A Square Peg In a Round Hole

by James Hyman

Israel, and the role it can or should play in American Jewish identity, has been a challenge since the creation of the modern state. However, for at least the first 20-30 years of the existence of Israel, it held a cherished place in the hearts of most American Jews and certainly in the institutional Jewish community. Israel was seen as the miraculous, and to a significant degree, mythological Jewish state created in the shadow of the Holocaust and it could do no wrong. We needed to love it, be amazed by it, give money to it and to visit it. It was a shining example of the ingenuity and wonder of the Jewish people. It fought war after war, and it continued to be victorious while establishing a true democracy and a growing western style economy in the Middle East, the only one of its kind.

But sometime after the election of Menachem Begin, and the first Lebanon war in the early 1980’s, that simplistic relationship started to go through a slow and steady transformation. For those born after the 1967 war, and certainly after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel was a towering military power in the Middle East. And while the oft times daily threat of terrorism was a horror that was difficult to contend with, the notion that Israel faced a true existential threat receded into the background in the minds of many American Jews. For those who came of age in the 1980’s, Israel was not understood as the miraculous savior of the Jewish people, but as a modern nation state with an ill defined relationship to their own American Jewish identity.

A tremendous amount of resources have been invested in the promotion of Israel in the institutional Jewish community. This investment reflects a two-pronged belief. One, that the long term survival of Israel is necessary for the long term survival of American and world Jewry, and therefore American Jews need to be committed to Israel in order to compel American political leadership to support the Jewish state. And two, that Israel and Israeli culture have a great deal to offer American Jewish identity. Israel programs in the United States, many imported from Israel and others created here, are multifaceted and often qualitatively excellent. There has been and continues to be high level creative thinking about what will engage American Jews with respect to Israel. Often it focuses on the richness of Israeli culture including film and theater, literature and music, as well as a shared history. For some people this focus on Israeli culture has a powerful impact on identity. But increasingly, we see data that suggest a weakening of the role Israel plays in the formation of the Jewish identity of American Jews. This is a trend that seems likely to continue unabated. It also seems unlikely that more resources will solve the problem.

Why is it that this trend is likely to continue?

Consider the fact that a full 83% of American Jews see themselves primarily or exclusively as members of a religious group or faith community. We have been taught, and the infrastructure of the Jewish community supports the idea that, religion is the primary mode of identification for most American Jews. We do not primarily regard ourselves as members of an ethnic group with shared values and shared culture, and even less do we connect with the idea that Jews are members of a nation. This age old debate about what, not who, is a Jew seems to speak to the fundamental challenge that Israel education faces in America in the 21st century.

The reality is that the majority of Israel programming rarely focuses on religion alone. There is good reason for this. For many, if not most American Jews, the mixing of religion and politics in Israel, the enormous political and economic power that is imbued in the Ultra-Orthodox communities, and the refusal to grant non-Orthodox religious movements even the most basic of privileges is repugnant and perhaps the least attractive aspect of modern Israeli society. The fact is that over the course of 300 years of American Jewish history, we have developed a far richer set of religious experiences and opportunities for Jews in America than is currently available in Israel. Religion is not the export that would engage American Jews.

But where does that leave us? Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that younger generations are increasingly distant from Israel. For if the vast majority of American Jews identify themselves primarily or exclusively through the lens of religion, then why would Israel’s rich Jewish culture have an impact on our identity? It is the proverbial square peg in the round hole. Israeli Jews are fully enveloped in their Jewish identity which embraces religion, art, music, literature, theater, education, nationalism, land and history to name but a few aspects of it. American Jews have a much more limited experience of Jewish identity. This often leads to encounters in which there is a shared vocabulary with respect to identity but the vocabulary means something very different to each group. The institutional Jewish community is structured such that religion is the primary means of identification for American Jews. Any attempt to connect them with Israeli culture is frequently experienced as foreign to their own Jewish identity. This creates a significant cleavage between the identity that much of Israel programming is geared towards, and the self-understanding of American Jews.

So what’s the answer? The answer lies in the nature of American Jewish identity. While I do not for a moment want to suggest that we should stop doing what we are doing with respect to Israel programming, we do need to consider the very real systemic challenge that we face. Until we, as American Jews, have a viable lexicon to understand and describe our identity as more than religious alone, it will be very difficult for the very best of what Israel has to offer us today to penetrate American Jewish identity. Until a far greater number of American Jews understand and have experiences that reinforce a broader conception of Jewish identity, Israel programming will not fit into the self understanding of American Jews and the institutions of American Jewish life. This is an area in which Israel programming, and entities such as the iCenter and Makom of the Jewish Agency could play significant roles by helping the American Jewish community to understand the richness and breadth of our heritage. This problem will not be solved simply by creating dynamic programming. It will take real effort and brainpower to figure out how to broaden American Jewish identity. We may not be able to change its shape completely. But until we move towards a broader understanding of identity American Jewry will have a difficulty time making sense out of the most exciting and consequential event to occur since the destruction of the Second Temple two thousand years ago: the creation of a Jewish state and the development of a new and distinctly modern Jewish culture.

James Hyman, Ph.D., is Chief Executive Officer, Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.