America’s Jews and Israel
From Tradition, Vol. 18 No. I, Summer 1979
“…uphold… ideas long enough, frequently enough, and with inspiration, and some young people are not only going to believe in them, they are going to believe in them with the fervor of the young and even arrange their lives and their sense of honor by them.” Willie Morris, North Towards Home
The American Jewish community relates to Israel much as American popular culture relates to death: both Israel and death are the subjects of incessant, indeed compulsive, attention but both always happen to somebody else. Nor is my bracketing of Israel and death a literary device, an attention-getter, alone. For despite the imagery of life, both physical (“making the desert bloom”) and cultural (“national renaissance”) , there are also images of death: the six million dead as a prelude to the State, the unending sacrifice of life that feeds its survival. And finally, a set of images that has won great popularity: Massada/Yavneh. Massada – communal suicide as the guarantor of integrity or intransigence (depending on your point of view). Yavneh – a community devoted to Torah and its ongoing vitality; but Yavneh presumed the death of the second Jewish Commonwealth and was reared on its ashes – a sinister image for these days.
My topic, though, is more prosaic than these opening comments suggest. I am interested in the implications of the fact that Israel “happens to somebody else,” or in other words, with the failure of the American Jewish community in developing an imperative of aliyah. The implications of this fact are usually seen within the Israeli context: what will the absence of Western immigrants mean to Israeli society, to its industry and technology, and even to its democracy? Where has Israel failed the Western oleh? How can Israel create a climate (spiritual or economic) that will attract the American Jew? This perspective is not necessarily false. But it is certainly a partial perspective at best, and from the point of view of American Jews an irrelevant perspective at worst. The issue for American Jews really is: what does this failure imply as to the nature of American Judaism? What does it imply about Jewish education in the broadest sense of that term, about the content – emotional as well as intellectual – of the Jewish heritage as it is taught in 20th-century America? Actually, it seems to me that this is by far the more productive perspective.
The attitude of young American Jews to Israel as a possible imperative for themselves is usually a function of American Judaism, not a response to the reality of Israel. Many American Jews do consider themselves informed about the shortcomings of Israeli life, of course. I don ‘t believe, however, that this knowledge is the crucial factor influencing young American Jews against aliyah. On the contrary; the expertise is required to silence wistful yearnings for Zion and its community. The young man who yields to information is, in any case, not being pursued by anything more seductive.
It is true, of course, that a small number of American Jews do get to Israel, and a proportion of these return to North America. “Better to have loved and lost/than never to have loved at all.” The question that American Judaism ought to confront is: why do so many not love at all? How has our heritage been so skewered as to produce this feeble vision of peoplehood? On a recent visit to the States I noticed, with grim amusement, that a leading Anglo-Jewish weekly carried columns four weeks running on how to explore Polish cemeteries in search of family roots. So that ‘s where the action is! More seriously: something is awry in the emotional life of the Jewish body politic.
Jewish history and Jewish thought compete well in the marketplace of our time; the fault is not intellectual. In some in way, the will and the emotions are not engaged. To put it another way: educated, traditional, young Jews do not feel the hunger to live in a Jewish state. And so American Jews who care about the fullness of the Jewish future, must ask: what has been killed?
The juices of Jewish history do run towards a restoration of Jewish peoplehood in Israel. Or more carefully: the Jew who loves his people wishes to experience its fullness, and the adventure, the challenge, of Jewish fullness today is in Israel. The Jew who identifies with his people wishes to be at the cutting edge of its history and that, today, is in Israel. The various adaptive forms taken by Jewish life in galut (the autonomous medieval community; the shtetl) also point in the same direction not because they demonstrate the transience of Diaspora communities, but because they disclose the historic Jewish thrust for independence. The American Jewish community acknowledges these facts on a political level, but denies them on the personal, existential one. This denial, like most denials demands its price. It can be made only by truncating Jewish experience by starving its soul. To anybody who has lived in Israel, the thriving Jewish communities of the United States (and I recognize their achievements) are mere torsos of the Jewish people. At the same time they pose the haunting question: how have so many young educated Jews been alienated from essential components of their people ‘s past, from a past that points the will and the heart to a clear destiny?
Now, I am not a naif. On the intellectual level, I know that the tree of Jewish history can be sliced in various ways (obviously, though, I believe that one way cuts against the grain and the other, with it!). Realistically put, I know that Babylon has always existed (but as a success-story, not as a value!) alongside Jerusalem; that even the young aim at careers, status, stability and that they know that these are more easily had in America. But all these considerations ought be only one side (if even the dominant side) of the coin. The other side should be the personal thrust towards k’lal yisroel, the movement towards the emotional and existential core that even today is a fact in Israel. Yet this side of the coin is not current. Is Jerusalem not even fit to hold a candle to Babylon? The question does not seek an empirical answer. Rather, it points to the failure of nerve, the selective paralysis of will, that is at work. I, for one, am not willing to take at face value the claim that the situation described is simply another instance of the classic tension between Torah (or spirituality) and nationalism. It is much more likely that we are witness to a (no less classic) skewering of Jewish spirituality itself, a communal accommodation to stability and case.
If this is the case, the all-but-effective elimination of Israel from the personal agenda of today ‘s American Jew is a symptom of destructive forces cutting away at our people ‘s roots. Israel, today, is the single most significant issue facing the Jew.
The response to this opportunity is perhaps more crucial to the Jews of New York and Los Angeles than it is to the Jews of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.
Professor Blidstein, a member of TRADITION ‘s Editorial Board, teaches Judaic Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel.