The answer to that question is Yes…and No. I’ll explain.
The prayer book and Jewish holidays like Passover convey an profound longing for Zion. But not political Zion. Not even a Kingdom of Zion. But rather a metaphorical Zion: one of dreams and aspirations. It is Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz. Her Yellow Brick Road. No Jew praying in the Diaspora until 1880 thought he was praying for a state of Israel. In fact political Zionism was, for its first century of existence, devoutly secular, even hostile to religion.
Some early Zionists specifically rejected a state. They embraced cultural Zionism: a movement for renewal of Jewish life through culture, language, literature and art–in Zion.
The Brit Shalom movement–whose members included leading intellectual figures of the Yishuv like Martin Buber, Salman Schocken, Hugo Bergman, Hans Kohn, Gershom Scholem, Judah Magnes and Ernst Simon–was a bridge between non-statist and political Zionism. It proposed a bi-national state in which Jews and Palestinians would co-exist within two linked, but separate entities:
…What defined the ideology of Brit Shalom as a group was clearly its emphasis on the importance of Jewish-Arab cooperation and joint institution building in Palestine…In particular [it] regarded Jewish-Arab cooperation as an alternative to the European model of national sovereignty, which they thought had irrevocably compromised itself through the collusion with imperialism…”
Nazism and the Holocaust killed this vision and left political Zionism-Jewish nationalism as the only surviving ideology (to our subsequent sorrow).
Political Zionism has been a disaster for the Jewish people, though most Jews didn’t understand this at its founding. If Ben Gurion had adhered to the follow prescription of Theodor Herzl, Israel may not have become the fundamentalist theocracy it now is:
Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks.
Alas, it didn’t turn out that way. Had different choices been made a critical junctures, Zionism may not have reached its current dead-end. Ben Gurion made a fateful decision to grant Orthodox Judaism a monopoly not only in the sacred sphere, but in critical portions of the secular as well. In return, he obtained the support of the religious establishment in the quest for nationhood, offering it a political base to advance its interests.
It has made for a messy dysfunctional marriage and a catastrophic descent into Judeo-Nazism. The Judeo-messianists now dominate the social and political agenda and manipulate virtually all levers of state power. It is leading to an irrevocable rupture between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, especially in the US. A Pew poll found that while the older generation of American Jews closely identified with Israel, the opposite was the case among young Jews, 51% of whom said they were not “emotionally attached” to Israel. The future does not bode well for this relationship.
Diasporism is a term bandied about of late in articles in the New York Times and New York Review of Books. But it is by no means a recent phenomenon. In truth, Jewish life existed in the Diaspora for 2,000 years from the fall of the Second Temple in 130 CE till the late 19th century (ie the First Aliyah). During that period, the entire existence of the Jewish people took place in, and depended open the Diaspora. Until 1880, there were only 10,000 Jews living in Palestine, while 10-million lived in the rest of the world.
Zionism and Bundism: fateful rivalry
There were two rival visions contending among Diaspora Jews. A Yiddishist Jewish Bund was rooted in American and European working-class, urban Jewry. It espoused Jewish socialism including the formation of labor unions. It rejected religion and embraced instead a secular cultural tradition.
A hallmark of Bundism was the embrace of Yiddish, the lingua franca (mama losh’n) of millions of European Jews. It also embraced life in the Diaspora and espoused the integration of Jews into the lives of the countries where they lived. It rejected Jewish nationalism. It saw Zionism as a betrayal of socialist values. These rival ideologies set in motion a battle for the hearts and minds of Jews.
Unfortunately, Hitler destroyed the Bundist movement by extermination, and by destroying the urban centers in which it flourished. Today in America, the Workman’s Circle, YIVO, and other Yiddishist institutions are all that remains. Arising from these ashes were the last surviving remnant: Zionism and Orthodox Judaism. Today, Yiddish is kept alive mainly by the ultra-Orthodox. The vibrancy and secularity of Yiddish and its traditions has largely been lost.
Zionists often assert a direct descent from ancient Israel via Jewish history and sacred sources. They point to sacred texts expressing a longing for return to Eretz Yisrael and rebuilding Jerusalem. But Diaspora Jews didn’t envision Zion as a nation-state. Their vision was for a metaphorical dream of Zion.
How many Jews in 17th century Amsterdam or 15th century Rome envisioned Zion as a place where an ultra-Orthodox Jew would expose his penis and urinate of the site where five Palestinians had just been murdered? This is a chilul ha’shem. A desecration of God’s Name. It is not, cannot be Judaism. But alas it is for the most powerful segments of Israeli society.
How many Diaspora Jews praying for a return to Zion, imagined this meant the same figure above, brandishing an automatic weapon and unsheathing a knife, while stabbing the picture of a Palestinian baby who’d been burned to death–and at his own wedding? Is this the Zion, the light unto the nations, Jews longed for for millennia?
This is a flagrant violation of the values of tolerance and social justice most Jews here believe. Many of us are activists who rallied for Black Lives Matter, who felt a moral duty to join anti-war protests, including those demanding an end to the Gaza slaughter. We support our Muslim brothers and sisters when they face Islamophobia. We understand the pain of the immigrant forced to flee persecution in their homeland and welcome them. We do this because we are Jews. Because our people has known the same suffering (“You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”). Because we overcame it and wish to help them do the same.
These are diametrically opposed to the racism, hysteria, and mass violence perpetrated against Palestinians by thugs committing such crimes in the name of Judaism. These contradictions cannot be reconciled. We are not on a collision course with Zionism. We are in the midst of a messy divorce and arguing over who gets to keep the moral property and the keys to the house.
Nor can there be any claim these depraved acts do not represent Israeli Judaism. Indeed, this militant religious-messianism is dominant throughout Israeli society. Such Taliban Judaism is revolting to Diaspora Jews. It embraces Judeo-supremacy. It is hostile to secularism and even democracy. It is not only Islamophobic, it envisions an apocalyptic holy war against Islam.
Naturally, Muslims and Arabs throughout the world see Israel as their sworn enemy. Because Israel purports to represent not only itself, but world Jewry, they erroneously conflate Jews and Judaism with Israel; viewing both as their enemy. Ultimately, Zionism has become a leading cause of anti-Semitism throughout the world.
A Judaism of stones and bones vs. one of prophetic values
Diaspora Judaism is tied neither to holy land, nor holy Temple. It is not centered on High Priests or chief rabbis. It is decentralized. It is fundamentally democratic; where Israeli Judaism is a state religion, and is overwhelmingly Orthodox and rigidly centralized. As a state religion, Orthodoxy controls key hallmarks of social identity including birth, death, marriage and divorce.
The power of Diasporic Judaism, on the other hand, is in its heterodoxy and diversity. Holiness is inherent in community, values, and worship. It exists in a spiritual sphere rather than a physical one, dependent on sacred ground or holy sites.
Judah Halevi, while living in the Spanish Diaspora, famously said: “I am in the West, but my heart is in the East,” referring to Zion. Today, Jewish hearts have a more tenuous connection to the East. Each war and Palestinian death further weakens that bond.
Can American Judaism survive shorn of one of its key pillars? Can communal institutions like synagogues, community centers and Jewish federations provide all the sustenance Diasporic Judaism needs, without relying on Israel as key to Jewish identity? Unfortunately, the answer is No; because they have inextricably bound themselves to a “Jewish state.” One dominated by religious hatred, which rejects the values of prophetic Judaism. The communal elites have permitted Israel to monopolize Jewish identity and made American Jewry subservient to it. Without Israel, American Judaism becomes a two-legged stool.
The latest surveys of our community indicate that 37% are affiliated with the Reform movement, 17% with Conservative, 9% with Orthodox, 4% with Reconstructionsim and 32% are unaffiliated. Fully one-third of the community is religiously unaffiliated. Some of the latter may affiliate with other secular institutions like federations or community centers. But the overwhelming percentage range from being uninterested to alienated from the organized community. Polls show that the trend is moving away from religious affiliation. Especially among youth, that phenomenon is pronounced. Not only are Jews becoming more secular, they are drifting away from Judaism and the organized community.
An Israel-centric Jewish identity is weakening, which bodes ill for our overall survival. Zionists, especially those in Israel, use such statistics to prove that Diasporic Judaism is dying and the only remaining viable form of Jewish identity is Israel and Zionism. Not so fast. There is a fast growing Jewish left in this country which has come into its own during the Gaza War. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and If Not Now (INN), have taken the reins and fired the imagination of hundreds of thousands of Jews. They’ve taken over Grand Central Station, the Statue of Liberty and the US Capitol. They’ve occupied local Congressional offices and major freeways of major cities. They’ve grabbed headlines in mainstream media, which is routinely monopolized by pro-Israel voices.
Such a progressive agenda highlights opposition to the war and Israeli genocide in Gaza. While the organized community dozes, the left has electrified American Jewry. I saw this in protests I joined here in Seattle. Hundreds have come forward, joining rallies at the Space Needle and shutting down the main highway through the city center. These young people are not veterans of any Jewish youth movement. They don’t go to shul. They’re not members of Aipac or the ADL. They are diverse, where the mainstream institutions are a monolith. A major portion of these protesters were from the LGBTQ community, who never truly felt welcomed.
Though the left is still a minority among the overall population, its ideas are slowly being absorbed into the mainstream. The more discredited and fossilized the communal establishment becomes, the more the left becomes a viable alternative. JVP and INN articulate a concrete political vision whose strength is in values and ideas, not buildings or offices or kowtowing to largely white male conservative pro-Israel donors.
But the weakness of the Left vision lies in the lack of institutions, and to a lesser extent the lack of a financial base. You can build a grassroots movement without major funding, but you cannot build the institutions to sustain it without money.
Not only does the organized community have synagogues, community centers, it has wealthy donors who provide the necessary funding to maintain these institutions. There may be a few synagogues which embrace the values of the left, but they are sprinkled in a few major cities. With the exception of the small Reconstructionist denomination, there is no movement to which they can belong that provides continuity. There is no secular movement (except for the two groups mentioned above) or institutional framework for Jewish leftism. Without this, it will influence the larger community from the outside, but not be able to offer a viable, long-term alternative.
During the 1970s the Havurah movement offered one model of Jewish identity rooted in secular and religious prophetic values. It sprang from the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of that era and offered a Judaism that was filled with song, worship, and social activism. But over time it could not sustain itself, and the concept was even adopted by the mainstream Reform movement.
These are some of the ideas and values the Jewish left needs to survive and grow. There is no magic plan laying out how to do this. It may not even be feasible or desirable for a community whose identity is united by alienation from organized religion. But I want American Judaism to survive. And it will not, over the long-term, if there is just one homogeneous, stultified form of Jewish identity.