At Home In That Other Promised Land


I  am blessed to be a Jew who feels deeply at home in two places. I count my blessings to be both authentically American and also to feel at home in the state of Israel, where I have family, friends and an office with my name on it. I’ve roughly divided my upbringing, my formative teen and college years, and now my professional life between the two places, such that I have the fluency to understand two cultures. I resent when taxi drivers in Israel won’t speak to me in Hebrew; they are telling me I am a visitor. And don’t get me started on when my fellow Americans assume I am Israeli because I wear a kipa in public.

Israelis love talking about how “at home” they are, and they often want other Jews to be at home in Israel or at least to treat it with both the comfort and reverence that you would treat the home of your relatives. But many American Jews are still superstitiously uncomfortable with talking about how comfortable we are here. I think we remain surprised at the speed with which we assimilated, accommodated and acculturated to this environment, at the influence and affluence we acquired, and we are scared that it will somehow disappear. I suppose that’s always the case; the privileged fear losing what they have, especially if they remember, or they can imagine, how terrible they once had it. In hushed tones: didn’t German Jews think similarly of their world, until it shattered? You can own real estate as a Jew, but there’s always a chance it’s a short-term investment.

Maybe I just have an acquired aversion to the crisis narrative, but I like being at home, and I like talking about it, and I think American Jews need to embrace being at home as part of their Zionism, and not as a rejection of it. If you are actually at home but refuse to admit it, you start taking less responsibility for your own environment. People do terrible things to rental cars. I like feeling at home because it is empowering, because it makes me responsible; wherever you are at home, you have a responsibility to agitate, and to clean up.

If 2018 marks the anniversary of Jewish at-homeness in Israel, American Jews don’t have a neat parallel. Jews have been in America a long time, but none of the major inflection points in our “arrival” — waves of immigration, the first seminaries, Jews in elected office, Thanksgivvukah — have the same force of a holiday of international recognition. I am fourth-generation American, and though I know I feel differently about my Americanness than my grandparents, I can’t point exactly to the milestone events in American history when the conditions for Jews changed to what we enjoy today.

So let’s use 1948 as the homecoming birthday for American Jews as well, on the logic that the birth of Jewish sovereignty also brings with it the formal birth of voluntary diasporism, the choice — and let’s please call it a choice — by American Jews to fulfill their destiny at home but not in the homeland. If American Jews wanted Israeli citizenship, most could get it at the airport. The fact that we don’t is a product of pronounced alternative choices. In 2018, we mark both 70 years of the miraculous, dream-like state that is the state; and we mark the coming of age of a people that has decided to stay on the lush banks of the Jordan and not to cross over. And then if the central project of the 20th century for the Jewish people was in relocating, let’s make the central project of the 21st century into making sense of being at home.

We have good company in Jewish history and Jewish memory. The first Babylonian exile lasted 70 years, according to the traditional chronology; and at its end — when the Lord, through the edict of Cyrus, restored the restoration of Zion — we were, in the words of the Psalmist, “like dreamers.” That was the story we heard from those who actually went. But there were also a lot of Babylonian Jews who stuck it out in Babylonia. These Jews might be lost to biblical history, but we find them later on. The Judean legacy continued in Babylonia and morphed into Jewishness with the company of other returnees and exiles, and migrants in search of opportunity, and eventually the massive Jewish population center in Babylonia would bequeath us some of our most cherished cultural and literary legacies. There have been times throughout our history when our exilic experience has felt extremely — well, exilic: coercive, dangerous, scary. Other times, such as when Babylonian Jews elected to stay, and in the thriving Jewish metropolis of Alexandria in the first century, and many other times with or without the availability of sovereignty, exile has just been an address somewhere in the world not between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Most American Jews are by now those Babylonians who stayed, with little to no recollection of that breathless, unexpected possibility of leaving. And now, why leave one comfortable home for another? Israelis are the inheritors of the myths and realities of dispossession that dictated their ancestors’ choices to leave diaspora and come to the Promised Land, and therefore many still adhere to an ideology — seared deeply in their memory — that there is only one place where the Jewish people can be home. As real as these twin and simultaneous stories of homecoming are, they are categorically incomprehensible to each other. I suppose there are a fortunate few of us who like to think we can be at home in both places, though as a visitor and a non-citizen the rules of belonging are different for me when I’m there in Israel than when I’m here; and if I’m being really honest, I pay more for my mortgage in the Bronx than I do in my philanthropy to Israel, and our choices say more about where we really live than our feelings.

I fear that Zionism demands too much. It was sufficient for this movement to insist on the importance of a Jewish homeland, in the face of the irreconcilability of the Jews with the exclusionary ethos of European ethnic exceptionalism. It was legitimate for Zionism to demand of Jews their support in its vulnerable nascent moments, to invite or even demand that world Jewry aid in the project of building the state and the nation for it simply could not have been done by the first immigrants alone. It is still fair game of Zionism to ask of us that we continue to identify with the nation at the heart of this nation-state, to claim that Jewish peoplehood — the religious principle upon which this secular national entity relies — continue to claim us and that it obligates us in return.

But Zionism should not have insisted, as it often still does, that the Jewish people not feel at home except in the state of Israel. This is too much to ask of an American Jewish community that also remembers our downtrodden-ness and dispossession and based on those memories is also desperate for a place to call our own. Worse, it forces, or enables, American Jews into claiming that they are Other in America when they are actually Us, to continue to fantasize about pristine Jewish moral values as divorced from the business of statecraft, and even to abdicate moral responsibility for taking care of this home by allowing people to claim temporary tenancy. The ethics of statelessness, to borrow a term from my colleague Tamara Tweel, unhelpfully idealize our values — divorcing them from the world in which we live – and degrade our actual surroundings, because we are not responsible for them. The ethics of at-homeness, however, are both far more prosaic and far more real. They make us responsible.

I used to be enamored by the idea that the twin Jewish projects of at-homeness in diaspora and at-homeness in Israel provided competing “laboratories” for Jewish identity and creativity, one rooted in minority culture and private institutions, and the other playing out in sovereignty and the public square. I am now not so sure. American Jews live Jewishly with extraordinary comfort, confidence and fluidity in the public square; the story of the privatization of identity, the fantasy of the Jew at home and the American in the street, tells an antiquated story of American Jews that has been supplanted by an American Jewish performance of public Jewish identity that is at times recognizably Israeli. And some of the most interesting and important projects in the remaking of Jewishness in Israel are aimed precisely at re-privatizing Jewish identity, away from the government structures which tend to, pace Buber, transform the dynamism of Jewish religiosity into static religion. The creative religious forces in American-Jewish and Israeli-Jewish life increasingly parallel one another, more than they provide useful contrast.

And then there is politics, the principal theater of Jewish at-homeness. I met with an Israeli government official recently who tried to persuade me that American Jews should still maintain the old divide between “legitimate” criticism of Israel (issues of religious pluralism), and “illegitimate” criticism (issues of security and politics). He argued that the religious leaders of American Judaism should effectively stick to religion. This struck me as avowedly and paradoxically anti-Zionist. The dramatic turn of Zionism was not merely in the political project of sovereignty or the relocation of Jews to Israel; it was the ideological reshaping of the parameters of what we consider to be the stuff of Jewish concern. In David Hartman’s words, “Zionism transformed Jewish self-understanding,” and reshaped the agenda of Jewish religious life to be passionately concerned with the affairs of statecraft, policy, and economy. Zionism ruptures the clean divide between Jewish religious concerns and political concerns, and both in Israel and America creates a Judaism in which the two are inextricably wedded.

Sometimes, as in the case of government bureaucracies in Israel, this is catastrophic to religion. Here in America, too, there is confusion and frustration about what it means for the religious and the political to be interwoven as part of our “common Judaism.” It frustrates Jews on the left that Zionism, peoplehood and Jewish survival — Jewish political concerns — have replaced God and Torah as the source of meaning for many American Jews. But at the same time, many of those same Jews consider their political activism part and parcel of their religious identities, arguing for the fundamentally political nature of Torah and the urgency of acting politically in fulfillment of the legacy of the prophets. The successes and struggles are both legacies of Zionism: the fierce refusal to allow Judaism to be the parochial stuff of bookshelves, and the conviction that it constitutes a relevant discourse that shapes who we are not just “religiously” but politically and otherwise humanly. The clean divide between the categories of Jewishness — between religion and ethnicity, between theology and politics — is the detritus of an exilic consciousness. Both American Jews and Israeli Jews are living in more complex and more interesting admixtures.

The urgent project of the day of Jewish peoplehood is to try to reconnect between these two extraordinary success stories. It is objectively good news that American and Israeli Jews are thriving in their respective at-homeness, even as it is painful to see all the ways that we seem to need each other a lot less; and worse, the ways that we are missing out on the richness and resources of how the gifts of each community could help the other navigate its most pressing challenges. But let’s never solve for such needs by making one project overly dependent on the other, and not by delegitimizing either hard-earned at-homeness. Let’s own our homes that we’ve rightfully acquired, as responsible homeowners and better landlords, better guests in our friends’ homes, and better neighbors. My dream for Israel as it marks 70 is the same for American Jews marking the parallel milestones of our at-homeness, and they are the gifts of the household: to feel comfortable, to feel proud and to feel responsible.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute.