Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“What will be with us?” she asked. Perhaps noticing that I had no idea what she was talking about, she added, “Us young secular Israelis who received no Jewish education. We have no idea who we are or why we are here. If we make peace with the Palestinians, then …” She trailed off, frightened by her own thoughts. “You mean assimilation, intermarriage,” I responded. I saw from her face that I had guessed correctly. She was bewildered, deeply disturbed by her own lack of identity, seeking an answer, but too preoccupied to listen.
I’ve heard it before, most memorably from an older man, a neighbor of mine who has occasionally participated in the activities of Roots, the Israeli Palestinian grassroots initiative for understanding, nonviolence, and transformation. He told me that our work of building bridges of understanding and reconciliation between local Jews and Palestinians draws him in and speaks to his humanity, but that he has deep reservations. In the end, he said to me with sadness and a certain degree of discomfort, this situation of hostility with the Palestinians serves us well. Peace does not bode well for the future of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. Those secular Israelis will just intermarry with our neighbors and assimilate into the surrounding Muslim Arab majority.
There are a myriad of reasons why Israelis and Palestinians are still at each other’s throats, including some with deep roots within the Jewish psyche. Could one of them be that we are afraid of peace?
For many Israeli Jews, collective memories of living in harmony with the ‘goyim’ (gentiles) are eclipsed by those of violence and persecution – pogroms, expulsions, and most recently the Holocaust and seemingly unending wars between Israel and her neighbors. We have no concept what peace might look like. We know how to survive oppression and aggression; we feel like we have come out of it all in pretty good shape. But how would we deal with the great unknown of peace? Do we – the Jewish People in the Land of Israel – have the psychological tools or will to envision peace?
We have confidence in our ability to outwit and outmaneuver our enemies, but we don’t seem to have confidence in our ability to maintain our identity in an open society in which our enemies have become our neighbors. Our Jewish Israeli self-confidence is founded in our external power and not in our internal sense of who we are.
In light of modern history, this is understandable. When the walls of the German ghetto fell at the end of the eighteenth century, Jews assimilated and intermarried at an alarming rate. With the advent of modernity in Tsarist Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, Jews fled from Judaism as from the plague. Today in the open society of America, intermarriage rates top fifty percent, with many of the intermarried lost to the Jewish People. In Israel, we complacently pat ourselves on the back. Here, we say, there is virtually no assimilation. Why would we willingly forego our advantage? Only in Israel are we Jews safe from the peaceful onslaught of friendly ‘goyim’ (gentiles). Why would we want to bring it upon ourselves? Better to keep them at a distance.
Implicit in this way of thinking is that to prevent intermarriage and assimilation, we are willing to pay a steep price – the price of ongoing war and conflict.
This approach may view itself as one of steely-eyed realism, but in my eyes, its evaluation of the reality is off the mark and its values are misaligned.
First, the reality: The conflict is in fact not working very well as a guarantor of Jewish identity. A large and ever-growing number of Israeli Jews – close to a majority among the secular – do not identify as Jews at all but rather only as modern Israelis. They may not have intermarried, but they are no longer passing on to their children any sense of connection to the values and the legacy of the Jewish People. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of others have left the country seeking a more peaceful future for themselves and for their children. They mostly leave for America or Europe, where they overwhelmingly fail to pass on Jewish identity to their progeny. War as a means of keeping Israeli Jews Jewish in any meaningful sense has already failed as a strategy!
Two, the question of values: The preservation of human life is one of the highest Jewish values. Should we sacrifice our lives and those of our children on the altar of Jewish continuity?
Indeed we should, I can hear many responding. They will say, ‘nothing is more important than preserving the integrity of the Jewish family. Everything must be done to ensure that Jews marry Jews so that the infrastructure that has passed down our identity and values from generation to generation is not compromised.’
Were this to be the dilemma, a zero-sum game in which we must decide between the scourge of intermarriage or the scourge of war, between Jewish continuity on the one hand or peace, on the other hand, I might have to admit that we have two closely balanced values vying for preeminence. But this is not much more than a facile illusion; we must delve into the nature and quality of Jewish identity and continuity.
The Jewish identity that conflict may help inculcate is at best a negative one. War and fear facilitate a Jewish continuity that is not much more than an empty shell. And if it does contain content, too often it is one of defensive exclusivity that leaves no room for appreciating the other as created b’tzelem Elokim, in the divine image.
Significant Jewish identity is not just about a label of self-identification or about having Jewish grandchildren. It means embracing membership in the Jewish people as a meaningful element in one’s life and being permeated by what Judaism means and what it has to offer to the individual and to the world.
This can be facilitated only through meaningful Jewish education. The Jewish track of the Israeli secular public school system must invest in teaching basic Jewish literacy. But we need to go even further and to give students appropriate tools to grapple with the meaning of Judaism in their lives. This will require a sea change in our attitude towards creative Jewish exploration. Israeli Jews must be allowed and encouraged to experiment with new forms of Jewish study, expression, and ritual. Israeli religious authorities must put an end to their misguided efforts to discourage secular Israeli Jews from grappling with Judaism on their own terms.
Jewish education is not a panacea, but it is better than war as a means towards Jewish continuity. Yes, in an era of peaceful co-existence we will lose Jews, but with a robust investment in innovative Jewish education, we will lose fewer than we are losing today. The overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis will carry a vibrant Jewish identity that will mean something to them and may bring a benefit to the world.
I am afraid that that here in Israel we have our heads in the sand. Our conflict with the Palestinians is allowing us to shirk our responsibility to focus on significant Jewish education. We don’t feel the urgency because so few Israeli Jews are marrying Palestinians. This is another one of the insidious numbing effects of the conflict.
Peace would not threaten Jewish identity in Israel but rather has the potential to redeem it. Peace would create an impetus and an opportunity to address the crisis of Jewish education in our country. It would allow us and push us to work towards developing a vibrant Jewish identity that is proud and self-confident not only of our military achievements but of the spiritual legacy that we Jews carry on our shoulders.