This essay is the fourth in the mini-series “Three Jew Birds.” The first essay is here. The title is a reference to Bernard Malamud’s short story “The Jewbird,” about Shwartz, a Jewish bird fleeing antisemitic persecution who finds refuge with a human Jewish family in New York. Ultimately, the father of the family finds Shwartz to Jewish and drives him out. The series deals with three different camps of Jewish identity and how each seeks to drive the others out of the Jewish family.
This summer I went to Israel for the first time. Despite having been to Turkey, China, and a half-dozen other countries, I had never been to Israel before. This is not really all that rare among American Jews. Many American Jews hardly visit Israel. Many American Jews travel to Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, while only visiting Israel once or twice in a lifetime.
Is this separation a symptom of late-stage assimilation and a weakening sense of identity among American Jews? Maybe.
But a more attentive view would account for the fact that even highly engaged Jews display little interest in Israel. If not apathy, what separates American Jews from Israel? Counter-intuitively, it may very well be their Judaism itself that separates American Jews from the Jewish state.
Divided by a common religion
As is said about Americans and Brits, that we are divided by a common language, American and Israeli Jews are divided by a common religion.
On the American scene the dominant Jewish identity is a liberal one. That means more than just an identity that is compatible with liberalism, but an identity organized around advancing liberalism as one of its primary objectives. Liberalism isn’t just an ancillary aspect of some hyphenated liberal-Jewish identity; it is at the very core of this version of Jewishness. The minority option in American Jewish life is traditionalist orthodoxy. Neither of these fit comfortably with a Zionist Jewish identity. Even where they are not in tension with it, they are alien to it even as they share they same concerns.
After spending a couple weeks travelling around Israel, my sister and I came to Jerusalem to stay with Maya, one of my friend’s from college. From there I used my very primitive rented cell phone to arrange a visit with my relatives who live on a kibbutz along the highway to the west of Jerusalem on the way toward Tel Aviv.
Going to Tzova
My cousins, Ofer and Adi –they are more distantly related than that, but they are roughly my age, so they are cousins in my mind– came to pick me up and drive me out to Kibbutz Tzova (Tsuba). We drive up through the heavily wooded hills outside the city. My cousin offers that it is all a bit much, all these trees planted with funds collected by Jews abroad.
We get to Tzova, one of the few still pretty socialist Kibbutzim, where they make wine and bulletproof windshields, run a children’s water amusement park, and teach Hebrew to new immigrants (they operate an ulpan for olim). My dad’s cousin Reuven is the first relative we meet there. He is a tall man with lanky limbs, floppy hair, and bookish glasses. He is an archeologist who works as a night guard on the kibbutz.
After the Six Day War of 1967 Reuven and his brothers came to Israel on their own each at about age 18, leaving the US over the objections of their families and friends. They were fleeing social alienation, anti-Semitism, and bad economic conditions. But they were coming to the promised land. They immersed themselves in Israel’s language and culture, commanded tanks in Israel’s wars, married and raised children in the land of their forefathers.
Reuven explained how whole he feels living in the Jewish land, how connected his life is to the entirety of Jewish history. Only in Israel can one live a fully Jewish life, he says. In the US it isn’t allowed to be your primary identity. It’s just something you play with from time to time.
Then he took me on a tour of millenia-old ruins he had excavated on the kibbutz, a family grave that sheds light on colloquial Hebrew used in the Bible, an ancient synagogue showing evidence of lingering henotheism blended with Jewish practice, the mikveh where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized followers, an ancient wine press; and there’s a crusader fort up the hill there (the kibbutz overlooks what has long been the road from the coast to Jerusalem, and has long been a much sought-after position; the IDF established the kibbutz as a strategic position, likely in response to the calamitous loss of the highway during the 1948 War of Independence).
We got some wine that had been made on site, took in the magnificent scenery to the sound of kids playing in the water park in the background before going back to Jerusalem.
A family of aliens
During the visit Reuven shared a story about some American Jewish youths who had come to the kibbutz for an educational program. After teaching them about their history, their state, and their land, he realized that they still regarded Israelis as foreigners. To him Jews being foreigners to Jews was entirely nonsensical. He asked the youths if they regarded the Israelis as foreigners. They confirmed that they did see them as alien, even if related. Reuven was deeply troubled by this. He seems concerned that American Jews may be a lost cause, that we don’t know what is going on in Israel, and that we will assimilate and inter-marry, having already eradicated most differences between ourselves and our gentile neighbors.
He came near calling for me and my sister to make aliyah (become Israeli). Otherwise we could be lost.
I think he rightly diagnosed that there is a problem of division between American and Israeli Jews. But where he sees apathy and assimilation, I see American Judaism itself as the wedge. Mainstream American Judaism is not much like the secular Jewishness fostered by Israeli Zionism. It’s even further from the increasingly demanding Ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel. American Jews and Israelis are alien to each other. But related.
For this to make sense, you have to understand that Zionism is not simply the assertion that Jews should work toward and then defend a homeland and an independent state. More than that Zionism achieved an entire refiguring of Jewish identity. The difference is not merely holding one or another opinion about an abstract political goal, but the most inner core of the individual’s identity.
The Zionist civic religion
So what is the content of Zionist Jewish religion?
I have earlier explained how the orthodox version of Judaism believes that through prayer and religious observance Jews can honor the covenant with God and induce him to return us to our land where we will live in peace. The answer to anti-Semitism is prayer. Don’t fight, just pray. For liberal Jews the religion is building a counter-majoritarian liberalism capable of protecting all, including Jews, from the tyranny or even the cohesive existence of an ethno-religious majority at all. Remaining Jewish is necessary to further this type of pluralist liberalism, and participating in this liberalism is seen as a core part of being Jewish.
Zionism breaks the historical teleology of both of these.
How do we pray for God to gather the exiles if he already has brought us to Israel? And how can we celebrate that in-gathering if things don’t seem to be run by God’s law or ordered in divine harmony but instead a secularist embattled state?
How can we work to build inter-ethnic alliances to further a counter-majoritarian political culture while also regrouping ourselves in a largely homogeneously Jewish state in one of the world’s least liberal regions?
Zionism doesn’t easily give an avenue of either of these other Judaisms to flourish in Israel. It’s not just that Zionism is different from orthodox and liberal Judaisms. It’s often in direct conflict with them. The kind of person who devotes a life to prayer, or to liberal social justice, is a different kind of person than one devoted to defending a people in the face of continuous physical danger from all sides.
Zionism rejects orthodox passivity and liberal optimism. At its most blunt, Zionism blames orthodoxy and liberalism for the Holocaust. Jews didn’t fight, mostly. They trusted that either the God of Abraham or the moral high ground of liberal propriety would protect them from harm. They read the right books, acted the right way. They were good orthodox Jews or secular citizens of “cosmopolitan” Europe. They certainly had no ethnic militia ready to defend themselves.
Zionism follows the traditional Jewish plot arc in which return to the land of Israel is the sought solution to the troubles of the Jews. But it achieves this in rejection of God, through the rough action of pioneering refugees.
A solution to anti-Semitism, or a final stand?
Zionism says that anti-Semitism came from the Jews’ unnatural condition as an exiled people, and that anti-Semitism will only be defeated if Jews return to their homeland where they can become whole people: farmers and soldiers, not just rabbis and lawyers in someone else’s land. That was the early optimistic Zionism. A more realist Zionism likely realizes that gathering the Jews in Israel won’t end anti-Semitism. Nothing will. But at least they will stand a better chance in combination. And if they fail, at least they tried to save themselves. For them the high ground is to defend yourself, not to be a pious Jew or a good liberal.
Can we keep the three-headed snake from biting itself?
Sometimes Zionism is combined with elements of traditional religiosity (the modern Orthodox settler movement, for example). Sometimes it is combined with liberalism (the egalitarian prayer minyans in American modern Orthodoxy). Rarely will all three be comfortably combined. Often one of the three is lashing out against one or both of the others. The tension is unresolvable. But we must guard against the danger that it may tear us apart. In the next, and final essay in this series I explain where I hope we can move from here to achieve a more holistic balance.