A Questionable Future

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The threats to reduce ties with Israel can only harm American Jews themselves

We are living through an unprecedented era of Jewish history, discontinuous with all the recurring themes of the past. Put simply, there has never been a comparable period in the 20 centuries since the Dispersion in which the entire structure of Jewish identity has undergone such a dramatic transformation, or faced such destabilization.

Some basic figures relating to American Jewry illustrate the dramatic shift. The recently published American Jewish Committee’s survey (March 1998) found that, of those married, 79 percent had a Jewish spouse and 21 percent had a non-Jewish spouse. But when asked if any of their married children had a non-Jewish spouse the figure jumped dramatically to 61 percent who said yes. If present trends continue we can expect that by 2005 more than three quarters of American Jews will have at least one child who has married out, and that by 2020 it will be close to 90 percent.

In the context of this existential crisis, Zionism regrettably no longer has a role to play. As a movement and as an ideology we should have farewelled it some time ago – admittedly with gratitude and respect – as one of the 20th century’s most successful revolutionary movements. But, as a movement, Zionism became increasingly anachronistic once its great goal of creating and consolidating a sovereign state of the Jews had been achieved. Yet this in no way detracts from another given: that Israel clearly occupies the central role in Jewish life and that a Jewish future without Israel at that center is, quite literally, unthinkable.

For all the talk of a Jewish renaissance in religious and cultural expression in the Diaspora, at most 10 percent of world Jewry (of whom the majority are Orthodox) is expanding and becoming more positively committed to Judaism, whilst 90 percent are simply disintegrating in terms of their Jewish identity. Thus the recent destructive tensions between American Jews and Israel over the issue of non-Orthodox conversions and personal status issues were not so much about a clash of ideologies, or even different forms of religious expression.

They reflected, rather, the sociological phenomenon of American Jews seeking a new community structure in which belonging to a non-Orthodox denomination provides a more attractive and comfortable vehicle for Jewish identification than ethnic affiliation to Israel – now considered by many American Jews as a “foreign” state.

The bad news is that even Jewish education, as a broad-brush concept isolated from religious observance, cannot offer much hope for a roll-back of the sweeping assimilationist trends now underway. We are just beginning to understand how truly difficult it is in an open and liberal society to deter young Jewish people from marrying non-Jewish spouses, unless there are fundamental religious issues inhibiting such a union.

IF the Diaspora is facing a crisis, that is not to say that Israel itself is immune to assimilation although I remain passionately committed to the belief that the Jewish people will overcome this challenge

Quite apart from the acute divisions between Orthodox and secular Israeli Jews, whom the rabbis nevertheless recognize as halachically Jewish, there are now tens of thousands of immigrants – halachically non-Jews – who are citizens of a Jewish state. They speak Hebrew, regard Israel as their homeland, and serve in the army – in contrast to the haredim who are, in many cases, anti- Zionist and refuse to serve in the army or even in alternative forms of national service.

But the immigrants and their children represent a time bomb ticking away in the “Who is a Jew” arena which is potentially even more explosive than the one also counting down in many Christian-Jewish households in some of the non-Orthodox sectors of American Jewry.

This problem is accentuated by the fact that the demonization of one another by religious and secular Israelis is now more acute than ever. The hard-line Orthodox establishment in Israel has become increasingly more intolerant and has substituted fanaticism and extremism in religious practice and in politics for moderation and balance.

In the secular educational stream, the non-religious government school system provides less traditional Jewish content, or even Zionist content, than ever. Combine that with fading memories amongst younger Israelis about the Shoah and their Zionist history, and some of the harsher critics are speaking of the new age’s “Hebrew-speaking Canaanite yuppies”.

While Israel is rapidly emerging as the demographic as well as the Jewish people’s cultural and religious center, it is also grappling with the impact of globalization and Americanization – often the same thing – and the accompanying marked loss of Yiddishkeit, a phrase that would be foreign, literally and conceptually, to most young Israelis.

It is an almost geometric progression that makes it even harder for young Diaspora Jews, themselves under identical pressures from globalization and other forces, to maintain a non-religious based Jewish identity. In such circumstances, the scenario of a shrunken Diaspora dominated by a small number of observant Jews will come to pass sooner rather than later.

Which is why there is something intrinsically nonsensical about a disintegrating American Jewry demanding parity with Israel in deciding matters of Jewish identity. The threats to reduce ties with Israel can only harm American Jews themselves and dilute the most important remaining force that still contributes toward Jewish identity beyond the religious commitment.

Should American Jewry continue along its current path, the long-term future for the Diaspora as a whole is highly questionable. For it is Israel’s centrality for the future of any Jewish condition, despite the challenges facing Israeli society, which is the most enduring feature of our time.



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