most important of these is mutual respect. Let’s not dismiss or try to silence one another. Let’s not condescend. If all Israel wants from my community is applause, dollars, and political support, don’t expect the great majority of North American Jews to care about strengthening the relationship between us. Their support will likely continue, at least in the short run, though the numbers offering it will continue to decline. The lay and professional leaders of Jewish communities in North America, for their part, are too thoughtful, ambitious, and successful in every other aspect of their lives to settle for silence or subservience when it comes to Israel. In my experience, Jewish leaders are almost all quite serious people. They love Judaism and the Jewish people. They want to serve. They love Israel, and want that love requited.

Understand that pluralism is not relativism. Respect does not require saying “you are right, everything is right”—but it does require listening with humility and recognizing that no one commands all the wisdom needed. Jews can’t expect respect from other religious and ethnic communities unless we extend such respect to other groups in return and extend it to other Jews as well. The rule holds for hiloni and dati Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, right and left, Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis, even Trumpians and anti-Trumpians. 

Last, we need to raise difficult issues rather than avoid them or cover them over with politeness. Lesser matters are not worth talking about except to make us feel good, which is surely important but not important enough to forego the deeper satisfaction of bridging significant divides. Most North American Jews understand that Israeli Jews confront complex, intractable, and pressing issues of normalcy and covenant, politics and morality, that we do not face. Life and death often hang in the balance. Most Israelis understand that the rights and responsibilities of Palestinian citizens of Israel need to be defined and guaranteed, and that the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza will likely not be tenable much longer. I am not here to preach. Few Diaspora Jews have an interest in making life harder for the State of Israel or calling its leaders to account. I certainly do not.  

On the other hand, many of our best and brightest young people (and older people too) are anguished about these matters. I am one of them. Israel is too precious to us, too integral a part of our Judaism, too much in our thoughts, not to worry about its future and ponder its direction. The very last thing we want Israeli Jews to do, in turning toward their Diaspora counterparts, is to turn away from non-Jewish Israelis or the vexing issues that confront the state. Nor do we want Israelis to be anything less than candid in evaluating the achievements, shortcomings, and prospects of our Diaspora.

Scholem was right, I believe: at the end of the day what will determine the future state of relations between our two Jewries is what each of us does, the ways we find to talk to friends and family, the exchange of Jewish journey stories, the experiences we share of mourning and celebrating, praying and learning, together. The relationship between us is too great a blessing, too urgent a necessity, too much a source of joy, for us not to engage it with all the energy and inventiveness we command.