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August 13, 2017 12:19 pm

Embarrassed to Be Israeli or Jewish?

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This week, I met someone who had just returned from a trip to the Greek islands. He told me that he kept meeting Israelis who confided that they were embarrassed to be identified as Israelis, and preferred to hide it. I have heard similar stories many times over the years — of Israelis who try to hide their identities, or avoid wearing any outward signs that might give them away, because to be identified as Israeli is uncomfortable.

At the same time, I have also heard more and more stories of Jews trying to hide the fact that they are Jews.

I was brought up in era where one was expected to be a Jew at home, and a good citizen in public — not to stand out in a crowd; to hide rather than expose. It was an era of excessive conformity. I was always instructed not to wear a yarmulke in public, but a hat or school cap. Religion was a private affair — like sex. You did not speak about it in polite company.

Things began to change very slowly with black immigration into post-war Britain. If other minorities could not hide their appearance, then — I thought — why should I? So, for the first time, I wore my kipa wherever I went — and have done so to this day.

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But then, I am a very committed Jew — a rabbi, to boot — so why wouldn’t I wear my Judaism on my sleeve? After all, every single Haredi man is instantaneously recognizable, and they are now found all around the world. Furthermore, the number of Haredim who have been assaulted, I venture, is relatively few.

So what is all this hiding about?

Israel as a political state was founded predominantly (though not by any means exclusively) by Eastern European socialists and Marxists, and semi-assimilated Middle European refugees. They hoped to set up a secular, liberal paradise without rabbis or religious coercion. Many identified Judaism with the ghetto, and wanted it to have no place in their brave new world. The secular kibbutz was the perfect paradigm of the New Israel.

When I first set foot in Israel in 1957, I was spat at for wearing a kippah in Haifa. I was told that there was no need to keep Shabbat anymore in Tiberias, and that Judaism had no future in Tel Aviv. It was enough to be an Israeli living in Israel. So said Ben Gurion.

Why, then, am I not surprised if some of these people’s descendants hate religion, hate Israel, hate settlers, hate rabbis and even hate the very idea of a Jewish state?

And in the Diaspora, what about those Jews who were already detached from Judaism when their immigrant parents struggled to make a living amongst the tenements and slums — and jettisoned anything that might hold them back? Or those who desperately wanted to be accepted by the aristocratic, moneyed classes? So what if they had to give up some of their Judaism along the way?

There were substitutes: secular Zionism, giving money to Israel, Holocaust memorials, historical Judaism, secular Judaism. All legitimate — but fashions that had their moments, then faded for lack of a coherent, identifiable lifestyle.

Haven’t we always lost the greater part of our numbers — from Joshua to this very day — except when we were forced to be kept together by our enemies? Yet we, as a people, survived. Didn’t the Bible already tell us that we would be the smallest of all nations? As my father liked to say, “The individual Jew might disappear, but the people won’t.”

The fact is that for all the intermarriage — scary as it is — and all the defection and disillusionment, Judaism has never been stronger. Never before have we had so many people really educated in Jewish scholarship of all sorts, so many studying Torah full-time, so many young men in kippot fighting to protect our homeland. Jews are occupying the highest positions in society and government, sitting in the boardrooms of the largest companies, heading the largest firms in Israel and the Diaspora — and all proud to be wearing kippot in public. It was not this way 50 or 100 years ago.

We beat ourselves up. That’s our nature. Perhaps it is the conditioning of the Day of Atonement. But I am so proud and happy to be a Jew at this time in history, and I don’t care who knows it. Of course, I regret that so many Jews and Israelis want to leave. But good luck to them. They must do what they feel is necessary. I have always preferred quality to quantity, and I am more optimistic about our future than I have ever been in my entire life.

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  • Mark

    Pride in being Jewish goes hand in hand as Rabbi Jeremy Rosen wisely remarks in identifying yourself as Jewish. The attitude that was popularized in particular by the German-Jewish adage, be a Jew at home and a man in the street, is a dangerous evasion of exactly what it means to be a Jew. It also implies a responsibility however, since identifying publicly as a Jew, means that one is responsible for the image of the Jew in the eyes of non-Jews. Particularly at this moment of crisis in American social responsibility where the hatred and fear of segments of the American public has burst into violence, one has to be willing to identify and to behave so as to expose the nonsense of these dangerous stereotypes.

    Mark

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