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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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Of course, in the Torah, God contrasts the right choice—a Jewish life—with the wrong choice—sin and death—and has a clear recommendation. But ultimately the ideal is where we make the choice ourselves. Indeed our morning prayers ask for God’s guidance and help in navigating our complex world—but that assumes that our world is free and open for us to strive to make the right choices.

Looking at America of 2013 again, has there ever been a society more open to choice for the Jews? We can join any work environment and choose whether to make the effort to carve out Shabbat, or work ethically, or take the time for shalom bayit—family time. We can choose to live wherever we want—do any restricted communities still exist?—and we are free to choose whether to live close to a Jewish community, or a synagogue, or a place where we can show our children how beautiful our tradition is.

Sarna: As it turns out, neither Promised Land nor Golden Land has been able fully to resolve the problems that Jews confront in the modern world, but each has complemented and nourished the other. Recent developments suggest, however, that this long symbiotic relationship between Golden Land and Promised Land is weakening; some would say it is coming to an end.

Israel today has a booming economy and is less dependent on American Jewry than it has ever been before, and in the eyes of many Israelis its position is strengthening even as the condition of the American Jewish community is weakening. The result is a certain triumphalism: “We are the only viable option in Jewish life,” a growing number of Israelis argue. “Let’s go it alone.” Meanwhile, in the United States, one finds in many circles, now reinforced by the recent Pew report, grave concern about American Jewry’s future, resulting in a turn inward. Except among the highly committed, there is also considerable disillusionment with Israel. While Taglit-Birthright Israel still looks to the Promised Land to transform American Jewish youth—to turn them on, so to speak, to Jewishness—there is a growing sense that the era of creative ongoing engagement with Israel on the part of American Jewry is over. Meanwhile, America itself is becoming increasingly nativist and isolationist, and the national mood reinforces the sense on the part of a burgeoning number of American Jews that the time has come to disengage from the relationship implicit in the once-famous slogan “We are one,” to focus on the challenges facing America’s Jewish community, and, likewise, to “go it alone.”

But “going it alone” is actually the very opposite of what needs to be done. Instead, we need to strengthen the ties that bind Jews together. For Israelis, that requires abandoning shlilat ha-golah—negation of the Diaspora—and becoming acquainted with the American Jewish experience, which is barely taught in Israeli schools and universities. For American Jews, it requires a new vision of the relationship with Israel—one that is less imperious, paternalistic, and insular, and instead more generous in its understanding of how others have strengthened American Jewry, even as American Jewry has strengthened them.

Instead of asking le’an, whither, we need to exclaim ashrenu, how fortunate, that there are two great options in Jewish life. Each should nourish the other.

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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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