‘The Old Jew’ Has Reemerged in the Diaspora

As the world Jewish community discusses a rift between Israeli Jews and American Jewry, analysts break the issue down to being a left-right dichotomy. American Jews overwhelmingly vote for Democrats and identify as liberals. Israelis have chosen the right-wing Likud government, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to lead the country for several years. In truth, the difference between American (and to a lesser degree, Western) Jews and Israelis is between the “Old Jew” and the “New Jew.”

Back in the days of Ottoman and British Palestine, there emerged two strains of Jewish identity: the “New Jew” and the “Old Jew.” The Old Jew was the religiously-observant, generally Ashkenazi, weak, powerless, poor and downtrodden Jew of the Diaspora, usually Europe. The Old Jew was at the mercy of foreign governments that preyed upon the Jewish community. Despite being forced to “take it,” whether through pogroms, expulsion, discrimination, or ultimately the Holocaust, the Old Jew survived. Sometimes he would be forced to move to another country–Argentina, the United States, Britain, or even Israel–but generally identified heavily with the country his family lived in for generations. He fought in their wars, ate their food, spoke their language, and tried so hard to assimilate, though surely he knew deep down that he would never be truly accepted by most in the society. He believed that Jewish suffering and perseverance was almost ritual and in G-d’s plan. He looked at Zionism as a curiosity, an unrealistic dream, perhaps something that would eventually come true, but in the time of the Moshiach. He saw the New Jew as a secular sinner, a dreamer, a risk-taker, and one who made his life unnecessarily difficult.

The New Jew was much different. He looked at the Old Jew with embarrassment and shame. Why didn’t he fight back against those who persecuted him? Why did he pray to G-d for the glory of Israel, yet decline to make aliyah and build the Jewish state? The New Jew valued tradition, but was more secular than religious. He revived the ancient language of Hebrew, and liberated the core of our civilization from foreign occupation. He spent his days laboring in the fields, smuggling Jews into foreign-ruled “Palestine,” draining the swamps of the north, and making the desert bloom. He fended off pogroms and attacks from supremacist Arabs, fought against the backstabbing British, encouraged Jews elsewhere to come to the promised land, and looked with disdain at the sabras who moved abroad for an easier life. He formed secret alliances with Kurds, Iranians, Turks, and Ethiopians to combat Nazi-like Arab regimes that threatened minorities region-wide. He took pre-emptive action against his enemies, neither confirming nor denying that he was responsible. He built a world-class economy and the strongest Middle Eastern military.

But somewhere between the First Lebanon War, the First Intifada, and the Oslo Peace Process, it seemed as if these ideas had faded away into history. World Jewry was largely united around the idea of a strong and secure Jewish State of Israel that unfortunately had to live by the sword, yet always extended the hand of peace. Now, in the 2010s, the Old Jew has returned. Intermarriage has led to the decline in those practicing Judaism in the US. As a result, fewer young Jews have an attachment to Israel than could be said of previous generations. Liberal Jewish groups in the US increasingly try to find more common cause with those who want to destroy us and deny the Holocaust than with our own counterparts in our homeland. Like the Old Jew from the 20th Century, they view the Jewish people as a religious group and ground their identity in “religious Jewish values” rather than focusing on history, heritage, and nationhood the way Israelis overwhelmingly do. Their focus on a “safe” Israel and an Israel for all stems from an overwhelming focus on egalitarian prayer at the Kotel and recognition of different streams of Judaism besides Orthodox. The modern Old Jew often has little focus or empathy for Israelis suffering from Palestinian violence and rejectionism, instead blaming the lack of peace solely on Jerusalem. The modern Old Jew takes a virtue-signaling and “Western savior” approach to Mizrahi/Sephardi/Ethiopian Jewry, failing to understand that because of Islamic or Arab persecution in the home countries, many of us have little trust in the Palestinians and little desire to live amongst them. The modern Old Jew acts like a progressive, yet looks with suspicion upon the Judaism of non-Ashkenazim. The modern Old Jew decries the “Nakba” while ignoring outright the suffering of Jewish refugees and their descendants from Islamic countries. The modern Old Jew wants to fit in so badly with “progressive” circles that they will apologize for being Jewish, boycott Birthright heritage trips, encourage assimilation, and only fight anti-Semitism if it comes from the right-wing. The modern Old Jew engages in the soft bigotry of low expectations, ignoring Arab anti-Semitism and holding them to lower standards because they apparently are poor brown people who can never be expected to take responsibility for their own actions or be held to equal standards as others. The Old Jew is privileged, generally not understanding how or why the New Jew must fight to protect his people, and seeing this as uncouth and oppressive behavior.

The modern New Jew makes mistakes too. His current government talks the talk, but   often fails to walk the walk. He is surrendering the secular values of Israel’s founding fathers to ultra-Orthodox regressives. And yet, he is unapologetic for being a Jewish state. He defends his people, no matter the cost or controversy. He refuses to surrender land–after multiple failed experiments with doing so–to enemies sworn to another genocide of Jews. He builds without remorse in our ancient capital and fights against boycotts.

The fact that the left-wing segment of the Jewish Diaspora feels it must apologize for its identity and surrender to those who would harm us because of supposed “Jewish values” is not only insane, but it isolates them from Jews in Israel. It is important to fight for progressive values and the oppressed—but not at the expense of our own safety and well-being. The fact that some British Jews are still demanding an apology from the Labour Party over anti-Semitism, and still hoping it can be a “political home for the Jewish community” is an embarrassing form of groveling. The fact that American Jews continue to tolerate anti-Semitism and betrayal from within their own “political home” in the Democratic Party while being simultaneously expected to stand up for others (often those who engage in racist stereotypes against us) is unacceptable and intolerable. So, too, is the total abandonment by some Diaspora Jews of our progressive values in favor of “pro-Israel” conservatives who are the antithesis of everything else our beliefs stand for. American Jewry–and more generally, Western Jewry–has let itself be taken advantage of, becoming divided, weak, and hapless by refusing to take a stand and choose new, bold leadership. It has let itself move in political directions the way a leaf moves in the autumn wind–without conviction or real choice. Oddly, Diaspora Jewry has chosen to allow itself to be torn between two bad choices instead of setting out on our own path. Young Diaspora Jews concerned with the rise of anti-Semitism in the West, while also disagreeing with the choices made by the Netanyahu government, should grow a spine and chart their own political path. Choosing our values over our right to exist, or vice versa, is neither smart nor necessary, and only reinforces the stereotype of the defenseless Old Jew.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a freelance reporter with the Jewish News Syndicate, and a Junior Research Fellow with ISGAP. He made aliyah to Kibbutz Erez through Garin Tzabar in 2019, and served as a Lone Soldier in the IDF. Dmitri is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Hadera, and a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution.