A Response to Daniel Gordis’ article, “The Storm Ahead” Jerusalem Post (5/28/2010)

Daniel Gordis’ Jerusalem Post article raises concerns about a growing crisis of young American Jews who lack a strong sense of connection to Israel.  I agree with his concerns and appreciate his efforts to consider potential solutions for building stronger bridges between our two communities. However, Gordis overstates his argument by claiming that “post-ethnic trends” in the “larger world” is the real issue in the growing gap between American Jews and Israel. While certainly an important factor, post-ethnic does not necessarily mean post-Zionist. Instead, it may engender important conversations about a new, more relevant, Zionism.

I am afraid I am partially to blame for Gordis’ conclusion. Gordis buttresses his concerns about American Jews’ relationship to Zionism by citing my observations about “post-ethnic” trends in American identity politics. (Listen to my comments  or read the Jewish Week article).  While I am glad that Gordis agrees with my observation about the importance of accepting the new realities of identify formation in an Obama era, I disagree with the conclusions he reaches that the “real issue is the larger world in which today’s younger American (and Israeli) Jews live.”

Changing notions of race and ethnicity are certainly an important factor in assessing how young Jews relate to israel. The blurring of racial categories and the fluidity of ethnic boundaries in the US makes it increasingly difficult to justify automatic collective identification based on inherited ties or homeland allegiances. Gordis correctly warns his readers that establishing Israel’s relevance for Jewish identity shaped by post-ethnic assumptions will be far more challenging than it was for baby boomers raised on the identity and racial politics of the 1960s. But, there is another side to the coin that Gordis fail to mention.

As a case in point, take the aspect of Obama’s self-narrative I did not have a chance to discuss in the talk Gordis cites. The self-identified first African-American president described his autobiography as “a story of race and inheritance.”  After a long and fraught journey, Obama ultimately identities quite explicitly with the particular aspect of his African-American roots.  His narrative emphasizes both the possibilities of erasing differences, but also, affirming distinct traditions. Cultural trends toward discovering ethnic roots and religious seeking can often catalyze particular commitments, allegiances, and homeland attachment. In order for such ties to develop, however, they must demonstrate personal meaning and relevance.

This more nuanced reading of contemporary trends in American ethnic identity suggests that the storm Gordis foresees is not inevitable. Moreover, placing blame solely on external realities abnegates any internal Jewish communal responsibility for these weakening ties. A more effective strategy would approach the situation as the result of two simultaneous trends—a post-ethnic moment in American identity politics and the inability of American and Israeli Jewish leadership to articulate compelling models of connecting our two communities.

Without meaning to, Gordis actually illuminates how communal assumptions about Israel contribute to the erosion of Israel’s relevance today. Gordis’ view of the diaspora Jewish community echoes the outdated and patronizing claims of classical Zionist ideology. Gordis claims that the “secure, confident and creative Diaspora community that many American Jews now take for granted is directly dependent on a vital and flourishing State of Israel,” and also writes, “it seems equally clear to me that were the State of Israel to be vanquished, the vibrant American Jewish life that we now too easily take for granted would wither away within a generation.” I thought we finally put these outdated assertions to rest after the A.B. Yehoshua controversy a few years ago.

I find these assumptions unfounded and ultimately counter-productive to building stronger ties between our two communities. Contrary to your claims, young American Jews don’t feel comfortable wearing kippot on Wall Street because of the 1967 war (even if their parents did). We feel comfortable expressing and publicly marking our Jewish identities because we live in an incredibly multicultural society that legally protects and culturally tolerates religious diversity. American Jews’ creativity, especially in areas of religious innovation, egalitarian practices, and passion for Judaism’s commitment to universal justice, has emerged in this country without any support (and, in fact, often strong opposition) from Israel. The separation of church and state in the U.S. (even if far from perfect in practice), has created a rich laboratory of Jewish innovation not possible in Israel.

But let’s not argue about whether or not Israel deserves full credit for the creativity of American Judaism, or whether the state serves as the lifeline for a community that would otherwise disappear.  There is something more important at stake.

On a purely practical level, the prevalence of the negation of the diaspora rhetoric (from extreme statements like those quoted above to the more implicit arguments about Israel’s automatic centrality in Jewish identity)fuels the growing alienation of American Jews from Israel.  The claim that Judaism is completely dependent on a more sustainable, authentic, and complete Jewish identity delegitimizes American Jews’ role as active contributors to Judaism and to the Jewish people.  This enduring insistence on Israel’s centrality among Jewish leaders and intellectuals leaves little room for feeling part of the state’s story without undermining our own paths toward building vibrant Jewish communities. As other parts of Prof. Jack Wertheimer’s survey indicated, American Jewish leaders have very close ties to Israel. However, exploring and nourishing these ties are hindered by the expectation that Israel supporters accept the second-class status of diaspora life and discount our own ability to thrive in the United States with Israel’s leadership.

If there is a storm ahead in the Israel-American Jewish relationship, the best strategy for avoiding its destructive force is twofold. First, we must analyze the ways in which new conceptions of race and ethnicity are shaping American Jewish identity anew. Second, we must critically self-assess our own assumptions about Israel’s role in Jewish peoplehood. The hierarchical model of homeland-diaspora formulated decades ago clashes with the emergence of two strong centers of Jewish life in the U.S. and Israel.  While post-ethnic trends certainly present new challenges, they also provide new opportunities to rethink the nature of American Jewish-Israel relationship. (I look at these in the last chapter of my book.) Perhaps it will take an impending crisis to articulate a novel and meaningful partnership between our two communities.