120 years later: Zionism and the Jewish-American community
The fork in the road provides a warning sign, but it is also provides a rare opportunity to capitalize on the Golden Age in which Jews are currently living.
One hundred and twenty years since the most radical transformation of
post-biblical Jewish life, the two predominate centers of Judaism face a fork in
the road. The American-Jewish secular community is rapidly losing the “glue”
that held it together and now faces an unprecedented survival challenge.
Meanwhile, Israel is under increasing threat of losing its own Jewish
The America-Israel Friendship League Think Tank issued its
first in a series of position papers on the topic.
The main Jewish
immigration into the United States began to take shape about 120 years ago. Over
90 percent of American Jews came to the US after 1890. Upon arrival, most of
them were religious, spoke Yiddish, and worked in a profession or occupation
regarded as “Jewish.”
Yet as the 20th century progressed, many American-
Jews rapidly left the “Jewish ghetto,” became successful, assimilated into
social and cultural life, and pursued the “American Dream.”
The exit from
the restraints of the ghetto is no doubt a great American story, but it came at
a price: The abandonment of the Jewish glue.
To address the void created
by increased secularization, the absence of discrimination and fading Jewish
culture, American-Jews over the last 60 years connected through two new
substitute glues: 1. Memory of the Holocaust.
2. Nostalgia for Ashkenazi/
Eastern European roots (Yiddish, the shtetl, gefilte fish).
never a divorce from the past. While an early theme of the Jewish- Israeli
immigrant was “negation of the Diaspora,” the Jewish-American immigrant
“embraced the Diaspora.”
While Jewish-Israelis rebelled and created a
“new Jew,” the Jewish-American brought the shtetl with them to the Lower East
Those substitute glues ensured American Jewry continuity as a
distinct community through the turn of the 21st Century. Yet these glues will
inevitably fade in the coming decades: the memories of the Holocaust will not be
as acute when the survivors die out; and nostalgia for the old Jewish life will
diminish once the Jewish “grandmothers” will pass away. Unless a new glue is
found, a large vacuum is expected to emerge.
MEANWHILE, ACROSS the ocean,
the State of Israel, founded on the Zionist ideology of creating a homeland for
the Jewish people, is going through a latent battle of narratives: Is Israel
still the homeland for the Jewish people, or is Israel home for the
The latter narrative would argue that while Israelis came from
Jews, they have now established a new, distinct culture and their Jewish
connection is primarily historical. Israel today, according to such narrative,
is simply like any country in the world – a homeland for its citizens, rather
than a group of people united by religion.
Religion was indeed the only
uniting factor in Israel’s building days. There was no other reason for a
Moroccan, European refugee or Russian farmer to move to Israel except for one
thing: Israel was the old-new homeland of the Jewish People.
later, however, this has changed.
Just as the Jewish-American assimilates
to the dominant American culture, so does the Jewish-Israeli assimilate to the
dominant Israeli culture. Therefore, some argue that just like the hyphenated
Jewish-American is now becoming pure American, so is the hyphenated
Jewish-Israeli becoming pure Israeli.
Consequently, Jewish continuity
faces an unprecedented challenge on both sides of the ocean. But a symbiotic
mutual solution is possible: Israel can become the new glue that binds together
and preserves the secular Jewish- American community. American Jews must let
Israel take center-stage in their identity – to replace the dying gefilte fish
culture with the vibrant Israeli one. For this to happen, Israel must make some
serious changes with respect to its relation with the Diaspora.
must incorporate the Diaspora into Zionism 2.0.
This would be a complete
reversal from previous Israeli themes of “negating the Diaspora,” aggressively
advocating aliya and seeking rapid “Israelization” of newcomers.
easier to do now than in the past: The Israeli and the Diaspora Jew have many
more touchpoints in 2013 than they had two decades ago, thanks to Birthright, an
increasingly international hi-tech sector and Israelis living
Stronger ties between Jewish- Americans and Israel can add
longevity to both Jewish societies.
The fork in the road provides a
warning sign, but it is also provides a rare opportunity to capitalize on the
Golden Age in which Jews are currently living. Creating the right redefinitions
to culture and religion could assure the symbiotic survival of both the secular
Jewish- American community and of the Jewish State of Israel.
is board member of the America-Israel Friendship League and Chairman of the AIFL