On a recent trip to Israel I met up with an Israeli couple for dinner in Jerusalem. They are old family friends who raised three boys in Efrat, one of the early settlements around Jerusalem, east of the Green Line. As always, conversation was lively and interesting, but one topic stays with me still. The husband turned to me at one point and asked “ How do American Jews deal with their guilt over not living in Israel?”
The question took me by surprise. At first, I thought that maybe it was just because my friend is, well, a settler, a right-wing religious Zionist who believes that a Jew’s place is in the Biblical land of Israel. Nonetheless, the expectation that American Jews actually feel guilty about not living in Israel seemed a bit extreme, even for someone the media might characterize as an extremist.
I realized quickly that my friend was not alone, and his opinion was not extreme, it was in the mainstream. The ideology of Zionism had no room for a Diaspora, because Zionism redefined Jewish identity as a national identity, bound to a land. Early Zionists, and even not-so-early Zionists fully expected that the Jews of the Diaspora would flock, en masse, to the Jewish State. It took at least two decades after the birth of Israel for the realization to set in that the Diaspora was likely a permanent feature of the Jewish community.
In recent years, the Jewish Agency has come under criticism for not doing its job well, for being inefficient and bureaucratic, and for losing its way now that the mass immigrations of Russian and Ethiopian Jews are complete. My criticism cuts even deeper. Why should the Jewish Agency be encouraging and incentivizing Aliyah at all? There’s a huge difference between rescuing Jewish communities under threat and trying to convince Jews who are comfortable and secure in their Diaspora communities to move to Israel. It’s not like Aliyah attracts enough people to have any real impact on the demographic struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. Moreover, Aliyah as currently structured gives incentive to those who have the least to contribute to the State and the most to take from it. Still, most Israelis remain enthusiastic about supporting Aliyah, even as most Americans are unmoved by the prospect.
I think that both Israeli and American Jews have lost their sense of purpose. In the Zionist narrative, Israel was a solution the problem of Jewish oppression in the Diaspora. The vision for the state itself was to be a nation like any other. American Jews are not so attracted to that narrative because they already live in a place where they feel safe from oppression, and where they are able to fully participate politically and culturally in the life of the nation. What’s the point of Israel? Sure, the land is important, but there are nearly 6 million Jews living in it already. What kind of personal responsibility should an American Jew feel in such a case?
Israel, in turn, looks to America and expects Americans to feel a sense of guilt for not living in Israel,, because such feelings of guilt would validate the Israeli national project. But even among Israelis, the certainty about why Israel exists and what purpose it is meant to serve has faded. Many Israelis emigrate, seeking a safer, easier, less tense life. Why live in existential crisis every moment, says this new breed of Israelis? What’s so important about Israel that it is worth all that sacrifice?
I believe that the state of Judaism and Jewish identity is at a moment of great uncertainty. The Zionist narrative is threatened and confused, and its ideological power is waning. But in America, assimilation threatens Jewish identity in lockstep with fading support for and relationship to Israel. The American vision of Tikun Olam and ethical monotheism had strongly influenced American culture, but at the cost, perhaps, of its power as a Jewish identity. I believe that Israel and America need each other, and that they need a shared narrative that dignifies both communities. Both America and Israel need flourishing and vibrant communities, seized with vision and creativity. We need a shared sense of purpose, a shared language, and a shared future. To get there, we will need to step back from all the old expectations and assumptions and open new dialogues, but most importantly, we’ll need to ask ourselves the hardest questions: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the next chapter of the Jewish story that we’d like to tell?