The crisis of Jewish identity

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Last Sunday, Stephen Walt gave a talk on the Israel lobby and Iran at the Church of the Messiah in the scientific community of Woods Hole, Mass., and as my parents have a house not a mile from the church, I walked over with my father. In the past, Walt and Mearsheimer’s assertion that the Israel lobby was a necessary factor in the decision to invade Iraq used to upset people the most. “In Dark Times, Blame the Jews,” the Forward wrote angrily, when the two professors published their paper in 2006. But today Iraq is ancient history, and in the packed church, as Walt spoke of the neocons pushing a war on Iran as they had on Iraq, people seemed to accept it. And many of them were Jews. Oh those crazy neocons was the feeling. We’re against them.

No, the dirty secret now is the brutality of the Israeli occupation. Walt gave just a couple of minutes to this subject, and one of his questioners echoed the point by saying she had been in the West Bank recently, but I sensed from the room and my subsequent socializing that ethnic cleansing and the destruction of olive trees is a subject to be politely skirted. Walt was introduced by a fellow Harvard professor, Everett Mendelsohn, who said that he and Walt has worked on a Boston Study Group paper, “Israel and Palestine – Two States for Two Peoples: If Not Now, When?” And that bright imperative is the mood of the liberal Jewish community: It’s time for the two state solution! With a nod to Rabbi Hillel’s famous statement, “If not now, when?”

There is a profound denial inside my community of the horror of the occupation, and its irreversibility. In his talk, Walt said frankly that the nature of Israeli politics militated against there being any end to the occupation, and the nature of American values barred our condoning apartheid or ethnic cleansing– but happily,  that was the end of it. Oh and by the way, it turns out one of my relatives is having a bat mitzvah in Jerusalem later this year.

When I got back to New York I read yet another column by a Jewish liberal dithering about what to do about the occupation– Leonard Fein in the Forward— and it struck me that my people, the Jews, are looking at a huge crisis stemming from Israel’s crisis, and we simply can’t face it. For more than a generation now, Israel has supplied American Jews their identity. Israel’s thereness, its modernness, its democracy, its army, its high-tech, its Jewishness– these qualities have supplied us with our understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Israel answered the centuries-long European Jewish question– how does modern society deal with our unique minority?– with a freshly built ghetto in the Middle East. We could have our cake and eat it. We could become successful peers to nonJews in the U.S. and maintain our distinctness because we had the living breathing Jewish ghetto preserved with a strong Jewish majority behind the security fence (and in front of it too!).

All that is now at risk. Anyone with any sense knows that the occupation threatens Israel’s future. Even the Times of Israel worries that Israel will become a “failed state,” something the left used to warn about. And with that goes American Jewish identity. How will we stay Jewish if Israel and Palestine become another mixed society in the Middle East?

As Walt himself has written, Peter Beinart is most alive to this crisis. He sees the Jewish leadership’s unconditional support for Greater Israel as the bulwark of Jewish identity and realizes this can’t work. He wants to repackage American Jewish identity so that his grandchildren will be Jewish– with segregation. Separate schools, religious instruction. A new way of ghettoizing our identity. Walt has questioned that prescription in his review of Beinart. Many on our site, myself included, have also done so.

Why is it that anti-Zionists like myself can be so blithe about this threat to Jewish identity? I think because our identity constructions were more universalist: from a young age we went outside the Jewish community for sources of spiritual and social and political inspiration. So we don’t feel at all threatened by a crisis for religious nationalism. No, we are thrilled by it– because religious nationalism goes against our values. We have hastened that crisis.

But this is a post about empathy. My father’s getting old, I can see the looming crisis in Jewish identity. What will Jewish mean if there is no Jewish state? How will Jews insure a Jewish future without this bulwark? (Jack Ross and Yonah Fredman have both sounded this theme on this site). I work for this website because I believe the destruction of Palestinian human rights and the corruption of American political values are more important issues than Jewish continuity, I will not put religious community over my progressive principles.

Nonetheless, I recognize the fears and the loss. I grew up going to that Cape Cod community every summer. Those smart Jews helped form me, I’m proud of their achievement. My heart goes out to them now. They’re scientists, and yet they are blinding themselves to the facts. Because they know– this is the end of something.

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“What will Jewish mean if there is no Jewish state?” Whatever it meant before 1948 . Hopefully something based around ethics and culture. Our tradition, places the relentless pursuit of peace amongst the highest of our aspirations. The Talmud, in Tractate Derech Eretz Zuta, devotes an entire chapter to exalting peace as a Jewish value. Hillel the sage instructs us to be “like the students of Aharon, to love peace and chase after it”… Read more »

The primacy of Jewish suffering has to go.

“The (1972 Olympics) “Munich massacre” was the single greatest tragedy in the history of sports.”


“What will Jewish mean if there is no Jewish state? How will Jews insure a Jewish future without this bulwark?” This question has only been postponed, not invented, by the present apotheosis of Zionism. It arose with the modern era and emancipation itself. The question is not only “being Jewish without a Jewish state” but being Jewish without a pre-modern Jewish collective, without Judaic religious coercion or gentile restriction, being Jewish at all, without such… Read more »

It’s always tough to look into an unflinching mirror. That’s why there’s none in The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Cf. “the modern, secular Jewish tradition”, as the late Israel Shahak called it, which he traced from Spinoza; Gabriel Piterberg’s opposition of the “conscious pariah” in the work of Hannah Arendt, to the “sovereign settler” of Herzl, in his “The Returns of Zionism”; Isaac Deutscher’s “non-Jewish Jew”; etc.