Are Jews Losing Their Collective Identity?


Birthright, one of the most successful Jewish programs of the recent past, has started to offer specialty trips for people who are, for example, interested in yoga or are vegetarians. One person involved in the vegetarian program stated that, “So many Jews who are vegan or vegetarian have become distanced from Judaism because their needs have not been met by our communal institutions.”

I will admit that I have never thought of being vegan as essential to my Jewish identity though certain rabbis have advocated that eating meat was a concession to humankind and that going vegan is the ideal.  But yoga has never been part of that matrix for me.

And I started to think about what being Jewish means to many young American Jews, especially to those who are Jews “of no religion.” And what does being Jewish mean to Israelis?

The question becomes even more pronounced if we look ahead a generation or two when it is projected that 60 percent of world Jewry will live in Israel with about 35 percent living in North America. What will the definition of “Judaism” mean to these two groups?

This is not a new problem and it emerged starkly after World War II with the establishment of the State of Israel. American Jews were uncomfortable with the notion of Jews having a nationality. Most American Jews felt they were good Americans and that being Jewish did not mean they had a different nationality other than American.

This definitional crisis was not solved by any great philosophical insight. The solution came in May 1967, as American Jews and Jews worldwide feared that another Holocaust, the slaughter of 3 million Jews in Israel, was about to occur as Arab armies consolidated around Israel. And after the Six-Day War in June of that year, the issue simply disappeared.  We could be both Jewish and American and strong supporters of the State of Israel.

Today most people of my generation, the baby boomers, subscribe to the notion as expressed by Rabbi Milton Steinberg in 1945:  “The people is the body of persons who partake together in the social past and its heritage, a present and its problems, a future and its aspirations. To outsiders it appears as a distinct, identifiable historic entity. ‘People’ then expresses a broad reality, yet political sovereignty and allegiance are not essential to it.”

If we look forward a generation or two I wonder if this definition will work either for most Americans who identify as Jews or for Israelis. I fear that outside of religious circles, the identifying notion of a Jew who is part of a broad collective around the world may be lost. And I also fear that in Israel the definition of a Jew may simply become someone who resides in Israel or hopes to reside in Israel someday.

Which brings me to the only point I can make about present-day issues. American Jews should keep expanding Birthright and similar programs. But I think Israel also has a heavy burden in this endeavor and must cease to actively alienate American Jews by the mistreatment of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. I think that Israeli politicians have little idea of how much harm they are doing to the already diminishing connection between non-Orthodox Jewry and the State of Israel. The good news may be that Israel is no longer as dependent on the political support of an energetic American Jewry. But Israel has an obligation to Jews around the world, which it is failing to fulfill. Israel must nurture relationships with diaspora Jewry, not for purely selfish geopolitical reasons, but because a Jewish state has responsibilities to Jews all over the world.

My major disappointment with Prime Minister Netanyahu is that staying in power (which means making sure the Orthodox parties in the Knesset are not offended) is contributing to this alienation, which will have long-term and severe consequences.

If the Israeli government a generation or two from now still insults most diaspora Jewry by not treating their denominations equally, the consequences will be so sad. The Jewish state will simply become the state in which Israelis live.

Joseph Rackman is a partner in the New York law office of Hogan Lovells.