Jan 11th 2007
Jews all around the world are gradually ceasing to regard Israel as a
focal point. As a result, many are re-examining what it means to be
"THE choice for our people, Mr President, is between statehood and
extermination." Thus wrote Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist
Organisation, to Harry Truman, president of America, on April 9th 1948.
Five weeks later Weizmann was elected president of the newly declared
Jewish state. Truman granted recognition within hours.
Weizmann's words were only partly true. European Jewry faced
extinction at the hands of the Nazis, but Jews who had fled eastern
Europe's pogroms for America two generations earlier already felt safe
and established there. Still, even for them, Israel became the centre
of the Jewish world--not merely as a place to run to if things got bad,
but as part of what they were. If their grandparents' Judaism was about
religion, learning and community, theirs meant something else: being a
nation that had lost a third of its people but gained a homeland.
Right from its foundation, the existence of Israel created new
questions for world Jewry. If Israel's purpose was to accommodate a
nation that could never be safe or fully itself in any other place, was
it still possible for self-conscious Jews to flourish in "exile"? Some
felt Jews had only two options: assimilate in the countries where they
lived, or identify very closely with the new state, if not migrate
Another dilemma arose from the idiosyncrasies of religious life in the
new state. Many Israelis are secular--but religious authority in the
country is in the hands of the Orthodox. Where does that leave Jews
outside Israel who practise more liberal forms of the faith? And the
biggest dilemma is this: however proud world Jewry felt of Israel
during its early struggle to survive, how should a conscientious Jew
react to Israel's new image as military giant and flawed oppressor?
Faced with these puzzles, Jews all over the world are finding new ways
to assert their identity and a new relationship with Israel.
Most diaspora Jews still support Israel strongly. But now that its
profile in the world is no longer that of heroic victim, their
ambivalence has grown. Many are disturbed by the occupation of the
Palestinian territories or more recently by images of Israeli bombing
in Lebanon; some fear they give grist to anti-Semites. Quite a few
think Jewish religious and cultural life in Israel is stunted. Others
question the point of a safe haven that, thanks to its wars and
conflicts, is now arguably the place where most Jews are killed because
they are Jews. The most radical say, as the Palestinians do, that the
idea of an ethnically based state is racist and archaic.
What is more, the last great waves of ALIYAH, immigration to Israel,
have ended. Barring a new burst of anti-Semitism, the map of world
Jewry will change slowly from now on. Each community is evolving in its
own way. Some are seeing a revival unthinkable a few years ago. And
young Jews especially are asking what Israel means to them. Some, say
Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, two American scholars, in a recent book,
"New Jews" (New York University Press), reject the notion that they are
in a "diaspora", which "envisions the Jewish world hierarchically with
Israel on top, the diaspora on [the] bottom."
ALIYAH literally means "ascent", while leaving Israel is YERIDAH,
"descent". Repeated banishment--to Egypt, Assyria, Babylon--and return
are the backbone of the Jewish historical narrative. The Hebrew word
that usually refers to the diaspora, GOLA, implies forced exile.
But as early as 1950 Jacob Blaustein, the head of the American Jewish
Committee (AJC), told David Ben-Gurion, Israel's prime minister, that
"American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that
they are in exile." In November Ze'ev Bielski, the head of the Jewish
Agency, the Israeli body responsible for promoting ALIYAH, got in hot
water for saying that one day American Jews "will realise they have no
future as Jews in the US due to assimilation and intermarriage".
America has provided a mere 120,000 Israelis since 1948, and still has
as many Jews as Israel. A survey two years ago by Steven M. Cohen, a
sociologist at New York's Hebrew Union College, found that just 17% of
American Jews called themselves Zionists.
Nonetheless, Jewish Americans have long been Israel's strongest
supporters. Many of the most zealous West Bank settlers come from
America. The main Jewish lobby groups have tended to back right-wing
Israeli governments and avoid criticising their policies. The fact that
Israel is America's strongest ally emboldens this gung-ho stance. So
does the ultra-Zionist stance of some American Christians.
But Jews too young to have watched Israel rout three Arab armies in six
days in 1967 are less likely to see it as heroic, morally superior, in
need of help, or even relevant. "Israel in the Age of Eminem", a report
written in 2003 for the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, a
Jewish charity, concluded that "There is a distance and detachment
between young American Jews and their Israeli cousins that does not
exist among young American Arabs and has not existed in the American
Jewish community until now." In Mr Cohen's survey, only 57% of American
Jews said that "caring about Israel is a very important part of my
being Jewish", down from 73% in a similar survey in 1989.
The culprit is not just the Arab-Israeli conflict. American Jewry is
pluralistic--many of its members belong to progressive denominations
such as Reform and Conservative Judaism--while Israel's Orthodox
establishment does not recognise conversions or marriages by other
kinds of rabbis. Clashes over "who is a Jew" cooled American-Jewish
attitudes to Israel well before the second Palestinian INTIFADA.
The INTIFADA, like any crisis, rallied support. Howard Rieger,
president of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), an American umbrella
body, recalls that when the UJC launched appeals to help suicide-bomb
victims and their families, "it was the first time [in recent years
that] Israel had been put at risk and the response was similar to that
of the previous generation." This summer, a UJC appeal during Israel's
war against Hizbullah in Lebanon raised $340m in just six weeks.
Leaping to Israel's defence is still what the Jewish establishment does
best. After the war, the Israel On Campus Coalition, a student
organisation, issued a 129-page guide with contributions from all the
major Jewish and pro-Israel bodies, packed with set-piece talking
points for knocking down critics of Israel. But Jewish students who
wanted a real debate about the war--like the debate by then raging
furiously in Israel itself--had to look elsewhere.
"There has to be something better for North Americans to do [with
Israel] than respond to crisis," says Roger Bennett, director of
special projects at the Bronfman foundation. Mr Rieger agrees. One
thing they could do, he thinks, is work with Israelis on resolving the
"identity question", namely, the Jewish character of life in the Jewish
state, where religious identity is often displaced by a secular,
The trouble, says Mr Bennett, is that the mainstream American Jewish
institutions were born to make the case for Israel and to fight
anti-Semitism. Young Jews today, however, are searching for identity,
spirituality, meaning and roots. Unlike their grandparents, they are
not concentrated among other Jews but spread out across society. They
do not meet people in synagogues or other Jewish forums, but form their
own networks. "Jewish" is just one part of their multi-faceted American
identity, and Israel does not seem that relevant.
An ambitious attempt to resist assimilation and the loss of Jewishness
is the "birthright israel" programme, sponsored by a group of Jewish
philanthropists, which since 1998 has given over 100,000 young Jews
from around the world a free ten-day trip to the country. It aims less
to promote ALIYAH than to give an instant hit of Jewishness. Surveys
show it works. Mark Hanis, an Ecuadorean-born 24-year-old who did the
trip in 2001, calls it "transformative", a word Jewish leaders love.
"The big impact for me", he relates, "was seeing children in the
streets playing soccer like you always saw in Ecuador, but wearing
yarmulkes instead of crosses."
Ironically, though, many returning birthrighters have embarked on a
search for new ways of what is colloquially called "doing Jewish" that
have little to do with Israel or even religion. A lot of it is based on
TIKKUN OLAM, literally "world repair", the Jewish duty of social
activism. Thus Mr Hanis, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, decided
that Jews have a duty to fight genocide, and founded the Genocide
Intervention Network, a campaign against the killings in Darfur. A
young leaders' conference, ROI120, ambitiously decided, at its first
meeting last summer, to create "the cultural expectation that Jewish
youth will spend a year engaged in social service" after finishing
school. The American Jewish World Service, which works on everything
from microcredit in El Salvador to women's rights in Rwanda, has more
than doubled its intake of volunteers in the past four years.
Then there is the growth of synagogues that welcome gay and transsexual
Jews; of Jewish cultural centres; and of museums that celebrate Jewish
history instead of mourning the Holocaust. New York has produced
avant-garde projects such as Reboot, a forum for creative young Jews
that in turn has spawned a magazine, a record label and a publishing
house. As all these new ways of "doing Jewish" reanimate young
Americans' sense of belonging, the far-off country where they could in
theory go may start to matter even less.
Some groups try to keep Israel relevant but in new ways. The New Israel
Fund, for instance, holds traditional fund-raising appeals for Israel,
but gives a lot of the money to untraditional causes like gay or Arab
civil rights. It is also less afraid of politics: it published a
newspaper article in November criticising the inclusion of Avigdor
Lieberman, a right-wing extremist, in the Israeli government, while
groups like the AJC kept an embarrassed silence.
But the pro-Israel heavy guns still predominate. And their one-sided
discourse risks turning young people off. It is often seen, Mr Cohen
says, "as demanding loyalty to certain objectionable Israeli policies".
In the long run, he predicts a polarisation in American Jewry: a small
group growing more pious and attached to Israel, while a larger one
If American Jews worry about assimilation depleting their numbers, so
much more do the already less numerous Jews of Europe. Israel ought to
matter more to them; it is also closer. But European Jewry is a
patchwork quilt, where the bond with Israel depends greatly on local
In Britain, even more than in America, Israel is an anchor of Jewish
identity. Britons are far more likely to have visited Israel, have
family there and call themselves Zionists, even though their political
view of Israel is sometimes more critical.
But Rabbi Rodney Mariner is worried. A survey of his flock in London's
Belsize Square found "a very low level of enthusiasm and commitment to
Israel among pretty much all the middle-to-younger members". Coming
from British Jewry's Liberal camp, he notes that the only growth is at
the other end of the spectrum: among the HAREDIM, the ultra-Orthodox,
whose garb and close inter-communal ties set them apart. "I don't see
something outside ultra-Orthodoxy, other than Israel, that can hold a
Jewish community together in the long run," Rabbi Mariner says. That
troubles him, because Israel seems poor glue. He has qualms about its
policies, little faith in its leadership, and doubts about "the value
of Israel in Jewish terms". Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, is
of a somewhat similar mind. He has cautiously criticised Israel's
treatment of the Palestinians and recently chided it for lacking "a
Jewish sense of ethics permeating the great institutions of society".
France, by contrast, has more Jews than anywhere else in western
Europe, estimated at half to three-quarters of a million. But most of
France's Jewish families came two or three generations ago from North
Africa. They are less attached to France than their counterparts over
the Channel are to Britain, says Jean-Jacques Wahl, director-general of
the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris; almost all have family
ties to Israel, or have lived there.
Young French Jews, he adds, are also likely to be more anti-Arab and
right-wing: "I think that Bibi [Binyamin Netanyahu, head of Israel's
right-of-centre Likud party] is more popular in France than in Israel."
On top of that, a series of anti-Semitic attacks in recent years--a
period when Muslim-Jewish antagonism has compounded the old
anti-Semitism of the French right--are stoking fear and making ALIYAH
seem more attractive. Last year 3,000 Jews moved from France to Israel,
a level rarely seen in the past 30 years.
And yet even France's Jews bridled when Ariel Sharon, then Israel's
prime minister, said in 2004 that they should move to Israel. Mr Wahl
thinks the community, less split along denominational lines than
elsewhere, is there to stay.
Contrast Israel's gravitational pull on French and British Jewry with
its relationship to Germany and Russia. Russian Jews, in fact,
predominate in both countries. For 13 years Germany offered all Jews
from the former Soviet Union automatic residency, and today the
community numbers 115,000, four times what it was before the Iron
Curtain fell. In September, in a stirring epitaph to the country's Nazi
past, new rabbis were ordained on German soil for the first time since
But having moved once, few Russian immigrants feel like moving again.
Young Jews in Germany, says Michael Brenner, a historian at Ludwig
Maximilien University in Munich, are less likely to go to Israel than
to England, "to study and find a Jewish partner and a more normal and
diverse Jewish life". Among Jews in Germany, criticism of Israel is
muted. But Zionist activism, says Rabbi Walter Homolka, the principal
of the Abraham Geiger College, the seminary where the three new rabbis
were trained, gets "very little response". For him, the big worry is
whether the Russian arrivals, whose priority is integrating into German
society, will stay Jewish too. And the way to bind them in, he thinks,
is not some artificial bond to Israel, but local attractions, such as
Jewish day schools.
The world's least-expected Jewish revival, however, is going on in
Russia itself. Once it was a place that Jews only wanted to leave; more
than a million moved to Israel after 1990. But there are still hundreds
of thousands left. Jewish identity is naturally strong in Russia, where
Soviet rule quashed religious life but insisted on the separateness of
Jewish ethnicity. These days, even Jews who have never been to a
synagogue are happy to assert that separateness: they are ROSSIISKIYE,
Russian citizens, but not RUSSKIYE, "Russians". The ultra-Orthodox
Lubavitch movement, which works to bring lapsed Jews around the world
back into the fold, can take some credit. But probably the main factor
is Russia's economic boom. Synagogues and community centres are opening
everywhere, with funds that once came from a few Jewish tycoons but now
flow in from newly middle-class businessmen.
As many as 100,000 Russian-Israelis have gone back to Russia, says
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the director of the Lubavitch-run Federation
of Jewish Communities, one of Russia's two main (and rival) umbrella
groups. In a fast-growing market with a population over 20 times the
size of Israel's, they often get better work. Today, a Russian Jew in
Moscow will be more expensively dressed than his cousin in Tel Aviv: a
big reversal from ten years ago.
Israel's government dislikes acknowledging this apparent YERIDAH, but
as Rabbi Berkowitz argues, "It's a win-win situation for both Israel
and Russia." Most of the returnees retain ties with Israel; they often
leave families there, and invest earnings there, in homes and
education. This makes for a new kind of diaspora: these days, as one
listens to the sound of Russian in Old Jerusalem or Hebrew on the
canals of St Petersburg, it can be hard to tell where Israel ends and
DON'T WORRY, BE JEWISH
In fact, a Jewish cultural revival is going on not just in Russia and
Germany, but all across Europe. Tony Lerman of the Jewish Policy
Research Institute in London cites steep rises in the numbers of Jewish
museums, Jewish day schools and academic Jewish studies courses; more
people are studying Yiddish, a dying language not long ago; Jewish
film, music and cultural festivals are flourishing everywhere, even in
Poland, a cradle of anti-Semitism.
Partly this reflects a fad for exotica among non-Jews. Still, it
suggests that many Jews are reacting to anti-Semitism and fears of
assimilation not by moving to Israel, but by rediscovering what it
means to be Jewish outside it. Mr Shneer and Ms Aviv make the
intriguing prophecy that in ten years, American Jewish foundations
"will spend as much money sending young Jews to Vilnius to study
Yiddish or Prague to study Jewish art or architecture as they do
sending young Jews to Israel."
The old-style attachment to Israel, treating it as a potential future
home, a shield against assimilation, and an ongoing emergency needing
support, is a mistake, Mr Lerman argues. "The way to continue it is
with common concerns about education, civil society, human rights and
values." Even the Jewish Agency, a bastion of traditional Zionism, is
changing tack. Makom, one of its partner agencies, now sends envoys to
American Jews with a new brief: to get young Jews interested in Israel
not by "hugging" it but by "wrestling" with it and its contradictions.
Accepting this challenge may be Israel's best chance to stay relevant
to non-Israeli Jews. Israelis may still speak of the GOLA; but the Jews
who fled to the Hellenistic world after the destruction of Jerusalem's
Second Temple in 70 AD deliberately adopted the Greek word diaspora,
"dispersal", because it was more neutral. "Diasporism"--the idea that
Jews are better off outside the Holy Land--is a tradition that began
with the prophet Jeremiah and still exists among a few ultra-Orthodox
Jews. But increasingly, today's young Jews see the future not as a
choice between Zion and exile, but as a fruitful fusion of both.
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