Israelis Lost Sight of a Meaningful Jewish Identity in the Diaspora

The recent ad campaign by Israel's Absorption Ministry shows how Israelis fall short in trying to articulate a respectful way to relate to Diaspora Jews, because they don’t know how to relate to themselves in this way.

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A pro-Israel demonstration outside the United Nations building in New York.
A pro-Israel demonstration outside the United Nations building in New York.Credit: Getty Images

The latest storm between American Jews and the Israeli government has passed. Americans bristled that the Israeli Ministry of Absorption would characterize the potential for Jewish life in America as so small that a child would not even know that it was Hanukkah. These flare-ups, triggered by the American Jewish sense that our identities are treated dismissively, seem to be more frequent and more easily instigated.

There is no insult in the ads' post-script, stating that children of Israeli parents who grow up in America will not be Israeli. That is a fact - they will be American children of Israeli parents.

The question is whether those children will see themselves as Jewish.

These ads present an opportunity for understanding that that should not be missed. If we care about Jewish identity in the world, the Hanukkah ad ought not to make us angry - it ought to make us sad.

Hanukkah is about the enduring strength of Jewish identity in the face of host cultures. We have always been able to retain our traditions and our faith. Is Israeli society, home to half the world’s Jews, unable to foster a Judaism that can survive in the Diaspora?

The Israeli authors of these ads do not even reach for the word “Jewish.” Israeli and Jewish are treated as two distinct concepts. The ads make painfully clear the extent to which the concept of a meaningful Jewish identity in the Diaspora eludes Israelis.

Through the modern day miracle of absorption, millions of Jews found dignity and safety in the state of Israel. Absorption often subsumed Jewish religious identity, which meant a variety of things depending on community of origin, underneath the rubric of Israeli identity.

What happens when you need to unwind that? Can Israelis, not only expats, but those living in Israel, disentangle their Judaism so it is available to them to connect with other Jews and with themselves as Jews? The authors of these ads seem to say no.

Given the state of affairs in religious life in Israel, is this even a reasonable expectation? The Jewish “selves” of Israelis are the constant victims of coercion and harassment from a state-run religious monopoly that impinges on their most precious and private human affairs. Their marriages, their divorces, the burials of their fallen soldiers must be the rabbinate’s way or no way. With no positive associations for Jewish religion, what will lead them to seek it out in America or anywhere else in the world? Outside of Israel, synagogues and religious or quasi-religious institutions are the most common way Jews connect to each other. Without a sense that they can encounter Jewish religion without coercion, where will they go to find a Jewish community when they are outside of Israel?

That is what I saw in the helpless looks on the faces of the Saba and Savta in the ad.

The post script that said: “They will remain Israeli, their children will not” is a trope we in America know well - continuity is personified in Jewish grandchildren. These ads were the Israeli “translation” of the continuity campaign where the “absorption of Jewish identity into Israeli identity” is a different version of the “assimilation of Jewish identity into American identity.” These are really two sides of the same coin, both leave the Jew alienated from her Judaism, as the little granddaughter does not know it is Hanukkah.

Are American Jews insulted and demeaned as some said in response to the ad? Or do we feel that our love for our Israeli brothers and sisters as fellow Jews is unrequited and one-sided? Israelis fall short in trying to articulate a respectful way to relate to Diaspora Jews, because they don’t know how to relate to themselves in this way.

Absorption is the wrong ministry to address this problem. The real questions belong to the Ministry of Education and to tackling the disastrous Ministry of Religious Affairs. It is not American Jews with whom this state of affairs must be reconciled.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.



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