Much has been written in the United States in recent years about the concept of Jewish identity. The less cohesive the Jewish community, the more Jewishness becomes a matter of individual choice. Instead of simply being born Jewish as was formerly the case, it now becomes possible to identify as Jewish. This means that someone who is basically an American may nonetheless choose to regard themselves as Jewish, to study a Jewish language, attend Jewish events, buy Jewish books and generally surround themselves with things Jewish. Such a person may have been born into a Jewish family, but that is not an essential prerequisite for identifying as Jewish. What is essential is the desire to be perceived as Jewish by others.
In the past, someone who was born into a Jewish family was automatically perceived as Jewish by others because they lived in a Jewish community, dressed like other Jews and spoke a Jewish language. They did not have to choose to be Jewish, nor did they have much chance of choosing to be anything else. But most American Jews today grow up in predominately non-Jewish communities, speak only English and do not look very different from other Americans. They will not necessarily be perceived as Jewish by others unless they want to be so perceived. Hence the need to identify as Jewish. Belonging to a Jewish religious congregation is the easiest way to do this, but it is not the only way. Jewish identity is above all a matter of cultural affiliation. This affiliation can be expressed in a secular as well as in a religious way; the important thing is that it be expressed in a way that can be understood and recognized by others.
But it is just here that the concept of Jewish identity becomes somewhat problematic. The only version of Jewishness that is universally recognized as authentic is the Orthodox version. Most Orthodox Jews do not accept Conservative or Reform Judaism as authentic, and most religious Jews question the authenticity of any non-religious version of Jewishness. Within the more or less secular camp there are innumerable versions of Jewishness – Yiddishism, Zionism, Reconstructionism, Jewish Renewal, Humanist Judaism, Jewish Feminism, etc. – most of which are somewhat suspicious of each other’s legitimacy. Moreover, there are many people who identify as Jewish without belonging to any organized Jewish group. Their self definition as Jews may be entirely sincere, but it will not necessarily be recognized as such by others. In the past, when Jews lived in the ghetto, there was no doubt as to who was a Jew and who was not. In America today, where Jewishness is increasingly a matter of individual choice, the nature of that Jewishness has become increasingly difficult to define.
Of course, according to Orthodox Jewish religious law, anyone who is born of a Jewish mother is automatically defined as Jewish. In certain situations, such as dealing with the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, this definition can be extremely important. Jewish ancestry is also the ultimate basis on which most Jews define themselves as Jewish. But a Jewish identity that is based solely on Jewish ancestry does not amount to much, and in America today, more than half of young Jews marry non-Jews. The whole point about Jewish identity is that it implies a conscious effort to be Jewish, and it is this conscious effort which is increasingly becoming the decisive factor in determining whether or not someone is perceived as Jewish. The problem is, with so many competing definitions of Jewishness out there, even a conscious effort may not be enough. Jewish identity will always remain as a subjective category, but its future as an objective reality is not so clear.
Superficially, the growing vagueness of Jewish identity in the United States appears to be simply a function of the growing assimilation of American Jews into mainstream American culture. However, on a deeper level there is another process at work, one which also affects Jews, such as the Hasidim, that refuse to assimilate. Traditionally, Jews were perceived both by themselves and others as members of a separate nation, a Jewish nation. The core of this nation was formed, both in theory and in fact, of the descendants of the members of the nation of Judah who were exiled from the land of Israel back in Roman times. In exile, the members of the Jewish nation sought to preserve the language, customs and religion of the nation of Judah with a view to one day returning to the land of Israel and reconstituting themselves as a free people. And in modern times, this dream has come true with the formation of the nation of Israel. But now that the nation of Israel exists, there is no longer any good reason for Jews in the Diaspora to view themselves as a nation apart. They must eventually choose, either to become members of the nation of Israel, or to become members of the nation in which they currently reside. It is the disappearance of any real need for a separate Jewish nationality, as well as the possibility of assimilation, that accounts for the fragmentation and incoherence of American Jewish identity today.
What happens when Jews refuse to recognize the collapse of the historic underpinnings of Jewish nationality is illustrated by the case of the Hasidim. They continue to view themselves as members of a separate Jewish nation, but just for this reason they have lost all sense of identity with the Jewish people. On the one hand many Hasidim view Israel with disdain as an illegitimate attempt to preempt the coming of the Messiah, and on the other hand most Hasidim also despise assimilated Jews in the Diaspora as no better than goyim. They remain faithful to the Jewish nation as it once was, the Jewish nation of the pre-modern era, whose clothing and manners they strive to perpetuate as best they can. In so doing, they are gradually turning into a religious sect, whose increasing desperation is reflected in the efforts of the Lubavitcher Hasidim to promote their late rebbe as the Messiah. The Hasidim were at one time the conscience and the soul of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe, but their connection with the Jewish people of today is increasingly peripheral and hostile.
American Jews who wish to remain faithful to their Jewish heritage must come to grips with the fact that the only Jewish nation which exists today or needs to exist is the nation of Israel. To be sure, Jewish identity can be redefined as something other than a national identity, but all such redefinitions are open to question as mere way stations on the road to assimilation. If Jewish identity is to remain a national identity, it must become an Israeli identity. But for most American Jews, this would entail a radical shift in perspective. Instead of seeking the source of Jewishness in the Jewish past, it would have to be sought in the Israeli present. Of course, the Israeli present is deeply rooted in the Jewish past. Israelis live in the original homeland of the Jewish people, speak the original language of the Jewish people and observe the traditional holidays of the Jewish people. An Israeli identity is necessarily also a Jewish identity, but it cannot be any old Jewish identity. Identifying as an Israeli imposes certain parameters, such as learning Hebrew or rejecting the claims of the Arab nation to sovereignty over the land of Israel. Whereas Jewish identity today is something that can be more or less invented, Israeli identity must above all be learned.
Originally, developing an Israeli identity was considered the first step towards going to live in Israel and becoming an Israeli. Today matters are not so simple. For one thing, Israel is already quite densely populated and no longer expects all or most of the Jews in the world to come there and live. For another thing, there are now many hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have gone to live in the Diaspora but still retain their sense of Israeli identity. There are also many hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Diaspora who have spent some time in Israel and developed some degree of fluency in Hebrew but do not intend to permanently settle in Israel. For all of these reasons, Israeli identity is becoming a significant part of the Jewish culture of the Diaspora, and as time goes on, its significance is likely to increase. It has become a commonplace to observe that admiration for Israel constitutes a kind of secular religion for many Jews in the Diaspora. The question is: can this admiration be channeled into an Israeli identity that is specific to the Diaspora? Is it possible to sustain an Israeli identity outside Israel that can gradually become the normal Jewish identity for Jews in the Diaspora?
In Israel, the key component of an Israeli identity is fluency in Hebrew. To be sure, it is possible for Jews born in the Diaspora or Arabs born in Israel to become Israeli citizens without being fluent in Hebrew. But as a general rule, no one is accepted as a real Israeli in Israel unless they speak Hebrew well, and preferably very well. Fluency in Hebrew must therefore be the basis for an Israeli identity outside Israel as well, but it would be unrealistic to expect the same level of fluency in the Diaspora as exists in Israel. An Israeli identity that is specific to the Diaspora would imply some knowledge of modern Hebrew but not necessarily complete fluency. This expectation would dovetail nicely with the traditional Jewish expectation that Jewish men should have a reading knowledge of Biblical Hebrew. The same effort that went into learning Biblical Hebrew can also be applied to learning modern Hebrew, with women as well as men expected to participate. And since modern Hebrew is derived from Biblical Hebrew, learning the one makes it relatively easy to learn the other.
However, more than a shift in vocabulary and syntax is implied here. The traditional reason for learning Biblical Hebrew was to participate in religious ceremonies conducted in that language. But modern Hebrew is not generally used for religious ceremonies, so what is the point of learning it if not to live in Israel? The future of an Israeli identity that is specific to the Diaspora depends on the answer to this question. It is not sufficient to argue that learning modern Hebrew makes it more rewarding to visit Israel or makes it possible to read Israeli authors in the original. These are valid points, but everyone knows that most Israelis speak some English and that most prominent Israeli writers have been translated into English. To develop an Israeli identity that is specific to the Diaspora requires the development of a program for learning and using modern Hebrew that is similar in nature to the traditional Jewish program for learning and using Biblical Hebrew. Such a program must encompass not only language study but all aspects of Jewish communal life, such as the celebration of Jewish holidays and Shabbat, education in Jewish history and culture and the translation of Jewish values into social practice.
Modern Hebrew was developed for essentially secular purposes, and a program centered around it will necessarily also have a predominately secular character. Instead of using the Jewish holidays and Shabbat as occasions for religious ceremonies, they will be used as occasions for the commemoration and celebration of Jewish history. Since many traditional Hebrew songs and texts express Jewish patriotism rather than religious devotion, they can be sung or recited on such occasions. It is also natural to include Israeli songs and texts in modern Hebrew, or even to compose new ones, that are appropriate for the Jewish holidays and Shabbat. By the same token, the knowledge of modern Hebrew will greatly enrich the formal study of Jewish tradition and culture. Hebrew was the language in which the thought patterns of the Jewish people were first shaped, and it is impossible to fully understand these patterns without some knowledge of Hebrew. In every area of Jewish life, the study of modern Hebrew and the creation of strong communal ties will naturally tend to interact and mutually reinforce one another. And since the development of modern Hebrew is based in Israel, a program centered around it will inevitably tend to generate an Israeli identity even if that is not its main purpose or goal.
Israeli identity is difficult to define, but it implies a Jewish identity that is firmly rooted, uncompromising and bold. The founders of Israel were convinced that such a Jewish identity could only take shape in the land of Israel, and history has vindicated their claim. But now that Israel exists, the question is whether an Israeli identity can also flourish in the Diaspora. I believe that it can, but not so much by imitating Israelis as by following the same path as the founders of Israel followed, the path of fidelity to Jewish tradition. The reason why this path assumed a secular form in the modern Zionist movement is because religion is only the garment in which Jewish tradition was clothed. Beneath its religious covering this tradition was concerned with the establishment of a just society, first in the land of Israel, eventually in the entire world. The founders of Israel were people who paid more attention to the underlying goal than they did to the religious covering. Those who would recreate an Israeli identity in the Diaspora must be motivated by the same spirit. Their ultimate concern must be the translation of the traditional Jewish ideals of justice, compassion and rational thought into social practice.
The reason why an Israeli identity is necessary to this end is because history has shown that the survival of the Jewish people depends on the vindication of our ancient claim to sovereignty over the land of Israel. Had this claim not been vindicated in the wake of the Second World War, the Jewish people would have had a hard time surviving the Holocaust. For 3000 years, the establishment of a just society in the land of Israel has been the primary goal of the Jewish people, and it remains the primary goal today. Those who are concerned with the establishment of a just society in the Diaspora as well must realize that they will not succeed if Israel is destroyed. The development of an Israeli identity that is specific to the Diaspora is the natural expression of this realization. At the same time, it reflects the growing centrality of Israel in the Jewish world, a centrality that is bound to increase as time goes on. For all these reasons, I am firmly convinced that an Israeli identity will prove to be the normal Jewish identity of the future..