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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/, Dome of the Rock photo Shutterstock)
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So, Jewish women’s birthrate reflects their elite status. Their reproductive decisions will likely lead to an American Jewish population that is smaller but even more powerful, since the carefully cultivated children of small families enjoy financial and educational advantages—a vision of the future one might not relish, but one that makes it a little premature to be imagining “the last of the Jews.”

Certainly, some will consider the simple demographic future of Judaism more important than the ability of Jews to thrive as individuals. But the threat of assimilation is an awfully weak argument for the existence of Israel. Jews used to insist that the persistence of anti-Semitism necessitated a Zionist haven. Shavit turns this formulation on its head. “This continuous history and solid identity and deep tranquility are not for us,” he writes of England. “For we are a people on the move and on the edge. This is why the concentration of non-Orthodox Jews in one place was imperative.” Try making this argument to a Palestinian: We need this land because otherwise our lives would be too peaceful and we’d lose our identity. Other Diasporas should have such problems.

Kirchick: Meanwhile, many European Jews I meet identify themselves as Jews first, and whatever nationality to which they claim citizenship second. This is less a voluntary decision on their part than a choice thrust upon them by the societies in which they live: So many of the European Jews I’ve encountered seem traumatized, not by history, but by the present. There exists a bunker mentality for Jewish communities across the Continent; Jews seem to need to justify constantly both their religious practices and the state of Israel.

I don’t need to regale readers with the shocking rise in anti-Semitic incidents that happen on what seems to be a daily basis across Europe. Mainstream political figures, from the United Kingdom to Sweden, often put the blame for these attacks on the victims, saying that if Israel were not so brutal in its treatment of the Palestinians, then Muslims would not feel the need to desecrate a synagogue or physically assault an identifiable Jew on the street. But in Europe, being Jewish—or having an “immigration background” as the Germans put it—means that you are confronted with your difference on a daily basis. Shortly after I moved to Germany last year, a Cologne court ruled that circumcision—the oldest and most basic rite of the Jewish religion, practiced by nearly all Jews regardless of their level of observance—is tantamount to mutilation. Advertisements on the Berlin subway portrayed those who circumcise their children as akin to child molesters.

In a recent essay for Der Spiegel, a woman born in Germany to Turkish parents writes that, when she was a child, her peers and teachers viewed her as “a kind of diplomatic representative from Turkey sitting at my little desk in the classroom.” That daily experience of living under a microscope informed this year’s controversial “Jew in a box” exhibit at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, in which a real, live Jew—on one afternoon, me—sat in a glass box for two hours each day answering questions from visitors. Whereas the German Jewish establishment saw an outrageous insult to Jewry, I saw a wry take on what it’s like to live in a country where most people have never seen a Jew, let alone had a conversation with one.

Goldberg: Yet Britain will likely soon elect its first Jewish Prime Minister, Ed Miliband. In the United States, Jews comprise 2 percent of the population but 12 percent of the Senate. Stratospheric Jewish accomplishment in business, art, law, and academia hardly need to be elaborated. The very fact that a Jewish writer can comfortably express nostalgia for the solidarity born of oppression is a sign of how far away real oppression is. If Western Jews are no longer a people apart, it’s because they’ve been wholly integrated into the establishment.

Writing of the comfort of England, Ari Shavit laments, “With no Holocaust and no pogroms and no overt anti-Semitism, these islands kill us softly. Enlightened Europe also kills us softly, as does democratic America.” By “killing us,” Shavit appears to mean “accepting us wholeheartedly.” In the unprecedented embrace of Jews in the West, particularly in the Anglophone world, Shavit sees only the dangers of assimilation; the perverse logic of his argument appears to be that Jews in the Diaspora need Israel to protect them from the absence of anti-Semitism.

Lopatin: But is our life in America anywhere near the ideal environment upon which Judaism—not just Jewishness, or individual Jews—can thrive? If you look at statistics or headlines in Jewish papers, you might easily answer no, thanks to the apparently huge fall-off in Jews committed to the tradition or the religion or even the national-cultural markers of our people. Intermarriage rates are approaching 50 percent, and there are huge shifts over the generations from observant Jews to those not even raising their kids Jewish. Even Jewish food doesn’t seem significant to many people. And then there is the absence of clear boundaries: An astonishing 34 percent of Jews say they don’t exclude belief in Jesus as a condition of remaining part of the Jewish community.

So, without the clear commitment and boundaries of yesteryear, how can we have any faith the Jewish community in America will continue to thrive—or survive at all? If we look back at our traditional sources, we find that the ideal environment for Judaism is not one where a powerful force of communal conformity keeps every Jew in check and rigidly bound to the Jewish community. Actually, from the Torah all the way to Moses Maimonides to today’s great Jewish scholars the clear message is that God wants us to live in an environment where we are free to choose our own paths.

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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.