Why did American Jews Overreact to a Clever Critique of American Assimilation?
by Gil Troy
American Jewry is furious. Israel-Diaspora relations are endangered. Israel’s Prime Minister is apologizing. And why? Because the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign inviting expatriate Israelis back home, suggested, shock of shocks, that there is widespread assimilation in America, so much so that Christmas sometimes trumps Chanukkah, especially for kids; that living in English shifts your linguistic orientation away from Hebrew; and that an American might not immediately realize a girlfriend’s candle-lit apartment on Israel’s Memorial Day sets the mood for mourning not snogging.
Before I lose all my American friends, let me acknowledge. Yes, the 30-second commercials were simplistic and heavy-handed. But what effective advertisement isn’t? Yes, it is awkward that the Israeli government produced the ads not some web whiz kid. And yes, there are arrogant Israelis who don’t “get” American Jews and “dis” them.
Furthermore, this is not how I educate; this is not my kind of Zionism. My book Why I Am A Zionist encourages affirmative identity Zionism not reactive, guilt-laden Zionism.
Still, the shrill reaction is disproportionate. The campaign hit a nerve because it highlighted some uncomfortable truths we should acknowledge:
- Assimilation is America’s great blessing – and curse. American culture is welcoming and enveloping, for better and worse. While the US is open enough so millions can keep their traditions, many more jettison their pasts to dwell in the present, believing that to succeed as a “somebody” they must act like everybody – which risks making you, existentially, a nobody. Living by Facebook not the Good Book, worshiping at the altar of mammon, these new pagans, addicted to the iPod, the iPad and the me, me, me, are mall rats not church-goers, deifying celebrities, revering themselves, and orienting their lives by the here-and-now not the-tried-and-true. And, yes, Virginia, America’s most seductive, most dazzling holiday is Christmas, which, many Christians lament, has been drained of its piety, becoming too consumerist and too Americanized. Intermarriage and ignorance, apathy and alienation are epidemic among American Jews, even as a committed Jewish minority – a minority within the minority – thrives.
- Many Israelis living in America embrace America’s assimilationist ethos on steroids. Most ignore the organized Jewish community. Many come to America denuded of the kind of rich Jewish identity which keeps some American Jews Jewish because of Israel’s absurd all-or-nothing, religious-or-secular absolutism.
- Israel’s Remembrance Day is probably the hardest day for Israelis abroad. Even many involved American Jews are unfamiliar with the intense, intimate, reverent way Israelis observe that day. A few years ago, a snafu scheduled Montreal’s Jewish film festival’s opening for Remembrance Day Eve. The organizers could not understand why a respectful moment of silence before the festivities began still offended many Israelis. The organizers had no clue about the Yom Kippur-like atmosphere, the closed cafes, the somber songs, the restricted TV schedule that makes the day so difficult for Israelis to observe, anywhere but Israel.
In advertising’s blunt, cartoonish way, the three internet ads captured these complex issues, dramatically, effectively.
This American Jewish freak-out is strange given all the talk lately about how Israelis must learn to take criticism from Americans and American Jews without freaking out. The “big tent” looks less welcoming if the criticism only flows, like the donations, from enlightened America to benighted Israel. “Hugging and wrestling” must be mutual; otherwise it becomes moralizing and finger-pointing. With Jewish Voices for Peace becoming ever louder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South, while Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta browbeats Israel to kowtow to the Palestinians, Americans have shown they know how to disparage Israel.
The controversial ads are being “disappeared” down the Internet’s 1984-style “memory hole.” As an educator, I would rather use them to spark discussion. We are living in an extraordinary moment in Jewish history. Two fabulous centers of Jewish life are thriving in Israel and North America, each offering distinct advantages and disadvantages.
North American Jews should acknowledge the occasional thinness of their lives, and learn more about the innate thickness of Israeli life – the overlapping communal, religious, national, traditional, ties fostering Israelis’ sense of intimacy, that sense of connectedness to each other and to the past. The Jewish State provides many of its citizens with natural frameworks for meaning and belonging that enrich their lives.
Simultaneously, Israel suffers from the overstated, all-or-nothing divide between secular and religious, the rabbinic establishment’s depressing, destructive ability to drive Jews away from Judaism, and the unappealing prominence of Judaism’s most illiberal, intolerant, unforgiving Jewish expressions. Israelis should learn from the more centrist, fluid, human-centered expressions of Judaism flourishing in North America today.
The days of David Ben-Gurion’s shlilat hagolah – negating the Diaspora – are over. While some of Israel’s Jewish critics arrogantly engage in shlilat ha’aretz – negating Israel – we need a true friendship, a real partnership, between Israel and the Diaspora. Despite tiffs like this, there is more mutuality today than ever. Sophisticated Israelis are learning they can learn from the philanthropic, creative, pluralistic American Jewish community. Sophisticated American Jews are realizing that Israel as “Start Up Nation” can be an inspiration and a partner not just a charity case.
We need a meaningful, mature Zionist conversation. In both America and Israel, Zionism, the dreams and the reality, the grounding of nationhood and the possibilities of statehood, should be used as tools to explain, enhance, challenge and critique the status quo. For all its glorious impact on both sides of the Atlantic, the Zionist revolution’s full redemptive potential remains untapped. And those common understandings, the shared dreams, even applied to different realities, can build a solid foundation of mutual respect, carving out room for constructive criticism, honest exchange, and, most important, real growth in both communities.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This post originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post’s blog, Center Field; reprinted with permission.