Are you a Jewish American or an American Jew?
The question of how to identify ourselves is one that plagues Jews worldwide. We must decide whether our national identity is geographic or spiritual. Is it more important that we are French, American, South African, Iranian, even Israeli, or that we are Jews? The Jewish People are losing many of our best and brightest, in part because we don’t yet have a compelling, shared definition of what it means to be Jewish.
Assimilation, as such, cannot occur in Israel because it is a Jewish state. But not all Jews in Israel feel particularly Jewish. For many Israelis, the fact that they speak Hebrew and serve in the Israel Defense Forces is the sum of their Jewishness. Too many define themselves as Israeli with no reference to their Judaism. Ironically, it seems easier to maintain a Jewish identity in the Diaspora, where non-Jewish neighbors remind us of our Jewishness, than in Israel, surrounded by Jews.
“I brought my children to Israel hoping they’d be exposed to a Jewish history 3,000 years longer than the one they had been taught in Russia,” one immigrant told me. “But they ended up with a history 30 years shorter, because it seems to start only in 1948!”
I call this “Israelization,” a phenomenon as dangerous as the assimilation that is rampant in so many Diaspora communities. An Israeli identity is usurping Jewish identity among Israel’s youth, much as American identity has for many Jews in the United States. The dual challenge of Israelization and assimilation threatens to weaken the roots of Jewish identity worldwide and undermine the bond between Jewish people living in Israel and those living throughout the world.
At the same time, the forces of terror arrayed against the State of Israel, like the forces of anti-Semitism worldwide, are leading many Jews to reevaluate the importance of their Jewishness. For the past 30 months, Palestinian Arab terrorists have been killing civilians throughout Israel for one reason: because they are Jews. And so, Israeli Jews, from left, right, and center, are beginning to see themselves as their enemies see them: simply as Jews.
Israel is a vital link connecting world Jewry. Israel is now the center of Jewish learning in the world, of Jewish philosophy, culture, and politics. And in Israel, with its vibrant, diverse, and growing Jewish community, the future of the Jewish people is being shaped. It is thus crucial for Israelis to identify themselves as Jews in a more positive fashion than “I’m Jewish because they’re trying to kill me.”
Judaism-the wealth of laws, practices, traditions, values, and philosophy handed down from generation to generation for some 3,500 years-is about so much more than eating humus, serving in the IDF, and speaking Hebrew, however important these things may be. It is about much more than lox and bagels, the local JCC, or an agenda of “social justice” in the Diaspora.
My dream is to see the emergence of a shared understanding of what all Jews have in common, one that an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn can share with a secular Jew in Moscow, a Reform Jew in San Francisco, and a traditional Jew in Ashkelon. With all our disagreements, each of us must reach for those common denominators that enable us to fight together for our future even as we debate each other over specific issues of observance and tradition.
Our task is to rediscover our Jewish heritage while learning about our disparate experiences, reinforcing a global Jewish identity. To do this, we must communicate. You can do your part by actively seeking to connect with other Jews worldwide. The survival of the Jewish People depends upon this.