I generally feel guilty about stuff. Sometimes I blame that on my being Jewish — other times I accept that it’s just me. Maybe that’s why the latest round of somewhat justified Israel bashing, as well as the utterly unjustified Jew-bashing that’s going along with it, has been keeping me up at night. Try as I might, I don’t seem able to extricate myself from Israel anymore.
For the past few decades, most American Jews have been forced to take one of two fairly extreme stances on Israel. There’s the traditional stance, “Israel, love it no matter what,” which has been pretty much the prerequisite to doing anything officially Jewish. If you’re not with the crowd that accepts whatever Israel does as right, no matter what, then you’re basically lumped in with the “self-hating Jews” and may as well turn to Buddhism or some other, friendlier, and less conditional faith.
The only other position to take has been “Israel, hate it no matter what,” which is certainly more consonant with the left leanings of many hip urban Jews, but also a bit reactionary. Even Israel does some good things, and its right-wing government certainly has more progressive intentions than its many neighbors. There was even once a dream that Israel could be a model, experimental nation — a laboratory for the evolution of social justice. That baby needn’t be thrown out with the anti-occupation bathwater.
I spent the better part of the 1990s looking for a third way. It seemed to me America’s problem with Israel had less to do with Israel than ourselves. By devaluing our own, watered-down experience of Judaism at ill-conceived synagogues and community centers in the ’70s and ’80s, we put too much pressure on Israel to be Jewish for the rest of us. We didn’t mind so much that we were bad, uneducated Jews — so long as there were some real Jews doing real Judaism over in Jerusalem.
Zionism, and donating money to Zionist causes, became the de facto way of doing Judaism. And it perpetuated the sense that a Jew can’t be a real Jew anywhere but over there.
It seemed to me that Judaism was instead a tradition that thrived on reinvention for different eras. Temple-based Judaism ended with the collapse of the Temple. Jews adapted, wrote down the Torah, and took their religion on the road. It was utterly different, yet utterly continuous. Adaptation was the through-line.
So I wrote a book, “Nothing Sacred,” proposing a more do-it-yourself style of Judaism. I started an OpenSourceJudaism website, and with the Bronfmans even devised a summit experience called Reboot, giving smart young Jews permission to remake Judaism for themselves. And the whole justification was that this revision is continuity, and that once a few intelligent Jews realized it was not just their privilege but their responsibility to engage with Judaism in this way, they would seek the kind of education and experiences that make them fit for the job.
And over the past decade, many others have had similar ideas — and a new kind of bottom-up, community-driven Judaism has taken hold in America.
The trick is that this DIY Judaism gives us the ability to choose almost any third way we want. And I increasingly find chavura and other DIY Judaism groups and individuals who decide that it’s their prerogative to keep Israel, the nation state, completely separate from their Judaism altogether. After all, nations are social constructions, ethical compromises, and fraught with political corruption. Constitutionally, even.
And efforts like Reboot, Open Source Judaism and pretty much every other thing I’ve been involved with or attracted to gives American Jews the ability to take a third path of “no path.” And people of my ilk often treat Israel the way we would South Korea or any other nation facing a difficult situation. So, when I was interviewed last month for some magazine piece on why young Jewish Americans don’t associate so much with Israel anymore, I suggested it was partly due to the fact that American Jews no longer feel like we are doing “second-rate” Judaism.
When we did faux Judaism (the 1970’s bar mitzvahs and Catskills antics we like to make fun of today), we looked to Israel as the “real” Judaism, wrote our checks and vowed our support. But now that we’re doing Judaism that feels authentic, we don’t depend on Israel for that sense that someone is at the Wall doing the real thing. It’s why so many of us do not feel obligated to defend or even attack Israel’s every blunder — or even to have a West Bank solution on-hand for whenever the topic comes up at a cocktail party. We get to be Jews without the albatross of that nation-state in the Middle East.
However, when anti-Israel sentiment gets conflated with anti-Jewish sentiment (as I would argue it does right here in the U.S.), even we super-progressive DIY Jews no longer have the luxury of this disassociation. We’re not dragged in because our faith demands it; we’re dragged in because the world demands it. And at a certain point, the way the world sees things is the way things are. So we feel even more resentment — and guilt — because now we’re forced back into association with something we thought we were allowed to forget.
There may yet be a third way, but there’s no forgetting. For a Jew, separation from Israel is simply not an option.
Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at the New School University, is author of “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism.”
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