Are US and Israeli Jewry Drifting Apart?

by Tal Becker

When Israel and the US publicly disagree over an issue like Iran, concerns about a growing divide between US and Israeli Jewry become more acute. But even in calmer periods, it is often claimed that persistent ideological and religious divides are creating a chasm between US and Israeli Jewish communities. These two centers of contemporary Jewish life are, some say, on diverging trajectories, inexorably drifting apart from one another because of differing attitudes to Judaism and different political and ideological tendencies.

There are debates as to whether the statistics bear out these assertions. Anecdotes abound, however, about growing numbers of young American Jews feeling alienated and disconnected from Israel. Jewish organizations and thinkers compete as to whether to place blame on the policies and practices of Israeli governments (particularly in relation to issues such as religious pluralism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), or on fundamental flaws in Jewish education and the development of Jewish identity.

Whether the divide is real or imagined, the perception that US and Israeli Jewry are on diverging tracks contributes to a feeling that the Jewish people as a whole is fragmented beyond repair. Too often, it is said, we see ourselves primarily by our tribal affiliation, able to identify what separate us more quickly and easily than what unites us.

This sense of “Jewish fragmentation” has unquestionably negative implications that need to be addressed, not least the need to engage each other respectfully despite our differences. But there are also positive aspects that we tend to diminish. One is that our attention to the differences between us may, at least in part, be a symptom of our blessings. While enemies and adversaries remain, we have two vibrant and strong Jewish communities more capable than perhaps at any other time in our history of defending themselves, and less in need of the unity that is dictated by a struggle for survival.

Indeed, there is something problematic with the very supposition that ideological differences between Jewish communities are some kind of illness that should be overcome. Warnings that these divisions suggest that the Jewish people are “falling apart” seem to neglect the fact that in some ways this kind of “falling apart” is a permanent Jewish characteristic. We are the “forever-falling-apart people” – composed of tribes that have always pulled in different directions; that have always had vastly different visions of the Jewish future. The problem, at least to some extent, may not be with the phenomenon, but with the categories and assumptions with which we understand it.

It is striking that in our tradition, even at moments of greatest apparent unity – such as the Exodus from Egypt, the encampments in the Sinai Desert, or the entry into the land of Israel – our texts make a point of reminding us of our separate tribal identities. In the last Parsha of Genesis, Vayechi, which we read recently, Jacob blesses his sons on his deathbed, assigning to each tribe a distinct role and destiny, and signaling that tribal difference will be a constant feature of Jewish identity.

In our tradition we are asked not to overcome our tribal identity, but to embrace it. The challenge is not to defeat difference but to balance it with a commitment to the Jewish collective and with basic respect for the values and convictions of tribes other than our own.

It is, for example, natural that a dominant preoccupation of many Jews, especially in Israel, is the welfare and physical security of the Jewish State and its citizens. Their Jewish identity is, in large part, animated by the moral imperative of protecting a people, so long abandoned and persecuted, in a sovereign state of its own. Other Jews, including significant numbers in North America, are less able to connect to this need for Jewish power and sovereignty and some, if we are honest, are sometimes embarrassed by it. For them, Jewish identity is animated by an overwhelming concern for the powerless – for the “other” – and the inward focus on Jewish strength and self-preservation feels alien.

These kinds of ideological differences may be seen as evidence of some kind of national disintegration. But when appreciated from a distance, they can also be seen as the preservation of two critical moral impulses that the Jewish people as whole must contain, even if they are in tension. If we are to be a people that embodies the multiplicity of Jewish values and their contradictions, then we need Jews that champion self-protection and particularism, as well as Jews that are motivated by the universalist call in our tradition. We need extremists for both causes and all the stripes in between.

What we need, perhaps more than anything, is not to defeat difference but to cultivate a sense of peoplehood that celebrates, respects and cherishes it. We are not a movement, we are a people. We are not a cause, we are a family. When we think of our ideological differences as the crisis facing the Jewish people, we forget that these differences are (or can be) what make us vibrant, alive and engaged together in the moral challenges of our time. And we forget too, that the key dividing lines for the Jewish people – the ones that really deserve our attention – are not ideological, they are between Jews who are serious about their Judaism and those who are not, Jews who care about the future of our people, and those for whom Jewish identity no longer carries special meaning.

Dr. Tal Becker is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project.

courtesy Shalom Hartman Institute