As Israel and the American Jewish community work together to build an ever stronger partnership, we must all face the question of Jewish continuity in the United States and Israel's role in that continuity.
Lately, critics have claimed that Israel is losing its spirituality and Judaism and turning into a secular state — "just another country," they say. Interestingly enough, many of those critics demand that Israel accept the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative Judaism while on the other hand rejecting the legitimacy of national Judaism.
This argument is, oddly enough, identical to one shared by some in the Orthodox right wing in Israel, who are joining the charedim (ultra-religious) in claiming that Israel's left is turning the society into a cosmopolitan "Hellenizing" one. They present themselves as the guardians of Israel's "Jewishness." It ought not to surprise us that this thesis is most ardently advocated by the territorialist messianists amongst them.
This questioning of Israel's Jewishness contradicts reality and could only be explained as emanating from a restrictive view of Judaism, or from a misunderstanding of the nature of the Jewish national movement, Zionism, and its creation, the Jewish State of Israel.
Zionism, as it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, goes beyond the eternal, religious and otherwise innate desire of Jews to return to their homeland. It perceived both a failure in the ultrareligious community to provide a response to modernity and an inability of Jews to integrate within diaspora communities. This was true in Europe and the United States, though clearly the situation here has changed dramatically in the last 20 years.
The founding fathers and mothers of the state of Israel believed that the only way Judaism and modernity could be combined is by recreating the original national Judaism in the ancient Jewish homeland.
It is no wonder that David Ben-Gurion and others of his generation held Bible — and not Talmud — study classes and that one of the main events on Israeli Independence Day remains a Bible contest — not a Talmud contest. The founders of Israel wanted to build a country that would be identical in its modernity and social stratification to any other modern country in the world, but it would be a just society and it would be Jewish.
In their best of dreams, that generation could not foresee the extent to which their hopes are materializing in the Israel of today. They would be joyous if they could see contemporary Israelis having as many cellular phones as those in other developed countries, living in comfortable, modern housing while celebrating all aspects of Jewish life, from school education to university studies.
Our Jewishness energizes us during Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. On those Holy Days, only Jews who live in Israel feel the true meaning of a whole country and an entire environment taken over by the holiday. Even though people have different ways of spending the holidays in Israel — they do so feeling engulfed in their country's national and spiritual holiday.
They would also be proud to see that ancient Jewish customs are followed on Purim and Shavuot. Once they compare this experience to other forms of Jewish life outside of Israel, I think they could relax somewhat, with the knowledge that their dream of building a Jewish reality that is wholesomely Jewish and modern has been achieved.
Still, they will never be able to fully relax, as the challenges of social development still need attention: secularists who wish to disengage Israel from its Jewish nature, extremist Orthodox who want to force all Israelis to live only as they deem to be the Godly dictum. Israelis might console themselves with the knowledge that in a democracy extremes will always exist, but it is the center, the mainstream, that takes the lead.
Peace, tentative as it is, negotiated with the recognition that the Arab threat to Israel's existence is as potent as ever, will give the Jewish homeland the resources and energy to build an ever-better Jewish society — a society that will be a light unto the nations and the true anchor for Jewish identity and continuity.
Consequently, we think that the growing wholesomeness of the Jewish existence in Israel is the best one-shot introduction to modern Jewish life. Israel, which is deeply committed to a strong relationship with the vibrant American Jewish community, welcomes all Jewish youth in America to join Jewish continuity programs and visit Israel. We are convinced that the depth of Jewish identity emanating from these visits will strengthen the partnership between us.