That’s the title of an essay by Michael B. Oren that appeared in the latest issue of Azure Online. Oren manages to weave together Herzl, the First Zionist Congress, Emma Lazarus, Henrietta Szold, the Union of Reform Congregations, David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Louis Brandeis, Michael Chabon and Adam Sandler’s character in last summer’s comedy blockbuster You Don’t Mess With the Zohan into an essay about the growing schism between Israel and the American diaspora in the much vaunted but mostly ill-defined post-Zionist era.

Oren provides a concise historical context as he describes the existential dilemma faced by many Jews in a world where America and Israel compete for the hearts and minds of the Jewish imagination. He talks about two other movie characters – Avner in Munich (2006) and Eyal in Walk on Water (2004), Israel’s highest grossing film ever.

[Both] are Mossad operatives who despair of the cyclical violence in their country and seek a way out. But while Eyal remains in Israel, Avner immigrates to Brooklyn—just like Zohan.

The decisions of Eyal on the one hand, and of Avner and Zohan on the other, represent far more than dramatic devices. Walk on Water was directed by an Israeli, Eytan Fox, while the other two films are products of American Jews. The choices made by their protagonists thus, to a great extent, reflect the gulf between Israeli and American Jewry over which community best guarantees Jewish survival—physical as well as spiritual—in a precarious, secular age. Which polity, these misleadingly superficial films ask, constitutes the sole Jewish utopia, the State of Israel or the United States? Which is the real Promised Land?

That is the question. Historically, many places other than the holy land have competed for the imagination of the Jewish people. Arguably, many of the greatest accomplishments of the Jewish people happened outside the confines of our holy land. However, Israel has always been our touchstone – the one place that we always longed for and called home – the focus of our yearnings and prayer. Oren does a great job fleshing out these issues without resorting to judgmental polemics. Me? I’ve made my choice. I’m off to the Kotel in a minute for Shabbat services. What are Jew doing tonight?

Read Oren’s article and let us know what you think.

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Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.

17 Comments

  • So (hypothetically) I’m a Jew with a measure of education and personal resources. I can go to Israel, sign up for the Zionist enterprise, live freely and prosper. Or I can live in the US, find a like-minded faith community, live freely and prosper.

    And the problem here is . . . what, exactly?

  • Thanks ck, that was an interesting read.

    I’ll have to watch that Zohan movie, it sounds more interesting than I had originally thought.

    As for the issue discussed in the article, I will be very curious to see how the attitudes of young American Jews and Israeli Jews change over the next few decades.

    I suspect it will be almost completely dependent on the political developments in the respective countries i.e if the situation worsens in Israel, but Jews become even more assimilated and accepted in the US the impetus for Aliya will decline even further … and vice versa.

    Also the continuing globalization of culture, education and commerce will play a big role in how Israeli youths see themselves obviously.

    … its gonna be intersting to watch how it plays out.

  • Well Tom, the problem is that there are way more of your folks out here than over there. That means the odds of finding a mate who is Jewish drop dramatically and that your grandchildren will be celebrating next to a Christmas tree. Does that matter? Well, some would say so.

  • Yet committed Jews thrive in significant numbers here in the US, don’t they? Besides, in an age of globalization the reality is that Jews and non-Jews are highly integrated. The days of walled-off communities are a thing of the past. No one gets to live in a ghetto, for better or for worse.

    Here’s a thought experiment for you. Peace breaks out in the Middle East, and non-Israeli Arabs flock to Israel, some to tour the country and do business, others to reside and clean office bathrooms in Tel Aviv. Israel’s relations with its immediate neighbors resemble those of EU countries with one another. Travel and commerce boom in the opposite direction, too. Borders are peaceful and permeable.

    A nightmare scenario, under Middle’s analysis?

    (Where the hell have you been, btw?)

  • How did we get to the nightmare scenario when I was speaking about the sad reality where Jewish traditions fall by the wayside for many because we are such a small minority?

    I’ve been here. I’m just not as productive as I used to be…

  • You and Peyton Mannning both, Middle… My modest point was that posing an either/or choice between the assimilationist US and Israel is a false one, especially because, in the long run if all goes well, Israel will become the Middle Eastern version of Estonia, and the US and Israeli models will converge ever further.

    Or is Israel lucky in its relative isolation, since that’s fsvorable to endogeny? Tell us what to wish for. Oren’s focus on “survival” tempts one to think he has a perverse nostalgia for the bad old days of anti-semitic segregation. Under his analysis, if we hated you all again, Zionism would benefit.

  • As Ignaz Maybaum correctly pointed out, today’s Jewry is not the Jewry of the shtetl anymore.
    Wishing for the shtetl Jewish identity to return would also mean to ignore the unsanitary living conditions, poverty, malnutrition, illnesses, limited options in professions, highly limited civil rights, constant threat of persecution, little availability of real, profoundly educated scholars as opposed to “rabbis” assigned their titles based on their advanced age etc. that were typical of the shtetl experience, to put it nicely. My great-grandfather used to get terribly upset when somebody spoke of the past as of the good old days. To paraphrase & translate his sentiments:

    How were the old days “good”?
    What could we do just because we wanted to? – Nothing.
    What could we eat just to indulge a little? – Nothing.
    What were we allowed to learn beyond what was decided for us? – Nothing.
    What did we count to the state? – Nothing.
    What future could we offer our children? – None.

    And my great-grandfather even lived in a non-shtetl village of the West, where the situation in all regards was decidedly better than in the shtetls of the East.
    I can understand that some people look back at their childhood days with sentimental nostalgia, but as little as small children these days understand e.g. their parents’ financial woes did they understand the difficulties their elders suffered. I just wish the shtetl culture hadn’t been brought to such a horrendous, violent end but had been given the chance of transition.

    That Jewish identity many wish to re-establish was forced upon people based on the misconception of race. It wasn’t their pick. They ate pickled herring, because they couldn’t afford or weren’t permitted to get fresh fish.
    The options we now have to develop our identities are marvellous. That doesn’t mean we’ll be losing Jewish identity, but that we’ll be adding more and more facets to being Jewish as we go (and obviously prosper) in our today’s surroundings.

    As Maybaum also pointed out, today’s Jewry, while supportive of Israel, is not necessarily defined by Israel. And as far as I can tell, that has given many of us a great deal of unprecedented chances.

    Just a sidenote, many self-aware Jews in Germany would put up Xmas trees (a pagan fertility symbol paired with a reminder to give to charities afterall), e.g. the legendary theatre critic Alfred Kerr. If people are so much concerned that their grandchildren might celebrate underneath a Xmas tree, they should consider ditching the American style celebration of Chanukka altogether, which basically is an adaption of American Xmas kitsch to the Jewish holiday, and should return to what our Chasidishe brethren do.

    As far as I’m concerned, should I ever have grandchildren, I’d wish for them to flourish in peace, happiness, and health. If that is what they feel, I doubt they’ll abandon their heritage.

  • If Jewish traditions are “falling by the wayside” in the US, as Middle writes, is it America’s fault?

  • Tom – the issue has strong policy and ideological implications. Jews prospering in the diaspora is not a new thing. We prospered in Babylon, we prospered in Spain, we prospered in Germany too. All that prosperity occurred without the existence of the State of Israel. But prosperity and freedom for the Jews cuts both ways. First of all, historically, it’s never been permanent. Second, as many examples show, with the US as the latest example, acceptance breeds integration as witnessed by diminishing Jewish literacy and increasing intermarriage and commitment to whatever it is that makes Jews distinct. To some this isn’t an issue. The continued vitality and viability of a Jewish community is of little importance and as long the prosperity continues, who cares? Israel is seen not as a Jewish refuge but rather as the biggest current threat to Jewish physical survival – all its residents are targets, one nuke away from total annihilation, and many hate Jews because of perceived crimes committed by the Zionists. The Jewish State is a mere 60 years old and how we as a community deal with its mere existence will affect the evolution of Judaism for decades to come in much the same way European emancipation has.

    As for me, physical survival, freedom and prosperity means nothing if the price is growing loss of identity. That’s why I am here in Israel – it’s the one place I am pretty sure a full Jewish life unhindered by the pressures of assimilation is most possible. In my humble and otherwise worthless opinion I should add…

  • If anything, it’s freedom’s fault. The Talmud says that what differentiates human beings from animals is humans’ ability to deliberately say, “No”. Just that in Europe Jews didn’t always have that choice as the race label was stuck onto them and forced them into particular environments.

  • Maybe the State of Israel changes everything for the better for Jews everywhere, and not just in Israel. As Justice Brandeis, quoted by Oren, said: “Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though… neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so”.

    The status of American Jews today makes Brandeis look prophetic.

    Things could fall out of bed again for the Jewish people, but Jews aren’t unique in their historical ups and downs. Ask the Poles, Koreans and Armenians. Or, if you can find them, the Aztecs, Canaanites and Etruscans. It could be worse, actually.

  • Yeah for sure Tom. But I’ll do the best I can to make sure things don’t fall out of place. Our continued survival is one of our more endearing character traits – unlike the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Philistines etc. etc.

  • Middle– thanks for the link– I’m going to read the article later today. Michael Lewis is obscenely talented, isn’t he? I think I want to return as him in some future life.

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