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One nation, under God?

The uproar over defining Jewish identity highlights a chasm between Jews in and outside of Israel that urgently needs to be bridged
People participate in the annual Celebrate Israel Parade on June 3, 2018, in New York City. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images/AFP)
People participate in the annual Celebrate Israel Parade on June 3, 2018, in New York City. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images/AFP)

“The Jewish State,” according to the present occupant of the Oval Office, “has never had a better friend in the White House than your President, Donald J. Trump.” While his contention remains open to debate – I’ve opined on the subject frequently – few would dispute that Trump’s presidency has generated a toxic boon for intra-Jewish feuding.

In last week’s episode, reports previewing Trump’s then-imminent signature of Executive Order 13899, which purports to combat Antisemitism on US college campuses, triggered the alarm bells. Advocates of the move asserted that it will both prevent discrimination against Jewish students and counter prejudicial treatment of Israel. Opponents charged that the action was a cynical exercise in political pandering and a violation of constitutional freedoms.

What had threatened to transform this latest brushfire into something far more ominous than a “simple” debate over the prescribed limits of free speech was averted, however, when concerns about the precise terminology of the presidential edict turned out to be… well… fake news.

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits “exclusion from participation in, denial of benefits of, and discrimination under federally assisted programs on ground of race, color, or national origin.” Indications were that Trump planned to extend the statute’s provisions in such a manner as to recognize Jews as a distinct nationality. Ultimately, he settled for an instruction that U.S. Government departments and agencies, in coming to enforce Title VI,  pay special heed to the guidance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance with regard to Antisemitism. The Jewish communal storm was downgraded quickly.

This time, for a welcome change, Trump sidestepped an electrified third rail of the already fraught relationship between Israeli and American Jews.

Jews remain divided ideologically on how best to define their joint heritage: is it religious, national, civilizational, cultural, some or all of the above? These politics of personal identity continue to gnaw at the ties that bind the Jewish People together. 

“Nationality is by far the most important identity component to Jewish Israelis,” a 2016 study of the Jewish People Policy Institute concluded succinctly. Per this data, most Israeli Jews, as inhabitants of the world’s only nation-state of the Jewish People, find peak Jewish expression chiefly through their citizenship and involvement in the public life of the State of Israel. (This is doubly true for the country’s secularists who eschew religious practice.) It is through this prism apparently that they can most easily and naturally bond – without available recourse to Hebrew as a common tongue and amid the dilution of direct familial ties – with Jews outside Israel.

But something vital gets lost in translation. When Israelis employ the nomenclature of shared nationhood to connect with Jews from other countries, they often cause the line to short circuit. The reason is fundamental: while Israeli Jews may not distinguish between the national and religious attributes of being Jewish, a great many non-Israeli Jews – including not a few Americans among them – most certainly do.

Jews in the U.S. are citizens of a different land from Israel. As faithful nationals of America, they venture to live productive Jewish lives through the vehicles of religion and/or culture – as well as, in a vast majority of cases, robust support for Israel – but not necessarily nationality (with its “passport-carrying” connotations). Vocal members of this cohort have balked at the idea that they are constituents of a separate “Jewish nation” as a proposition that might expose them to charges of competing loyalties. Practicing Judaism or engaging in Jewish ethnic behaviors is how they prefer to “do Jewish.”

The two frames of reference are misaligned. Results from a drill made famous by Avraham Infeld, the former president of Hillel International, offer poignant evidence of this. Shown a series of word sets such as “apples, oranges, bananas” and “lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers,”  students were asked to fill in two blank spaces which followed the word “Jew.” The unanimous response of over 200,000 Americans was “Jew, Christian, Muslim.” Not a single one of the 40,000-plus Israelis sampled provided that answer; their answers ranged from Arab to Italian to American. Get the picture?

Much, if not all, of this (in)sensitivity springs from the fortunate miracle of contemporary Jewish statehood. The experience of belonging to an amorphous Jewish nation was altered when the tangible State of Israel was born in 1948 and summoned the allegiance of World Jewry. The plot thickened suddenly as Diaspora Jews had to develop parlance to explain their simultaneous affinities for their various countries of residence and their ancestral homeland.

Various efforts to promote the less controversial language of Jewish peoplehood represent one attempt to square this linguistic circle. They may seem as little more than semantics or the Talmudic splitting of academic hairs, but, if they can succeed in reducing tensions and even bridging conceptual rifts, they deserve to be applauded. The magnitude of the challenges – both intellectual and physical – which now confront Jewish communities internationally requires every ounce of unity that the Jewish People can muster.

Shalom Lipner (@ShalomLipner) is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem

About the Author
Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
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