There are some 20 million Jews in the world: close to seven million in Israel; close to six million in the US; under a half million in France, and in dwindling numbers from there on in, until you get to Botswana, Bermuda and other places with fewer than 500 Jews. In the United States, ten percent of us identify as Orthodox. The rest are made up of unaffiliated, Reform, and to a far lesser extent, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews. Despite our differences, most of us, including the most unaffiliated and uninvolved, grew up sending at least a part of our allowances to plant trees in Israel. When we grew up, we continued to do so—only by then it wasn’t just trees, but hospitals and ambulance services, environmental programs and universities, and every other Israel-based cause that beckoned.
And since you can’t feel fully Jewish without actually spending some time in the Promised Land, we American Jews double down by sending our kids to Israel in the summer and for Junior Year Abroad; spending our own winter vacations visiting our kin who made Aliyah; volunteering to serve in the IDF; and, if you’re a certain stubborn and elderly member of my own family, buying a flat in Tel Aviv. That’s a lot of investment. And not just in trees.
But if Bibi and his fundamentalist fabulists have their way, it’s not only Israel’s forests that will suffer from drought. And that’s because American Jews, with our open American pocketbooks, are alarmed. We don’t like the idea of a department of religious identity, or even the non-separation of synagogue-and-state when it comes to marriage and divorce. Nationalism, fundamentalism, xenophobia: nope, nope, nope. And that’s because most Jews who choose to remain in the United States remain here precisely because we hold democracy and democratic values to be of the highest value. “I believe . . . democracy is the political enactment of the spiritual idea that each of us was created, as the scriptures tell us, in the image of God,” as Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock recently said. And so—nu?—we get it. Israel isn’t our country. We don’t get to vote. But since when did a Jew not get to freak out over other members of the tribe doing something so clearly and insanely self-destructive? Who needs Jew hatred when we are so fully capable of shooting ourselves in our own damn feet?
My own sense is that it’s not just the large percent of non-religious American Jews who are horrified by the direction that the new Netanyahu government seems to be headed in. My gut tells me that it’s pretty much all of us: a mishmash of six million Jewish citizens of the United States, perhaps minus a few thousand Haredi, who are collectively freaking out as we watch the government of Israel dance with the fringiest of the rightwing fringe.
Stats are cold-blooded. They don’t tell a story—people do. Thus I introduce you to my own family, who landed on American shores in the mid 19th-century. One of these founding ancestors laid the cornerstone of the oldest synagogue in Baltimore. My maternal grandmother was the first woman president of the Board of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. My own father has had two full time careers: one in his profession, and the other in service to the Jewish community and the furtherance of Israel’s best interests. In other words, at least in my family, we had and continue to have skin in the game. (My husband’s family have been similarly committed to both Judaism and Israel, but I have only so many pixels.)
Only guess what? Some time around the time I myself was born (I’m 63) Jews, who were already marrying “out,” began to marry non-Jews, and in bigger and bigger numbers. Fully half of my first seventeen first cousins married outside the tribe. I have one cousin—albeit a distant one—who became an Episcopal priest, go figure. The younger generation, only now coming into their own as full adults, are likewise marrying—all kinds of folk. Some will raise their children as Jews; others not so much. I’ve gone to bnai mitzvah parties where shrimp cocktail was served; I’ve also attended many a Glatt kosher event. For better or for worse, this is what an open, democratic, progressive society allows: Jewish? Good, bad or ugly, it’s up to you.
My point? Isn’t it obvious? If not, let me just underscore the tiny, miniscule, drop-in-the-bucket Jewish story that my own little family represents. From the most seriously Orthodox of my kin (and we have several) to those who consider themselves ethnically Jewish but practice Buddhism, we stand united in our horror as we watch Bibi and Company’s lurch towards fundamentalism.