A 9th generation Israeli writing about American Immigration to Israel..from New York. Seemed a little hafuch, or upside-down to me. Nonetheless, Author and Culture Editor for the New York Jewish Week, Liel Lebovitz indulged me in several email rounds of modern talmudic debate about zionism and Judaism which all began with one simple, if lengthy interview, ostensibly about his book.
Titled Aliyah: Three Generations of American-Jewish immigration to Israel, the book asks
why would american jews – not just materially successful in this country but perhaps for the first time in the two-thousand-year jewish diaspora truly socially accepted and at home – choose to leave the material comforts, safety and peace of the united states for the uncertainty and violence of israel?
I’ve pretty much lived this book, yet still find Liel’s perspective to be an interesting one. The interview reprinted below transcends the genre, and goes to the heart of the American Jewish experience.
Laya: You’re 9th generation Israel, writing a book about Aliya, yet living in New York. Do you find there to be a certain irony, or tension in that?
Do you intend to move back?
Liel: Despite being a ninth generation Israeli, it was my move to New York, I believe, that has given me the critical distance necessary to write the book. Immigration – like poverty, war or illness – is an emotionally charged experience, one that does not lend itself easily to the journalist’s probing gaze. Having gone through that experience myself, albeit in the reverse direction to that taken by my subjects, I felt more at ease with, and more capable at, trying to understand them, or, as journalism professors often like putting it, getting inside their heads.
For the near future, at least, I see myself remaining in New York, in my heart there is always a lively and engaged dialogue with Israel. When I return there – and I believe it is a question of when rather than if – I would do so with the advantage of insight that only years in exile can award.
Laya: What, if anything, do you think that American immigrates specifically offer Israel or Israelis?
Liel: On the most basic level, the American olim bring with them a sense of propriety and a penchant for order that is sorely lacking in the Israeli public sphere. The idea, for example, that one must patiently wait in line when a line is formed, or show a modicum of respect for one’s elders, these ideas are largely foreign to Israeli culture, where directness often slips into bluntness and from there to temerity. Second of all, the sort of methodical thinking that the American mind so excels at – analytical, strategic, computing – is an asset from which Israel stands to greatly benefit. Israel, ever since its rocky birth, has always been a nation that took pride in its capacity to improvise, a talent that had, many times in the past, saved it from utter demise. There comes a time, however, in a country’s mental life, in which the sort of maturity that is associated with planning ahead, making decisions, being prepared is unavoidable. I believe that it was precisely this sort of thinking that American olim brought with them as a dowry, improving in the process everything from Israel’s business landscape to its political traditions.
Laya: There is a certain amount of resentment from Israelis that is sometimes felt by American Immigrants, can you explain why or where that comes from?
Liel: Most of Israelis, I believe, are ardent Zionists, but their Zionism is not very different from the patriotism of Frenchmen, Italians or Brits, an inherent sense of pride that stems from the natural affection and dedication one feels toward one’s birthplace. For American Jews who make Aliya, however, Zionism is more of a spiritual ideology, a stirring and dominant sensation. Israelis, never ones for naÃ¯ve expressions of emotion, sometimes regard the unabashedly enthusiastic Zionism professed by the American olim and shudder. To them, such unmitigated ideology, expressed by a non-native – particularly a non-native who was gullible enough to leave the United States, which most Israelis still see as being not very different from Disney’s Magic Kingdom – is not admirable but laughable.
The main exception, of course, is American olim who serve in the army, where all distinctions are largely erased and a uniform mentality, supremely Israeli, is instilled.
Laya: How do you define Zionism today, or what defines a Zionist?
Liel: Personally, I still define Zionism simply as the firm belief in the right of a Jewish homeland to exist in Eretz Israel (or parts of Eretz Israel), and the dedication to that homeland as a political entity. Herein, I believe, I differ from many in the religious camp, whose Zionism leads them to crave the land while taking umbrage with the state, particularly when the state does such things as withdraw from territories or negotiate with its former enemies. I believe this is a rupture that is only bound to get deeper.
Laya: While Zionism used to be seen as a movement of the working class, aligned with social justice, left wing politics and the like, it now seems to be aligned with the political right and the religious. When and why did that change take place, and why does it now seem like a contradiction to be a leftist and pro-Israel?
Liel: To paint a brief portrait, the movement can be said to have three major moments in its history. The first is its moment of birth, in the 19th Century, with numerous intertwined helixes – cultural Zionism, religious Zionism, territorial Zionism, political Zionism – coming together to form both a movement and an idea .
The second moment, of course, is the establishment of the state of Israel; with Zionism having achieved its main, if not only, goal, namely, the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel, the movement and the ideology alike began to flounder. What had once been a solid ideological structure was now open to questioning: How, for example, was the Israeli’s patriotism, which he might define as Zionism, differs from the Frenchman’s? Or how can an American Jew define him or herself as a Zionist, and still decline to fulfill Zionism age-old purpose, the immigration to Zion? And with the idea descending into doubt, the movement, too, became fractioned.
A third, equally important moment came after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, a victory that brought many Biblical sites under Jewish control, Jerusalem first and foremost. Inspired by Rav Kook Jr., a new wave of Zionism, this one religious, erupted, manifesting itself mainly by settling in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This movement, in a sense, was the only one capable of giving a successful and coherent answer to the crisis of Zionism; spiritual yearnings and biblical undertones were always present in even the most secular streams of classic Zionist thought, and the religious Zionists could now claim a concrete goal akin to the one of the movement’s original period
As a result of all of the above, the traditional, leftist adherents of Zionism became somewhat detached, while the right-wing, religious Zionists grew more adamant and more numerous. This, I believe, also explains the fact that the majority of olim in the past two decades have been religious, with many moving to settlements. This is also why some find it impossible to reconcile their leftist views with support for Israel; with Zionism no longer broad enough to contain its previous sub-ideologies, socialism first and foremost, many on the left are moved to judge Israel in the harsh, decontextualized prism of its actions, thereby judging its occupation of the West Bank, its continuing military measures against a civilian Palestinian population, and its construction and expansion of settlements in the heart of territories heavily populated by Palestinians in the harshest light.
Laya: How does the current trend of “hipster Judaism” play into this?
Liel: At the outset, I must admit to a certain bias regarding both the term and its adherents. I believe the term to be derogatory, or at least derogatorish, as it assumes that reading mishna and tosafot is Jewish whereas reading “Guilt and Pleasure” is not, or at least not as serious. I believe that just as religious Zionism provided a strong, simple, and coherent explanation at a time of doubt, questioning and paradigm shifts, so did religious Judaism give a strong, unequivocal definition of Jewish culture, a theory, I believe, that helps explain the exponential growth in both the numbers and influence of the fervently Orthodox community. In both cases, however, the religious definition is compelling but narrowly cast; it offers a world entire, but demands the adoption of a few key credos that not every Jew is comfortable with.
Therefore, I am thrilled with any serious effort to try and redefine what does Jewish culture maketh, and agree that listening to a recording by a Jewish artist could move some into conversation, contemplation, and hopefully action, much more effectively than a straightforwardly Jewish text.
In this light, I believe, Israel may very likely emerge as a major attraction for the new set of cultural seekers. I suspect that many in my generation might discover, if properly introduced, a country chockfull of cool people, terrific music, perfect weather, interesting foods and relaxed atmosphere, a country very different from either the ephemeral holy place of the right or the sinister Leviathan of the left. Under such circumstances, I can certainly imagine Aliya becoming bon ton with the so-called hipster set, with young people tuning in to Jewish culture on the Lower East Side and becoming transcontinental Kerouacs, going on the road that ends in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Laya: Do you need faith, in the greater sense, to live in Israel?
Liel: I believe the answer is yes â€“ faith is necessary. But that depends, of course, on what your definition of “faith” is. For me, the faith you need to immigrate to Israel is not the faith of the observant Jew, but the faith of the absorbing Jew, the Jew ready to absorb the country’s illogical and magical and incomprehensible elements and distill them into a personal identity. Let me briefly quote from my book: “A man can give as many reasons as he wishes when asked why he emigrated from America to Israel, but the real answer simply isn’t available to the cognitive faculties. It must be felt. It is sensed when one walks down the streets of Jerusalem, realizing that one’s ancestors walked those same streets centuries ago. It is present when one experiences the depth of spirituality in Israel, the sort of spirituality that relies less on texts and ceremonies and prayers, and more on the air and the hills and the sea.” Aliya, then, is an act of faith, but, at its core, it is faith of a different sort.