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The Current:
Spring 2007
National Identity, Intranational Argument
Shoshana Olidort

On a trip to the Far East several years ago, my friends and I, four Orthodox girls from Brooklyn, chose to join an Israeli tour group for a three-day jeep excursion through northern Thailand. Far from home, family and all things familiar, we responded almost instinctively to their presence—a group of Israeli men and women who spoke a language we identified with, even if it was not our native language, and who hailed from a country that, on some level, we think of as home.

Imagine, then, our disappointment, on finding that our Israeli tour peers did not reciprocate our feelings of kinship. Here in the boondocks of the Far East we had come across fellow Jews, the sort we idealized, even idolized, as role models of Jewish pride. But to them, we were Americans—Jewish, granted—who did not share in any meaningful way their own sense of identity as secular Israeli Jews. Indeed, our very Jewishness was foreign to them—"it's only chicken," one woman chided when we explained that we couldn't partake of the meals included in the tour package because we observed kosher dietary laws.

I had forgotten about this episode in Thailand, until I heard Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua's outburst at the American Jewish Committee (A.J.C.) centennial symposium in May 2006. "If . . . in 100 years Israel will exist, and I will come to the Diaspora [and] there will not be . . .[any] Jews, I would say it's normal. I will not cry for it," Yehoshua told an audience of mostly American Jews who had gathered, under the aegis of the A.J.C., to address the question "The Future of the Past: What will become of the Jewish people?"

At the symposium, Yehoshua made clear that he found the question itself irrelevant and that sitting in Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of the Jewish people was, in his mind, a waste of time. Ridiculing the very notion of Jewish identity outside of Israel, Yehoshua accused his American hosts of merely "playing" with Jewishness, and creating an identity based on abstract ideas and ancient texts, instead of engaging in the real, everyday issues of life as it is unfolding in the Jewish homeland. "The difference between you and me," Yehoshua told his audience, is that "I'm married and you are... [to] be nasty [about it]. . . playing with the idea of marriage."

Here was an academic projecting the same attitude of undisguised indifference to Diaspora Jewry that I had encountered in Thailand. Back then I had chalked up my Israeli peers' attitude to ignorance rather than to deliberate disregard. But I realized now that there might be more to this phenomenon of indifference than I wanted to believe. To be certain, Yehoshua does not represent Israeli mainstream popular opinion, but his views are disconcerting because of what they may portend for the Israeli future.

Indeed, according to a survey of Israeli Jewry conducted by the Guttman Center of the Israel Democracy Institute in 2000, while 95% of Israelis claimed to see themselves as part of world Jewry and 70% believed that American and Israeli Jews share a common fate, a striking 69% believe that Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews are different peoples. This is troubling, not only because of what it suggests about the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, but more importantly because of what it says about how Israelis confront—or fail to confront—the question of Jewish identity for themselves and for future generations of Israeli Jews.

For Yehoshua, living in Israel means that his every act is an affirmation of his Israeli-Jewish identity. By voting in parliamentary elections and shopping on Dizengoff Street, Yehoshua believes that the Israeli Jew asserts his Israeli identity, which is, according to him, the full and natural realization of Jewish identity. But is Israeli identity really the new Jewish identity? And should the mundane behaviors associated with living in any country be given special value—i.e., be deemed assertions of essential identity—simply because they take place within the national borders of the Jewish State?

Such passive affirmation of Jewish identity is foreign to the American Jewish mindset, and it is their perspective on this issue that divides American and Israeli Jews. The divergence between the American Jewish identity and the Israeli Jewish identity, I was told by Steven Cohen, professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College, is essentially the difference between identity by intention and identity by default. And it is precisely this identity by default that Yehoshua's argument seems to embrace.

According to Michael Walzer, sociologist at the Institute for Advanced Studies who spoke recently on this topic at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, American Jews define their identity largely in terms of religion. The American Jewish revival of the last two decades is proof of this phenomenon— synagogue membership is on the rise, hundreds of Jewish day schools are springing up across the country, and Jewish studies programs are proliferating on campuses nationwide.

Attending synagogue, registering a child for Hebrew school, or the choice to date Jewish are all decisions aimed at asserting Jewish identity. American Jews, unlike their Israeli counterparts, said Columbia professor Dan Miron, are "forced to confront the question of identity and self-definition without illusions or easy answers." Looking at Israel, then, American Jews are understandably skeptical about the notion of an identity built around activities that are not discernibly Jewish, even if they take place on Jewish soil and benefit the Israeli economy.

To be fair, Yehoshua would presumably argue, and not without reason, that the decision to live in Israel is itself intentional and that as such, all behaviors that follow are also necessarily intentional. And to the extent that Israel provides a context for an integrated Jewish living experience—with daily life conducted in the Hebrew language, in a Jewish majority state—Yehoshua compellingly asserts the Zionist belief that Israel presents the only viable future for the Jewish people. While the Jewish people owe their survival to Judaism's fundamental portability, which allowed it to persevere—even flourish—during its 2,000 years of exile, Jews always saw the Land of Israel as their true home, and never more so than now that the people have returned to their ancient homeland. Israel, as Hillel Halkin wrote in support of Yehoshua, is the "only place in the world in which one can live a Jewish life that is total— in which, that is, there is no compartmentalization between the inner and the outer, between what is Jewish and what is not."

Indeed, Yehoshua's argument can be traced back to a chief objective of the Zionist vision—the creation of a "new integrated Jewish personality," which would, for the first time in 2,000 years, include a political and national dimension. Yet most Zionists understood that nationhood was not the be-all and end-all of Jewish identity. Instead, they saw nationalism as one aspect of an identity that would incorporate other, specifically Jewish traits. For the spiritual Zionist Ahad Ha'am, these would be manifest through a set of Jewish ethics embraced and espoused by the Zionist state. Another Zionist visionary, A.D. Gordon, believed that living in Israel would challenge Jews to renegotiate their place in the cosmos by connecting with both the history and the territory of the Bible. Zionism believed that with national sovereignty and political independence, a national-Jewish identity would be allowed to develop and flourish, and that eventually a "new biblical effervescence would be achieved," said Miron.

For Theodor Herzl, Zionism would answer the age-old European "Jewish Question" by providing the Jews with a national homeland. Ahad Ha'am saw Zionism as the antidote to the spiritual crisis confronting Jews and Judaism in the age of Western liberal ideals and assimilation by providing a context for Jewish spiritual expression. Jewish identity, as he understood it, could not be limited to a territory and a language. Indeed, even Herzl acknowledged in his diary that the Jewish people "recognize ourselves as a nation by our faith."

Thus, Israel is not, as Yehoshua seems to be suggesting, a "normal" nation-state like those of Europe, defined strictly in terms of national boundaries. Instead, its national identity is inextricably tied to the religious and cultural tradition that has given it claim to the land in the first place.

The Land of Israel, as statesman and former dissident Natan Sharansky pointed out in his published response to Yehoshua's comments, was awarded by the Balfour Declaration to the Jewish people, the same people who had prayed and longed for their return to their ancient homeland for 2,000 years. By making his argument for an identity based solely on a language and a territory, Sharansky wrote, Yehoshua "grants a bill of divorcement to the Jewish people, to the Jewish heritage, to 3,000 years of culture, creativity, prayer, rituals, tradition, and everything that is subsumed in the term Judaism, and shows a preference for the Israeli 'nation,' which 'arose from the sea,' 100 years ago."

And what then is the Israeli claim on the Jewish homeland? By what means does this new "Israeli" entity earn its rights to the Land of Israel, the land of the Jews? What, asked writer Leonard Fein in response to Yehoshua, "is the relationship of the State of Israel to the Jewish people?" According to Yehoshua—nothing.

Yehoshua's stance, as Miron and Fein have suggested, is hardly different from the Canaanite philosophy, which contended that the return of the Jews to their homeland signified a return to their "natural history," i.e., a disassociation from the history of the Diaspora and the reestablishment of a pre-exilic nation—the Hebrews or the Canaanites—unrelated to the religion and the narrative of the Jewish people.

The problem with this approach is that the State of Israel owes its existence to a religious and cultural history that precedes and is larger than itself. To disregard this reality is to forfeit Israel's claim to a Jewish national identity.

Perhaps Yehoshua would do well to consider the ramifications of an Israeli identity whose Jewishness is merely incidental to the future of the Jewish State. Yehoshua is well-versed in Tanakh and the Talmud, and feels comfortable dismissing 3,000 years of Jewish history. That is his privilege. But what of future generations of Israelis who will know progressively less about the tradition that preceded the State? What will their Israeli-Jewish identity consist of 100 years hence? Will it differ, qualitatively, from the identity of a Frenchman, an Irishman, a German?

And just as this attitude of indifference threatens Israel internally—by challenging the perpetuation of an Israeli culture informed by Judaism— it also raises the stakes as far as Israel's national security is concerned. It does so by throwing into question the legitimacy of the State of Israel and its very right to exist. As Sharansky put it, "The difference between Israeli identity . . . and Jewish identity is exactly the difference between the fact of existence and the right to exist. The difference is between a group of people that lives on a piece of land and speaks the Hebrew language, and the descendants of a people that is scattered throughout the world, who have returned to their historic homeland."

Yehoshua may have a valid point in criticizing American Jews for their obsession with a ritual- and text-based identity. But the alternative he suggests—a passive, ahistoric approach to the question of Jewish identity—is not a viable solution. Ultimately, Yehoshua's attitude of indifference towards Diaspora Jewry undermines his own commitment to the future of the Jewish State.


Shoshana Olidort is a GS senior majoring in the writing program. She can be reached at so2152@columbia.edu.


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