Who is Israel to tell you that you’re not a good enough Jew?

For information on these good American Jews: http://www.loeb-tourovisitorscenter.org/jll_jews.shtml

In the privacy of my own head, I am often very much at odds with Jeffrey Goldberg (whose book, Prisoners, I reviewed once upon a time and would still recommend) — but he got this one absolutely right: Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews.

Looking at a series of PSAs produced by the Israeli government to encourage Israelis not to get stuck in America [how else to put it?], Goldberg writes: “I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads…. The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.”

Exactly. But it goes well beyond this series of ads, and can be found at every level of the Israeli-Diaspora relationship — it infuriates me, and I’ve said as much before, so now I’m saying it again (with a few edits):

Bad Jews.

If I am nothing else on this earth, I am a Jew.

If ever I doubt that, I have only to observe my reaction to, oh, say, finding a vat of pulled pork on my porch (it was a block party!) or consider the goosebumps that unfailingly prickle every time the Torah is returned to the ark and my congregation starts to sing: “Torati al ta’azovu – etz chaim he…” (“Don’t abandon my Torah – it is a tree of life…”).

I’m a Jew.

And if I’m any kind of Jew, I’m an Israeli Jew. Israel is where I became Jewish, after all, having been born an American Protestant of some sort of vaguely Presbyterian lineage. I went through a spiritual whoops-di-doo, discovered where I was meant to be (where I was, the rabbis would say, all along), and joined my life to that of my people.

My conversion doesn’t come up a lot because it doesn’t mean very much to me. I’m not a convert – I’m a Jew. I’m not a Jew-by-choice – I’m a Jew. I’m not a former Christian – I’m a Jew. When God presented the Israelites with the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and the souls of all Jews past and present were there to hear and receive it, mine was in the crowd. So we’re taught, and so I believe.

So there I am in Israel, I discover that I’m really a Jew, I become one, and there it is. Done.

Or so I thought.

It never occurred to me that I might one day find myself living in the galut (exile). It never occurred to me that American Jews would find my conversion of material interest (Israeli Jews — or: the kind I hang out with — mostly don’t). It never occurred to me that in becoming a Jew in Israel, I learned some very specific ways to be Jewish that don’t apply in the galut. And it really never occurred to me that there might be anything wrong with Israelis’ powerful sense of superiority about the way that they are Jews — and it never occurred to me that there might be something wrong with American Jews agreeing with them.

And yet. Here I am. And the longer I live here in the galut, the more of an American Jew I become — and the more pissed off I get at the Israelis.

There is a sense — a nonsense, really — that Israelis are better Jews. That they, by-definition, know what they’re doing better than the Jews who don’t live their lives in Hebrew.

Israeli Jews are often greeted by their American brothers and sisters with an odd kind of reverence, deference even, both of which my husband and I experienced when we arrived on these shores. This is true even if (and this is the especially odd part) the Israelis in question are not in the least observant. I’ve been told (to my face) that some people in my shul are willing to accept that I can’t be all bad, despite my politics, because my husband is Israeli-born.

Do they know that he’s an atheist? That he’s to the left of me politically? That if the kids hadn’t been there, he would have dived into that pulled pork and not come up for air?

And now, dear reader, I come to my point.

Not only do Israeli Jews, as a rule, behave as if they know better than their Diaspora counterparts, not only do American Jews, as a rule, accept this as a given — but the Israeli government itself is complicit in furthering this series of assumptions, and regularly acts to codify them into law.

Most American Jews are Reform, secular, atheist, Reconstructionist, Conservative — in short: anything but Orthodox. And yet everything about the Israeli handling of religious issues within Israel’s borders is predicated on the assumption that there is but one way to be a Jew, and that is Orthodox. My Conservative wedding? Unacceptable. My friend’s Conservative conversion? Unacceptable. Burial in anything but an Orthodox fashion? Literally impossible (unless you take the body to a friendly kibbutz).

This fact has angered me since before my (Orthodox) conversion, and the years haven’t moderated that anger one iota. It’s simply wrong to dictate to the citizens of a democratic state how they may or may not conduct matters of faith, who they may or may not marry, who (in short) they are. You may think you’re a Jew, they seem to say, but you’re no Jew. And I have a law passed by the legislative body paid for by your taxes to back me up.

Fuel to the fire: These same people? This Israeli government so anxious to hand me and mine over to the tender mercies of the Orthodox rabbinate — the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, peopled by men who follow dress-codes set in 16th century Poland — this bunch of secular, nationalist, opportunistic politicians for whom matters of faith matter not in the least? These people?

They are the very same people who tell American Jews — over and over ad infinitum — that they had best be all about official Israeli policy regarding the conflict. They had best be all about the occupation and the settlements and the constant war-footing and the refusal to accept any responsibility for the results of the refusal to actually resolve the conflict.

Indeed, American Jews must not only be mentally and emotionally behind all of this — they must also send their money east to support it, and dog their Senators and Representatives to do likewise.

Else they are very bad Jews indeed.

To summarize: The Jewish State is happy to take American Jews’ money and shame us into creating political pressure to support endless war — but our prayers?

Ashes.

The ads about which Jeffery Goldberg wrote are up on YouTube (click here for one entirely in English – it suggests American Jews are comically ignorant about Israeli Memorial Day; click here for one with but a single word in English – trust me, you’ll get the point even if you don’t speak Hebrew) but the truth is that Goldberg is right: “I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious” — which is to say: It’s always been there, it’s always been fairly blatant. It’s just never been quite this blatant.

This two-faced behavior is a feature in the Israeli-Diaspora relationship, not a bug. Why American Jews as a community are not out-and-out incensed by it is beyond me.

Who are they to tell you that you are not a good enough Jew?

Who are they?

24 Comments

  1. Lizzou

     /  November 30, 2011

    I JUST read this over on Goldberg’s blog and thought “I bet Emily will have something to say about this!” (I post with the Horde, used to be Sylvanfemme) I’m not even remotely Jewish, but this infuriated me. It reminds of me when people question my American identity and/or patriotism because I live in France. Or when my Louisiana cousins treat me as an other because I grew up in the North. Or when my California family treats me like a retard cause I’m from the Southeast. I realize my examples are not quite the same thing, but it reminds me that people just seem to always need to be in a herd, and therefore, somehow “more” than you.

    • In terms of place, there are basically three poles in the Jewish world – Israeli Jews, American Jews, and Everyone Else. Israeli + American Jews makes up something like 80-90% of the entire Jewish population of the world, so there is an inevitable co-dependent relationship that has grown up between us. The two bulwarks of Judaism stand on opposite sides of the same fucking divide that has rifted us since we put pen to paper and established our silly little religion, the tension between secular assimilation (and potential destruction as a distinct people) and maintaining cultural distance (and risk being thought of as a shadowy cabal of weird religious zealots). It’s nothing new, really, but the more the Israeli government pushes down one side of that road, the more our two groups drift apart.

      • Whenever someone calls for “unity,” I like to remind them that we haven’t been united as a people since the Golden Calf.

        • All things being equal, it’s a relatively clean fracture, with all of the sub-fractures (Reform, Conservative, etc.) being proxy wars for that primary fracture. There is this danger, alluded to by dmf below, that the simple fact of a Jewish state will preclude it from doing anything but move, inevitably and irrevocably, towards down the path that it’s already sort of trending down. I still believe in Israel or, more accurately, I believe in Israelis, but when I see how Orthodox religiosity is bit-by-bit working its way into the government, I get very nervous about its long-term future. But, I mean, it’s not like “being worried about Israel’s long-term future” is some new phenomenon.

  2. As a regular reader but infrequent commenter here, I wondered what you would think about those ads. I suppose it makes sense that a gov’t that denies recognition to the Judaism practiced by most observant American Jews would worry about secularization. I mean, if Reform and Conservative Judaism, and even some bits of Modern Orthodoxy, are seen as not authentically Jewish, then most American Jews are not religious and therefore secular. I guess.

  3. Also a little piece of my brain is wondering whether the “American Jews are icky and secular!” theme is actually a cover for “your American Jewish spouse might want you to support J Street instead of AIPAC!” but I’ve probably been hanging out with too many conspiracy theorists.

  4. dmf

     /  November 30, 2011

    was never sure how one could have a Jewish state and a modern/Americanized democracy at the same time, something had to give.
    http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/146997/

  5. You could at least give Netanyahu credit for performing a miracle: he brought you and Jeffrey together on a matter of Israeli politics.

    • Amachaya! (as my people says. It literally means “My people lives!”, but it’s used like “Do you believe in miracles?!”) (We’re weird).

      Also, too: Totes.

      (Though, seriously, I think that a big part of why I argue with him so vociferously in my head is because he and I often do agree — and then we really, really don’t. It’s those folks what cause the most unrest, as I’m sure you well know). (If I may mix my references to comedy routines).

  6. rec

     /  November 30, 2011

    The thing I find most fascinating about this series of ads, is that it doesn’t even try to target the Israelis living abroad. It actually targets their parents (or anyone else who would want them to move back, but really, their parents).

    It’s some kind of meta passive-aggressive by proxy move. You’re trying to guilt the parents into pressuring their kids to move back. And the actual line is “They will always be Israeli – their kids won’t/their partners won’t always know what it means. Help them return”. So you’re reassuring the parents that they did a good job raising their kids, who will always be Israeli, but they need to make sure the kids do the right thing too, by “helping” them realize the error of their ways and nudging them back home.

    And while there’s an implied notion that the kids can’t grow up Jewish in America, I think this is much more about Israeli exceptionalism than it is about American Jewry. It’s not so much “contempt for American Jews” as Jeffrey Goldberg puts it, as it is contempt for anything that is not Israeli. Nuance and subtlety included.

  7. And here I always thought I was Jew enough. But whatever. If they want to de-Jew me, I’m not interested in putting up a fight. They can remove more Jews from the world than … well, it goes without saying who holds the land speed record in Jew removal … I bet they don’t even think about that. I bet they think they’re improving the breed.

  8. David Litvak

     /  November 30, 2011

    Emily, I love every single word of every single paragraph of this post. So, so much.

    I was born in the United States to an American-born Reform Jew and a Soviet-born Reform Jew of Orthodox origin. I’ve been to Israel once in my life, on Birthright during the Gaza invasion in 2008-09, and absolutely loved it. Moreover, I knew that whatever else happened in my life, however much I loved the United States, that Israel could take me in and give me a home. That whatever else, it was a haven for Jews and for democracy and was a second home for those of us in the Diaspora.

    It would appear Israel has decided to do everything in its power to prove me wrong.

  9. dmf

     /  December 1, 2011

    • It’s funny how many people are asking similar questions lately, and how entirely deaf to it Israel is proving itself to be.

      Funny, depressing. Take your pick!

  10. nm

     /  December 2, 2011

    Heh. Netanyahu has called the ad campaign off. He says didn’t know people would feel insulted by it. Not knowing that may be an indication of the problem.

    • Wouldn’t it be nice if the American Jewish community got this upset about other things that Israel is doing that fly in the face of our shared values…?

      #agirlcandream

      • nm

         /  December 5, 2011

        Yes. I tell myself that this could be a turning point, that having spoken out on this issue, we could start speaking out on the role of the religious parties, the occupation, the settlements…. But then I laugh at myself.

  11. ExpatJK

     /  December 3, 2011

    I love this post so much. AND I have been inspired to join J Street, which I didn’t know existed until your blog – thanks Emily! Guess I’m no longer a Jew anymore, but I guess in Israeli government eyes our family has been a lost cause since my grandfather’s experience in the yeshiva convinced him of the wonders of Reform Judaism

    • Whoot J Street!

      I honestly think that the reason they get so much push back is because they represent the actual majority of American Jews (not all, by a long shot, but most) – hence, the anger and fear in other quarters….

  12. Re: Whole article…

    And so say we all!

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