The recent Pew report provocatively titled “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society” led to some equally provocative headlines and stories about Israeli attitudes to Arabs and their view of Israel as Jewish homeland. To Jews, this should not be news: our fractures and difference of opinion have characterised us for centuries. What gets interesting is delving into the differences between Israeli and American Jews.
The differences between the two largest groups of Jews in the world fall along two distinct yet related lines: identity and geography.
The American Jewish identity has evolved into a cholent of Jewish and social democratic values, influenced significantly by the development of the Conservative and Progressive streams. In Israel, despite stuttered moves by the left to create a new national Jewish identity with the formation of the modern state, it remains far more ‘traditional’.
The largest statistical difference between the groups was the response to the question: “What is the biggest long-term problem facing Israel?” For Israeli Jews, it was 39% economy, and 38% security. For US Jews, 66% said it was security.
This highlights the geographic or ‘inside/outside’ difference between the two groups. For Israelis, their country is like any other. It faces challenges that are internal (economic, social) and external (enemies who seek its destruction). The people who live there must deal on a day-to-day basis with both sets of threats, and therefore give them a similar level of importance.
The US Jewish response to this question reflects an entirely different view of Israel. On reflection, it seems almost naive to think that if only Israel could deal with its security problem, other problems would just fade away and it would transform into a utopian state. That certainly is the impression one gets from the response of US Jews to this question.
Does this indicate that that US Jews view Israel largely within the context of its conflict with its Arab neighbours?
In the 2013 Pew survey of US Jews, 73% of respondents said that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of being Jewish. This ranked far ahead of universal reasons like leading an ethical life, social justice and intellectual curiosity. Even ‘caring about Israel’ was only essential for 43% of respondents.
Are both these responses indicative of a similar pathology? Are US Jews overly obsessed with the Holocaust, and with those who seek our destruction? It certainly seems that their Jewishness is largely shaped by a tragedy imposed upon us by others.
A thought experiment can help galvanise this. Imagine a World Religion Expo. There would be large display stands for every world religion, and the opportunity for them to present themselves to visitors. People might be interested in learning more, or in joining/changing their religion.
What would the Jewish stand look like (and let’s assume for these purposes that there is just one)?
We might see someone shouting to passers-by: “Join the greatest and oldest religion of all – Judaism! People have been trying to kill us wherever we are for thousands of years! Our national homeland is surrounded by enemies who build huge rocket arsenals aimed at us. Join Judaism today!” That’s a strong sales pitch if I’ve ever heard one!
As a people, we can define ourselves as we want. There is plenty within Judaism to draw upon as we can see from the various survey responses, and the multitude of Jewish sub-denominations. There’s something in our religion for everyone.
We can choose to define ourselves by the negative — by our history of oppression and exile. Or we can define ourselves by the huge contribution Judaism has made to the world — our history of scholarship, our role as the “light unto the nations”, and more recently the role that the modern state of Israel has taken in technology and innovation.
Those are the two roads before us, and the difference is highlighted by the responses of Israeli vs US Jews.
This isn’t just about how we define ourselves, but also about what Judaism we choose to transmit to the next generation. Many of us 2nd and 3rd generation post-Holocaust Jews were brought up on a steady diet of “guilt-based” Judaism. But unfortunately, that is not something that transmits well (as we have seen in practice).
Our view of Judaism needs to be the positive one.