Precisely Because We Are So Different, We Have Much to Learn from Each Other
What binds us — or at least ought to — is the fact that we are both new, successful far beyond anyone’s expectation, and vulnerable. Though the Jewish communities in America and in Israel think of themselves — quite rightly — as very different, perhaps the time has come to focus on the deep similarities between us.
Not all that long ago, in 1880, the combined Jewish population of the United States and Israel was 275,000, which then accounted for a mere 3% of the world’s Jews. But as it became clear to many Jews that Europe would become ever more hostile to them, millions left and went, among other places, to the United States and to the Land of Israel. Those two groups gave rise to today’s two great massive Jewish communities; some 85% of the world’s Jews now live in these two countries.
So we are both new — and we have both been exceedingly successful. In 1948, there were more Jews in New York City than there were in the entire State of Israel, but Israel is now the world’s largest Jewish community. A nation that once almost collapsed under the financial weight of a steady stream of immigrants is now an economic powerhouse. A ragtag army that barely held on during parts of the War of Independence is now a formidable force. A country with the population of Los Angeles wins Nobel prizes and other awards for excellence at an astounding pace. A nation with seemingly no natural resources turned human intellectual capital into its main resource, and now provides its citizens firstrate medical care, world-class universities, and technology that is changing the world. A country that took in millions of immigrants, mostly from places that were not democracies, turned those immigrants into citizens of a democracy that has never missed a beat. Those swamp-draining pioneers of old could hardly have expected this.
Yet those Jews who lined up at Ellis Island just over a century ago could not have imagined what American Judaism has wrought. Jews became part of the fabric of American life in a way they never had in any other diaspora land. From politics to the judiciary, from business to entertainment, from culture to education, Jews have contributed to America, and benefited from it, in ways that outstrip anyone’s expectations. America has been home to profound Jewish religious creativity, Jewish literature in a language not Jewish, and unprecedented experiences in Jewish pluralism and tolerance.
How different would our world be if, despite our differences, we began our conversations by recognizing what is extraordinary about the other.
But we are also both deeply vulnerable. In America, thousands of young Jews see no compelling reason to engage with Judaism. For many of them, it is an encounter with Israel — with the magnitude of Jewish history and the thickness of Jewish life — that makes peoplehood come alive. It is often in Israel that they suddenly see themselves as part of a glorious history, one of which they want to be a part. They learn that Jewishness is deeper than politics, that Jewish connections are more powerful than our divisions, and they emerge from their encounter with Israel’s success as ever more committed American Jews.
At the same time, the underbelly of Israel’s success is that self-sufficiency can lead to closemindedness. The culture of the Middle East can be less open or equal than we might like Israel to be. That’s why it’s worth noting that many of the institutions that have pushed the envelope on Israel’s thinking have been infused with American founders, teachers, and ideas. In my Jerusalem neighborhood alone reside Pardes, the Hartman Institute, Shalem College, the Israel Democracy Institute, Kehillat Zion, and more, each of which is pushing the envelopes of religious pluralism, intellectual openness, and civic equality and coexistence that have the potential to profoundly shape the still emerging Jewish state.
The United States is a liberal democracy, devoted to taking in the “tired … poor … huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” without regard to race, religion, or ethnicity. Israel is an ethnic democracy, created for a very different purpose — the saving of the Jewish people. That is why we will often see challenges differently and arrive at different conclusions about how we each ought to behave.
We can bridge that gap, though, if we recognize that we are both courageous, creative, and successful experiments in reimagining Jewish life, and that even in our success, we face vulnerabilities we can address more effectively if we learn from the accomplishments of our fellow Jews across the ocean.
Dr. Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His newest book is We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.