Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Is support of Israel the religion of American Jews?

I do not want to be accused of avoiding the elephant in the room, or better, in the closet. I think of this blog as a little like my Shabbat table. It’s a place for different kinds of people to come together, sing, talk about G-d and spiritual stuff and share wisdom. Now imagine you are at my home for Shabbat and you hear a polite but insistent trumpeting from the closet. You might want to open the closet and check it out. If you are smart you are not going to swing that door too wide. Just enough to peek and formulate a plan for getting a closer look at that elephant. That elephant is “Israel” and this post is my first attempt to crack open that closet door.

Let me begin by saying that figuring out what Israel means to Jews is really complicated because what it means to Jews is really complicated . Its also very diverse. In my experience, that diversity is not well understood either inside the Jewish community and worse outside it. I hope that my Jewish brothers and sisters will step up and contribute their perspectives so we can see them. They range, as you will see, from an religious almost mystical connection to the Land of Israel as a holy land to purely secular and often very pragmatic views of the State of Israel.

In America, support of Israel (emotionally, financially and politically) has become for many their primary expression of Jewish identity. The following is an excerpt from an opinion piece by Eric Alterman from Moment Magazine “The New Religion for America’s Jews: Israel” (Noveember/December 1010) p. 19. I found it provocative and I thought it might make a good launch point for discussion.

When memory is the primary content of one’s Jewish identity, the identity fades as the distance from the remembered experience (like the memory of the Holocaust) grows. And yet in an ethnically defined America in which everybody is something, Jews need a way to feel themselves Jewish—to connect with that part of their identities—in the absence of any knowledge or much interaction with the texts and community that have sustained Jews for centuries.
Without these, many have turned to the defense of Israel as a kind of religious precept and the result, too often, is a repetition of political talking points as if they were the Amidah. [the main standing whispered prayer at the heart of all Jewish prayer services] They are not and will not sustain generation after generation with what is, after all, vicarious experience, and one that is based less on a genuine attachment to Israel than to a mythic version of it. And therein lies the still unsolved dilemma.

see the full article at

This raises some powerful questions:

Has the support of Israel replaced Judaism as the religion of many American Jews?

Is the Israel they support the Israel of reality or the Israel of mythic idealization?

If support of Israel becomes a point of “piety” does it prevent us from thinking about it critically and force us into denouncing those who do as “heretics”?

Where does support of Israel (or even critique) fit into the viewpoints of those who are Observant Jews and do have strong connections to Jewish learning and practice?

How might understanding this quasi-religious force help Muslims and Jews communicate more effectively? Does misunderstanding now act as a barrier?

I look forward to your sharing your thoughts


  1. Has the support of Israel replaced Judaism as the Religion of American Jews?
    No but it is a major hindrance to Jewish growth. Not by any fault of its own but because quite frankly we are the most Illiterate people on earth (so much for being the people of the book). Jews in general are so far disconnected from their history and traditions that they cling on to what they have: which is modern day Israel, hence the mythic idealization of it.

    Is the Israel they support the Israel of reality or the Israel of mythic idealization?
    More than likely “the mythic idealization” of it. But in all honesty the reality is something that should be supported the lists of all the things Israel should be commended for is too long to list but I'll keep it Jewish and point out that there are more Yeshivas in Israel than any other time in Jewish History and there is more monetary support for Jewish learning than any other time in Jewish History

    If support of Israel becomes a point of “piety” does it prevent us from thinking about it critically and force us into denouncing those who do as “heretics”?
    Yes, but we're Jews compared to other monotheistic religions we're "The Ritz" when it comes to the treatment of heretics. The question should be: "If nationalism becomes a point of piety are we still Jews or do we transform into something else?"

    Where does support of Israel (or even critique) fit into the viewpoints of those who are Observant Jews and do have strong connections to Jewish learning and practice?

    I think the problem with this question is that "observant Jews" is such a large subset of Jews. I really think this question applies to the extremes mainly Modern Orthodoxy and Satmar/ Naturi Karta. Modern Orthodoxy has the problem that the definitions of "Modern" and "Orthodoxy" are constantly changing. Satmar/ Naturi Karta have the problem that to this date there is really only one Jewish State and that is Kiryas Yoel.

    How might understanding this quasi-religious force help Muslims and Jews communicate more effectively? Does misunderstanding now act as a barrier?
    I think that we need to "communicate" and be more honest with ourselves first. The truth is that life for a Muslim as an individual and as a Muslim is better, in some cases much better, in Israel than the rest of the "Muslim World" and the life of a Jew as an individual and as a Jew is somewhat better, in some cases much better, outside Israel. I think in all honesty that the former is a lot truer than the latter.

  2. Reb Simpleton, that latter point about about the quality of life for Muslims in Israel is frequent talking point for supporters of Israel. I am not sure it speaks to the experience of Arab Israelis or Palestinians.
    I also know lots of folks whose Jewish life is so rich that they could not even imagine being a Jew outside of Eretz Yisrael.
    By the way, before Kiryas Yoel there were two Jewish states in the middle ages. 1) The Kingdom of the Khazars 2) The Kingdom of Yosef Rabban, the Jewish Raja of Cranganore in modern-day Kerala, South India.

  3. Are we talking about the tangible (sometimes Likud, sometime Labor) State of Israel? Or about the Jewish State to which we've aspired since Babylon?

  4. The answer to your question Barry is "yes"

    Some of us are talking about the State as it is with all its politics etc.

    Some are talking about the state as the "first flowering of the redemeption" the beginnings of the revelation of the the messiah.

    Some are talking about a Zionist pioneer mythical state of noble nation building as a refuge from anti-semitism

    I think its the last one that most moves American secular Jews.

  5. I must admit that the State of Israel really plays very little role in my Jewish identity on a daily basis, other than to make me a target for hate mail. My identity as a Jew is more tied in with a mystrical connection to God, both through our texts and daily practice. And I relate to God more through nature and His creation than through politics.

    I have never been to Israel (for economic reasons) and have never really been into nationalism. Nor do I relate to the military-oriented society that modern Israel seems to have become. Had I been born in Israel, I would probably have been jailed for refusing to serve in the army, since there is no such thing as conscientious objector status there.

    However, I would agree that for a lot of American Jews, belief in Israel has taken the place of belief in God -- sometimes to the point of idolatry. As I said lesewhere on this blog, a Jew can say "I don't beliuve in God" and who bats an eye? But criticize Israel and you are a herretic. And yes, this does get in the way of constructive political dialogue.

    But I would also ask my Muslim friends: Has hatred of Israel become such a central doctrine of modern Islam, that you are expected to be anti-Zionist in order to be a good Muslim? Has antisemitism become a religious doctrine? Because it seems to me that BOTH sides are making political issues into rigid religious stances -- to the detriment, I think, of both our religions.

  6. Is it fair for American Jews to achieve open mindedness and cultural dialogue at the expense of their brethren in Israel, who have to deal with far more complex moral dilemmas and challenges based on realities there? How does one maintain tolerance and open mindedness as acts of horrendous violence are inflicted against your people, friends and loved ones, year after year? Is it necessary to condemn those who must do unpleasant things in order to save lives? Is it appropriate to think down on them instead of offering viable alternatives?

  7. Yes, it makes sense for American Jews to achieve open-mindedness and cultural dialogue. And how is that at the expense of our brethren in Israel? If people here (or for that matter THERE) build bridges of humanity, how exactly does that harm our people? On the contrary, it can only make it better.

    How do you maintain tolerance in the face of acts of horrendous violence? Its not easy. You realize that G-d gave individuals free will and they can choose to do right and choose to do wrong. There are some people who choose to do very very wrong. That doesn't invite us to hate everyone who looks like those people, who is related to those people, who speaks the same language as those people, or shares the religion of those people. Evil, of any kind, is evil. It deserves to be condemned and more importantly to be fought with good.
    Did you hear any condemnation of anyone in this piece?
    My intuition tells me (and you can correct me) that what you are feeling is that somehow this is letting "the team" down. If I really cared about Jews or Israelis, I would be angry and resentful towards "those people." Understand that I utterly reject the concept of "those people" and fully expect others to reject that sentiment when it comes to Jews, Israelis and "Zionists". Its enough already with the hating of "those people" whoever they might be. Its time to see each other as we are. In practical terms, do you really think that the American Jew who sneers at the Pakistani woman in hijab (sure of course that she is an Arab and anti-Israel) in the supermarket is somehow scoring a point for the home team? Is that going to protect my Israeli grandchildren? Do you really believe that?

  8. It wasn't my intention to reject the value of open mindedness or cultural dialogue- far from it. My concern is that a lot of the attempts at dialogue I've seen made by Jews often have an "entry fee" of agreeing to condemn their brethren in Israel. I've also met a lot of Jews who feel great compassion and are very interested in understanding the Palestinian narrative, for example, but who have never visited or really thought about terror victims, etc. My intention was not to accuse you personally. It is just a phenomenon I saw a great deal of, particularly when I was in college, that was very disturbing to me.
    I certainly do not advocate hatred of any people on ethnic or religious lines. However, living in Israel I also have to face the reality that the cultural heroes of many of the people living near me are mass-murderers of Jews. This is not a blanket statement that applies to all people there, but many. It is certainly enough that it forces me to be vigilant when it comes to my personal safety and that of my family.
    I don't think dialogue should come at the expense of agreeing to condemn Jews in Israel for taking the difficult but sometimes necessary measures they have to in order to protect lives (I'm not saying you are doing that).
    I actually have a cousin who is a Sufi Muslim, and have been in dialogue with him for a long time in what I felt was really helpful and effective communication. But of late I was surprised to hear that even after all the understanding I thought we'd achieved he was still advocating positions that if implemented in real life would put the lives of my family, friends and neighbors here in Israel in great danger.
    I don't advocate sneering at or mistreating anyone, and am disturbed if I ever witness such behavior (although I have not witnessed much of it, fortunately). I have witnessed in my life however an unfortunate lack of courage at times when "keeping the peace" can only be done at the expense of agreeing with falsehood or slandering the innocent.
    There's a story I think of from R' Raphaelof Bershad, the major disciple of R' Pinchas of Koretz:
    A Chassid once asked R' Raphael: “You teach that a man should always tell the truth. How can one do this if he wishes to make peace?”
    R' Raphael replied: “To make peace, I demand the full truth, and with the full truth, I make peace”.

  9. Hello and Salam Mr Weissman,

    I am glad i landed on your blog. Its a refreshing departure from the usual stifling and hateful literature that one usually reads on judeo-muslim relationships.
    I think perhaps we need to separate the political and spiritual relationship between jews and muslims. Spiritually muslims consider themselves successors of the jewish people. And because of that they are very much like the jewish people spiritually; which a number of your blog entries also point at. The muslim community's early relationship with jewish faith was based on a need to take heed from the plight of the jewish people whom God had punished by taking away their promised land and taking away their leadership role in the world. On the other hand jewish law and sharia law also have many similarities as their origin is from the same God.
    However this intense bloodthirsty rivalry has developed slowly in last 100 years perhaps since the balfour declaration which is primarily political in nature. Prior to that jews and muslims generally enjoyed a good relationship. When Saladin reconquered jerusalem he invited the jews to come back and live there. Similarly in the spanish inquisition which at first targeted the jews and later the muslims it is noteworthy that most of expelled jews relocated to the ottoman empire. And even today there are jewish enclaves in predominantly muslim countries such as morroco, turkey and even iran. Somehow since the creation of state of israel the relationship has suffered extremely. My grandmother who lived in karachi pakistan, when state of israel was formed tells me of an incident which speaks volumes of the animosity between the two parties at that time. Karachi had a small jewish population when pakistan was formed; a year before israel. My grandmother's close friend was a jewish girl. When they were immigrating to israel she told my grandmother that now that we are going to israel we will gouge out the eyes of all muslims (arabs?) over there. In turn i know many of my countrymen who would do the same to any jewish person that they come across. Its a sad state of affairs. And i hope it changes for the better in future.
    I end my comment with a verse of hope and mercy promised by God from the Holy Quran:

    Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve (2:62)