American Jews Into Israeli-Americans

I was unsure whether I should write about this, since it's kind of delicate, but the conclusion of Mark Kleiman's Rosh Hashanah post has inspired me:

Personally, I identify as Ashkenazi. The Zionist project has much to be said for it, but it's not especially my project. I don't regard visiting Jerusalem as an ascent, and in my opinion the Holy One (blessed be He), desiring that there be a national home for the Jews, in His infinite wisdom and mercy created Long Island.

A bit flip, to be sure, but something I fundamentally agree with. By contrast, my most recent visit to Temple Rodef Shalom with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Northern Virginia made me genuinely uncomfortable along a variety of dimensions, despite it being a totally standard Reform synagogue seemingly populated by the same none-too-observant Askenazi liberals as all the others I've attended. Let me count the ways . . . well, there were really only three.

First, entering the building from the parking there is, hanging over the door, a large sign reading "Temple Rodef Shalom Supports ISRAEL." I have, in essence, some very banal political gripes with that. There are, clearly, banal readings of the phrase "X supports Israel" such that I wholly endorse the sentiment. On the other hand, it seems to be deliberately playing on the ambiguity between "supporting Israel" in the sense of opposing those who wish to destroy the entire country and "supporting Israel" in the sense of, say, standing behind whatever policy choices the government of Israel happens to make. This latter thing, of course, I don't do at all. I don't support Israel's current attitude toward President Abbas' efforts to forge a national unity coalition on the Palestinian side, I didn't support Israel's recent attack on Lebanon, and I don't support George W. Bush's Israel policy. What's more, I don't at all appreciate the sentiment that offering uncritical "support" of Israeli foreign policy is or ought to be an article of faith of the Jewish religion; certainly Israeli Jews don't see it that way, otherwise there'd hardly be such a thing as Israeli democracy.

Much less pointed, but in some ways more deeply troubling to me, were two little bits of symbolism. One was that the temple's youth choir, Shir Harmony, wears these odd outfits that, as best one can tell, are supposed to be modeled on some kind of Iraeli Kibbutz uniform. The second is that in the main sanctuary, you have an American flag and you have . . . an Israeli flag.

On the last thing, there's the simple point to make that were one to raise the specter of a community living in Northern Virginia and harboring "dual loyalties" one would be condemned as an anti-semite. And yet, there it is. Not one flag, but two.

That said, there's nothing especially odd about seeing foreign flags -- which is to say dual loyalties of a sort -- in the United States of America. Indeed, a certain number of foreign flags and dual loyalties are integral to America's self-conception as a nation of immigrants. If you stopped by an Italian-American organization you would, of course, see Italian flags. Similarly, an Irish-American organization would feature Irish flags. But here's the rub -- Americans Jews aren't Israeli-Americans. I mean, some of us are. My one friend actually was born in Israel and he and his family moved here when he was young. But that's not typical.

Most American Jews -- and specifically American reform Jews -- aren't in any sense offshoots of modern Israeli society in general or of modern Labor Zionism in particular. Indeed, it's rather the reverse. Diaspora reform Judaism and Ashkenazi Jewish culture in North America represents an alternative conception of modern Jewish identity. An alternative conception that is, in many ways, directly antagonistic to the model represented by traditional Zionism and the kibbutz. This isn't, after all, 1923 when one might think vaguely of relocating to Mandate Palestine some day. Israel is there. It's up and running. One can move there with ease -- the right of return and all -- and the quasi-official view of the Israeli state is that one ought to move there and embrace the Zionist project. Like Kleiman, I guess I have a certain sympathy and even admiration for the Zionist project, but it's not my project.

It's fascinating and noteworthy that those who did embrace the project robustly have managed to create a modern Israeli cultural tradition, but that's not my tradition. My ancestors are from Eastern Europe, not the Middle East. They spoke Yiddish, not modern Hebrew. And I don't know exactly what they were up to in the Pale but they certainly weren't making the desert bloom.

This is getting very long already, and I don't quite know what the point is, but I sort of wanted to get it off my chest.