Shuki Friedman

The missed potential of Tisha B’Av

A survey published a few weeks ago in the United States sharpens a clear truth: the ability to maintain a Jewish identity without a clear religious framework and without a limited national-Jewish framework is eroding. In Israel, the situation is different. A large majority of Israeli Jews consider Judaism a key element in their identity. And yet, when it comes to anchoring this identity in some common denominator, intense conflicts arise, the explosions of which we often hear. Earlier this week we observed Tisha B’Av, the Jewish holy day with the most pronounced historical significance; it could be an opportunity for such a common denominator. But for it to be so, the religious dimensions of today must have a personal — albeit secular — and public-national expression.

The Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews, conducted every few years, is the most comprehensive survey conducted there. The picture that emerges from the survey published a few weeks ago shows a foggy future for the non-Orthodox Jewish community in the United States. Among the younger generation of this community (18-29) 40 percent define themselves as “Jews of no religion,” i.e., those with some Jewish affiliation, but who do not identify as Jews. Belonging to this group predicts a weak connection to Jewish traditions and symbols, a weak connection to the Jewish community, and a very weak connection to Israel. And in starker terms, nearly half of the young people who belong to the Jewish community in the United States are losing their connection to Judaism and to Israel. Although it may not be inevitable, it is foreseeable. In the absence of a tight religious or national framework, Jewish affinity fades.

In Israel, the picture is different. Even non-traditional or secular Jewish-Israelis see Judaism as a component of their identity. But even here, and despite the state framework, if Jewish identity does not have a common denominator and concrete expressions, it will over time erode, and dilute Israeli Jewry and the ability to maintain a Jewish state here. The problem is that over the years, Judaism has become a bone of contention between parts of Israeli society instead of being a unifying factor. Its symbols and traditions, which for religious Jews constitute a framework for living and a foundation for identity, have become, in the eyes of some, anachronistic, dangerous ideas whose absorption into the Israeli reality will render the state a place they do not want to live. To preserve an identity of cohesion, some common denominator is needed. Tisha B’Av could be a significant part of it.

Almost all the holy days of the Jewish calendar carry a religious character alongside a historical-national character. Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, are all religious holidays that also mark a historical event. Tisha B’Av is completely different from them. This is the day, according to tradition, when the First and Second Temples were destroyed, but in fact it marks the destruction of Israel’s First and Second Kingdoms of Israel. The loss of autonomy, Jewish power, the Jewish hold of the Land of Israel and the resulting exile. Its religious and halachic character is a later accompanying stratum.

The most significant determinant of national identity is a shared history. In our context, the central determinant of Jewish-Israeli identity and its connection to the land is the history of the Jewish kingdoms that existed here. Tisha B’Av is actually the day that brings this historical memory into sharp relief. As it stands today, Tisha B’Av fully combines religious and national Judaism. As such, it should be a day of profound significance not only for religious Jews mourning the destruction of the Temples but also for all those for whom national-Jewish life in the Land of Israel is meaningful. For it to become a truly meaningful day one has to refine its expression into deeds. On the private-personal level, every Zionist Jew should adopt some of the mourning customs that characterize these days and observe them at least on Tisha B’Av itself. At the national level, it deserves to have the character and atmosphere of Memorial Day. Not one that commemorates fallen spaces, but one that remembers a lost historical splendor, the reasons for our loss, and the duty of today’s generations to prevent another such loss.

For American Jews whose loss of Jewish identity is palpable, this danger does not wait lurking beyond the historical corner. But we Israelis are not innocent of it. In the absence of a national-Jewish common denominator of identity, our ability to preserve the Zionist enterprise together will be undermined. Tisha B’Av can become a more significant day for every Israeli — a day that unites the religious with the national and the historical for the Jews living in Israel and for the Zionist enterprise.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center. His book, 'Being a Nation-State in the Twenty-First Century: Between State and “Synagogue” in Modern Israel' was recently published by Academic Studies Press.
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