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Is Israel Really “The Jewish State”?

Bennett Muraskin
February 28, 2015

by Bennett Muraskin

herzl-JudenstaatOVER SIX MILLION Jews live in Israel, the largest Jewish community in the world. Its flag is a Jewish symbol; its national anthem appeals to the “Jewish soul;” Jewish holidays are national holidays; the official language is Hebrew. Jerusalem, the capital of ancient Judea, is the also the capital of modern Israel, and the longing for “Zion” is at the heart of Jewish liturgy. Can you get more Jewish than that?

Millions of Jews outside Israel have visited and have relatives and friends there. Jews in the U.S. and other countries are dedicated to supporting Israel by engaging in political action, fundraising, the sponsorship of “Birthright” trips and youth programs, and so on.

Yet during the decades of Zionist development, and in the early days of the new Israeli state, the official attitude toward diaspora Jews was unfriendly. The term “exile” was used to convey that Jews could never be at home outside Israel. Jews in “exile” were portrayed as weak, cowardly, economically unproductive, and at the mercy of intractable anti-Semitism. Israel’s mission was to “negate” the exile by creating a new Jewish personality that was strong, tough, rooted in the land, and in charge of its own destiny. The ideal Jew was no longer the scholar but the citizen soldier. This hostility toward the diaspora Jew extended to Yiddish, which was depicted as the language of exile. It was actively suppressed in favor of Hebrew, a language that had not been the Jewish vernacular for two thousand years.

Although Israel no longer denigrates diaspora Jews in such harsh terms, we still hear claims from leading Zionists that Jews cannot be fully Jewish unless they live in Israel, and that all Jews should consider moving there.

It is my contention, however, that the Jewish people were forged in the diaspora as a religious/national minority, and that calling Israel “the Jewish State” is a misnomer.

EVEN BEFORE THE ROMAN WAR that destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, the majority of Jews lived outside the Jewish homeland. Since the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 137 CE, Jews have been only a small minority in what came to be known as Palestine. When Zionist organizations first began sending Jews to Palestine in the 1880s, a mere 5 percent of its population was Jewish. Jews achieved majority status in modern Israel only as a result of the UN Partition Plan.

The Torah took final form in the Babylonia Exile in the 5th century BCE. All of the Gemara (the bulk of the Talmud) was written in Babylon between 200 CE and 500 CE. The Midrash was also written in the diaspora. The greatest religious scholars — Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon, the Hasidic masters, Franz Rosenzweig, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan — were all products of the diaspora.

The Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) originated in Europe, and the movements it inspired — Reform Judaism, Jewish socialism, modern Yiddish literature — revolutionized the Jewish world.

Political Zionism itself was a diaspora invention.

IT WOULD BE FOOLISH to ignore the pitfalls of diaspora existence, of course. Six million Jews were slaughtered in Europe during World War II, and instances of mass murder and persecution date back to the Crusades. But there were periods of growth and security as well. And in North America, in particular, Jews have flourished and developed a character and profile that sharply distinguishes us from Israeli Jews.

First, we live in a nation in which “church” and “state” are largely separate. Our citizenship is based on residency, not ethnicity. Despite pressure from the religious right, the U.S. remains a secular nation. All citizens are formally equal before the law. Overt expressions of racism are taboo.

Israel, of course, is a state in which the Jewish religion plays a major role in the civic arena, and in which Jewish citizens are privileged over non-Jewish citizens. This is not to say that Israel lacks key democratic features, but its Arab minority faces rampant discrimination in every aspect of life, both de jure and de facto, and anti-Arab racism is openly expressed. Furthermore, Israel’s political culture has been corrupted by a 48-year occupation of Arab land and a dispossession of Palestinians that goes back to 1948. My point is not to debate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, only to show that Israeli society is built on very different foundations than ours in America.

In North America, Jews are on the liberal end of the political spectrum and likely to remain there. Israeli Jews have elected center-right governments in recent years and have given substantial electoral support to parties even further to the right. The strength of the left in Israel may be at an all-time low. It is no accident that American Jews support President Obama whereas Israeli Jews consider him their enemy. In the controversy over Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress, American Jews and Israeli Jews are on opposites sides of the fence.

The demographic profiles of American and Israeli Jews are also very different. American Jews are heavily Ashkenazic in origin. Close to half of Israel’s Jews are Mizrakhi, i.e. from Arab and Muslim lands. Sociologically, American Jews tend to be middle-class professionals. Israeli Jews run the gamut, with high numbers living in poverty. Linguistically, there is also an obvious language gap, although many Israelis do speak English.

Religiously, American Jews tend to Reform or Conservative Judaism, movements that have gained little traction in Israel, where most Jews may be secular, but when they go to synagogue they expect it to be Orthodox. Furthermore, Israel’s large haredi population wields far more power than their counterparts in the U.S.

THE FACT THAT ISRAELI JEWS, except for the ultra-Orthodox, all serve in the military should not be overlooked. Military service is a form of socialization that can have a big impact on one’s outlook. That impact is more profound in Israel, because of its frequent military clashes with its neighbors and its subjugation of the Palestinian population. The presence of Jews in the U.S. military is very small.

The other major form of socialization is education. American Jews mainly go to public schools where the majority of students and teachers are not Jewish. In Israel, there are three school systems for Jews only — for the secular, the religious and the haredi. There is a separate school system for the Palestinian Arab children.

According the Pew survey, American Jews feel culturally Jewish. This culture is expressed in humor, intellectual curiosity, social action, the creative arts, food, a smattering of Yiddish, and a dash of klezmer music. We revel in our status as a 2 percent minority that has an amazingly strong influence on the majority culture.

In Israel, Jews make up over 80 percent of the population. They hold all the levers of power, yet are obsessed about losing their majority status. Every uptick in the Palestinian Arab birthrate within Israel or the occupied territories gives them indigestion.

Israeli Jews who immigrate to the U.S. generally do not travel in the same circles as American Jews, except for the most liberal ones. I think the reasons are obvious. The two communities simply don’t think alike.

IS ISRAEL REALLY “the Jewish state,” then? While it certainly has the right to offer refuge to Jews fleeing persecution, the fundamental problem with this term is that it gives the false impression that Israel represents Jews worldwide. It does not: not culturally, not politically, not religiously.

I think it would be better for everyone concerned if Israel stopped calling itself the Jewish state and accepted that it represents only those Jews who choose to live there. While it is unclear that such a rhetorical shift would dampen down the anti-Semitism that Israel faces in international politics, or deter attacks on Jews in the diaspora, it would at least acknowledge the reality of Jewish diversity in the world today and acknowledge the decision of Jews in the diaspora to stay put.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer to our magazine, is author of Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore and The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.