A number of pundits have proposed what sound like similar reasons for the divide between Israel and what is now, unfortunately, a majority of American Jews. They point to the extent to which Jews in America now identify more with their Americanism than with their Judaism, manifested both by intermarriage and by a lack of understanding of what Israel means as a Jewish state.
I want to suggest that the reason is deeper: The loss of Jewish identity is due to an attenuation of Jewish self-esteem.
America has been very good for the Jews. The generations who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries found a land of great opportunities, and their offspring benefited from access to higher education and the booming economy, such that there are few areas of life in which American Jews have failed to excel.
But the State of Israel represents the specialness of the Jewish people, which started with the patriarchs and the matriarchs, and continued through the enslavement in Egypt and the Exodus, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and the conquest of the land of Israel. Despite millennia of exile from the land and of anti-Semitism, Jewish specialness persists to this day. None of the efforts of nation after nation have succeeded in erasing the underlying identity of the Jews, which is based on the self-esteem of each Jew and the communal self-esteem of the Jewish people.
Throughout the generations and in all the places in which they lived, the Jews preserved their particularity, by means of the use of the Hebrew language for prayer and learning, and, for the last century or so, in Israel, as the vernacular.
Authentic Judaism requires that Jews respect and draw inspiration from the past, that they live in the present and use their abilities for the benefit of mankind, and plan for the future age of the ingathering of all Jews to the land of Israel and the restoration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In this way they kept their particularistic national identity in all those centuries in which the vast majority of Jews lived outside the land.
Authentic Judaism requires devotion of time and energy to learning and performing mitzvot. It also requires Hebrew literacy, stable family life and an understanding of the links between Jews of the current generation with those of all past generations and their obligations to the future and to the world. Self-esteem is created and preserved by strong family, communal and national connections, which are ensured by common identification with the Torah. Authentic Judaism rejects postmodernism, with its distrust and deconstruction of an ideology that is clear and lasting.
In the absence of one or other of these features of Jewish identity and self-esteem, the road to assimilation and the disappearance of a connection with the State of Israel and its Jews is wide open.
Modern movements in Judaism base their content on selected ideas taken from parts of the Jewish sources (“prophetic Judaism”) and, when translated into terms which purport to be universal, appear to be consistent with values deemed to be politically correct: equality, human rights, nondiscrimination, internationalism and tikkun olam (a misrepresentation of a complicated halachic concept).
By doing so, the adherents of these movements are deprived of exposure to the texts and ideology of Judaism, in all their depth and breadth, their dynamism and the interrelationship between each part of the Torah (in the broadest sense) and each other part. In this way, these movements deprive Jews of their self-esteem, their distinctiveness and ultimately their identity.
Those who identify Judaism only as a national liberation movement, with Israel at the center, may become disenchanted with this or that policy of the Israeli government, and reveal their Jewish identity only in a hubristic attempt to dictate to Israel how it should behave, usually without sufficient knowledge of or regard for the history, geography or the exigencies of daily life in Israel.
Those whose Jewish identity is centered on commemoration of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism have chosen a negative narrative in which a specific period of Jewish victimhood is central and Jewish self-esteem is absent. The specific anti-Semitism of the Nazi exterminations is often subsumed into a general universalization of racism, without a specific Jewish context.
Those whose Jewish identity is manifested only by attendance at occasional b’nai mitzvah and weddings, and visiting houses of prayer once or twice a year, or eating “Jewish” foods, or having a particular sense of humor, or even donating large sums to Jewish institutions, which are at most nostalgic expressions of loyalty to past generations, are unable to pass a love of Judaism and the Jewish people to their children.
Those for whom the history and authentic ethos of the Jews mean nothing will act and think no differently from the non-Jews with whom they mingle, and are at risk of becoming indistinguishable from them (except to anti-Semites).
So the repair of the distancing of American Jewry from Israel requires rigorous rethinking of the relation- ship between each Jew and his heritage, and between him and his American identity. Re-establishment of Jewish self-esteem is the key to this.
Philip Marcus is a retired judge of the Jerusalem Family Court who lectures around the world on family law and philosophy. He made aliyah to Israel from Britain in 1978.