The Israelization of Judaism or the Judaization of Israel?
Review of Yossi Shain’s The Israeli Century
The Israelization of Judaism or the Judaization of Israel?
by Neil Rogachevsky
A Review of Yossi Shain’s The Israeli Century
Over the course of the last few decades, the State of Israel has become the center of Jewish life. Some welcome this. Others try to fight against it. But all in a way now see this stunning turn of events.
At its founding in 1948 the State of Israel had a mere 600,000 Jews who, even during brief interludes of peace, lived in great precarity. For many decades, Jews of the diaspora saw Israel as a vulnerable outpost that required all the support that those Jewish communities that had not been destroyed by the Holocaust could muster.
For a long time, that remained the dominant paradigm in diaspora-Israel relations even as that vulnerable outpost overcame war, terrorism, and periods of serious political and economic mismanagement and continued to grow in size and strength. By most estimates the Jewish population of Israel surpassed that of the United States sometime in the late 2000s.
The astonishing demographic strength of Israeli Jews, both secular as well as religious, combined with declining birthrates of diaspora Jews portends a continued shift in the balance of forces.
Whether one looks in the political, social, or cultural and religious domains, there has been a continuing and rather rapid shift away from New York and Los Angeles toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv—and even, one might add, toward the West Bank. Jewish politics in Israel is the politics of a sovereign nation negotiating matters of war and peace and international diplomacy. In the United States, Jews can certainly play a role in the broader politics of the empire, but, as Jews, the political task is confined to a narrower (though still important) sphere regarding religious freedom, advocacy for Israel, and fighting antisemitism. On culture, there is Curb your Enthusiasm, which has some aspects of classic American Jewish comedy which, revealingly, works in this way since it features senior citizens. Meanwhile, Shtisel, Fauda and many other pop culture products from Israel are far likelier to be seen as quintessential Jewish TV by diaspora Jews.
America and Britain still boast weighty theologians as well as celebrity rabbis. But, in terms of religion and the life of the mind, the vast amount of intellectual energy comes from Israel. (Philosophic Judaism is still hanging on pretty well in North America as well as in continental Europe, of all places).
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When one looks at economic comforts the facts still favor the Jews of the diaspora but here too Israel is catching up, as GDP growth and many other factors indicate. The educated young Israeli of today has far greater earning possibilities in far more interesting work than would have been conceivable a few decades ago. When I was studying in Israel around 15 years ago, young Israelis thought nothing of spending a few extra years at university doing a master’s degree in some abstruse topic like the evolution of Hebrew grammar in the Mishnaic period. This was a rational choice, for alternatives were often some miserably compensated work in the bureaucracy or professions. Young Israelis can now hope to earn real money relatively quickly. Marvel at the entirely new phenomenon of the last decade: Jewish economic migrants from the diaspora moving to Israel because they think they might do better economically there! Many who come are often sorely disappointed on this front, but the thought speaks volumes.
Some founders of modern Israel had hoped for precisely this outcome, frequently aggravating diaspora Jewish leaders when they made statements about Israeli primacy. David Ben-Gurion, the individual who had the most influence on the shape of Israel’s political culture, had of course famously rejected the legitimacy of the diaspora. A purpose of Israel was to ingather the exiles and thereby bring the Galut, at last, to an end.
The Jewish future, argues Shain, is thus to be found in the State of Israel or at least conducted through it as the single vital node in Jewish life.
David Ben-Gurion was an eminently practical man and he mostly took care not to press this point in the 1950s and ’60s. In the decades of the postwar period he could afford to ignore such chutzpadik pronouncements by Israelis anyway: The postwar period was of course a golden age for Jews in Western countries.
But in light of the changes of the balance of power between diaspora and Israeli Jews, does Ben-Gurion’s position deserve a second look? Is Israel not only the center of Jewish life but soon to be the only vital node in Jewish life? This is the argument advanced by Yossi Shain in his new book, The Israeli Century. Though he doesn’t quite follow Ben-Gurion and other Zionists of the last century all the way to “negation of the Diaspora,” Shain argues that Jewish history reached a certain culmination in the establishment of the State of Israel and its remarkable growth in strength and vitality since then. The Jewish future, argues Shain, is thus to be found in the State of Israel or at least conducted through it as the single vital node in Jewish life. The Jewish future will be based on Israeliness—with the Israeli way predominating over diaspora modes of Judaism, whether religious or secular.
I cannot be considered an impartial observer when it comes to evaluating the work of Yossi Shain, who is now a Member of Knesset for the Yisrael Beiteinu party after a long career teaching political science and government at Tel Aviv University and at Georgetown. Shain has been a mentor and comrade with whom I’ve been engaged in various intellectual labors over the years as well as some hijinks.
An example of the hijinks: A bunch of years ago I helped Shain organize a conference at Tel Aviv University with the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy and others focused on the then-unfolding Arab Spring. In an early example of going viral, the video of Lévy’s address, in which Levy casually said that we should indeed be wary of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. That video found its way to a press conference held by the Turkish leader, Erdogan. It was a smoking gun that Israel, America, and France—all under the direction of an “international Jew” in a Charvet shirt—were conspiring against his Egyptian allies. This is the kind of charming stuff that happens in Israel all the time, and makes that small country sometimes seem much bigger than it is.
Despite being pretty middle of the road politically, Shain is a member of the Russian-led Yisrael Beiteinu party which has often been called right wing. The kinship here between Shain and Avigdor Lieberman’s movement has less to do with foreign policy than with a kind of shared annoyance—expressed in this book—at the increasing power or prominence of religion and the religious in Israeli public life. I understand this annoyance though, as will become clear below, I don’t share it.
Shain has written many provocative things about diaspora-Israel relations over the years in essays and books, and The Israeli Century is his complete statement on the topic. By means of a learned meandering tour through Jewish history, Shain argues that the establishment of Israel represents the destination to which Jewish history always intended and which therefore renders many aspects of diaspora Judaism obsolete.
The Israeli Century’s tour through Jewish history cannot be adequately summarized here, but the argument that history is meant to advance can be. According to Shain, Rabbinic Judaism emerged as a compensatory response for the loss of sovereignty following the Roman destruction of the Second Commonwealth over the course of the first and second centuries CE. Diaspora Judaism was a cope that sometimes led to brilliant accomplishment but left the Jews open to the persecutions they frequently suffered. That Jews almost always longed to return demonstrates that this was the essential aspect of Jewish peoplehood.
Shain does not argue that the reestablishment of a sovereign state makes all previous Jewish law and religious traditions superfluous. But he does imply that Israel does and can get away with emphasizing them less. And one exciting aspect of the return to nationhood and sovereignty is that Jews can produce new and exciting cultural products as they continue to cultivate their national genius.
Meanwhile, Shain sees engagement with Israel—whether positive or negative—as the principal source of energy in diaspora Judaism today. Thus Shain points to a surprising commonality between your Jewish anti-Zionist activist on one hand and an old-school Zio like me on the other. We both find purpose ex-centrically—through the real or imagined affairs of a small Middle Eastern country. Anti-Zionist Jews need Israel, argues Shain, if only to kick it around.
If American Jews have become less interesting, this may be because Americans in general have become less interesting. And America possesses an astonishing ability to revive itself, and, if one looks carefully, one does find some signs of intellectual and political renewal.
Is Judaism and Jewish life, then, in the process of Israelization? There is much that is accurate in Shain’s telling, even as many diaspora Jews would not like to hear it. It’s increasingly hard to get away from Israel if one wants to remain Jewishly engaged in the diaspora. The recent novel by Joshua Cohen, The Netanyahus, illustrates this point well. Cohen, who seems to aspire to be a literary chronicler of the American Jewish experience, in the book tries rather haplessly to characterize a typical Jewish intellectual of the mid-20th century. But to make the story interesting, he had to have recourse to an interesting cast of Israelis. Philip Roth, of course, also wrote novels about Israel and diaspora-Israel relations. But he also did and could write novels about interesting American Jews in their own milieu. There are novels written on this theme today. Are they any good?
But perhaps there aren’t very many good novels on any subject. It is unfair to single out American Jews as uninteresting except insofar as they are engaged with Israel. If American Jews have become less interesting, this may be because Americans in general have become less interesting. And America possesses an astonishing ability to revive itself, and, if one looks carefully, one does find some signs of intellectual and political renewal. American Jews played major roles in some of the major non-Israel-related intellectual and political phenomena of the 20th century. The intellectual circle around the political philosopher Leo Strauss was heavily Jewish and carried with it a certain Jewish sensibility. Why should one think that no comparable movement could emerge again?
The limitation in the argument that Judaism is being Israelized is the fact that Israel itself is becoming more and more Jewish. And the Judaism of Israel is not simply a Bible and Hebraic culture-centric Judaism sought, at various moments, by David Ben-Gurion and other founders of Israel. Diaspora Judaism has struck back.
Yossi Shain is of course aware of this fact, and he is not exactly happy about it. In fact, beyond the obvious political dilemmas the country faces, one thing that could sabotage the continued development of The Israeli Century, according to Shain, would be if ever larger numbers of ever more religious Israelis decline to work.
It is easy to understand why some Israelis have been angry about welfare-receiving Haredis who do not serve in the military and who are paid to study while others risk their lives on the front lines and are called to service in thousands of other ways through their lives. But, beyond arguments about the need for the perpetuation of traditions of learning, this idea no longer captures the quickly shifting religious landscape in Israel.
One little-noticed reform (outside of Israel) during the early 2010s was a modest but noticeable cut in stipends for those Haredi students who opt to learn full time. And, as a result of this and other trends, many more Haredis have been joining the workforce. Along with this, there has been the continued rise of Israelis who define themselves as Hardal—a blend of Haredi and modern Orthodox who fully participate in the public life of the state.
The Judaization of Israel is, however, somewhat hard to see because very much of it is in flux. Traditions and observance are growing across the Israeli public sphere. But what forms will Jewish belief and practice take in the years ahead? Will mysticism grow still stronger? Will a more rationalistic Orthodoxy, compatible with both patriotism and liberalism, continue to grow? Will the older and newer diaspora religious movements (Conservative, Reconstructionist, etc.) finally take off in Israel even as they fade in North America? Judaism may be transformed in Israel but it will not escape the forms and practices developed in the diaspora. It may well be that the greatest role diaspora Jews can play in an Israeli century to come is to help Israelis think through the politics of religion.
Neil Rogachevsky teaches political thought and Israel studies at Yeshiva University.