Israel-Palestine and the Future of Liberal Judaism in America (Apocalyptic Impressions)



What shocked me the most, and I’m not sure why it did, about the recent report about the changing face of the Jewish community in New York (less secular, more orthodox and ultra-orthodox) is how much it reminds me of Israel. It’s not like I didn’t know this, but there’s nothing like statistics to back up an apocalyptic impression.

I’ve been playing around seriously with the thought that I just don’t want to care about what happens in Israel-Palestine, that there’s nothing I can do if the right-wingers in Israel want to do the dirty work of the anti-Zionist left and create a bi-national state, an apartheid one, perhaps only in the short or medium term. The problem is that what happens there happens here, and also vice versa. Will the liberal Jewish center collapse as it has in Israel, just as rightwing elements in the U.S. such as Sheldon Adelson and Roger Hertog at the Tikvah Fund continue to fund the rightwing in Israel?

Maybe Ahad Ha’Am was right, even if his model for Jewish life was too centric and hierarchical. What I think is true is the importance of Israel as a gravitational force that works the horizontal plane that is contemporary Jewish life. Anyone who cares about the future of American Judaism and liberal Judaism in the United States and Canada has to care about what happens in Israel-Palestine. And Israelis need to consider very seriously the way rightwing American Jews are very active shaping their political horizons. Like it or not, we’re all stuck with each other.

I guess that makes me a Zionist.

If and once Israel finally turns itself into the completely fetid sore it’s becoming, this will only confirm (verify) a sad possible truth that liberalism and Judaism are, indeed, incompatible, exactly as contended by conservative Jewish political theorists and practitioners. I’m tempted to think that, in this case, they can have it because, in my estimation, it won’t be worth having. But in the long run, the “it” in question will come to include Judaism tout court, not just Israel.

Increasingly, I think Peter Beinart was fundamentally right about it being a matter of time before young liberal Jews decide to walk away from all of it, away from Jews, Judaism, and Israel, if they haven’t done so already.  Who knows? That will be their “decision,” not mine, and I understand that anything can and will happen, one way or the other, to either quicken or change the direction of things, suddenly. At any rate, it’s too late for me to walk, I’m already middle aged. For a brief moment, it was 1985,  my friends and I were the future. It’s liberating to understand this to be no longer true., and to try to accept the reality of change, that whatever happens will happen, and there’s very little to nothing that can be done about it.

Against this apocalyptic grain, I still tend to think that things tend to work out more or less okay, if not for “the best.” I would, however, like it to be at least noted here that my confidence in liberal Judaism, like my commitment to Zionism is, indeed, “rational” insofar as it is falsifiable.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Israel-Palestine and the Future of Liberal Judaism in America (Apocalyptic Impressions)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    “Anyone who cares about the future of American Judaism and liberal Judaism in the United States and Canada has to care about what happens in Israel-Palestine”


    though i generally find rosenzweig uncompelling, one of the areas of his thought which i find most compelling is his construction of a positive exilic identity. i do, in fact, care about what happens there but it is not because i think the future of jewish identity depends on it. rather, it is because I see it as an image of what is to come here – a future i wish to avoid. but what happens there does not, in my view, have a causal relationship with what happens here.

    moreover, i think that it is precisely the doctrinal identification with israel which has fostered the growth of the political right in this country. identified jews feel compelled to side with conservatives here because conservatives tend to be hawkish and have less qualms about interfering in middle east politics on behalf of israel. if jewish identity were severed from its links with zionism i think that there would be a great deal more openness to a liberal agenda.

    the fall of liberalism in israel would not prove the incompatibility of judaism and liberalism, it would prove the incompatibility of zionism (or any nationalism) and liberalism. And this, I believe, is fundamentally true. it is only in an environment wherein zionism and judaism are linked that judaism itself becomes threatened by the demise of liberalism in israel. I think that american jewish leaders – if they are interested in jewish continuity – would do well to break this link as quickly as possible for precisely this reason.

Leave a Reply