No one should have been very surprised by the firestorm that Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely unwittingly unleashed with her comments about American Jews. Still raw from last June’s Kotel crisis, which the prime minister precipitated by walking away from a compromise to which he had committed himself, American Jews were not likely to take kindly to being judged and dismissed by a member of the same administration.
What has surprisingly gone largely unmentioned is that Israelis, too, should have been put off by her remarks, which by implication were a description of what she sees as the essence of Zionism. Why don’t American Jews understand Israelis? They “never send their children to fight for their country, most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines…. Most of them are having quite convenient lives. They don’t knows how it feels to be attacked by rockets….”
What it thus means to be Israeli is to be poor and to dodge rockets? That, ironically, is precisely the image of Israel that Israelis have long deeply resented. And worse, it’s false. Israel’s economy is booming and very few Israelis have dodged any rockets in years. Hotovely’s boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, is poised to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Beyond platitudes, do we know what he thinks ought to be the essence of a sovereign Jewish state? Do we know what he thinks about how Jewish the state should be, or how it should be Jewish? We do not; in that sense, Hotovely’s “sin” was merely that she echoed the administration of which she is a part.
Even with rumors swirling that she might be fired, Hotovely refused to abjectly apologize. That is because she does not really think she was wrong. On the facts, she is indeed correct.
Most American Jews do not spend much time dodging rockets.
Most American Jews do not have children serving in the American military. And on average, American Jews enjoy an enviable level of socioeconomic security. So, Hotovely must be wondering, “What did I say that’s really all that terrible?” Of course, the accuracy of Hotovely’s comments was never the issue. Had she understood American Jews better, she would have known that American Jews do not like being told that they are rich or pampered and they do not appreciate being informed that they do not understand Israel.
But had she understood both Israel and American Judaism better, what she could have said, completely justifiably, is that American and Israeli Jews have ceased understanding each other not because American Jews “don’t get it,” but because the American Jewish and Israeli projects are utterly different.
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What Hotovely should have said was that American Jewish life and Israel are two entirely different bets on the Jewish future. American Judaism was essentially a decision to take a 2,000-year-old model of Diaspora living and to try it once again, this time in a much more hospitable setting. Zionism rejected that model in no uncertain terms, claiming that in England (1290), Spain (1492), Germany (1938), among others, it had failed. Zionism was a claim that Jews should never again put their faith in a host community, while American Judaism bet that doing just that could work.
In America, Judaism has become essentially a matter of religion.
To be sure, it’s more complicated than that, but America is a religious country and in the United States, American Jews have fashioned Jewishness much in the model of liberal Protestantism.
What makes Jews Jewish is religion, not peoplehood.
That is why in the United States, when Jews speak about themselves and those amongst whom they live, they finish the phrase “Jews and…” with “gentiles” or “Christians.”
Not so in Israel. Here, we finish the phrase “Jews and…” with “Arabs.” Because in Israel, for a whole array of reasons, what has emerged is a Jewish world in which peoplehood, not religion, is central. Obviously, the religious elements of Judaism have not disappeared (even among the so-called “secular”), but the very essence of the project’s Jewishness is different.
In America, the majority of the Jewish community is instinctively liberal, while in Israel, especially as the majority of Israeli Jews are now of Mizrahi descent, the pervasive instinct is one of social and religious conservatism. American Jews live as a small minority, and thus benefit from a public square and from public discourse that are denuded of religious content.
In Israel, infusing public discourse with Jewish content was the very purpose of the project.
American Jews were right to be insulted. For it’s not that American Jews don’t understand Israel. It’s that American Jews and Israelis no longer understand each other. The two projects, each wildly successful and each facing existential threats, are utterly different bets on what will keep the Jewish people alive.
Whether each side can learn to each invest wholeheartedly in the model we have chosen, while also appreciating the profundity of the other, remains to be seen. Characterized by the Kotel and Hotovely crises, though, if 2017 is any indication, the sad likelihood is that the current chasm between the two communities is going to grow ever wider and deeper.
The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 “Book of the Year.”
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