The challenge of our age

What Israeli media's ignorance tells us about the Jewish people today.

GA opening ceremony 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
GA opening ceremony 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
Nothing I have written on Jewish identity as The Jerusalem Post's Jewish world correspondent has elicited the amount and vehemence of response as the November 21 front page report on the relative lack of Israeli media coverage of the US Jewish federations' General Assembly in Jerusalem ("GA largely ignored by Hebrew-speaking press"). The article noted the Hebrew-speaking media's apparent disdain for the conference, together with what American participants felt Israel had to gain from a closer conversation with American Jewry. Columnists, bloggers and Jewish activists and officials have since undertaken a loud, sometimes bitter discussion about the questions raised in the article, among them what is to be made of the American-Israeli divide, and which is the "better" Jewish community. Invariably, the commentators took sides in the debate. Either American Jews were "truer" Jews for having a religious identity rather than an ethnic one, or they were "jealous," in the words of my colleague Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz, of the comfortable Hebrew civilization which Israeli Jews have fashioned. Or, said some, the debate itself is the problem because the differences between the two communities are less important than the similarities. No one seemed to put aside the competition over authenticity and consider the simple fact that the debate itself reflects a deep divide between the two great Jewish societies. This divide should worry us more than it does. Both Israel and America each represent about 40 percent of Jews alive today. Neither can talk of a Jewish people without talking about each other. Yet they do not in any deep sense understand each other, and their cultural conversation is stunted and often bitter because of it. If these two Jewish communities fail to communicate, to create a mutually intelligible Jewish culture, can we still talk of a single Jewish people? ISRAEL, AS a national solution to modernity, is a Jewish people that works by necessity on a collective level. American Jewry, like America itself, is radically individualistic, with Jewishness experienced on an individual level. Thus, American rabbis and synagogues - whether Orthodox or Reform - are trained and constructed bottom-up to serve their congregants, while Israeli rabbis and synagogues are imposed from above by a national mechanism. Thus, in Israel, one's Jewishness is an unavoidable fate that demands personal sacrifice to protect a threatened collective, while in America, Judaism is inevitably a choice, where the surrounding society will wholeheartedly accept the choice to become, for example, a Buddhist. Are American Jews jealous of Israeli Jewry, as the quintessentially Israeli and intelligent Pfeffer suggests? Perhaps they are jealous of Israelis' comfort in their Israeliness, but I think it fair to say they are not often jealous of the deeply politicized religion Israelis suffer from. Coming from a country where religious institutions are separated from government, thus allowing religion itself - meaning, in America, personal religious conviction - to deeply and honestly influence political debate, American Jews are usually disgusted by Israeli religious bickering which so rarely concerns matters of actual spirituality or ethics. (The quiet Jewish spiritual renaissance taking place in downtown Tel Aviv is still not the dominant religious expression among Israelis, but a cultural curiosity that we can only hope will flourish into something more.) At the same time, American Jewry sees strength in Israeli collectivism, a kind of bulwark against the centrifugal forces pushing perhaps half of its youth out of the fold. Witness the urgency that brought about birthright israel. This "Zionism" - in individualistic America, the word has little to do with aliya or sacrifice - is often misunderstood by Israelis as fawning. But that is not the only thing Israelis misunderstand about America and its Jews. Even in deepest despair, depression and war, America never turned to fascism or communism. Yet Israelis - including the last absorption minister, Ya'acov Edri - still await an American Hitler who will finally force American Jews to see the light. Nothing but material comfort, most Israelis believe, is keeping American Jews in America. FOR MYSELF, I am an Israeli. I believe in the peculiar Israeli brand of a boisterously individualistic Jewish national collective. But I, and Israelis like me who spent some time growing up in the United States, can see American Jews for the utterly American cultural success that they are, not the failed Israelis we tell them they should be. Hebrew-language Israeli media should have covered the General Assembly, and covered it profusely. Not only does it represent an important part of Diaspora organization, but it is frankly interesting. Taken together, American Jewish federations are the second-largest social welfare charity in North America. Local charity, not international politicking, is their primary activity. In an Israel struggling to balance the Treasury's hermetic budgetary discipline with the need to invest massively in a shoddy education system and weak welfare services, is there nothing worth noting in the example of widespread private philanthropy on a national scale? Can Israel's incessant religio-political warriors learn nothing from the open American marketplace of spirituality, one which creates widespread popular religion rather than introverted camps hunkered down for battle over the state's resources? Can Israeli education learn nothing from the American Jewish struggle to find a Jewish identity that is compelling and attractive in its own right, without benefit of the social boundaries that hold off assimilation among Israelis and some of the Orthodox? Israeli journalists are not bigoted. But exposed only to the canned messaging of public relations apparatuses, they see American Jewry through the prism of self-obsessed institutions and leaders. They don't know how to open a dialogue with American Jews to hear their experience. They cannot speak to, or learn from, a society they do not understand. Lacking such a cultural bridge, the Jewish people's two great bases are failing to appreciate that they are dividing into two distinct cultures that, increasingly, cannot understand each other's motivations or contributions to the Jewish people as a whole. Can it be that this, more than Iran, more than assimilation, is the challenge of our age?