The problem of Jewish identity in the Diaspora rears its head in unexpected places and is widely misunderstood and denied.It arises when we think about Jewish education (obviously) but also when we try to count Jewish population in the Diaspora (see How many Jews in America and does it matter?). It is, truthfully, an embarrassing problem that is ignored or denied more than it is faced.
In recent years, the Jewish identity issue has been mis-characterized as a widening gulf that is somehow the fault of Israelis, quite apart from the controversy caused by Orthodox Rabbis in Israel, and has been equally the subject of facile attempts by Israelis to solve the problem (see here for example).
Israelis cannot solve the Jewish identity problem of Diaspora Jews because we do not live in the Diaspora any more, and our solutions will not work for Diaspora Jews. To be sure, we Israelis have to deal with the”Who is a Jew?” issue, which is quite different. The Israeli “Who is a Jew” problem is due to a conflict between religious and secular authorities. It is not a problem of personal identity. An Israeli Jew is quite sure of his or her identity, even though the authorities might argue about it.
More generally, individuals cannot solve the identity problem of a collective, a collective to which they do not, apparently, belong. The identity problem has proved intractable, It would be too much to expect an answer in a brief essay, and it would be extreme hubris to set out to give an answer.
The Jewish identity crisis of the Diaspora was not caused by the creation of Israel. The concept of “Jewish” has evolved since earliest times ( the problem is discussed at length in: What is “Jewish?” 1. Is it a religion? ; The evolution of “Jewish” ; The Jewish religion in modern society; Zionism and the Jewish people; Jewish peoplehood in America) reflecting both the vicissitudes of Jewish history and changing concepts of religion and identity.
Massive rejection of Jewish identity (“assimilation”) has been going on for at least two centuries. It is not caused by anything Israel did or did not do. Precisely as many American Jews (and Israelis) will eat ham and marry non-Jews, whether or not Israel concludes a peace treaty with the Palestinians.
The organization of modern societies and nation-states and the spread of modern belief systems have made it impractical, perhaps pointless, to continue the existence of separate, closed, cultural and ethnic group in communities that are scattered over most of the world. The crisis that was caused by the rise of nationalism and rationalism during the enlightenment was met unsuccessfully by the Haskalah movement. Jews who attempted to “modernize” their faith soon became assimilated.
After the enlightenment, it became increasingly impossible for Jews to maintain themselves in Europe as closed cultural communities within larger Diaspora countries like Germany and England. “Jewish” denotes some identity, but in the Diaspora it is neither a nationality ,nor a religion.
Because of its openness, North American society presents the greatest challenge to Jews. Surveys seem to show that American Jewry is stagnating, aging, intermarrying and disappearing. 52% of American Jews do not believe in God; therefore “Jewish” cannot denote a religion. Most American Jews do not attend any religious services, do not observe religious practices, and do not know Hebrew. Among those who say they are religious, an Orthodox minority does not recognize the religious practices of the Conservative and Reform majority. In the best case, Jewish Americans might be like Irish or Italian or other hyphenated American ethnic groups and retain their ethnic identity for a few generations in a diffuse way. But unlike the Irish and the Italians or the Scandinavians, American Jew, excepting expatriate Israelis, do not have an “old county” that holds their family memories and may remembered with fondness. The attempts of some Jews to find their roots in the ruins of European ghettos where their ancestors were despised and then murdered are pathetic imitations of the home visits of Italian, German, Irish, Latino or African-Americans.
At the same time, a somewhat remarkable phenomenon has appeared. For the first time in many centuries, significant numbers of people wish to become “Jewish.” They may be descendants of forced converts (Maranos) who wish to reclaim their Jewish heritage, non-Jews who have married Jews, whole communities whose claims to be descendants of Jews may be utterly fatuous and others who obviously are Jewish.
The Jewish establishment has failed to adapt to the changed circumstances and challenges, both in Israel and abroad. The establishment offers no definition of “Jewish” other than the one(s) accepted by various religious leaderships. An attempt to rally institutions and people around the notion of “Jewish Peoplehood” was not a success, because nobody could agree on what this might mean. Each group rushed to fill it with content that reflected its own agenda. Religious Jews insisted bizarrely that “peoplehood” had something to do with God; Zionists tied it to Israel; anti-Zionists were at pains to show it had nothing to do with Israel. Rather than rallying Jews to unity, the Jewish peoplehood debate threw a stark and embarrassing spotlight on divergent trends in the Jewish community and divergent definitions of “Jewish.”And yet, our hearts tell us that “Jewish” means something, and whenever it has been put to the test in the past, the concept of Jewishness has survived.
The future will not necessarily be like the past. A secular person who wants to be part of the Jewish people finds no path to being Jewish, even though most Jews are not observant. A person who looks for Jewish content in the Diaspora outside of a religious framework will not find it. Attempts to further “Secular Humanist” Judaism have failed. The secular Zionist youth movements have been all but extinguished abroad.
Israel, the only vestige of non-religious Jewish culture, has been converted into a religious cause and issue. Hebrew education, as envisioned by cultural Zionism, was to be the vanguard of secular, modern Judaism, replacing the Heder school of traditional Judaism. .In Israel, the Hebrew education system worked of course. It brought to life a national secular Hebrew culture. In pre-World-War II Europe, the Zionist education networks had the same mission.
In the United States, there has been a huge investment and a huge increase in “Jewish Education,” perhaps the success story of the decade.This growth is illusory. In 2008-9, five of every six Jewish day school students are enrolled in Orthodox day schools. Enrollment in Orthodox schools continued to grow, but enrollment in non-Orthodox schools was down, Chassidic schools accounted for an ever-increasing percentage of enrollment. The same picture presented itself in 2003-4. Almost the entire “Hebrew Day School” proliferation is accounted for by ultraorthodox schools in and around New York. Sixty-eight percent of the Jewish Day School students were in New York/New Jersey area, 97% were in Orthodox schools. Of these, the majority were in Chassidic schools, learning Hebrew that can be used only for ritual purposes and learning no skills useful in the outside world. In the Jewish community, the educational philosophy of the 18th century has triumphed. For American Jewish children as for adults, the predominant path to “Jewishness” is religious, and within that religious path the most fanatic kind of Orthodoxy predominates. In a world that is increasingly secular, and in a Jewish community that is predominantly atheist, this does not seem to be a promising development. Jewish community leadership allowed “Jewish” to be defined as religion. Jewish religious leadership allowed the Jewish religion to be defined by its most unrelentingly fanatic exponents. Hassidic rabbis and their followers decide, in practice, what Judaism is, because nobody else cares. For anyone seeking to join the Jewish people, orthodox religion offers the only recognized path. For anyone seeking continuity, “Jewish life” or “Jewish atmosphere” the synagogue, and most often the Orthodox synagogue, is the only real resort. Inasmuch as most American Jews are atheists, they have no place as Jews. Judaism appears to have developed a “radiation and dissipation” model. Those raised in Orthodoxy become conservative Jews. Those raised as Conservative Jews become Reform, and those raised as Reform Jews become “Just Jews.” The data document a progrssive loss of faith over generations. The majority of the “believers” evidently believe in nothing.
Is there a way to be Jewish outside a religious framework? The Birthright (Taglit) program, which consists of a ten-day visit to Israel, has been deemed a success, but its impact is interpreted primarily in terms of religious identification, both by participants and organizers. For example:
A new study found that rates of marriage outside the faith were sharply curbed among young Jews who have taken “birthright” trips to Israel, a development that could hearten Jewish leaders worried about assimilation.
“Being in Israel gave me the opportunity to really experience what I’ve been told all my life, and what my ancestors fought for…It gave me more energy, more enthusiasm, to get into my religion.”
Enthused another Birthright participant:
The trip made me take an interest in my religion and community as well as make me start to think more seriously about my faith.”
(Emphasis added in each case). The Brandeis study that charted Taglit’s success noted the participants were 28% more likely to attend monthly religious services than non-participants. As noted, the Birthright experience had a significant effect on intermarriage rates. The study summarized participant reactions:
Another respondent said that “in terms of my relationship, it has been clearly communicated that if I am to marry this person, my kids will be Jewish [and that] is all that is important.” A third respondent put it: “We wanted to raise my kids Jewish and carry on the Jewish tradition. It was difficult marrying a non-Jew but it made me want to keep the Jewish tradition within my home.” The majority of these responses specifically mentioned that Taglit instilled or reinforced a desire to marry a Jewish person and/or establish a Jewish family…
Taglit trips increased “Jewish” identification, but “Jewish” in the different studies was defined in terms of religion and religious conversion or identity of spouses or support for Israel. Most American Jews are not believers however, and would not support a definition of “Jewish” that is Israel-centered. What is Taglit/Birthright engaged in?
Almost a dozen respondents also mentioned that their current spouse or fiancé/e was someone they met on the trip, suggesting a more direct impact of Taglit on the marriage choices of participants.
Is there anything profound and spiritual in the ultimate Jewish experience beyond matchmaking?
Birthright participants wanted to be Jewish, but nobody could say what “Jewish” is, apart from religious practices and support for Israel or not at all. What is a “Jewish” family, other than one where all members say they are Jews? Why is it important to have a “Jewish family??” What does such a family do?
Because there is no path to Jewish identity outside religion, the Birthright program can only inspire a religious revival or a greater attachment to Israel among young participants. Very likely, it will deepen the growing association between identification with Israel and the Jewish religion, especially the more orthodox variety. In the long run, this is not laying the foundation for a viable Jewish existence in the Diaspora, and is threatening the perception of what Israel is and ought to be.
Eligible individuals are those recognized as Jewish by the Jewish community or by one of the recognized denominations of Judaism; or if either parent is Jewish AND the applicant does not actively practice another religion.
These are probably the most liberal criteria, but they do not offer a positive, active vision of “Jewishness.” But what, other than a religious tradition (“Judaism”) is “Jewish?”
This discussion can and will be misinterpreted in many ways. It is not a polemic against religion, but it points out that a religious definition of “Jewishness” is being forced on an increasingly unwilling Jewish-American public. It is not a polemic against the Birthright program, which has been a spectacular success in its own way, or against Orthodox Jewish education. However, all such attempts at perpetuating “Jewishness” in the Diaspora are doomed to failure unless Jewish or Zionist community leadership in the Diaspora can fill the word “Jewish” with intellectual and operational content that is independent of religious tradition.
The challenge to Jewish leadership is deceptively simple: Define “Jewish,” both in content and institutional organization, in such a way that it is not synonymous with religious belief.
Outside Israel, perhaps “Jewish” can only be the designation of a religion. The question “What is Jewish?” arises, as do other aspects of the “Jewish problem,” because Jews are organized in a series of extraterritorial communities – a collective that insists on being a nation in someone else’s land. Nobody asks a Frenchman, “What is French?” and requires a serious answer. However, the Jewish religion is predicated on a national life, a common language and a national geography.Jewish religion, Jewish community life, Jewish culture and Jewish national identity may be inseparable.
Working definitions of “Jewish” in the Diaspora, those used by the planners and studiers and Jewish leadership, seem to imply that “Jewish” is a religion, but Jewish institutions supposedly address themselves to observant and non-observant Jews alike, and Jewish leaders insist there is something more to Jewishness than religion. Obviously there is. Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth are (or were) equally as Jewish as the rabbi of the Neturei Karteh. If “Jewish” were a religion, it would not make sense to say that 52% of Jews are atheists.
If Jewish leadership continues to insist operationally on a religious model and a religious definition of “Jew,” they will find themselves alienating an increasing number of young people. Trips to Israel will not help. It won’t do to talk about “continuity“ unless there is a clear definition of what is being continued and how. Young people will not be attracted to a community that places arbitrary restrictions on them for reasons that nobody can define or justify, and offers little in return.