So today I'm going to go out -- very far out -- on a limb and ask the question that has been burning a hole in my back pocket. Since I've recounted a lot of my personal Jewish history here, I'm hoping this question won't surprise too many readers. But if it does, well, I'm sorry. In light of the declining state of affairs regarding Israel's image in the world, and in light of the relative freedom resulting from my mobile, semi-adrift upbringing, the question deserves to be asked:
If the modern state of Israel ceased to exist tomorrow, would it matter?
Consider this: The great majority of the world's Jews live in one of two places: Israel and the United States. Estimates of actual numbers (roughly five million Jews apiece in the US and Israel, at the latest count) are always wildly skewed by those reporting them, so I'll take these estimates with a whole shaker of salt.
As someone who grew up without being inculcated in a great love for Israel, I have stood on the sidelines watching many of my fellow American MOTs (Members Of the Tribe) wail and gnash their teeth over the declining state of Israel's image in the larger world. Israel, in its increasing conservatism and hawkishness, is threatening to become nearly irrelevant to an entire generation of North American Jews. Today's twenty- and thirty-somethings -- those who are paying attention to Israel, at any rate -- have grown uncomfortable with the state-sponsored oppression of Palestinians (and Israeli Arabs, because life for them is not a bowl of cherries, even with Israeli citizenship) who dare to live cheek-by-jowl alongside Israeli Jews. It should not surprise anyone that a large chunk of the Arab Middle East is calling for Israel to be wiped from the map.
So let's say it actually happened.
Let's imagine that, in the not-too-distant future, a terrible war/destruction/evacuation broke out, resulting in the end of the modern State of Israel and the mass migration of Israel's 5 million Jews to anywhere else in the world. Most of them would end up in the United States. The USA is a big country and one of the few with the ability to absorb so large a refugee population. Questions remain: Would the USA welcome Israel's Jewish population? How would American Jewish communities be changed by the mass migration of five million people into its midst? And how would our tradition be changed by the absence of the modern state of Israel? Would our prayers about and for Israel mean anything? Should they? Might it be time to re-imagine Judaism without Israel? The Humanists have already re-imagined it without God, so I don't think I'm going too far out here.
When we were expelled from Israel and forced into Babylonian exile, we were required to re-imagine Judaism by making God -- and the tradition -- portable. Diaspora, at first enforced by our oppressors, became a vehicle by which we could sustain ourselves and our tradition. Diaspora became more than necessary. Over time it became an attractive alternative to the ongoing struggle in an inhospitable, arid place where warring with the surrounding nations became the Never-Ending Story.
Part of the message I seem to be hearing all the time is that, without Israel, the whole world would once again rise up against us and strive to wipe us out. In fact, a great deal of The Selling Of Israel [to North American Jews] is based on this fear, a fear so deep and so old that it feels like it's planted in our DNA. The fact that this love of Israel is based so heavily on so much fear feels truly sad to me -- and ultimately unsustainable. You can only mine the depths of fear for so long before you become burned out, or neurotic. And many American Jews, especially younger ones, have grown weary of the neurosis. They want a vision of Jewish life that is positive, humanitarian, even more universal. Young Jews have grown up in a wired world with instant, global communication, and with that comes the potential for greater understanding. They have little use for a Judaism steeped in fear. And frankly, so do I.
I speak as someone who experienced anti-Semitism as a child, and who had to suffer the taunts and punches in silence because people around me did not understand and because my parents were, frankly, ill-equipped to respond. But a marvelous thing happened: I grew up. I found other Jews with whom to create community. And I found ways to integrate my Judaism with the other aspects of my life into a meaningful whole. I'm not saying that anti-Semitism went away, that the problem got solved. I'm only saying that it has faded into the rearview mirror, and I have grown better equipped to handle the difficult questions as they arise. I'd go farther and say that it's our job to raise Jewish children who know how to navigate their way through a world that isn't terribly Jewish (and will never be) without losing sight of who they are, why they matter and how they can contribute to making the world better. As a teacher and as a Jew, I believe that it's possible -- and absolutely necessary -- to do this without succumbing to mountains of inherited fear.
So I dare to ask:
What if there was no more Israel?
Would I stop being Jewish?
Would the world suddenly turn on me?
Would Jews suddenly turn on each other in their efforts to figure out life without Israel as a focal point?
I don't know. But since the end of Israel is a possiblity -- either by its own hand, by the hands of hostile others, or both -- these questions deserve to be asked, and wrestled with. I decided to ask here because I lack anyone in my sphere with whom I can have this discussion intelligently, sensitively, and without an immediate rush to judgment. Asking these questions does not make me a bad Jew. I'd like to believe that it makes me a more thoughtful one. I hope that answers, if they are forthcoming, will be equally as thoughtful.
UPDATE, 8/21/12: After deciding to share the link to this post with many people in my Jewish sphere, I have been amazed at the vehemence and anger expressed at me for daring to say that I don't get Israel, that I don't get the blind love for Israel that seems to be part of the pre-requisite for admission to full membership in the Jewish community. Sorry, guys.
Blame me for being born twenty years after the holocaust, into a working class, assimilated family. Blame my parents for not educating me and for not raising me within Jewish community. Blame me for working most of my adult life in a low-paying, blue-collar trade that effectively prevents me from being able to afford the trip to Israel. (I could write volumes on the classism within American Jewish communities as another barrier to Jewish "unity".) Blame me for daring to be an out, proud dyke in a world (and in a Jewish world in particular) that has been slow to respect my particular expression of womanhood (because apparently I've been a bad Jew for not marrying a man or popping out a dozen Jewish kids). Blame me for whatever you like.
But give me some f**king credit for daring to ask questions that far too many of my fellow Jews don't have the guts to ask. My asking these questions does not deny the Holocaust, nor does it diminish the reality that anti-Semitism still exists in the world. But I refuse to hide behind a locked and barred door all my life and live in fear.
I won't apologize for who I am, where I came from or the things I think about and dare to ask out loud. By not growing up safe within the bosom of Jewish community, by not being steeped from earliest childhood in Jewish communal customs, language and social mores, in the communal "code", I had to figure things out by myself, and find my own way into Jewish life. That has given me a few hard edges, a chameleon-like social adaptability, a bit of emotional distance, and above all the freedom to ask hard questions out loud. And yet, I still choose to make a Jewish life within a communal context. I'm not ashamed of tmy Jewish life. It's as authentic and valid as anyone else's.
If that makes me "narcissistic", as more than one of you has suggested, then fine. Think of me as a narcissist if it helps you feel a little less insecure. It won't change the way I move through the world, and it won't stop me from asking the uncomfortable questions. Maybe someday I'll meet someone with the guts to try and answer them without rushing to judge me first.
This conversation has to start somewhere; and if it doesn't start within the Jewish community then people outside the Jewish community will take ownership of it and direct it for us. Is that what we want? Those who are throwing the biggest stones should be careful that they don't alienate American Jews right out of any concern for Israel -- because that kind of judgment and alienation will diminish our community faster than anything.