14 May 2007

Non-Proliferating Identity

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

A few weeks ago, I attended a large, fancy dinner organized by an American Jewish organization. As the event began, I was stunned to find that following opening remarks, the evening kicked off with what the program announced as the “National Anthems”: an operatic cantor began singing “Hatikvah,” followed by “The Star Spangled Banner.” For a variety of reasons, I won’t name the organization directly, but I will say that of its four word name, “American” and “Jewish” constitute two – and are the only two words of ethnic or national identity in the name. Nor was this an event honoring Israel or an Israeli. And so, not for the first time, I found myself offended by some confused American Jewish sensibilities.


I feel fortunate to be an American Jew, because, as a Jewish-American, I live in a country that does not cause me to have an identity crisis about these self-proclaimed labels. I am an American citizen by birth, a proud one, grateful to this country for having accepted my immigrant family only one generation ago. I am a Jew, a member of the Jewish religion which (among other things) provides me with moral guidance and support. It also forms a strong component of my cultural identity in ways both deeply personal and, in our American melting pot, quite often shared with others, Jew and non-Jew alike.

What I am not is an Israeli. I have been to Israel and I share a connection to many of Israel’s residents, through faith. Yes, Israel has enshrined in its founding documents a guaranteed offer of citizenship to me and all other Jews, and perhaps some day I’ll consider taking Israel up on the offer. But I have not done so yet. Sitting in the grand old ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that evening, I found myself – yet again – reflecting on how my fellow Jewish-Americans have unhelpfully created and sustained a new identity crisis for themselves, and then inflicted it on the rest of us.

This is where Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem comes in. Playing Hatikvah at this event – indeed, calling the two songs our national anthems, is clearly making a statement about how that audience of (mostly) American Jews is supposed to feel about Israel. Except it isn’t working, and hasn’t been working. In my lifetime (which begins not long after the triumph of the Six Day War, and before the disaster of the Yom Kippur war) I have yet to see a mass-exodus of American Jews to Israel. American Jews give money to Israel, lend all sorts of psychological and political support, and even create programs like “Taglit – birthright Israel” to help young adults travel there. Still, there is no evidence of large numbers of Jewish-Americans abandoning the United States, or even large numbers seeking to become dual citizens of both nations. I suspect that’s because they’re happy here in these United States, and I’m glad. It just makes the national identity conflicts that much more stark: for whom was Hatikvah being played that night?


It also cannot help but touch a raw nerve about the future of Israel – and the future of Judaism. Yesterday’s New York Times has an article by Greg Myre about the extremely-challenging demographic problems Israel faces, this time about holding onto Jerusalem at a time when so many (secular, middle-class) Jews are moving out. There is nothing revelatory here; the demographic problems Israel faces are well-known and well documented. Jews of most nationalities and variants of faith (excepting the ultra-Orthodox) are not breeding rapidly enough, whether in Israel or the United States, part of a long-term trend that is consistent with how most increasingly-wealthy and well-educated communities behave. Much of (non-Jewish) western Europe faces the same set of problems, with reproduction rates that are at or below “replacement” level, threatening not only underlying economics but the continuation of national heritage. However, it is a particular problem for Jews, if we aim to continue as a (diverse) religious group with strong populations in Israel and the U.S., as well as in other countries.

Philosopher Emil Fackenheim, a holocaust survivor, postulated that Judaism should add to its existing 613 commandments a 614th: not to give any posthumous victories to Adolf Hitler. If one is inclined to accept this kind of thinking, then perhaps instead of such an extensive focus on supporting Israel, world Jewry might rather focus on reproduction, on encouraging Jews everywhere – including us wealthy, American Jews – to invest more of our resources (psychological as well as financial) in having more children. Of course, programs to encourage reproduction have their own tainted history, not least to Nazi Germany’s efforts at sustaining “Aryan” breeding. (To me, Fackenheim’s 614th commandment suffers from a tragic embedded irony: enshrining Hitler’s name in a commandment undermines exactly the goal of overcoming the holocaust, by reminding us not of our losses but of the man behind them.)

I do not like the patriotic “if you don’t like it, leave” approach. The proverbial American melting pot is big enough to hold the addition of many Jews and even more Jewish opinions (to borrow from the joke). That includes a love for Israel, and support for Israeli institutions. It also includes arguments about Israel, its policies, its future, its past, and what it all means. We are Jews, people of the book, and we should argue, debate, analyze, and have opinions about all of these things. However, all of this argument and debate should be distinct from confusion, confusion about our identity, our loyalties, and ultimately, our priorities. Let’s sing Hatikvah all we want, but for those of us who are not Israeli, let’s treat it as what it is: not our national anthem. Thus far, doing otherwise has not helped; too often it looks as though American Jews are singing Hatikvah while Israel burns.


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