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.

jewish americans 311 (photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
jewish americans 311
(photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
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 identity.
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).
There was 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 Side.
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 Israelis.
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.
Sixty years 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.
Israel 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.
This is 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 abroad.
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.
The writer is board member of the America-Israel Friendship League and Chairman of the AIFL Think Tank.