Shlomo Fischer

American Jews are Protestants, Israeli Jews are Catholics

In a post about a month ago, I discussed the Pew Report on American Jewry (A Portrait of Jewish Americans). I argued that “Jews by religion” are not necessarily committed to religion in the usual sacramental sense (e.g. God, Revelation, afterlife), but are committed to a Jewish “civil religion of “sacred ethnicity” (“Who are the ‘Jews by Religion’ in the Pew Report,” . That is, they identify with a Jewish ethnicity that has a significant normative dimension mandating that Jews identify with the Jewish collectivity, contribute to its continuity and flourishing and show solidarity with other Jews, especially those in distress. As part of the argument, I claimed that “the Jewish religion is an explicit, adequate symbol for the sacredness of Jewish ethnicity. Thus…for most American Jews Jewish civil religion goes together with synagogue membership. “

In this post, I would like to explore this claim further and especially to compare the Jews of America in this regard to the Jews of Israel. That is, I would like to explore, the different, even contrasting, approaches that Jews in America and the historical Israeli mainstream have towards the relationship between commitment to the Jewish ethno-national collectivity and identification with the Jewish religion. In America, as I have indicated, ethno-national commitment goes together with Jewish religious identification. In Israel, that is, for the secular Zionist movement that historically constituted the mainstream and center of Israeli society (for better or for worse), ethno-national commitment, especially in its modern, civil sense, to a large extent, sees itself as opposed to, and even negates Jewish religious identification. Hopefully, this discussion will illuminate both American and Israeli Jewish identity and their differences and will provide background to intelligently discuss current developments in Jewish identity in America and Israel.

My argument is that these differences in the nature of Jewish identity are rooted in the different historical experiences of general (Protestant) American civilization on the one hand, and those of the Zionist movement as well as those of its historical context, central and especially eastern Europe on the other. Before I proceed, I will give some brief but necessary theoretical background on collective identity.  Contemporary sociologists (Bernard Geisen, Wilfred Spohn, David Martin and especially the late S. N. Eisenstadt) have identified three basic ways in which people can identify themselves as having something fundamental in common and hence can form a group or collectivity. 1) They can have a common characteristic that they were born with – e.g. skin color, a common descent group or kinship, or something that they acquired very early in life such as a language (primordial characteristics). 2) They can share a value or belief system especially concerning sacred, ultimate values. Thus, the great world religions such as Islam and Christianity include within one sacred religious framework people of various skin colors and various ethnicities and nationalities. 3) People can share a geographical or social space in which they cooperate and work together and hence develop rules, procedures, authority structures and the like. People sharing such a space can be of different ethnicities and religions, nevertheless they can construct or impose different ways of living and working together. This dimension of collective identity is called the civil dimension and entails various forms such as modern democracies, multinational empires, medieval and renaissance commercial city states to name only a few.

As emerges from the work of the above mentioned sociologists, the history of the United States involved the conflation of the sacred and civil dimensions of identity. The United States is a country whose cultural DNA was uniquely formed by dissenting Protestantism, that is by Protestants who rejected the established Anglican Church and formulated religious truth based upon their own religious conscience and reading of the Bible. Everyone knows that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. Of course, the initial colonies set up in New England were not free at all in that sense – they were Puritan theocracies. Nevertheless, the inner logic of dissenting Protestantism worked its effect over the 17th Century and Puritan thinkers who dissented from the ruling notions of religious truth in New England such as Roger Williams worked out the religious and civic ideals of the freedom of conscience and religious pluralism. What is important to remember is that these were religious as well as civic ideals. Hence, religion in America goes together with pluralism, civil rights and democracy. Hence also, religious leaders in America were involved in promoting the ideals of democracy and civil rights from the American Revolution through the Abolitionists and the Civil War (“Christ died to make men holy, let us die to make them free” – Battle Hymn of the Republic) to Martin Luther King and Abraham J. Heschel.

Things proceeded very differently in Catholic (and in Greek or Russian Orthodox) Europe. There, the Church was part and parcel of the power establishment, together with the monarchies. It provided the legitimation while the king provided the muscle. Any change in the direction of democracy, civil liberties or pluralism required that one overthrow the Church as well as the Monarchy. Hence pluralism – including religious pluralism and secularization – did not take place as a pluralization within religion as it did in America but rather against religion. As a result in Catholic Europe – in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy- secularization takes the form of a counter-religion. Secular movements tend to be not merely pluralistic, advocating freedom of thought and separation of Church and state, but positively anti-religious. Hence religious and secular movements tend to face off against one another each with its own political party, school system, welfare system and even football clubs. In these countries, religion emphatically does not go with democracy but rather with old-style autocracy; the sacred and civil (democratic and modern nationalist) dimensions of collective identity are held to be antithetical.

Zionism is a product of Europe, especially Eastern Europe with its Russian Orthodox establishment. Hence it is only to be expected that it would share the cultural assumptions of its surroundings. (It is not by accident that the Russian Communist Revolution was extremely anti-religious.) More than that however, secular revolutionary Zionism had in its own right an anti-religious cast. Traditional religious Judaism was held to be too passive, and  with its social, intellectual, dietary and sexual restrictions and its ideal of an ascetic life of study and prayer, too unworldly, too anti-nature and “anti-life” to be of any use in the construction of the new Zionist ideal. Traditional religious Judaism was viewed as an obstacle to the creation of the new Jew who would be self -reliant, rooted in the physical reality of national territory and primary economic production – agriculture and heavy industry, and autonomously creating a new national culture. Hence as Zionism attempted to reconstruct Judaism in a more civil direction – creating a state with a more or less democratic system of government and a new modern national identity, religion was held to be antithetical to this project. In Israel, for wide portions of the population, both religious and secular, religion and democracy do not go together. The Jewish Orthodox will say that they don’t go together and hence we must favor religion and rabbinic authority over democracy. At the same time secular (sometimes also cast as “leftist”) Israelis will also say that religion and democracy do not go together, hence we must get rid of all normative influence that the Jewish religion might have on national life and dismantle all institutional arrangements that favor Orthodox Judaism and give it power. While between the contending parties there is deep value disagreement, there is widespread agreement concerning the contours of the conceptual map.

In America in contrast, religious and civil dimensions of identity do go together. As American Jews started to construct their own Jewish civil religion, they took their cue from American civil religion. In American civil religion civil ideas such as democracy and civil rights are easily conceived of as religious ideals and religious and civil symbols easily interpenetrate (the House of Representatives and the Senate each have Chaplains, mandated by the Constitution, who open each session with prayer.) Similarly, in the Jewish civil religion, which works to advance Jewish continuity, solidarity and flourishing through (more or less) modern organizational structures and in a pluralistic framework, Jewish civil and religious values, symbols and identities easily interpenetrate.  Thus, membership in the Jewish civil religion (which as we have seen, is not “religious” in the conventional sense) is easily symbolized by membership in a synagogue.

This disjuncture between the American Jewish and Israeli constructions of Jewish collective identity has in the past resulted in American and Israeli Jews talking past one another. It has also resulted in anomalies such as the fact that the Reform, and to a lesser extent the Conservative, movements found their greatest allies among the very secular and religiously indifferent members of Israeli left who had no interest  in alternative forms of Judaism but did have an interest in eroding the power of the Orthodox establishment.

Recently however, both constructions are being challenged in various ways. In Israel, one challenge is that various movements of “Jewish Renewal” are attempting, in various ways to break down familiar dichotomies such as that between secular and religious. Some groups also seem to be eroding the opposition between civic and religious dimensions of identity, claiming that the Israeli modern national project can more easily root itself in traditional religious Jewish sources than was hitherto supposed. These attempts while still minor in terms of overall Israeli cultural trends, have received a bit of enforcement from Women of the Wall, which combines feminism with religious interests and commitment, attracting several women Members of Knesset from the Left wing Meretz Party to don talitot and join WoW in prayer at the Kotel. Undoubtedly, exposure to American constructions of Jewish identity which tend to join the civic and religious dimensions are playing some sort of role here.

At the same time American Jewish civil religion itself seems to be eroding if not disintegrating. The Pew study reports that over 20%, 1.2 million American Jews are “Jews not by religion” which I interpreted to mean not sharing in the commitment to Jewish sacred ethnicity.  To them their Jewishness is just another descriptive fact about them, like having brown hair. Can anything be done about this erosion? It would seem that if Israel has any role to play in responding to this development, it would be as a resource for American Jews to strengthen their sense of Jewish attachment and not by offering any model of Jewish identity of its own.

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He taught in the Department of Education at Hebrew University. He is also a founder of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which works to advance education for democracy in the State-Religious school sector in Israel. His research interests include religious groups, class and politics in Israel and the sociology of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.