I wound up in a somewhat contentious argument with a friend of mine that opened my eyes to a challenge that Jews face, particularly in the United States. It is not a new dilemma, but it is clear to me in a way I did not understand before.
For many years I have taught that Jews were not just a religion, we were also a civilization, a people, a community. For almost as many years, I have heard my friends and acquaintances who profess other faiths or no faith at all insist that their own faith or philosophy was the same—not just an internal landscape, but a mandate to live life in a particular way.
Ah, I would respond, channeling Rabbi Harold Kushner’s insight, but your community is the result of your faith. Our faith is the result of our community. And I would point to the Bible: we were a people, the Children of Israel, with a national history before we arrived at Mt. Sinai and were given a reason to believe and behave. Moreover, our analogs among the others in the Bible were Edomites, Arameans, Philistines, Egyptians – people defined by territory, not by creed.
I can’t deny we have built an infrastructure of religion that is as complicated and ornate as any cathedral or illuminated Qur’an. And our rallying cry is not (really) “the People Israel lives!” It is “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (If you are counting, God gets three mentions to Israel’s one.) And, perhaps most important, if you want citizenship in this people, which is indeed open to persons of any origin, then you must enter through the doors of faith. You cannot be naturalized into our people any other way.
So far, I haven’t written anything that was not said more persuasively and at greater length by the incomparable Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. And this brief essay is supposed to be about politics, not about being a rabbi. So on to the politics.
My contentious argument began when my friend referred to the State of Israel as theocratic. He insisted that a Jewish state inherently disabled non-Jews from being full participants, in the same way that the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made anyone who was not a Muslim an automatic second-class citizen.
I objected strenuously. He was understanding the descriptor “Jewish” as a religion. I was certain that it is a nationality. “The term ‘Jewish state’ is much closer to ‘Irish’ than ‘Muslim,’” I said.
My friend is really smart, but this line of argument did not penetrate. And the more I thought about it, the more I understood. Especially in the United States – maybe almost exclusively in the United States (okay, Napoleon’s France, too) – Jews have embraced the notion that they could be just like everyone else by compartmentalizing Jewishness into Judaism and treating it like a faith. Never mind that an enormous percentage of Jews in America do not practice that faith and a substantial number who practice the faith do not believe in its strictures.
We want it both ways. When it comes to civil liberties and religious freedom, we claim our Jewishness as a faith. But when it comes to our political concerns, especially about Israel, then it is peoplehood (ethnicity, national heritage, cultural identification) that we claim.
But whereas we can make these transitions back and forth between meanings, the rest of America is at a loss. We sound like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.
The result is an escalation of resentments and the exchange of accusations of anti-semitism and religious chauvinism between Jews and non-Jews on the political left.
Then there is the corollary problem on the political/religious right. People of deep “traditional” faith who support Israel out of a religious commitment have an expectation that God will play a role in the conduct of Middle East statecraft and foreign affairs that is mostly absent from American Jewish (and Israeli) activists. When Jewish activists cultivate that support without disclaiming its rationale, an eventual breach is inevitable.
Finally, there are those for whom the fear of persistent anti-semitism demands that they find t, even where it does not exist. For them, the people who object to a Jewish state they do not understand are necessarily Jew-haters. In turn, those critics of Israel come to resent being called by a bigotry they do not believe they practice – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I am not a believer in blaming the victim. Jews are not responsible for anti-semitism and an Israel that is neither progressive nor religious enough is not responsible for the expectations of its American observers. But these perceptions are indeed a Jewish problem. The confusion of meanings is something we Jews must address, and our own ambivalence about how to understand “Jewish” is a good place to start. Until those of us who are Jews in America can explain things to ourselves, we can’t presume that anyone else will understand them to our satisfaction.