The Real Divide between American and Israeli Jews

The discourse surrounding the ever widening schism between American and Israeli Jews, citizens of the two countries with the largest Jewish populations in the world today, mostly centers on a difference in values. Israeli Jews increasingly embrace a hard right-wing nationalism while American Jews in general are  more progressive, both on domestic issues and, increasingly when it comes to Israel. American Jews are becoming more comfortable in calling out the unjust occupation of the West Bank, leading to further alienation between the two centers of world Jewry. Yet the differing world views between Right and Left is not sufficient to explain such a prolonged trend because it fails to consider the process of identity change that each community has been undergoing for decades.

Defining what and who is a Jew is not an easy task to begin with. At its most basic level, Jews are an ethno-religious group and Jewish law (Halacha) determines through matrilineal descent who is a member of the group. This definition, however, is increasingly anachronistic in the modern world that most secular Jews live in today. Historically, Jews were able to remain ethnically related and religiously linked through their persecution and ghettoization during the last centuries of the second millenium, coupled with Jewish religious edicts making intermarriage taboo. As the Jews emerged out of their quarters in Middle Eastern cities and left the shtetls of Eastern Europe for an emancipated existence elsewhere during the first half of the 20th century, the insularity of their past and the identity associated with it were forced to evolve. 

In Israel, the ethno-religious identity was altered by the nature of the Zionist project to become primarily a national ethnic identity, albeit one with an increasingly religious undercurrent in recent decades. For most Israelis, Judaism is a national experience, similar to that of the Judean state of antiquity; the nation-state that they created brought them the emancipation they sought. Generally, Israeli Jews liberated themselves from anti-Semitism at the hands of Gentiles by creating a state in which they are (debatably) the majority. 

Conversely, Jews in the United States have become emancipated in a different sense. In the immediate aftermath of  the massive Jewish immigration to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, Jews were still formally discriminated against on both an ethnic and religious basis. Often, Jews could be identified by their physical features and their last names when colleges would cap the number of Jewish students they admitted, and Jews were an unwelcome presence in many social spaces. Jews, furthermore, lived in insular ethnic enclaves in large American cities, making them easily identifiable — their existence was not entirely dissimilar to that of the shtetl, with the major exception that their physical well-being was rarely at risk. 

The second half of the 20th century saw the lifting of those barriers to entry and Jews became increasingly tolerated in mainstream American culture and society, a process associated with the increasing identification of Ashkenazi Jews as being white Americans. Jews also moved out of their ethnic neighborhoods in that time, filtering into the suburbs and all over the United States. As a result of increased assimilation and identification with mainstream white America, Judaism as an ethnic and cultural identity has lost much of its prior relevance.

Today, anti-Semites in the United States still discriminate against Jews on an ethnic-basis, going after physical traits and characteristics of Jewish people, intimidating them with symbols of Nazism. In terms of the lived experience of Jewish people, however, most of the anti-Semitism they face is on a religious basis. The daily beatings and humiliations of Jewish people are experienced by the visibly observant Jews in insular enclaves. The most lethal attack on Jewish people in the history of the United States, though motivated by a hatred of Jews on the basis of peoplehood, was committed against a Jewish house of worship with the goal of finding the largest number  of Jewish people in one given location. Jewish people, having assimilated into white American society, are not as much identifiable by their ethnicity as by their religious affiliation.

The anti-Semitic response to a changing American Jewry is caused by a redefining of what it means to be a Jew in the United States. The decreased identification of ethnic Ashkenazis with Judaism, coupled with an increased desire to dismantle the Ashke-normativity of the American Jewish community and a rising demographic of non-Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews of Color within the Jewish community, has led to an identity crisis: are Jews an ethnic people or a religious group? The strong cultural ties to Eastern Europe and other diasporas (or Israel) many American Jews espouse and the pride the community experiences in American Jewish culture are strong cultural currents within the American Jewry. This, however, takes a backseat to the dominance of Jewish ritual and religious tradition as a cultural unifier for American Jews. The exception to this is the American Orthodox Jewish community, which has mostly maintained the barriers to the rest of society regarding intermarriage and maintains high levels of support for Israel’s controversial policies. It is no surprise, then, that this group maintains the closest ties to Israeli Jews. 

Given this understanding, the ethno-religious nature of antiquated Judaism has paved way to two divergent Judaisms: one based on nationality in Israel, the other of religion and culture in America. The shift in values seen in each community is related closely to a difference in understanding of what Judaism is. Increasing American Jewish disgust with the occupation of the West Bank, Israeli policy in Gaza, and even Israel’s founding war is just the vehicle for the widening of the schism between the two peoples. This schism, given the ongoing communal trends, could culminate in the emergence of two truly disparate peoples in the near future.

About the Author
Jordan Rothschild is a student at Swarthmore College, originally from New York City, and a passionate advocate of Jewish continuity and a two-state solution.
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