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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.

The Editors
November 19, 2013
(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)
(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)

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.

Few non-Orthodox American Jews, will ever move to Israel—and most Orthodox American Jews aren’t likely to do so anytime soon either. It’s not for lack of appreciation or love of the Holy Land; it’s just a reality. Whether for economic, social, cultural or yes, even religious reasons, most American Jews, the Orthodox included, have chosen to remain, at least for now, in the Diaspora. That’s neither an indictment nor a defense, only a fact. But the Jewish identity and continuity of Orthodox Americans who see their aliyah as dependent on the Messiah will not suffer for their continuing sojourn on these shores.

Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah:
Amazingly the gentile world has allowed us to make the choice: Do we want to marry someone who will nurture the Jewish nature of our family, who will value our tradition and our Jewish national aspirations?

My rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, had strong views of how a Jew should behave, but, at the same time, he opposed hero worship and loved the freedom Jews have in the United States to view the traditional sources and freely make up their own minds about how to live as Jews—or not. While well aware of its risks, he believed people—Jews—had to be free to make their own choices and be responsible for their own behavior. Statistics show we may collectively be making the wrong choices in our Judaism—but statistics also show we have never had more freedom to make our own choices about what kinds of Jews, or what kinds of people, we want to be. The blessings and challenges of a free-choice society leave us responsible for owning up to the scary but holy reality that God trusts us—needs us—to make the best choices we humanly can.

Leibovitz: I have no desire to linger on the innately problematic nature of arguing that a religion that had survived for millennia in exile, and whose canonical texts were, for the most part, composed far from the warm dunes of the Promised Land, suddenly depends on one geographical location, sacred as it may be, to survive. In the spirit of Shavit’s own personal candor, I wish to assure him, myself, and anyone else who may be occupied by this question that in the 14 years that have passed since I landed in Manhattan, my commitment to Judaism has grown stronger, an attachment I’m certain my children, too, will inherit and nurture. Why? It has to do with volcanoes.

For Shavit, the fiery mountain is a key metaphor. “We,” he writes, meaning Israelis, “are always restless, for we live between great fires. We thrive between calamities. That’s why we are so quick and vital and creative. That’s why we are so neurotic and loud and unbearable. We dwell under the looming shadow of a smoking volcano.” Take away the threat of imminent lava, and you lose the will to live, the drive to create, the particular spark that helps the tiny nation thrive.

I agree. But the metaphor extends far beyond Israel’s geographical borders. It applies, I believe, to Jews as such, wherever they may be; for us, the volcano is in the mind, the heart, and the soul. The religion was designed that way: Its key moment is the revelation on Mt. Sinai, in which God anoints us his chosen ones. He does not, however, tell us why we were chosen, or for what, or if there was any way to be unchosen, or whether chosenness automatically applies to our children after us. He leaves us with our questions. To have been chosen, then, is to spend eternity wondering what it means to have been chosen, which is as much of a looming eruption as anything a mortal mind could ever grasp—and it shadows us, wherever we go.

Shafran: Unlike the carrying-poles of the Tabernacle’s other holy vessels, those by which the Ark of the Covenant was borne were never to be removed from the grapples built into its sides. No reason is given for the Torah’s insistence on those poles’ permanent placement, but Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the celebrated 19th-century German commentator, suggests that it signifies something that has import for the question of the American Jewish future: What the ark holds—the tablets of the law and a copy of the Torah—is permanently travel-ready and geographically unbounded.

Our desert-wandering ancestors were focused on settling in the Jewish holy land; ongoing exile from their divinely designated home was the last thing on their minds. But the ark poles, Rabbi Hirsch contends, imply that the Torah can, must, and will travel with the Jews to whatever strange shores might await them, for it alone can preserve their peoplehood, allowing them, one day, to return to their ancestral home.

The Talmud has an intriguing comment on the ark’s poles as well. It describes how, when the Temple in Jerusalem was built, they protruded slightly from the space of the Holy of Holies, pushing against the curtain at its entrance “like the breasts of a woman” against her clothing. What that imagery suggests dovetails with Rabbi Hirsch’s analysis: The Torah is the Jewish people’s mother’s milk, and whatever the circumstances of time or place, it is what nourishes us, what preserves us as a people.

And that has proven the case over millennia when living in the land of Zion was an impossibility for millions of Jews, when they found themselves in disparate countries, inhospitable cultures, and the most trying circumstances. The land was, and is, important; indeed, it remained an ultimate goal. But the only thing that mattered, as far as identity and continuity were concerned, was the study of, and commitment to, Torah, as it has been handed down over the centuries.

Michelle Goldberg, a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World:
Of course, Shavit is right that non-Orthodox Jewish populations outside of Israel are shrinking. “In the twenty-first century, the Jewish birthrate in North America is low and the intermarriage rate is high,” he writes. I understand his anxiety—I love Jews and want there to be a lot of us. It’s important, though, to understand that the demographic phenomena he describes are byproducts of acceptance and prosperity. It’s easy to see why intermarriage would increase as discrimination declines. But the falling birthrate, too, is related to the Jewish community’s success.

In the United States, women tend to have fewer children the more education they have—those with advanced degrees have only 1.67 children each. Jewish women are better educated than the population at large, which is why their birthrates are even lower, averaging 1.86 children per woman. As the last National Jewish Population Survey found, “By age 40-44, Jewish women who have been to college have nearly identical numbers of children as all U.S. women at the same educational levels. … [W]ith respect to fertility, Jewish women are acting very much like their educational counterparts in the larger society.”

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.

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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