Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

Am Israel vs B’nai Israel

Am Israel vs B'nai Israel

We are witnessing the Jewish world divide into two. The divide is not between religious denominations. Neither is it between secular and religious adherence. Nor is it Israel vs the Diaspora. No.

We are witnessing the early stages of the future of Jewish identity, where the ultimate fault line is not along religious differences but along national differences. Those who see themselves as part of the people of Israel, with its center being the state of Israel, are members of AM ISRAEL. Those who see themselves as diaspora Jews, with no ties to the land of Israel, are B’NAI ISRAEL, the children of Israel.

Members of AM ISRAEL, the People of Israel, see themselves as originating from their ancestral homeland, Israel. They see the birth of the state of Israel as the most pivotal event in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple two thousand years ago. They likely see the most pivotal event in Jewish history not being the Holocaust, but the birth of the Jewish state. Whether they live in Israel or outside of Israel, they see Israel as their homeland. If they live outside Israel, it is comparable to how an Irish-American or Italian-American might see themselves: an American whose origins are in Ireland, or an American whose origins are in Italy. Members of AM ISRAEL see the state of Israel as an essential part of their Jewish identity. And so, they see the welfare of the State of Israel as having a direct impact on their lives.

Members of B’NAI ISRAEL are defined by their historical diaspora experience. They are content to live in a world in which there is no state of Israel. Unlike members of AM ISRAEL, Israel is not part of their Jewishness. 

B’nai Israel and The Diaspora Identity

I would argue that members of B’NAI ISRAEL are shaped by their collective diaspora experience. Historically, the mortal safety of diaspora Jews was by virtue of the governing authority’s protection. At different times in history, Jews were free to live in whatever area of Europe, North Africa, the Levant, or wherever, only if the king or other ruler of the land allowed them to. And their ongoing safety was dependent on being in the good graces of the ruler of that land. When the ruler would not or could not protect the Jews, the Jews would face great calamity and would often have to find a new home. 

This is why we see Jews today who are so vocal against Israel. This is why we see Jews willing to advocate for the dissolution of the Jewish state. If they don’t see their Jewish identity tied to Israel, why show any interest in Israel? If their identity has nothing to do with Israel, why care so much about what happens in Israel? I contend that they are influenced and shaped by the diaspora experience such that they feel threatened by what happens in Israel; they are afraid for their own safety. They believe that Israel’s actions risk losing them the protection of local rulers, of the society they find themselves in.  

There’s a fascinating moment in an Instagram post by “The Flag Guy” which, I think, reveals so much. 

He visits the University of Pennsylvania and just stands around carrying the American flag and the Israeli flag, waiting for people to engage with him. Various individuals, students and staff, respond to his presence in different ways. Some appreciate him and express solidarity with him as proud Zionist Jews. Others aren’t as welcoming. At one point, he has a conversation with someone who identifies himself as Jewish. This individual gets very upset with The Flag Guy and, as he leaves, he exclaims angrily, “All you’re doing is making this an unsafe place for Jews like me.”

Why? Why does The Flag Guy’s advocacy for Zionist Jewish identity, for Israel, and for the US, endanger any Jew? Shouldn’t Jews who are not “pro-Israel” be safe from the anti-Israel mob? This individual, who is no fan of Israel’s, certainly understands that even he is at risk from the anti-Israel mob. And he blames the vocal Jew. He blames the Zionist. This is a reflection of the diaspora mentality; it reflects the diaspora perspective that our safety rests in the hands of non-Jews. 

The Future Landscape

The distinction between these two emerging groups of Jews is one that Judea Pearl, in a recent contribution to Moment Magazine, writes about as well:

The future of American Jewry rests critically on its connection to Israel and its embrace of Israel as the spiritual compass of Jewish identity… The one glue that binds us together is our collective memory of our common history. Israel is both the culmination of that history and its custodian, holding and nurturing our precious trust-deeds: holidays, language, sites, landscapes, lore, heroes and miraculous revival. Sadly, half of American Jewry seems to have given up on this last remaining glue and is starting to see Israel as a liability as opposed to an inspiration.

I believe that both AM ISRAEL and B’NAI ISRAEL will continue to exist and will continue to differentiate themselves from each other. And I am convinced that the future of world Jewry is as AM ISRAEL. As Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch wrote in the Jerusalem Post in 2021, “The future of Judaism is Jewish peoplehood, and all those who abandon Jewish peoplehood will be as the leaves falling from the tree.”

And as we move forward as a people, I expect that we will move beyond using “Zionist” to describe Jews that see their Jewish identity tied to the land of Israel – because Israel exists. Zionism, the movement to create Israel, succeeded in its aim. Beyond that movement, what are we? Beyond the goal of establishing a Jewish homeland, what are we? We are AM ISRAEL, the people of Israel. And it is through a shared commitment to our heritage, our homeland, and our collective destiny that AM ISRAEL will forge a path forward for world Jewry.

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
Related Topics
Related Posts