The established leadership of the American Jewish community is freaking out. Why is the response to the horrific events of October 7 2023 in some ways more extreme here in the US than in Israel?
For some time now I’ve been convinced that we are in transition to a new Third Era of Jewish life; that as a result of their experience of modernity, the Jewish people is not dying or disappearing, but we are profoundly in a process of transforming. Statistics that show that in the United States, one of the largest Diaspora communities of Jewish life, many Jews do not attend shul nor have a rabbi, nor keep kosher nor keep Shabbat. For about two thousand years this these were the markers of Jewish identity.
Those same statistics show that millions of U.S. families include at least one self-identifying Jew who acts out of that sense of Jewish identity in strong cultural, social and artistic ways. I know many older Jews who feel completely distanced from religious community – they are more likely to have found a spiritual home in Buddhism – and whose major act of Jewish identification is sometimes to assert that they would never hide their Jewishness.
What is their Jewishness? In the 20th century it seems to have become more and more dependent upon the State of Israel. The early Zionists were secularist, and they created a secular religion. Many U.S. Jews who don’t see the point of belonging to a shul habitually speak of Israel using religious terms they would never use elsewhere in Judaism: the miracle of Israel.
There was a rabbi who lived at the time of the Jewish wars against Rome who said that if these were what the birth pangs of the Messiah were like, well, let the Messiah come when HaShem wills, but he would rather not be around for it. The suffering is terrible.
And we are undergoing some taste of that suffering now, in all directions. Because of antisemitism, our young people who find their deepest connection with Judaism to be through their social justice work find themselves turned away from so many leftist spaces unless they are willing to leave their Jewish identity at the door. And very many of them do, because they have nowhere to go to find strength to resist – or they end up in anti-Zionist spaces, effectively cutting themselves off from the established Jewish community. They are lost to any of us who require their allegiance to the State of Israel in its current form.
And O for that beloved and tortured state of our people. Our ancestral homeland. The place where, my Israeli cousin born and raised there of immigrant parents who survived the Holocaust, said, “it vomited us out twice before, it could happen again.” He said that during the second Intifada in 2001. This man who has helped to build the miracle of Israel, raising a moshav from sand and a prosperous business from chicken sheds, would have bought a farm in New Zealand if his grown children had been willing to move with him.
Why do the secular Jews of the U.S. continue to support the occupation, excusing it and engaging in victim-blaming to an absurd degree that they would never tolerate in language anywhere else?
Why do so many secular U.S. Jews seem willing to ignore the ongoing suffering of Palestinians, when they are first in line to help any other suffering people?
Why are so many so willing to do what Jewish youth call “leave your Jewish ethics at the door when it comes to Israel”?
The horrors that unfolded on October 7 began on a Shabbat morning which was also Shemini Atzeret on the Jewish holy day calendar. When I was informed by text by my Gabbai that morning, I looked on line and noted that several secular Jewish organizations had already put out emergency emails speaking of the need to unite – and donate. My message to my congregation that morning was not to do anything until after Shabbat, to let Shabbat be a time for grief and anger and the consolations of Torah-centered community. Our Simkhat Torah observance that evening began with lamentations sitting on the floor, and slowly we rose toward the Torah scroll with which we danced, recognizing that this was the greatest form of Jewish resistance.
There is a huge symbolic difference between the U.S. Jews who chose to ignore Shabbat in order to begin rallying the community, and those who respected Shabbat. It has to do with what each group is actually worshipping.
Ever since, I’ve been thinking about the profound difference between Jews who seek out a shul when they are in pain, and Jews who do not. And I’ve been musing on the severity of the feelings aroused in many secular Jews with a close link to Israel. They are using words like “pogrom” and “Babiy Yar” to express their sense of what happened.
But there is one big difference. The State of Israel was founded at least partially because pogroms happen to Jews who are defenseless in Diaspora. As my Israeli cousins and their friends already know, this was a failure of the state. As such for them it is a time very like the 9/11 experience in the U.S. Failures of intelligence and political negligence are a part of both events, and too many innocent people have died horrible deaths as a result of both.
In 1934 my great aunt Rina traveled with her family from Germany to Palestine, and Rina became part of the faithful Zionist fabric of the new state of Israel. She and her growing family went to war, participated joyfully in rationing and cooperated in a kind of social compact that truly seemed miraculous the first time I experienced it as a U.S. Jewish teenager. Shortly before her death we recalled an avocado tree she had planted, which now towers over several houses in her moshav. I asked her how she felt about the state she’d help to build for so many years. “This isn’t exactly what I had in mind,” she replied. The second Lebanon war was then in progress.
For any U.S. secular Jew for whom the State of Israel has been a very satisfying religion for 75 years, it’s getting harder to bat away the dismay. As of today, that which secular Jews have placed on top of the Holy Ark instead of HaShem has shown something worse than the “growing pains” or invoking “a harsh neighborhood” we offer as excuse when explaining the political corruption or stalled peace process, or the continuing misery of an occupation of other human beings which Israeli generals already warned in 1967 was going to be a powder keg.
On October 12, less than a week into the horror, an emergency room physician who saw too many devastated bodies on Shabbat said the following:
“I do not separate between Jews and Palestinians; I separate between those who do violence and those who not. I have friends and colleagues who have been killed and kidnapped, and when I hear that we should destroy Gaza it only breaks my heart more.”
She went on: “here in Beer Sheva we have always known that the government does not care about us. We always are last for infrastructure, for health care, for resources, even less access to shelters. But now something is different; something is broken in Israeli society.”
“I blame the Israeli government as much as I blame Hamas. They left us alone. It is our own civil society that is taking care of us now.”
Unthinkable as it may be, the State of Israel failed its citizens. It is not acting as a Jewish state, not upholding Jewish values, not a haven for Jews. Every Israeli young adult who does their army service in the Occupied Territories is victimized; every Diaspora Jew who wants to support Israel with all their heart is devastated.
While we do not know what will come next, and I for one pray for peace with all my broken heart, the secular god of so many Jews will never again be what it was for so many of us: a safe Jewish place, where we could trust that the welfare of all Jews came first and foremost for its elected leaders, no matter what else was there to cause dismay.
And when a god dies, we know from ancient Middle Eastern theology, a people disappears. The grounding of the identity of secular Jews has been attacked in a way no enemy could manage. Their response leaves no room for nuance, no room for kindness, and no room for Torah.
This Shabbat we read Bereshit. The haftarah for this Shabbat is, to me, terrifying.
נָסֹ֤גוּ אָחוֹר֙ יֵבֹ֣שׁוּ בֹ֔שֶׁת הַבֹּטְחִ֖ים בַּפָּ֑סֶל הָאֹמְרִ֥ים לְמַסֵּכָ֖ה אַתֶּ֥ם אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ׃
Driven back and utterly shamed shall be those who trust in an image,
those who say to idols, ‘You are our gods!’” (Isaiah 42.17)
If Israel is an idol, we are told from antiquity that HaShem will tear it down. We should and must stand with the people of Israel, for they are our family, but if we worship the state of Israel and, has v’halilah, insist that it inform our spirituality, we have fallen into deepest idolatry. It will not hold us up.