A headline this month in The Jerusalem Post caught my eye. It said 25% of American Jews polled in an American Jewish Committee survey said a thriving Israel was not vital to the long-term future of the Jewish people. The suggestion that one in four Jews in the United States doesn’t think what happens here in Israel is vital to the Jewish future is not only surprising; it’s utterly divorced from reality. What planet do these people live on?
If the survey had been taken in 1948, the results would not have surprised me quite as much. Israel’s survival at the time was open to question. It had a Jewish community of 600,000, while the Jewish population of the United States then was roughly 5 million.
Today, following mass immigration, there are about 6.7 million Jews in Israel, roughly the same as the number of Jews in the United States. But Israel is not just another Jewish community, of equal size as the American-Jewish community. Israel is the fulfillment of a 1,900-year-old dream to re-establish the Jewish nation in its homeland.
Not only is it the only country in the world with a Jewish majority, it is without question, where the future of the Jewish people will be shaped. And if, as the AJC poll suggests, one-quarter of American Jews don’t view Israel as vital to the future of the destiny of the Jewish people, they are simply out of touch. That’s not to say Israel has all the answers when it comes to being Jewish. But Israel has no choice but to confront what it means to be a Jewish state.
The leaders of the Zionist movement that founded the country were overwhelmingly secular, and in many instances, anti-religious. Their goal was to re-establish a Jewish national home, not a country governed by Jewish religious law.
When Bezalel Smotrich, a religious Knesset member who was just named transportation minister, expressed the aspiration this month that Israel ultimately be governed by Jewish religious law, the backlash, including criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was quick and powerful.
So what does it mean to be a Jewish state?
Does it simply mean it is a country where most of the population is Jewish? Clearly not. The country’s Jewishness also needs to be expressed through the collective identity of its people. And it is. That includes the celebration of Jewish holidays as national holidays and the use of Hebrew as the dominant language of business, culture and communications.
Because Israel is a Jewish country, every Jewish child in Israel is also assured a Jewish education, and the assimilation and loss of Jewish identity thinning the ranks of Diaspora Jewry are simply not a problem here, although admittedly large segments of the secular Israeli public are alienated from the Jewish religion. Israel reflects the full range of Jewish identity and Jews here will continue to express that identity in a variety of ways, both secular and religious.
Israel also needs to continue to define itself as a country that is not only Jewish but also democratic, where non-Jewish citizens have equal rights. There was a major debate last year leading up to the passage of the nation-state law, which gave primacy to Hebrew over Arabic and reserved self-determination to the Jewish people and it alone. I would like to see the law amended, but Israel remains a passionately open and democratic country.
Its future direction may not be entirely clear, but one thing that is certain, is Israel is where the Jewish future will be shaped.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel.