Judaism isn’t just a religion. Throughout millennia of our existence, we’ve transformed from family to tribe and from people to nation. For thousands of years we’ve retained a distinctly Jewish ethnicity, culture, and system of faith. We’ve consistently referred to ourselves either as ‘Am Israel or Bnei Israel, the People of Israel or the Children of Israel.
But our understanding of ourselves changed when, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jews facing the beginning of the modern era had to decide how to survive as the world changed around them. Movements like Bundism, Zionism, ultra-Orthodoxy, and Communism all offered unique visions for our people’s future.
Western Europe, however, offered a more lucrative solution. Governments across the continent offered Jews relative physical and financial security, if only they shed their national character. Jews, they said, would be equal in the eyes of the law, if they declared themselves as “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion” or “Frenchmen of the Israelite faith.” “Assimilate into our societies, shed your nationalities,” they said, “and we will accept you.”
Despite the fact that their assimilation did nothing to save these Jews from the gas chambers and despite the fact that sacrificing identity for the sake of financial opportunities is Halachically forbidden, these Jews succeeded in redefining what it meant to be a Jew in the Western world. They were so successful that Abraham Geiger, one of the founders of Reform Judaism, called Jerusalem, “a noble memory from the past that holds no hope for the future;” so successful that former American Jewish Committee president Jacob Blaustein “repudiated vigorously the suggestion that American Jews are in exile;” so successful that most Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, consistently refer to Judaism as a religion and nothing more.
Thousands of years of national identity and yearning for Zion were disregarded when they became inconvenient.
And while calling Judaism a religion instead of a religious ethno-national group may seem at minimum insignificant and at maximum a symbol of assimilation, this difference in terminology has dark consequences. It simultaneously divorces young Jews from their national heritage and is at the heart of the American understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
American Jews and their political allies often praise Israel as a place of refuge for Jews around the world (at least those Jews who weren’t lucky enough to become American), a country that offers Jews sanctuary amidst growing global anti-Semitism.
But this flawed definition of Israel’s purpose, to merely be place of refuge, easily lends itself to anti-Israel sentiment. Why should Americans support Israel, a place of refuge, if it’s existence in the Middle East is “unjust” to the Arabs of the region? Why should Americans support Israel, a place of refuge, if Jews can find refuge just as safely in the United States? Why should Americans support the “Jewish state” if Judaism is just a religion? Since when do religions need states of their own?
David Ben Gurion said once that “the connection between the Land of Israel and the Jewish people is not one of needs and benefits, rather one of destiny and fate.”
This is why Israel exists, not as a place of refuge but as the natural aspiration of our people to live once more in the land that gave us life. Our national history, our identity as a united people with deep roots in the Levant are our only legitimate rights to this land.
When American Jews further this widespread and damaging myth that Judaism is just a religion, they perpetuate falsehoods about Israel’s purpose and lend a hand to those who wish to delegitimize our state.
When they denounce their national identity, American Jews rob Israelis of their own narrative. Instead of seeing Israelis as a noble and unique example of indigenous people correcting the historical injustice of their exile, the western world sees Israelis as the radical, nationalist cousins of their enlightened “coreligionists.”
It’s time for American Jews to reclaim their national identity, for their own benefit and for the security of the State of Israel.