Arts & Culture

Which Birthright? Why Choosing Home over Homeland May Not Be So Bad

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, American Jewry has been privy to many (perhaps too many) sociological surveys taking its collective pulse. Surveys have covered everything from attitudes toward intermarriage, Jewish education, politics, literacy, beliefs, and practice. Recently … Read More

By / May 13, 2008

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, American Jewry has been privy to many (perhaps too many) sociological surveys taking its collective pulse. Surveys have covered everything from attitudes toward intermarriage, Jewish education, politics, literacy, beliefs, and practice. Recently another survey has appeared written by the pre-eminent Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen in conjunction with his younger colleague, Ari Y. Kelman, entitled Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and their Alienation from Israel. The study offers a provocative quantitative analysis regarding young American Jews' attitudes toward Israel.

Cohen and Kelman's study shows the first signs of erosion in unflinching American Jewish support of Israel. It's a trend that may have started in the aftermath of the first Lebanon War in the mid-1980s and is, in many ways, predictable, perhaps inevitable.

The generation of Jews who experienced the establishment of the Jewish State is now over the age of sixty-five. Those with memories of the war in 1967 are approaching fifty. Jews under the age of forty only know Israel as a much more complicated, and compromised, country: an occupying power engaged in a bloody struggle with a largely disempowered and stateless population. Such a battle, while intense and dangerous, is quite different from the more straight-forward struggle of fending off invading Arab armies. Whatever one may think of the present dilemma, or even whether "occupation" is an accurate description of what Israelis call "the situation" (ha-mazav), the experience of Israel for American Jews under the age of forty is, and should be, categorically different from their parents.

The reality of this change can be illustrated in various ways. When I show my students Otto Preminger's 1960 film version of Leon Uris' Exodus I am made conscious of how different Israel is for them than it is, and was, for me. Not only do they find the film horribly propagandistic (it surely is), overly sentimental (no doubt), boring (a matter of opinion), and unrealistic (uh…yes); it does not seem to evoke in them any feelings of sympathy toward the 1948 generation. Few, if any, are drawn to tears, as are many in my generation, by the music or the beautiful panorama of the Israeli landscape. Few get choked up by the scenes of young orphans dancing the hora on a kibbutz.

Exodus is not really a film about Zionism and surely not about Israeli Zionism. It is about the construction of the Jewish State in the American Jewish imagination, propaganda for a Jewish community comfortable but not yet secure in its new-found freedom. For my students, present day Israel is simply too complex (and too middle class) for them to make a connection between the romantic vision they see on the wide-screen and what they read daily on their computer screens.

Which Birthright?

This change in how Israel is viewed by the under-forty set has sparked programs such as Taglit: Birthright Israel and Israel advocacy movements on American campuses such as The David Project in an attempt to bandage depleting American Jewish support for Israel.

Birthright Israel is an innovative initiative to enable young American Jews to take a free trip to Israel. On the face of it, Birthright appears clearly to have a Zionist agenda. Yet, the Birthright mission explicitly aims "to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people," and for many of the young people who experience these trips, those connections are decidedly Diasporic.

While Cohen and Kelman's study indeed shows that young Jewish men and women who visit Israel (either on Birthright or some other way) are less alienated from Israel than those in a similar age-group who have never been to Israel, they are still more alienated than those over sixty-five who have never visited Israel. In other words, visiting Israel is productive toward curbing alienation from Israel but cannot close the generational gap.

What the study does not document, but what in fact may be more significant (we have no hard evidence yet as to the long-term impact of Birthright on American Jews) is the extent to which Birthright may be succeeding in its Diasporic agenda, that is, creating conditions for Jewish identity in America where attachment to, alienation from, or ambivalence about Israel may be a marginal part of a much larger and complex formulation of American Jewish identity.

What are the implications if, in fact, this Diasporic agenda proves to be more successful than its Zionist agenda where Birthright contributes to a more robust Diaspora not necessarily built on the foundations of Zionism? Does this tell us that Israel serves American Jews largely as their spiritual theme-park where they go to get a large does of "Jewishness" that makes them more Jewishly identified at home? That is, where homeland serves as simply a vehicle for home? Is Israel a means to a Diasporic end? And if so, is this good or bad for the Jews?

A Different Diaspora

For American Jews living in a free society, the age-old Judenfrage has internalized into a kind of Israelfrage–what do, and should, American Jews think about Israel? I summon the spector of the "Jewish Question" not as it was used against Jews from Augustine to Hitler, but as it was used by Theodore Herzl and the early Zionists to present Zionism as a solution to the European Judenfrage. Just as nineteenth-century American Jews debated Zionism or the Zionismusfrage, contemporary American Jews are confronted with "the question of Israel."

Israel as a Jewish State exists; this is, at present, undeniable. However, what role that state should play in American Jewish identity has been an issue since the first idea of a Jewish state sprang into being in the mid-nineteenth-century, and has only become a more complex matter.

In the mid-1800s, many American Reform rabbis sermonized vociferously against Zionism. By the 1920s, the American Zionism we know today emerged through the work of such charismatic figures as cultural theorist Horace Kallen, Rabbi Judah Magnus, and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. While that Zionism took some twists and turns over the next half-century (particularly a hard-right turn in the 1960s under the influence of Rabbi Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League), the actual birth of the State of Israel and its valiant David vs. Goliath battle during the Six-Day War in 1967 erased any remaining ambivalence that may have remained among American Jews towards Israel. By the 1970s, Norman Podhoretz was probably correct when he wrote of American Jews "we are all Zionists."

That American Zionism is now weakening, as demonstrated by Cohen and Kelman's study, may not necessarily be due to a growing ideology against Zionism (although there is a developing Diasporism in certain academic circles and on the far left). The situation on the ground has changed dramatically. Whatever one may think about the Palestinians or even Hamas, they are surely no Goliath to Israel's David. Younger American Jews may see less need to protect Israel and less willing to unequivocally defend it.

Just as significant, however, if not more so, is the possibility that young American Jews may not need Zionism or Israel the way their parents did. Throughout the history of Zionism, the dichotomous poles of Jerusalem and Babylonia often have served to frame the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the title of the little known but significant work by Simon Rawidowicz (written in Hebrew in America) entitled Bavel ve Yerushalayim (1958) or the contemporary educational project Bavli ve Yerushalmi that has two adult learning communities, one in Israel and one in the United States, studying the same Talmudic texts and gathering a few times a year in Israel or America. While the comparison is easy, since it mirrors the two different versions of the Talmud, I suggest it is not apt.

Instead, the contemporary American Diaspora is closer to the situation of Jews in Alexandria than Babylonia. During the Second Commonwealth there was a thriving and creative Jewish Diaspora in Alexandria that was not a product of forced exile, like Babylonia, but rather a community that chose the Diaspora over Erez Israel. American Jewry, like Alexandrian Jewry of old, is a volitional Diaspora; there are few impediments preventing Jews in the United States from immigrating to Israel; the law of return (whatever one may think of it) makes all Diaspora Jews "virtual citizens" of the Jewish State. This volitional rather than forced Diasporic framework, coupled with the fact that Jews in America are free to practice (or not practice) Judaism in whatever form they choose, creates a different dynamic between home and homeland than the one that existed between Babylonia and Jerusalem. In the twenty-first century Diaspora Jews, whatever their stance on Zionism, choose home over homeland.

Reframing Jewish Identity

For the over-fifty generation, Israel and Zionism were both viewed as pillars of Jewish identity after 1948 and thus the highest levels of attachment to Israel in Cohen and Kelman's study are those in the over sixty-five age group, even those who have never been to Israel. This may have had less to do with Israel per se and more to do with the resonance of Jewish feelings of marginality in the wake of identity politics and the continued perception that, as Jews, they were not fully a part of the American mainstream. For some, it is driven by memories of the Holocaust (and America's less than firm commitment to prevent it), for others love of Israel may derive from the distant yet perceptible echoes of being immigrants or children of immigrants.

Russian Jew at Ellis Island: Photographed by Lewis W. Hine,1905.Russian Jew at Ellis Island: Photographed by Lewis W. Hine,1905. As a young child living in New York (and almost part of the fifty and older age-group), having my immigrant grandmother take me to Ellis Island where she arrived in the United States from Russia around 1920 was one of my most formative childhood memories of Jewish identity. That is, to a previous generation, Zionism was to some extent an expression of, or a response to, a protracted sense of insecurity in America. Moreover, for my generation, Zionism was always "statist" Zionism; it was always about the Jewish State and not about a renaissance of Jewish culture.

As a result, support of the "state" of Israel became the civil religion of many secular American Jews and a fourteenth article of faith (in addition to Maimonides' previous thirteen) for religious Jews. The state alone became the end, and not the means, of Jewish identity [see note below*]. This was surely not the case in pre-state Zionism but a combination of the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel swallowed up the more interesting, and robust, debates about Jewish collectivity of which statist Zionism was only one voice among many.

Most Jews in America under the age of thirty-five are third and fourth generation Americans. They live in a society where alienation from the mainstream is less than in previous generations. They live in a world where the intermarriage rate for Jews has hovered around 50 percent for a few decades. Among other things, this has increasingly changed the very way in which many American Jews view intermarriage and their host culture more generally. In 2000, the American Jewish Committee's Survey of Jewish Opinion cited about half of its respondents saying that "it is racist to oppose Jewish -gentile marriages." Most young American Jews today have non-Jewish relatives and most have close friends who are not Jewish. Exogamy and Amercian pluralism have all but erased the age-old ethnic myth of Jewish separateness.

Cross-Over Judaism

Moreover, Judaism has become fashionable in America, from Kabbalah to Klezmer to John Zorn and Tzadik records (Zorn won the prestigious MacArthur Genius Fellowship last year), to Andy Statman, the Moshav Band, and Mattisyahu (who, as one of the first real cross-over musicians who play "Jewish" music, last year signed with a major record label). This is quite different from the Jewish musicians (Gershwin, Irving Berlin Leonard Bernstein et al) and comedians (from Al Jolson to Milton Berle, Alan King, and Buddy Hacket) who made it into the American mainstream in a previous generation. The older generation of Jewish entertainers did not carry with them an overt Jewishness (after all, Berlin wrote "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas"). Even Woody Allen, Phillip Roth, and Jerry Seinfeld, all geniuses in their craft, offered nothing particularly Jewish other than Jewish male neurosis.

Similarly, in the political sphere, Jews as Jews are actively involved in movements such as Darfur, world hunger and poverty relief in third-world countries, the anti-Iraq war movement and AIDS outreach. In Los Angeles, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, soon to become a national organization, is working with the LA district courts in an initiative called The Jewish Community Justice Project founded on the principles of Jewish restorative justice devoted to criminal/victim mediation according to talmudic sources and values. While one could argue Jews were also deeply involved in the 1960s Civil Rights movement, they often were not organized around Jewish initiatives but functioned heroically as individuals within the more diffuse American counter-culture.

Even Judaism as a religion has gained a new following from outside the fold. Many non-Jewish college students are aware of Chabad Houses on campus, some attend services with friends, and Artscroll books are read by both Jews and non-Jews alike. Christians are converting to Judaism in increasing numbers and the maverick Rabbi Harold Shulweis in Southern California has advocated actively proselytizing to unchurched Christians–with much success. In short, American Jewry, broadly defined, (and not simply American Jews) is solidly part of mainstream American culture, popular, political, and intellectual.

Given the way young Jewish Americans in increasing numbers have chosen to express their Jewish/American identity around national and global concerns, it is no surprise that Israel is becoming more marginal in the lives of many young American Jews. The "negation of the Diaspora" ideology of Zionism, even in its new form espoused by the Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, has no real teeth for many in this generation. Their regional, national, and global activism lived as an expression of their Jewishness illustrates the empirical vacuity of Yehoshua's claim.

A Mixed Blessing

While in the old paradigm, attachment to Israel was viewed as an anchor of Jewish identity in a less-than-fully-stable and confident Jewish community in America, this new paradigm sketched above suggests that the "distancing" Cohen and Kelman's study documents may be a mixed blessing. That is, if it is true that this distancing from Israel is coupled with a new sense of identity not wed to the ethnic attachment to a Jewish State, Jewish identity in American may be healthier than imagined. On the one hand, it may be showing us that the doctrine claiming Zionism is the glue that can hold non-Orthodox American Jewry together is becoming obsolete and that, in fact, what we may be witnessing is the beginning of a new Jewish secularism in America that hasn't existed since the demise of the socialist and Yiddishist movements in the early twentieth century.

One sign of this may be seen in the changing nature of the intermarried Jew. While in a previous generation the assumption was that the Jew who "married out" was basically lost to the Jewish community, at present many intermarried Jews are bringing their non-Jewish spouse to the synagogue and other Jewish communal activities. That is, today an increasing numbers of intermarried Jews (admittedly still the minority) do not view their choice to marry a gentile as severing them from the Jewish collective. In some cases, it is even the gentile spouse who encourages his or her Jewish partner to become more "Jewish."

One recent product of this new tendency can be seen in a pamphlet published by a group of Conservative rabbis entitled, A Place in the Tent: Intermarriage and Conservative Judaism. (2005). This booklet serves as a guide for rabbis, in halakhic and non-halakhic matters, of how to integrate the non-Jewish spouse into synagogue life. There is also a support group in Atlanta connected with the Jewish Outreach Institute run by Rabbi Kerrey Olitsky that serves gentile women married to Jewish men who want to bring their children up Jewish (according to Reform Judaism one Jewish parent is sufficient to consider a child Jewish) . The literature of this group contains interviews with some of these non-Jewish women about why they choose not to convert to Judaism yet want their children to be raised as Jews. Viewed in the context of Jewish history, the fact that a non-Jewish woman would choose not to convert to Judaism (many of these women feel deeply connected to their familial roots) yet choose to raise her children Jewish is quite remarkable.

In short, in conjunction with American Jews re-envisioning their markers of identity, there may be paradigm shift in America's attitudes toward Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism. I think the Cohen and Kelman study, viewed as part of a much larger shift in American Jewry, yields a complex picture that is not, by definition, "bad for the Jews."

In 1966 Gerson Cohen, then a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary who later became its chancellor, gave a commencement address at Hebrew Teachers College in Boston that was later published as an essay entitled "The Blessing of Assimilation." (collected in Cohen, Jewish History and Jewish Destiny New York: JTS, 1997, 145-156). In this essay Cohen argued that it is both inaccurate and historically short-sighted to view assimilation as, by definition, "bad for the Jews." He writes, "A frank appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate that not only has a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impeded Jewish continuity and creativity, but that in a profound sense, this assimilation and acculturation was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source of renewed vitality. To a considerable degree, the Jews survived as a vital group and as a pulsating culture because they changed their names, their language, their clothing, and their patterns of thought and expression."

Twenty-first century America has thus far offered Jews many new avenues of expressing their identity as ethnic or post-ethnic Jews. Statist Zionism remains one avenue among them. To conclude that since this road is now less traveled we are witnessing a diminishing identification with the complex and transitional thing we call "Jewishness" in America is, in my opinion, a myopic view of the changing world around us.

This essay is dedicated to GZG, in friendship.

*I want to thank Professor David Myers of UCLA for a series of lectures he gave at Indiana University in April 2008 where he developed his ideas about “statist” Zionism in relation to a broader collectivist notion of Jewish identity. His comments greatly enriched my thinking on this point.

Art Credits: Lead image is a t-shirt design from

Tagged with: