Examining the ‘Israeli Century’
It seems undeniable that the Jewish world’s center of gravity has shifted decisively in favor of Israel. The Jewish state now contains the majority of the world’s Jews, or is about to. It has become the place where Jewish history is being made, for good or ill. Many Diaspora communities remain vital, but they are shrinking in both numbers and influence — especially in the United States.
Israel, in other words, is swiftly becoming hegemonic.
This change and its repercussions are the subject of Yossi Shain’s fascinating new book, “The Israeli Century: How the Zionist Revolution Changed History and Reinvented Judaism.” As the title suggests, Shain believes that, in the current century, it is Israel that will define Jewish life. The Diaspora will continue to exist, he says, and this is not a bad thing; but the prevailing zeitgeist will be Israeli.
To make his case, Shain sweeps through Jewish history both ancient and modern. He sketches the development of Jewish sovereignty, its relationship to the Diaspora that has existed since the Babylonian exile, and the constant push-pull between them. This relationship, Shain posits, has always been complex and fraught. It was, after all, the Babylonian Diaspora that formulated what we think of today as Judaism, and brought it back with them to the Land of Israel when they returned from exile. At the same time, however, the ancient Jewish states — there were several — remained the center of Jewish life, culture, religion, and historical development.
With the destruction of the Temple and the genocide that followed the Bar Kochba revolt, however, the Jewish people had to rethink the idea of sovereignty. Judea was scorched earth, but leaders like the rabbis of Yavne managed to save the Jewish people by creating a kind of sovereignty of the imagination, in which the Land of Israel and Jewish statehood became pure memory, to be restored in the messianic era.
Shain notes that Judaism did not — as some believe — fully divorce itself from politics, but it became a politics that was either internal to the semi-autonomous Diaspora communities or one of negotiation and compromise with the Jews’ gentile overlords, undertaken to head off the disastrous expulsions and pogroms that regularly struck the Jewish people.
With the coming of modernity, Shain posits, this began to change, and it did so rather quickly. In effect, two strains of thought developed. One was the rejection of sovereignty formulated by the assimilated German Jewish communities, codified in the theology of Reform Judaism. This, he says, “meant embracing a broad, scientific education, fluency in German as a substitute for the Yiddish of the shtetls, Protestant ethics, a refined manner, and rules of conduct that reflected their enlightenment, judiciousness, and membership of a flourishing and modern bourgeoisie.”
Abraham Geiger, the founder of Reform Judaism, turned this ambition into a theological imperative. He wanted, Shain notes, for the Jews to change “from being a ‘compact nationality’ into ‘a diaspora in which Jews lived among the nations whom they were destined to instruct.’” Shain adds, “In the new Reform doctrine, Prophetic Judaism was depicted as hostile to the idea of sovereignty.”
Sovereignty, the reformers believed, would corrupt the essence of Judaism, which was to bear witness to and educate the world in the prophetic message. To engage in the world of earthly politics, let alone modern power politics, was something like heresy. Shain describes Reform as formulating “a doctrine based on denying that the Jews were an ethno-national tribe and framing their Jewish revival as a ‘universal church’ that would promote social justice.”
It was these German reformers who established the first relatively large Jewish communities in the United States, and they brought their theological beliefs with them. Shain notes, “The descendants of German Jewish immigrants, who affiliated with the Reform Movement, wanted to put an end once and for all to the incessant questions about their national loyalty. In 1885, they adopted the Pittsburgh Platform, which declared that the Jews were ‘no longer a nation, but a religious community.’”
At the same time, ironically, the Reform vision was failing in Europe. The massive rise in a new, modern antisemitism prompted a rejection of that vision in the form of Zionism. Shain quotes Zionist founding father Moses Hess describing his Zionist awakening: “It dawned upon me for the first time, in the midst of my socialistic activities, that I belong to my unfortunate, slandered, despised and dispersed people. And already, then, though I was greatly estranged from Judaism, I wanted to express my Jewish patriotic sentiment in a cry of anguish.”
Shain also cites the great scholar of the Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, who said of the assimilationist Jews who surrounded him in his German youth that they “lacked discrimination in all matters affecting themselves, yet in all other matters they mustered that faculty for reasoning, criticism, and vision,” which Scholem called a form of “self-deception.” And the great Zionist poet Haim Nahman Bialik, Shain notes, condemned the reformers’ worldview by simply noting, “They stood not firm on the day of wrath.”
In the end, the Zionists won the argument, though in the most tragic way possible. The reformers stayed in Europe, and they died; the Zionists went to Palestine, and they survived. The Holocaust annihilated the assimilationist vision, and the Reform attempt to educate the gentiles in the prophetic vision was incinerated in the ovens of Auschwitz. With the successful establishment of a Jewish state, the Zionists believed that the debate was over. Assimilation and reform didn’t work, the Jewish state did, and that was the end of it.
For myself, who was born an American Jew in a Reform context and eventually rejected it and made aliyah, the most interesting part of Shain’s book is his description of the aftermath: the Zionists may have triumphed on the world stage, but the debate that they felt was settled has continued in the United States. There, the Reform movement remains the dominant strain of Judaism, and has always displayed a measured ambivalence toward the idea of sovereignty. Indeed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Reform leaders and public figures violently rejected Zionism, until the Holocaust finally marginalized them.
While the Reform movement today accepts Zionism, it continues to display a cautious ambivalence toward it. As Shain notes:
It was in this context that the Reform Movement adopted the new Pittsburgh Platform in 1999, which embraced Zionism and affirmed the “unique qualities of living in … the land of Israel,” but also called for cultural and religious pluralism in the country. The progressive movement hoped to reinforce its legitimacy and institutional standing in the United States by deepening its involvement in Israel.
The Reform movement, in other words, wants to have it both ways: to accept Jewish sovereignty without giving up the theology first articulated by Geiger — the Jews as a universal people dedicated to education of the gentiles in the prophetic vision through the advocacy of social justice.
Shain believes this was codified when “the Reform Movement officially adopted tikkun olam in its doctrine in 1997, and it quickly became synonymous with progressive politics. Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president and head of the American Jewish World Service … argued that tikkun olam would ‘deter antisemitism by demonstrating that Jews work to provide social justice and dignity for all people regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity.’”
In Shain’s view, this push-pull between Israel and the Diaspora, Reform and Zionism, the particular and the universal, ensuring Jewish sovereignty and educating the gentiles, is the essential issue to be debated and resolved in the “Israeli Century.” He concludes:
At exactly the time of a deep moral crisis among liberal American Jews, who search for a new Jewish, moral, universal foothold in the face of assimilation, the disintegration of communities, and the increasing alienation from Israel, the Israeli Century will require, more than anything else, Jewish creativity that is both rooted and cosmopolitan, which will find a new balance among the threats, both from within and without, facing Jews in Israel and across the Diaspora.
Shain’s is an insightful and, for the most part, accurate assessment of the current state of Israel-Diaspora relations. However, Shain is not an American, and as an Israeli, he is at least somewhat foreign to the intricacies of American Jewish life. This leads him, I think, to miss something quite important: in America, it is probable that the old debate between Reform and Zionism will not be decided by “Jewish creativity.” It is much more likely to be resolved by history itself; and the Zionist argument appears to be winning again.
Indeed, given recent events, especially over the past year, Messinger’s statement seems somewhat farcical. In particular, there is no indication whatsoever that “tikkun olam” is deterring antisemitism in any way. Over the last 20 years, the progressive movement that the slogan symbolizes has become increasingly antisemitic, and while the far-right has committed horrific acts of antisemitic violence, there has also been a wave of attacks on Jews committed almost entirely by leftists, Muslims, and people of color — constituencies that are generally represented by and an active part of the progressive movement. And as shown when the Congressional Black Caucus blocked a censure of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) following her antisemitic statements, to advocate “social justice and dignity for all people regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity” has accomplished very little, even within mainstream politics. Put simply, the tikkunists “stood not firm on the day of wrath.”
As such, Shain is likely wrong that the Israeli Century will “require, more than anything else, Jewish creativity that is both rooted and cosmopolitan.” It seems more likely that the American Jewish upper class — which has always dominated Reform Judaism — will mostly disappear, whether through demographic or ideological collapse. Those who remain will give up on rootedness entirely, and embrace radical progressivism — whatever its real-world impact on the Jewish people.
Faced with this, the question becomes what the Jewish middle and under-classes — who still make up the majority of Reform Jewish congregations in America — will do in response. It seems to me that the imperative of the moment is not to try to work out a balance via “Jewish creativity,” but to attempt to formulate a form of Zionism that can be reconciled with life in the Diaspora.
Most American Jews are very unlikely to make aliyah, and ironically, a total identification with the State of Israel as it currently exists may be counterproductive. What is open to American Jews, however, is something Shain seems to suggest with his idea of the Israeli Century itself: a kind of “Zionism of the spirit,” in which the essential principles of Zionism are given a Diaspora context. These include things like Jewish solidarity, empowerment, self-defense, cultural development, identity, and pride; as well as such basics as the Hebrew language, knowledge of Jewish history and thought, and insistence on a strident protection of the Jewish body. Zionism, above all, teaches that the Jews have a right to be for themselves as much as for others; and this idea is as important and powerful in the Diaspora as it is in Israel.
Shain’s thesis of an Israeli Century is, in fact, something of a way forward in this regard. If he is right that Israel is now the dominating force in Jewish history — and he is unquestionably right — then its task should be to foster and support this Zionism of the spirit in the Diaspora. This will be difficult, but if it succeeds, it could well provide what he calls the “new Jewish, moral, universal foothold” the Diaspora needs, especially in the United States.
This is very much in the interests of Israel in the Israeli Century — however daunting challenges like “assimilation, the disintegration of communities, and the increasing alienation from Israel” may appear to be at the moment. For myself, as one who was and no longer is an American Jew, I can only embrace the words of Chaim Weizmann, quoted by Shain himself: “They can give up on us, but we cannot give up on them.”