Israeli Flag

Today, it is a truism that Anti-Semitism’s primary expression in Europe and elsewhere is in the form of Anti-Israelism. Are all anti-Israel sentiments anti-Semitic ones? What if the attitudes are coming from Jews? Is J-Street anti-Semitic?[1] Are those Jews who advocate a boycott of the territories anti-Semitic?[2]

I have been on several West Coast campuses where the anti-Israel campaigns were being conducted by Jews. In one case, the leader of the pack was the daughter of Israeli Yordim. Yordim themselves (including two recent Nobel prize-winners, duly announced to the local press as Israelis), include many of our best. At least one million Israelis reside permanently abroad.

As a percentage of the population, only the most disastrous war-zones have a comparable emigration. As a brain drain, it is the worst of the developed countries.[3]  So it seems, Israel is not even providing its own citizens with the inspiration to stay put.

As with Israel, so with America. Pew showed that the younger the age, the less Jews identified with Israel. Of those who say that caring about Israel is essential for their Jewish identity, the figure steadily declines from 53% for Jews 65 and older to 32% for Jewish adults under age 30. Today, a higher percentage of Christians than Jews believe God gave Israel to the Jews. There are as many American Jews who believe that the USA is too supportive of Israel (25%) as there are saying the U.S. is not supportive enough (29%).

Pre-State, the Zionist enterprise was a controversial idea amongst most Jews. Bundists, socialists, and most ordinary Jews did not take well to the idea of a special state for the Jews.  The Reform movement, bent on a universalistic ideology[4]  was utterly opposed. The Orthodox, seeing how anti-religious it was, were also, in the main, part of the naysayers.[5]  The great Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig was opposed, and so were many of the Jewish elites of society. Even the political Zionists themselves only moved towards this idea as a second best once they saw that the better alternative – complete acceptance by the Western world of the cultured and educated Jew – was a non-starter. Herzl, who was central to making political Zionism happen, had to experience the Dreyfus trial to realize that the Jew would never be accepted and to set him on a new course in life.

Many of those who were Zionists, were often so in a form that we would hardly recognize today. To read social Zionists like Nachman Syrkin or Ber Borochov is to read something out of a space odyssey. Jews could not join the international proletarian revolution yet because of their unique history.  They had to conduct their own revolution on the Jewish homeland before coming back to the main-stream. Heady stuff.

But all of that is water under the bridge, because the Zionist idea caught on fast. The 2nd and 3rd Aliyah; the Balfour Declaration; solid, admired supporters like USA Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1856 – 1942) and of course Herzl and later Chaim Weizmann’s phenomenal ability to sell the idea at the highest levels of states, all helped to make the idea of the Jewish State a mainstream idea in the Jewish world.  By the time the State came around in 1948, all Jews were cheering. The Reform movement came around and the Agudat Yisrael representative, Rabbi Levine, appended his signature to the Declaration of Independence, signaling the beginning of at least an ambiguous relationship with the State, and one that would lead to increased integration by the Haredi population.

Even today, we live in a world where, amongst the least affiliated, there is a fairly direct correlation between how Jewish and how pro-Israel a person feels. Once Jews know why to be Jewish, even left-wing Jews who are critical of the government still feel that theirs is just a critique of a current administration, and not of the whole idea of the Jewish State.

The Haredim are a little more complex.  Historically, all Torah-observant Jews had a deep, historic love of the land.  Haredim certainly share a Messianic vision that includes most centrally, a Jewish return to Israel. The two most extreme conceptions of the State in the pre- and immediately post-establishment days were Rav Kook (regarded as an outstanding member of the Haredi community) on the one hand and the Satmar Rebbe on the other.  (All the other rabbis were in between these two, reluctant to have the Orthodox world support an initiative that was driven by a very secular, and at that stage anti-religious, crowd, and yet recognizing the historic significance of what was happening.)   Rav Kook held that the Messianic dream could be fulfilled by the contemporary State acted out by secular agents. The Satmar Rebbe held that the establishment of the State was an act of the Satan.  Perhaps this was the greatest rabbinic dispute of the 20th Century.

But look what these two had to agree to in order to have this mighty dispute. Both had to agree on the centrality of Israel to the Jews. Both had to agree that in the end of days, all Jews were to gather there. Both agreed on its holiness. Both agreed that it was a meta-idea in Judaism. The only argument really was what stage of history reflected our current era.    Rav Kook held that we were closer to the final Geula than the Satmar Rebbe. Their differences were great, but their shared values were greater still.

It is hard to fathom the venom of anti-religious sentiment of the early Zionists. Herzl had already noted in 1894 that Jews had “taken on a number of anti-social characteristics” in the ghettos of Europe, and that Jewish character was “damaged.” David Frischmann wrote that traditional “Jewish life is a dog’s life that evokes disgust.” Chaim Brenner likened Jews to “filthy dogs, inhuman, wounded dogs.” A.D. Gordon wrote that European Jews were parasites. M. J. Berdyczewski called traditional Jews “spiritual slaves, men whose natural forces had dried up and whose relation to the world was no longer normal,” and elsewhere, “a non-people, a non-nation – non-men, indeed.”  Berdyczewski fashioned the slogan, “Yavneh and Jerusalem are enemies” to capture the fundamental antagonism between the old religious Jews and the new national Jews. The former “led us into exile,” and their culture “cannot live together with the national culture which wants to break the thread of exile and plant within us new values and a totally new will.”

Samuel Joseph Ish-Horowitz wrote, “The Jew must negate his Judaism before he can be redeemed.”  J. Marcus Ehrenpreis stated: “We have liberated ourselves from the shackles of a sickly, rotten, and dying tradition! A tradition that cannot live and does not want to die; a tradition that manacled our hands, blinded our eyes, and confounded our hearts, that darkened our heavens and banished light and beauty and tenderness and pleasantness from our lives, that turned our youth into old men and our elders into shadows. We have liberated ourselves from the excessive spirituality of the Exile…. We have liberated ourselves from the rabbinic culture, which confined us in a cage of laws and restrictions.[6]  (We must remember that, much later, the Ichud and Meuchad movements split into two over how close to Stalin – perhaps the greatest killer of people in the history of mankind – they should be!)

young boy holding the Israeli flag

The new Jew was heroic, strong, self-supporting. He was to be contrasted to the old, Ghetto Jew. The old Jew was weak and vulnerable, uneducated (in secular knowledge) and minimally productive. As a child I read Leon Uris’ Mila 18 (about the Warsaw Ghetto) and Exodus (about the ship that came to Palestine) and I was enthralled by the new Jew. Israel had absorbed its immigrants, and turned a barren country into a blooming one. It developed a modern economy and the only democracy in the Middle East. Its Kibbutzim were full of idealism (though, as Muki Tzur points out, not quite as much idealism as the mythology would have us believe).  Struggling to get off the ground, it still managed to send emissaries to dozens of African countries to share our knowledge of agriculture. And Jews around the world faithfully put their pennies in the JNFs Blue-boxes, proud of their country on the other side of the ocean.

One tragedy of the new Jew idea was the great difficulty Yad V’Shem and those in Israel who controlled the official narrative of our history had in giving credence to the heroism of the Old Jew. If your name was not Mordechai Anielewicz,[7] then all your tiny acts of sharing bread, or keeping mitzvot under the most impossible of conditions counted for nothing. Twenty years ago, one could be forgiven if, after walking through Yad V’Shem one came out thinking that there were almost no observant people who suffered the Holocaust (and, of course, religious tour guides were strictly forbidden).  Today, this has changed.

The Six Day War brought the new Jew to new heights of pride and nationalism. A Chasidic person who lived in the Mea Shearim at the time said that all the Haredim were dancing for joy in the streets. So was everyone else.

And then came the crash in the form of the Yom Kippur War (1973) with only a temporary life from the daring Entebbe rescue (1975).  How sad that Israel’s ups and downs were not totally a function of their military prowess! The revisionist historians revisited the official history and found much wanting. The 1980s saw hyper-inflation and the Israelis became less and less welcome around the world. Israelis now became conquerors and rulers of another nation. For many, the army turned into an unwelcome duty, a necessary evil.

In this climate the Haredi became the other, the person against whom the secular were able to measure their own situation and feel good. “We” – the secular Israelis – “are not them.” The antipathy towards the Haredim existed in part because it somehow legitimized what was now a less than glittering enterprise. If the demonized Haredi was the alternative, the secular Zionist enterprise must be doing very well after all.[8]

Part of the problem is that the new Jew idea had left the Israeli bereft of his former values without him really acquiring a new set. He was now neither fully Jewish nor fully Western in his approach to life.  Into this vacuum, seeped some of the less savory elements of Middle Eastern culture. The Israeli had become a rebellious sixteen-year-old, with his immature honking, constant yelling, and lack of courtesy (which on the roads amounted to dangerous selfishness). The tribal Jew had reached the city. He had lost his tribal customs, but was now left adrift.

This immaturity translated into more serious issues when it came to price-gouging, political corruption, and most important of all, Israel’s ability to serve as the capital of the Jewish nation, a source of Jewish values and inspiration for the Diaspora.

But Jewish genius was not lost in Israel. Thinking Israelis understood what was missing. Most Israelis today have gone back to the original idea of the historic land of Israel and connected the dots of our history. They realize that the Israeli as warrior, and Israel as the place that every oppressed Jew can flee to, are not powerful enough ideas to sustain our identity. They have come to realize that for 2,000 years it was the old Jews – with all their Torah and fealty to observance – who kept the idea alive and who often gave their lives in trying to fulfill this idea. (As an aside, this is a huge step in the process of Haredi/non-Haredi reconciliation. This point is often missed by both sides.)

We all have to realize that when Israel is under attack all Jews are under attack; no one is looking whether we are or are not wearing a kipah, a black hat, or an open shirt. And it goes without saying that we have to continue with our Hasbara efforts.  But, we also have to realize that we have not been an example unto the nations.  That Israeli youngsters are the least desirable of tourists in Europe has nothing to do with anti-Semitism and everything to do with their behavior. We have paid a huge price for the collapse of Jewish values in Israel. Sensitive and alert members of the “secular” educational and political establishment understand this very well.

And so we must dream. What if every time one of us Israelis, secular or religious, were to walk through the door and the non-Jews, or the J-Street Jews were to say, “Now there goes an example to the world. Look at how they resolve social tensions amongst themselves! In business, their word is their word.  As tourists, they leave their hotel rooms cleaner than when they entered them!” We call that a Kiddush Hashem! We need every Israeli to be charged with the idea that he is an ambassador of the Jewish people, that he must make a Kiddush Hashem – that he or she must be a person who lives and shines with Jewish values.

Dreaming? This country has produced many thousands of people who are just such examples, whose sense of Jewish mission has driven them to become great scholars, engage in daily heroic acts of kindness and/or dedicate themselves to public service.  In my neighborhood, I can point to two or three shining examples in every building. We could produce millions more. But, to do so, we are going to have to tackle our culture and get it back on a more intensely Jewish track.

The truth is that Israel is becoming more Jewish. A 2009 survey[9] found that some 80% of respondents believe that G-d exists,  and 65% believe the Torah and mitzvot are G-d-given.  Only 46 percent of Israeli Jews defined themselves as secular, down from 52 percent in 1999.  85% of respondents said that “celebrating the Jewish holidays as prescribed by religious tradition” was “important” or “very important,” up from 63 percent in 1999.

A more Jewish Israel won’t get rid of the real anti-Semites. But right now, we are losing our fellow Jews, Israeli Yordim, and more so, Diaspora Jews, as Pew showed.  It is now 40 years since the new Jew lost his glitter in 1973. Since then, the new Jew has been outdated, like all fads. And the old Jew – the one who is steeped in Jewish values, has been making a comeback. It is time to make the understanding of our 3,000-year-old miracle of our survival a national priority and to regain our sense of mission and vision.


1. Recently, the Jewish Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley rejected the membership application of the student arm of J Street, J Street U.

2. The Boston Federation cut its ties with Leonard Fein, the co-founder of Moment and a veteran Labor Zionist leader for writing a column advocating that American Jews not visit Ariel.

3. The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.

4. The 19th Century Reform held that Judaism was a religion but were opposed to the idea of the Jewish People as a nation. The corollary of this was their opposition to the idea that the Jewish nation should return to their homeland. Between 1869 and 1895, there were four resolutions passed by the American Reform against the homeland idea. However, there were also a number of high-profile Reform leaders who did convert to the Zionist cause. By the 1930s, it might be said that the majority of the Reform had what Jonathan Sarna calls (see here) an ambivalent non-Zionism. The beginning of the turn-around was the Columbus Platform of 1937 which included a more nuanced endorsement of Zionism, noting “In all lands where our people live, they assume and seek to share loyally the full duties and responsibilities of citizenship and to create seats of Jewish knowledge and religion. In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”

5. Two of the most famous exceptions were Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever and Rabbi Isaac Reines.
6. All quotes from Real Jews by Noah J Efron.

7. Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, January to May 1943.

8. Real Jews by Noah J Efron.

9. The survey was conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys and the Avi Chai Foundation.

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