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Promised Land, Golden Land: Why Jewish Survival Depends on Both Israel and America

In his new book, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit argues that without Israel, secular Jewish life will vanish. Six American Jews reply.

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; 1901 illustration Hebrew Publishing Company via Wikimedia Commons, stamp Arkady Mazor/Shutterstock, Empire State Building photo SeanPavonePhoto/Shutterstock.com, Dome of the Rock photo Shutterstock)
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In his new book, My Promised Land, the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit deftly sifts through the history of Zionism to explore and illuminate the tensions and contradictions underpinning the foundation of the State of Israel—as well as to understand how it became what it is today and where it might be headed. It is an elegant and elegiac ode to a motherland from a devoted son.

But Shavit, like nearly all Israelis, can trace his family’s arrival in the Levant not just to a particular person or day, but to a particular set of contingencies: In his case, the decision of the successful London lawyer Herbert Bentwich to leave the emancipated comfort of Victorian England for the confusing shores of Palestine, where he and his heirs would eventually settle.

In framing his story, Shavit makes a bold claim about what was at stake in the Promised Land of Eretz Yisrael: “If my grandfather does not disembark, chances are that my children will be only half Jewish. Perhaps they will not be Jewish at all. Britain will muffle our Jewish identity. In the green meadows of Old England, and in the thick woods of New England, secular Jewish civilization might evaporate.” Later, toward the end of this book, Shavit returns to the point. “Benign Western civilization destroys non-Orthodox Judaism,” he writes. “This is why the concentration of non-Orthodox Jews in one place was imperative. And the one place where non-Orthodox Jews could be concentrated was in Land of Israel.”

Yet, more than a century after Bentwich made his voyage to Jaffa port, and more than half a century after David Ben Gurion and his comrades succeeded in turning the dream of Israel into a reality, we in the Diaspora are still here—and, despite decades of handwringing, still clinging fiercely to the idea of what it means to be Jewish, whether secular or otherwise. The American Jewish story is not one of revolution or war or radical physical devotion to an idea, but it is one of struggle and determination that have birthed a new Jewish reality that, as much as Israel’s, shapes the idea and possibilities of what it is to be a modern Jew in the world today.

Tablet has convened six American Jews to consider the relationship between Shavit’s Promised Land in Israel and its Janus face in the United States: the goldene medina, where Jews are emancipated not by an act of royal grace, as Bentwich was, but by a Constitution that grants the same to all, and where Jews of all stripes have reached the pinnacles of government, of commerce, of art.

Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History, and author of When General Grant Expelled the Jews:

In 1882, the great question on the minds of East European Jews was le’an—whither, whereto? In the face of renewed pogroms, the well-known Hebrew newspaper Ha-Melitz, published in St. Petersburg, declared that there were but two options: “Every intelligent and far-seeing person realizes that in order to preserve the welfare of our people there are no other places in the world to which we can migrate other than the Holy Land or America.”

These two alternatives have now served for more than a century as the two great options available to oppressed Jews around the world. America, in Jewish eyes, conjured up the image of a goldene medina, a golden land, where Jews might achieve what they had never achieved in the Old World: the opportunity to be treated as equals and to thrive economically, while at the same time enjoying the freedom to maintain their distinctive Jewish identity. The land of Israel, by contrast, conjured up the image of shivat tziyon, the promised land: Zion, where Jews would finally achieve control of their own destinies and create a secure and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people.

Liel Leibovitz, Tablet’s senior writer, and the co-author of The Chosen Peoples:
There’s a point toward the end of Ari Shavit’s book in which the author vacations with his family in Dorset, England, and wonders what would have happened had his great-grandfather not abandoned life under Her Majesty’s grace. Shavit writes with little doubt: anywhere but in Israel, he argues, he—and, more importantly, his children—would have never been able to keep the faith. Anywhere but Israel would have made him and his children assimilate without trace in a generation, two at the most.

I sympathize with Shavit’s assertions, because I, too, grew up believing that they were true. I was born in Israel, and every organization I ever belonged to—my elementary school, the Israeli scouts, the Israel Defense Forces—was predicated at least in part on the tacit understanding that its real mission was the preservation of Jewish identity, which, in turn, was a miraculous feat that could only be achieved on Israeli soil. But then I left. I moved to New York and spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this religion and what it means to me and what it seems to mean to other people. And the view from the banks of the Hudson, to put it mildly, is very different from Shavit’s.

James Kirchick, Tablet columnist and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative:
America is the only place in the world where being Jewish can be a complete and utter non-issue. In Israel, a land where even the garbage men are Jewish, Judaism is an inherent part of daily life, and the state’s very existence—one’s very legitimacy as an Israeli—is challenged by wide swaths of the world. Even for the country’s secular Jews, Jewishness is ever-present by mere dint of the fact that they live in the world’s one and only Jewish state. I don’t disoblige any Jew the opportunity to live and thrive in Israel—but it can be a relief to live in a land where being Jewish isn’t always on one’s mind.

I never felt more Jewish than during the years I spent living in Europe. First in Prague, and then in Berlin, my experience of Jewishness was unlike anything I ever endured growing up in the United States. There, in the “goldene medina,” a Jew isn’t a “Jewish-American,” but an American—and everyone in America is a little Jewish, not by ancestry, of course, but by familiarity. America is easily the most philo-Semitic country in the world, and Jews have so heavily influenced American culture that yiddishkeit is part of our shared vernacular. Moreover, in America, everyone’s ancestors came from somewhere else, and so being Jewish isn’t particularly special, any more than having great-grandparents who emigrated from India, or Ghana.

Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America:
Today, as the recent Pew survey revealed, the very meaning of “Jew”—leave alone “Judaism”—has greatly devolved in the United States, not only because of intermarriage and decreasing observance among the vast majority of American Jews, but because of things like the more than 1 million Americans without any Jewish parentage or connection to things Jewish who nevertheless consider themselves Jews.

And yet this worst of Jewish times is a best of times too, at least if one considers the explosion of Jewish education and observance in the fastest growing part of the American Jewish community, the Orthodox—a phenomenon that reflects the fact of Torah as the ultimate preserver, and, in fact, unifier, of Jews. Every day, in Orthodox communities across the country, thousands of American Jews attend Torah classes or study groups, or study in pairs—in person, by telephone, by Skype. One Brooklyn rabbi delivers a weekly class that has for years attracted many hundreds of eager attendees and that is broadcast to shuls and social halls in more than a dozen cities where Jews gather to learn from him. The technologies may have changed, but the subject matter hasn’t. And no small number of other-than-Orthodox Jews partake of many such offerings. By doing so, they connect themselves—whatever their level of observance—to the secret of Jewish continuity.

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Promised Land, Golden Land: Why Jewish Survival Depends on Both Israel and America

In his new book, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit argues that without Israel, secular Jewish life will vanish. Six American Jews reply.