Minding the gap

Responses to an article about the growing cultural fractures that divide the Jewish world suggest that the scale and depth of the problem is not yet fully appreciated by those who might help solve it

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

A Birthright participant encountering Israeli fauna. (photo credit: Melanie Fidler/Flash 90)
A Birthright participant encountering Israeli fauna. (photo credit: Melanie Fidler/Flash 90)

Earlier this week, I wrote about the deep cultural divide that threatens, quietly but profoundly, to rend the Jewish people apart.

The article argued that the Jewish people has split into two immense, increasingly disparate and distant cultures, a gap that will continue to grow until the Jews give these deep and worrying trends some serious thought and engage in even more serious action.

The article was long, at 3,400 words, and tried to cover many points connected to the broadest cultural structure of the Jewish world. The article also marked a culmination of eight years of studying, writing, teaching and trying to contribute to Israeli Diaspora policy on the part of this reporter.

It elicited a surprising number of responses, and these were both gratifying and frustrating.

On the one hand, it struck a chord among many Jewish organizations and media outlets.

JTA, a New York-based Jewish news service whose articles are published in many Jewish communal papers worldwide, summarized the argument by referencing a single actionable proposal buried deep in the article: “In its effort to strengthen Jewish peoplehood around the world, the Jewish state should consider Birthright-style programs for older Jews, Haviv Rettig Gur writes.”

In its Monday newsletter, eJewishPhilanthropy, a blog read by many Jewish donors, foundations and the professional class of the Jewish philanthropic world that often writes about the intersection of Diaspora communal life and modern Internet platforms, quoted from the article the call that Israel not “limit itself to an increasingly narrow conversation with the American Jewish elite. The start-up nation has the skills to speak to the Jewish community outside the traditional frameworks; it should use them.”

A senior Jewish Agency official said he saw the article as a triumphant defense of the organization’s move in recent years to focus on expanding the world of Israel experiences for Diaspora youth. (Full disclosure: This reporter was the Jewish Agency’s chief spokesman in the years during which it underwent this change.)

Each reader seemed to pull out of the article the point that most reflected their own interests and priorities. And while these respondents, many of whom are savvy thinkers about Jewish issues in their own right, understood the larger point, they did not see it as the most salient, significant or easily conveyed message of the piece.

But for me, at any rate, the key was not the policy prescriptions, which were intended only as abbreviated examples of some of the ramifications of the strategic vision I tried to present. It was, rather, the vision itself: a Jewish world whose shared, or at least overlapping, transnational culture had been disrupted in the Holocaust, and which has only grown farther apart in the ensuing years in terms of its religious life, culture, historical experience, language and the fundamental assumptions that underlie Jewish identity.

This growing divide, most clearly manifested in the mutual incomprehensibility of Israeli and American Jewish culture to each other, threatens to undermine the unity and strength of the Jewish world.

American Jewry is in many ways Israel’s only strategic depth: in terms of their sheer numbers, global geopolitical influence and willingness to invest in the Jewish state.. And Israel serves as one of the few tried and tested anchors of identity for American Jews who are not religiously observant. If they continue to grow ever more distant in their basic assumptions about Jewishness, each stands to lose the existential bulwark represented by the other side.

So there are long-term strategic reasons to pay attention to this problem, and even these are extraneous to anyone with a sense that Jewish unity – mutual commitment, not homogeneity – is a value in its own right.

Toward a clearer understanding

Yet the Jewish world is not really paying attention to this larger strategic problem. And no one has been more guilty of this failure than Israeli officials, whose colossal ignorance of the larger Jewish people needs no further proof than the ongoing bickering over which Israeli bureaucracy is at fault for the failure of prosperous Westerners to immigrate to Israel.

Westerners, especially the English-speaking ones who now constitute perhaps 90 percent of the Diaspora, have never immigrated in meaningful numbers, and are unlikely to be swayed by being handed shiny new pamphlets on the streets of New York or Miami about Israel’s absorption benefits, as some Israeli officials hope to do.

Yet a clearer understanding of the cultural divide that separates Israelis and English-speaking Jews might bring Israeli officials to the realization that Americans, Canadians and Brits are no homebodies. They are incredibly mobile, relocating for work or love or other considerations every few years. But they do so within their civilizational space, from one American coastal metropolis to another, or at most to London or Toronto.

An Israeli immigration policy for today’s Diaspora has no hope of succeeding if it doesn’t first try to construct such a shared civilizational space, to bridge the cultural gap. Israel usually teaches immigrants Hebrew after they arrive. In the American context, the prospective immigrant is unlikely to make the cross-cultural jump if they do not learn their Hebrew beforehand – if they do not already partly inhabit the culture to which they are moving.

In many ways Birthright is a historic, unprecedented triumph. But viewed through the prism of a larger vision of the needs of the Jewish people it is also, in some ways, an expensive missed opportunity

The Diaspora has shown a similar dearth of insight, even as it has implemented at spectacular scales projects meant to bridge the gap between their communities and Israel. Thus, Birthright Israel has brought hundreds of thousands of Jewish youth to visit and experience Israel, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yet for all the good this has done – indeed, no other people on Earth can boast a similar program on a similar scale – it was done without a clear strategic vision of the larger problem. So it took 10 years and roughly 300,000 participants (the organization recently celebrated its 13th birthday) before Birthright gave any thought to following up with participants after the trip to try to ensure they actually engage with their communities, or continue their study of and immersion in Israeli culture. And on the trips themselves, Birthright did not invest meaningfully in any real pedagogy about the Israeli civilization that participants were experiencing.

In many ways Birthright is a historic, unprecedented triumph. But viewed through the prism of a larger vision of the needs of the Jewish people at this hour, it is also, in some ways, an expensive missed opportunity.

Let us be blunt. No American Jewish educator has yet found a recipe for preserving Jewish identification across generations that isn’t made up of either religious observance or identification with Israel.

(Incidentally, this is true regardless of politics. Young Jews engaged with Israel through criticism of Israeli policy, even at the political extremes, often show a marked increase in their Jewish identification. Love it or hate it, the Jewish civilization of Israel, with its distinctly non-American sense of organic, collective nationhood, remains an indispensable anchor of Jewish identity for American Jews.)

Assuming that many American Jews are not able or willing to become religiously observant believers – a safe assumption, given the trends in American society generally – then experiencing Israel’s unique Jewish secularism, held together across generations by Hebrew, the Jewish calendar and the intimate link to the land of Israel, may be the best (or even the only) option for keeping large swaths of the American Jewish community committed to their Jewishness.

These are basic insights. The gaps between American and Israeli Jewry are obvious once one begins to look for them, and their ramifications are ominous. The growing divide in assumptions about Jewish identity, history, religion and culture is the last, most subtle and arguably most profound cultural aftershock of the Holocaust, which ripped out the European center from the Jewish communal archipelago and left two disconnected peripheries, Israelis and Americans, to rebuild without the overlapping culture and history that European Jewry could provide.

Repairing this breach, reaching out across this divide, does not mean abandoning the culture of either side, but rather attempting to create cultural “spillover” through education that allows each side to comprehend the unique Jewish civilization that thrives on the other side of the ocean.

While most Israeli officials struggle to see Diaspora communities as something other than, in a term once used widely in internal Jewish Agency memos, “reservoirs of potential aliyah,” the educating of one Jewish civilization about the culture of the other – no matter the ulterior motive – will have immense “side” benefits, preserving the solidarity and shared sense of fate that has allowed each side to contribute so much to the other, and stitching back together the Jewish cultural divide that now constitutes the single greatest fracture in the Jewish world and the deepest challenge to anyone who values a united Jewish people.

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