Noam Pianko is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Washington. He is a faculty member of the Wexner Heritage program and a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus. Noam just published Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn (Indiana University Press), blogs at www.noampianko.com, and lives in Seattle with his wife Rachel Nussbaum (also a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum) and daughters, Yona and Mia. He can be reached at email@example.com
Over the last few weeks in Israel, police arrested a woman for carrying a Torah at the Kotel, thousands demonstrated against the growing number of gender-segregated buses, and, perhaps most troubling of all, a conversion bill giving the rabbinate ultimate authority passed the Knesset’s law committee.
These events strike me as a wake up call. It is time for American Jews to reassess our relationship with the State of Israel. Since American Zionism took shape almost a hundred years ago, support for Israel has rested largely on the premise that there is no tension between being a patriotic American and a supporter of the State of Israel because the Jewish state shares (and even exemplifies) the liberal ideals of American democracy.
This claim increasingly clashes with the state’s treatment of ethnic minorities, religious communities not recognized by the state, and migrant workers. Nevertheless, Jewish leaders have a difficult time coming to terms with the disconnect between long-standing rhetoric about Israel and day-to-day realities of a state deeply ambivalent about how to reconcile a Jewish and a democratic state. Our inability to fully address the growing chasm between the mythic Israel and the real Israel is an often overlooked reason for American Jews’ apathy, disinterest, and even aversion toward the state. American Jews are not struggling with Israel because they have been brainwashed by anti-Israel propaganda. Nor does individualism, materialism, and post-ethnic weakening of communal ties completely explain the distancing.
Rebranding Israel or pointing fingers at the problems with American Jewry will not address a far deeper and more difficult issue: American Judaism and the State of Israel are moving toward very different conceptions of democracy, religious freedom, citizenship, and Judaism. American Jews, as a religious minority community, have internalized the importance of diversity, pluralism, and social justice as core values. The State of Israel has set out to preserve the religio-ethnic character of the state, at times at the expense of its minority citizens. The different positions of ethnic majority and religious minority create two very different perspectives on a host of moral, political, and social questions.
So how should those committed to affirming the state’s role for American Jews proceed?
First, acknowledge the complex reality. We need to focus our energy on Israel education, not advocacy. Education teaches topics that remain taboo in the Jewish community. Opening up difficult questions and complex issues may not seem to be the most effective route toward building a stronger identification with Israel. In a world where information is so abundant, however, providing limited information will ultimately backfire as young adults encounter various perspectives in college and beyond. But, more importantly, grappling with Israel as a place struggling with pressing issues of global importance may generate far more interest and enthusiasm than heroic narratives that increasingly conflict with the news headlines.
Second, shift our framework for thinking about Israel away from diaspora and homeland to a global conception of peoplehood. Binary categories suggest that authentic Jewishness thrives in the homeland and the main task of the diaspora is to support the center which in turn unites the various dispersed communities around the globe. Such a hierarchical relationship disempowers American Jews by undermining our role as fully equal members of the Jewish people and producers of Judaism. A global perspective downplays geography and citizenship as the most important criteria of productive membership in the Jewish people.
Third, focus resources on building local and meaningful Jewish communities in the United States. One of the most vibrant developments in American Jewry over the last decades has been the explosion of grass-roots initiatives, from independent minyanim to Jewish record labels. Some scholars and communal leaders have raised concerns that such a local focus comes at the expense of Jewish solidarity and support for the state of Israel. I disagree. The path to making Israel, and a sense of connection to Jews around the world, relevant will have to meander through personal meaning and local community.
The increasingly obvious rifts emerging between Israel and American Judaism provide an opportunity to reassess the state’s meaning. To ultimately strengthen the State of Israel’s place in our Jewish identities, we must be willing to openly address and debate our divergent paths.